Music Theory Bodhi Day

A Year and a Half into My Guitar Journey

About a year and a half into my guitar journey, I feel I made honest progress through steady, dedicated practice. I continued well beyond that proverbial 90% who gives up after a year. So I rewarded myself the equivalent of a “blue belt” by purchasing my first “real” acoustic guitar, a Taylor 312ce.

Figure 1 – The Eternal Fishnu and Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet blessing my new 312ce.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still only barely ready for the campfire or local church circuits. My skill level hasn’t yet outgrown the GS Mini I bought about a year ago. But my inevitable venture past the 7th fret proved a little crowded for my fingers. Also, the seemingly tighter strings of the GS Mini seemed to make barre chords unnecessarily difficult for me.

In hindsight, I think a Taylor GT (a step above the GS Mini, slightly bigger, but still not a bulky dreadnought) would have been a better initial purchase. If the GT was my initial purchase, I probably wouldn’t have wanted another acoustic for at least a couple more years. My new 312ce is probably more appropriate for a worthier green or brown belt. However, I still spend about half my total practice time with my GS Mini because it’s comfortable on the couch and it’s still a very good guitar.

My year and a half journey played out in four parts so far. I spent the first six months or so of my journey playing the ’87 SG I’ve had since ’87. I practiced with it unplugged so as to not bother the neighbors or Mrs. Hanamoku with my noob attempts. I focused mostly on just getting the basics of strumming and transitioning between all the combinations of common chords.

Once I built enough skill (got past crawling to at least somewhat walking). I purchased the GS Mini. Then I spent the next six months with my GS Mini, mostly fixing up the mess I made during the first six months not actually hearing what I was doing. Big mistake – don’t do that.

Although I picked up a fair repertoire of mostly Beatles and Eagles songs, my biggest accomplishment from the first year of practice is conquering the D->Bm and A->Bm transitions. Actually, I still struggle with those transitions a little. I also still struggle a bit with F#m. The joint of my index finger is right over the G string. But I finally can do a “big boy” F!

I joke to Mrs. Hanamoku that I would start a tribute band named The Beagles, but there already is a band with that name. So The Eatles it is!

The third phase started about six months ago. I began trying out electric and took a serious dive into music theory. When I began my guitar journey about a year and a half ago, I didn’t care at all about music theory. I was doing fine learning through just tabs and YouTube videos.

There are two reasons tabs were good enough. The first is that the world was simple, having limited myself to mostly open chords.

The other reason is that I only played songs I’ve known for at least 30 to 50 years (the basic “old man rock” stuff). Since I know those songs so well, having heard them thousands of times, it was mostly a matter of getting my fingers to move properly. The groove and everything else was already well etched in my brain. Thus, I still struggle more learning songs that I didn’t grow up with.

Originally, I would be been very happy if I could at least somewhat play the Glen Frey parts of early Eagles. However, I eventually ran out of songs where I can play through most of it with just open chords. I still wasn’t ready to take on the challenge of picking – herding ten fingers, with no minds of their own.

So I thought of expanding into power chords. They looked even simpler than the open chords I’ve been working on. I had the bright idea of starting with the Ramones, which seemed to be the easiest place to start. I could play catchy, recognizable songs with just four chords with the same shape. No pesky leads or finger gymnastics.

For that, I already had the ’87 SG I mentioned earlier, as well as an ’83 Les Paul Custom I picked up around 1995. So, I’ve had both for about 30 years, mostly just sitting in their cases in a closet waiting for me to come around. But I did need an amp. I started small with an Orange RT20 after watching Mary Spender’s review of practice amps.

Starting with the Ramones was a good idea. The simplicity allowed me to pick up the very basics of rock on an electric guitar fairly quickly. I was surprised to find that rock on an electric versus on an acoustic really are not the same instrument. In hindsight, I’m glad I spent lots of time on the acoustic before taking on electric. The acoustic kept me honest.

In parallel to my Ramones effort, I gently studied music theory through YouTube videos. What little I could genuinely absorb from music theory helped better understand the value of things such as inverted power chords and muting strings with my fretting hand. I soon graduated to the likes of BTO, Steve Miller, AC/DC, etc. Update since the GS-mini post: Still strictly rhythm – I still don’t want to make it cry or scream.

That brings us to what seems like the 4th phase of my 1.5 year journey. It was about a month ago when I felt I was getting a better handle on music theory. It was triggered by a mini-enlightenment I had while playing with triads.

My Music Theory Bodhi Day

That mini-enlightenment immediately reminded me of something I read on Quora a few weeks earlier and didn’t really appreciate. It was a question of whether it was proper to include the low E string on an open C chord. In other words, strum all six strings. That’s how I do it. That’s how I’d always done it. At first, I was just struggling to strum without avoiding certain strings. It still sounded OK. So I just continued strumming all the strings and forgot about leaving out the low E, even after I built enough coordination to leave it out.

Apparently, it seemed more proper to exclude it. So I tried the C chord without strumming the low E, and it sounded pretty much the same. What’s the big deal?

With my new mini-enlightenment about triads, I had a sub-mini-enlightenment about how chords are built (at least the major chords). I looked on my guitar and saw that indeed, all the six notes of the C chord are C, E, or G notes! I never noticed that … ha!

Including or excluding the low E didn’t make a discernable difference to my still musically immature ears because it’s the 3rd of C – part of what comprises the C major chord!

Figure 2 – Three ways to play an open C major.

