Monday, December 27, 2010

2010 Roundup, Part 1: The Year in Fingerpicking

So, we're winding up 2010 and I wanted to do a quick recap of what I've worked on.

Sometime around fall or early winter 2009 I set out to focus on fingerpicking and discipline myself, but not in a mean, self-abusive way. It turns out that fingerpicking is really great for people like me who are a little obsessive-compulsive, especially in the dark winter months, and I was encouraged by some early progress. So, at the start of 2010 I decided to make it the "year of fingerpicking."

I started with the book The Art of Contemporary Travis Picking by Mark Hanson. (It's a great place to start and I highly recommend it -- I have two more of his books as well, but have not gotten into them yet).

I diddled a bit on songs like "Dust in the Wind," but really wanted to work on songs like Jonathan Coulton's "I Crush Everything." Fortunately, the song largely follows the same basic Travis picking patterns outlined in Hanson's book, and the combination of these exercises, the tab, and
Suuuupaadave's incredibly helpful lesson video allowed me to make progress, which I documented in a series of quick practice videos (one, two, and three). I did a more polished play-through of the doubled part, with some editing, in this video. The audio is available here.

Joe "Covenant" Lamb took this guitar part and added a lovely vocal track, creating his demo. On my to-do list is "re-record the guitar part now that I can play it more smoothly now," but inevitably it tends to be more fun to play live, work on a new challenge, or record something new than to re-record something old. I'll probably get to it when I get to the point where I can play it dramatically better than I did for that recording.

Anyway, my ultimate goal is to be able to fingerpick this song while singing it live. I've done it for small audiences of family and friends. It is certainly easier to do without the camera or recorder running, which invariably makes me screw things up a bit, but I did manage to record this live version. I also discovered that I liked the sound of the song drop-tuned down a whole step, and recorded this version which used double-tracked guitar and vocals, but a minimal number of takes and minimal number of edits, and was recorded on my Mac Mini setup with the Roland FA-66.

Of all these, the best version is probably the drop tuned one. There's an audio version of the song with a fretless bass line; the bass line is not complete yet and will get revised when I get some more quiet time in the studio (and maybe some more practice on the fretless).

When it came time to polish up my original song "Sherman's Lament," I naturally started playing the chords using Travis picking patterns, and the result can be seen here (audio version here).

Just a few weeks ago, I decided to start working on Paul and Storm's song "Live," since it is also a finger-picked song. The patterns are a little step up in complexity; where in "I Crush Everything" the basic Travis patterns predominate, "Live" uses a lot of variants with little melody bits added. Fortunately,  Suuuupaadave has made very detailed tab that covers all the patterns, and also done a two-part video lesson.

So, I've got some practice videos again (one, two, and three) showing my progress. I recorded the song on my nylon-string Godin guitar. My playing was a little rough yet, so I was not able to get a complete take, but I pieced together this recording, again with the intent of polishing it up later (it's still a little rough, particularly in the bridge and right at the ending). But I mentioned it to Joe and just a couple of hours later he sent me this, with another gorgeous vocal part, so I thought "well, good enough for the time being!" and suggested he just upload it to his Bandcamp page. Paul and Storm even noticed us on Twitter! (After I barraged them with several tweets, that is...) Their tweet read:

JoeCovenant [P] Got it. BTW, nice job on the "Live" cover, you and @paulrpotts. :)


So, there it is -- evidence of some real progress. Growing out and maintaining my right hand nails, with all the care then needed to avoid breaking them off, is a pain, but fingerpicking is really fun. I feel like I've discovered a secret way to sound like a much better guitarist than I am. Practicing finger-picking is relaxing and fits right along with my somewhat OCD personality. Playing the worked-out, polished parts is really fun, but what is even more fun is being able to take a basic song -- for example, a Christmas song, and improvising a finger-picked accompaniment for it, starting to come with not just the basic patterns, but melodic additions and variations on the fly. I did this for some small family get-togethers over the weekend of Christmas and got compliments on how cool it sounds. So for 2011 the plan is to continue: play, record, lather, rinse, repeat: not just finger-picking, but other styles. I just picked up a video of Merle Travis playing some of his famous songs, for inspiration. And my resolution, announced here: start doing it in front of an audience. (I'm getting nervous already!)

Also resolved: to learn bass in a more systematic way; to continue to make progress on freless bass; to enter at least one more songwriting contest; to record at least six more original songs; to record more instructional videos. I'd also love to get my hands on an Ovation USA-made mandolin and start learning how to play one of those as well. And more ukulele. And maybe a slide guitar. And and and and!

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