Canon Fodder

Canon Fodder- Road Dog- Fall ’02

Let’s say that you’re sitting in a concert or workshop, watching and enjoying a cool fingerstyle guitarist. He flashes some taste and some speed, throws out some cool artificial harmonics, and bends strings behind the nut. He retunes and play some slide, shows 12-string chops which you may have never seen or heard, picks up a different guitar to showcase another tuning and another side of his repertoire, unrolls one cool composition or arrangement after another; all in all he puts on a wide-ranging and very attractive presentation, and you have a great time watching and listening. What could be wrong with this picture?
Here’s what’s wrong- you are a guitarist, so seeing and hearing those skills in close quarters makes you want to learn them, to absorb those techniques, and acquire those musical insights that helped him create his music, yet you’re at a loss as to how to where to start.
How does one learn to play complex steel-string fingerstyle music? This is the meta-question which underlines many of the queries that I hear at workshops, after concerts and from private students, and though it is an obvious one, it’s the toughest question to answer. It’s my premise that the answer is confusing and conflicting, and that the lack of an accessible description, repertoire, teaching approach, and structured lesson series holds fingerstyle guitarists back from achieving their full potential as players, and holds our genre back from receiving full recognition as a viable and artistically successful style of playing.

Try explaining what we do to the non-devotee, to the CD store employee when you seek our recordings, and to the radio station DJ, and you’ll see my point. You tell someone that you’re a classical player and even the completely uninitiated will picture someone in a tuxedo playing the classical repertoire, while describing yourself as a jazz guitarist calls up a pretty strong visual image and suggests a repertoire as well. This makes it easier to know where to look for these styles in record stores, on the airwaves, and easier to present and promote them in concert. Meanwhile, the public image of fingerstyle guitar is fuzzy at best, and at worst completely lacking.

Bluegrass flatpickers start out with dreadnaught guitars and flatpicks, and they tend to learn a common body of work as they progress, including songs like Blackberry Blossom, Salt Creek, Ragtime Annie and The Huckleberry Hornpipe. In classical guitar everyone starts with certain assumptions- here’s the exact size of guitar that you need, here’s how to sit with it, here’s how your nails are supposed to look, here’s your tuning, here’s Book I with the beginning repertoire that everyone must master, and so on. Jazz players also must learn their standards, and learn them in standard tuning: “Moonlight in Vermont,” “One Note Samba,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and so on. You get the drift. How does the experience of the aspiring fingerstylist compare to that of the aficionados of these other genres?

Unlike classical players, fingerstyle pros are expected to perform mostly original pieces or original arrangements. We make our names partly by the originality of our repertoire and of our technique. This makes us cool to watch or to listen to, but hard to emulate. There are more than 50 tunings that are commonly used, and partial capos which create chords on the fingerboard add to the left-hand confusion. There are several sizes of guitars and fingerboard widths on the market, with conflicting claims made by devotees of each variation. Throw into the mix the variety of techniques and repertoires, and you have a collusion of forces all working against making the music accessible to the student. While other styles offer the comfort of some uniformity to the student, fingerstyle guitar offers more or less complete anarchy on all of those issues and more. The beginning player desperately needs to pin down at least a few of these variables, settle on a guitar size, settle on a tuning, and begin to learn the basics, but it’s not at all clear to the neophyte how this is to be done.

Most basically of all- what is our canon- that is, what is the body of work that we all share as fingerstylists, the pieces we learn as beginning, intermediate and advanced players? What books or instructional approaches embrace this body of work in some comprehensive and sensible way? Is our common music composed of Beatles tunes (if so, whose arrangements?), Chet Atkins’ pieces, country blues, Leo Kottke’s older compositions, ragtime, Celtic songs (again, whose arrangements and in what tunings), covers of significant pop and rock songs from the 60’s through the end of the millennium, or some other collection of non-original pieces?

Does our canon veer instead towards original music, embracing a global anthology of the best pieces composed by the current and past luminaries of our fingerstyle universe? Should the student learn a Robert Johnson piece, a Leo Kottke piece, or a Pierre Bensusan composition?

No matter what we decide about our common repertoire, the arrangements and compositions are usually difficult to play, so how does the student get his technique to a point where he can handle any pieces at this level? What books contain any parts of our canon in graduated steps which make sense to this progressing student?

One problem with producing books that makes sense lies within the the nasty world of music publishing, wherein big publishing interests accumulate exclusive rights to most copyrighted tunes, and then issue their own volumes while refusing to license their stuff to others. This makes it hard to disseminate arrangements of your recordings. Talk to any of us, and we’ll have stories of songs that we can’t transcribe for print, for teaching, and for educational use because of copyright constraints. (I get e-mails on a weekly basis from folks who are trying to find and study the arrangements from my “Under the Influence “ CD. I have to send them a stock reply about my inability to get permission from the copyright holder.)

Here’s another point- while we do have thousands of accurate transcriptions of most artists’ original and public domain (non-copyrighted) pieces, my experience with students has shown me that transcriptions are not enough- folks also need to work their technique along gradually in some sensible way, rather than confront difficult material in a sink-or-swim approach to teaching. Here’s where the idea of graded studies come into play- books which might contain, for example, a simplified arrangement of a Beatle tune which illustrates one particular technique or theory issue, followed by an elementary Robert Johnson arrangement illuminating another, succeeded by a reasonably paced Celtic arrangement which teaches yet a third idea, then an introduction to a relatively simple new tuning, followed by a “lite” Leo Kottke piece. These books, graded one through ten, would culminate with anthologies of the complex and technical instrumental pieces composed and arranged by today’s performers. The student’s path through the books would have allowed him to acquire the necessary technique along the way in a sensible, step-by-step manner.
Our musical obstacles also include a lack of theory training and musical literacy. Most of us picked up guitar for fun, and only years later, as we grew to love and pursue it, did we find out that it might be a good thing to know about keys, about intervals, about bass and treble clefs and reading notes, and about chord construction and substitution. At this stage, the learning feels remedial, and since going to music school for a couple of years isn’t an option for most adult students in the middle of our already busy lives, we seek more practical ways to catch our brains up with our fingers. Theory knowledge is best acquired in a classroom setting, yet who has time, and where’s the book/CD set which will answer this need for the rest of us?

This confluence of forces has created a large gap between those who have managed to figure this stuff out on their own, and those who are aspiring and a little frustrated. How does one get to the point that he can play a Michael Hedges tune, a Doyle Dykes tune, a Pierre Bensusan tune, a Steven King arrangement, or write or arrange on that level himself, without a systematic approach to instruction?

This is the gap I encounter in teaching, towards which the plaintive questions are directed. I want to point out that hope is not lost- the companies that produce instructional videos and book/CD packages have done us all an enormous service, there are good teachers and community college music and guitar courses in every decent-sized city, and the internet has tons of resources, (albeit some of them outright thievery of intellectual property). Taylor’s ground-breaking workshop program is one of the best ways to get answers to technical guitar questions in a relaxed and entertaining atmosphere. However, until we make some sort of decision about what our common repertoire and technique are, and start producing instruction books that help students take measure steps in those directions, I’ll continue to hear those pesky questions.