As I currently understand, it’s “proper” to leave out the low E because the root (in this case C) should be the lowest note strummed. But what about the fingering shown on the far right of Figure 2? It’s OK too because G is also part of the triad that makes up the C major chord.

If I understand correctly, including that G on the low E string might even sound a little “nicer” than with the open low E because the former is the 5th. Which means … well, I still don’t have the vocabulary to coherently explain why.

But I wasn’t so concerned with which was the “right” way. I wanted to know why they sound pretty much the same, again, at least to my noob ears. I kind of get it thanks to my little music theory breakthrough!

I had struggled for a few months with music theory picking up all sorts of tidbits, but it all seemed like just a collection of rules. After that enlightening moment, I returned to some of the material I read/watched earlier. I was shocked to see that they often stated as plainly as could be what I only seemingly randomly would realize much later.

My breakthrough with music theory opened many doors. I was now more enthusiastic about the tedious practice of playing scales over and over and fully understanding esoteric keys. It was now more than just about rote building of muscle memory. I now know that it gives me more of a musical intuition while playing.

I can’t really recommend any good “magic bullet” sources for learning music theory. It’s not that there aren’t any good ones. There are tons of them. For example, David Stewart’s Music Theory series is my favorite. It’s that for the first few months, everything sounded like, “The Circle of Fifths is about Fifths and Thirds and even Fourths … whole whole half whole whole whole half … major minor minor major major minor seventh … See how simple that is?”

Whatever I’ve genuinely wanted to learn – programming, math, geology, Buddhism – absorption of the lingo sure does mitigate learning friction. Indeed, when I first started studying Zen, Takuan’s writings (“The Unfettered Mind”) sounded like he was making it up as he went along, possibly drunk or stoned, or maybe everything was lost in translation. After a few years of studying Zen, I re-read Takuan’s book. That second time, I readily drank it all up.

I realize that some musicians reading this may be wondering how I could be so dense about music theory. I completely understand since I admittedly wonder the same thing about folks struggling with SQL or Python, languages built for non-computer-science folks. For non-CS or non-engineers (even some who I work with every day), learning those languages sometimes seems as awful for them as learning a foreign language. With learning a foreign language, at least you already know one language, and therefore have the gist of what languages are about.

But I realize that the peculiar thing about enlightenment, whether the “Big E” or a “little e” (such as a breakthrough in the understanding of music theory) is that you don’t really recall what it was like before, when you didn’t possess that insight.

I’m sharing my experience with my guitar journey and music theory to convey that I empathize with that. Is it critical to learn music theory to become a musician? I don’t think it’s “critical”. There are many paths to greatness as many of the best guitar players have demonstrated. It seems like one could do very well without understanding 3rds, 5ths, and that A is 440 hz as well as 220 and 880 hz.

You might be thinking that I should have hired a guitar teacher that could have saved me from the pain of all those obstacles and pitfalls. But for things I’m deeply interested in and for which I have no deadlines, I choose to explore all the unknown paths that my teacher would have kindly protected me from. You can see what happens when you fall on concrete early on, when it doesn’t really matter. Or you can fall on concrete in a real battle, when it counts, after years practicing on a mat.

Learning guitar is a parallel path I’ve chosen to my Zen path, as I explained in the blog, Physical Space in a Virtual World. With the bulk of my martial arts and strength training efforts a thing of the past, I need an aspect of my Zen training that is physical. In other words, a path where my Earthly body interacts with the world.

I have no other aspirations for learning the guitar. Meaning, I’m in no rush and really have nowhere in particular to push it. But at the same time, I’m serious about following that path to wherever it goes. Mostly I’d love to see how it meets with the other paths I’m on.

Bodhi Day is in Three Months

In reality, I had many virtual guitar teachers through the Internet. I just couldn’t ask them the “un-Google-able” questions directly. That is, I can’t search for it either because no one has yet addressed it somewhere on the Internet or it fell to the dark, lowest reaches of Web search engines.

There are countless things a consciousness could wonder about for which the answer is still unknown. The only way to find the answer is to artfully set up the conditions in this Universe and see what happens. We could take note of it, and offer it up to someone else with the same question as a possibility.

One of the three stories underlying the fundamental principles of my writing (here and on is based on a Zen story that I call “The Man with the Bag”. I wrote an extensive post on that story last Bodhi Day. For now, if I had to sum it up in one sentence, a version relevant to this blog would be: Stay on the Path.

I hesitate to mention that if you authentically follow the path, at some point, something really great will happen. To borrow a term from Alan Watts, “You’ll get the golden goodie.” I hesitate because if you’re on a path to reach a golden goodie, you’ve placed yourself in a game for which you really have no control. It kind of defeats the purpose of Zen. (To be clear, the context in which Alan Watts is talking about the golden goodie is the same as mine; the folly of seeking it.)

However, if full immersion into the Universe is what you seek, it requires mindful dedication. Practicing an art – whether it’s programming, playing guitar, or seeing through to reality – will involve very long desert-like periods of seemingly no progress. That’s the Universe’s built-in test for worthiness.

But as you wander the apparent desert, your brain is picking up nuggets of information all along the way. With persistent and sincere dedication, those nuggets slowly recognize their “friends” and connect with them, building a network of relationships. Then one day, probably without any prior clues, a particular link falls into place and there it is, the network becomes emergent enlightenment.

What comes next? Pick your bag up and continue on your way. So that you may build new networks linking somehow to the experiences already on board, connecting the dots of our journey.

Faith and Patience,

Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku

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