Banjo!? (and, a new Rocksmith Discovery)

Part I: Adventures in Banjo?

Relax, my infinitely patient readers, I am NOT planning to learn banjo. At least, certainly not any time soon. Three instruments is plenty when I can’t officially play any of them (not well, anyway).

I did, however, unintentionally inspire one of my friends to start learning banjo.

It all started with bandcamp. He linked me to The Hawaiian Open Mic Night , saying, “I know it’s not punk, but I thought you would like it.” He was right. I haven’t had a chance yet to give it a good listen, but I like what I hear so far. It might not be Punk, but I think it’s at least Punk’s estranged cousin. It makes me think 1980s acoustic punk in a garage…or maybe The Early November/I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody’s Business. Pick one. 😀

I mentioned that starting a bandcamp account was one of the most logical ideas I’ve ever had. Some of my favorite indie artists are bandcamp only, and the follow option is fantastic. No more inundating my bookmarks list with tunes. Not so long as there is the awesomeness of bandcamp.

This led him to ask if I’d uploaded anything for sale. Insert the sound of my guffawing laughter here. I joked that I was nowhere near that yet, “which is certainly not helped by my decision to learn guitar, bass, and ukulele simultaneously.”

That got him excited. Ukulele! He wanted to learn ukulele, and banjo, but wasn’t sure which to start with. Contrary to what you might think, I did NOT say ‘both’. I am well aware what a bad idea and what indescribably bad advice my approach to all of this is. I’m doing it anyway, but that doesn’t mean I’d recommend it to others. Actually, I suggested the uke first, on the grounds you could get one for like $30 or less, so if you don’t take to it, no real loss. And if you do, upgrade later.

Turns out he already had both though, but just hadn’t actually sat down with either one. My advice changed once I knew that. I told him to download Pitchlab and get them both in tune. (while tuning by ear is something I totally need to get my butt in gear to learn, it should not be expected of someone who hasn’t even decided what instrument to start with yet). I told him to pick them both up, fiddle around with them, decide which one feels more at home in his hands, and start there. He liked that advice, so I hope it was as good as it sounded at the time. I’ve definitely noticed that on my learning curve though, the bass feels natural in my hands. The guitar feels like some alien entity I’m still learning how to have a coherent conversation with, let alone a functional relationship.  The ukulele is floating in the gray area between.

He also asked what I think is the quintessential beginner question: which do you find easiest to play? Now, I’m still a total novice, but that’s a completely loaded question. I did explain that answer is going to vary a lot from person to person, but that for me, in the early stages, bass is easiest to deal with – four strings, no chords, the strings are farther apart so don’t require the same level of accuracy as guitar. Since you’re supposed to mute unused strings, it doesn’t really matter if you mute one you’re not playing accidentally. It’s a lot less to think about in terms of execution. But, I added that I think in the long run, bass is likely to be the hardest, because it seems like it requires a really strong understanding of music and how it works, that you can maybe skimp on a bit with the guitar, and learn more ‘as needed’. I’ve spoken to and/or heard stories about plenty of guitarsts who said they never studied theory at all but ‘learned it by osmosis’. I don’t think that many bassists just happen to ‘absorb’ all of the things they need to know to play effectively. There’s study involved, things to memorize.

It was a really productive conversation for both of us, I think. I was unknowingly challenged to voice opinions on music and the learning of music that I wasn’t really aware I even had. I don’t know if they’re right opinions, but they’re based on my study so far, so I don’t think I’ve said anything that will do too much lasting damage. He knows I’m a newbie, after all – just very slightly less of a newbie than he is.

We chatted about some other things, but there’s no reason to go through them all here. We chatted a bit about strings. I have no idea what sort of strings banjos take, but told him a bit about string gauges “if it applies”. I told him to start off light – that light strings break easier, but are easier to press. (Case in point: I don’t like light or extra-light gauge strings much. I’ve been aiming mostly at regulars and regular-lights lately. I have no idea what that says about me, but it’s what I like for now.) I told him over time he’d probably experiment and pick a favorite, like tea. Somehow, we came full circle. I think tea and Eastern Philosophy were our first bonding points, but somehow that led to us sharing a bunch of weird punk and indie music things with each other. I’m not quite sure when one turned into the other. I just know I introduced him to Patent Pending and Singh Kaur. He introduced me to Shonen Knife and Sir Richard Bishop. And, now that I’ve imploded your brain with that incredibly random list of music, let’s just say : the rest is history.

And now, he might learn to play banjo and/or ukulele(not simultaneously). I am clearly a bad influence.

Maybe we should start a two-man band when we can mutually play something more advanced than ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star?’ lol. Bass + Banjo + Guitar + Ukelele (x2) : now, that’s Punk. GeekPunk, that is (and if that is not an actual thing, it needs to be, because it sounds hilarious.). 😀

Part II: Adventures in Rocksmith

After my most recent tirade, I really needed a good (okay, mediocre) guitar day under my belt, so I skipped the bass for guitar again last night. After another run through the Legato lesson, I’ve decided to give it a rest for a while. I hate conceding defeat, but this is just a really fast, difficult progression for me. It’s just not something I can complete at my current stage of guitar growth, and I need to accept that and stop getting so annoyed about it. I can do legato in songs. I can do so accurately when I need it, I just can’t do it in some arbitrary, unreasonably fast progression for a 101 lesson. I’ve decided the fault here is with Rocksmith, not with me. If I can play legato in songs, it’s completely ridiculous that I’m driving myself nuts over completing the lesson that ‘teaches me’ how to play it. If the only place I can’t do it is in a lesson, then the lesson is the problem; it is not designed properly for a beginner. I am having similar issue with the palm mutes lesson. The changes are just much too fast for someone at my level. So, I’ve decided to move on, leave those where they are, focus on other lessons that aren’t as frustrating, and go back to them when my speed and accuracy improve.  I’ll just keep aggravating myself otherwise.

So, last night I worked a little bit on double stops until I started getting annoyed with that, and then switched off to the guitarcade. I figured, if nothing else, I could give myself a guitar confidence boost with harmonics or slides. Sometimes, doing something you know you’re decent at is just what you need to get you in the right mental place. I spent a little time in the string skipping saloon. I didn’t break any records there, but I wasn’t really anticipating doing so or attempting to do so. I just wanted to spend some time doing something that would help me relax a little – so string skipping and harmonics were the way to go. The String Skipping Saloon is laggy and sometimes freezes, so when I don’t do great there, I don’t get down on myself about it. Practice is practice. I need to learn to take such a zen approach to every aspect of my guitar life, but that’s still a work in progress.

After that, I went out, thinking I’d go to ‘learn a song’ and torture myself with ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ some more. I don’t get that mad about that song anymore. I’m bad at it. I’m bad at it consistently. I’ve accepted my badness. And, I know it has a G Chord and a C Chord, both of which I need to work on. That’s when I noticed, under my handy “technique games” a line that said “score attack”. And, I asked myself: “Self, have you ever clicked on that?” Self answered: “I have no idea.” So, I said, “Well then, Self, let’s check it out.”

I love score attack. There would be a heart in that sentence if I was writing this by hand; it’s that kind of bubbly love. Unlike “Learn a Song”, which adapts to your skill level as you play, Score Attack has 3 choices for each song: easy, medium, or hard. You get three strikes in each song (though I’m not sure what causes a strike yet) before you fail, but it doesn’t add notes. It doesn’t take notes away. It tells you when you hit a perfect phrase. You can see your score increasing in the upper corner. When you finish, you earn either a bronze, silver, gold, or platinum pick in that mode of that song.

The easy versions of songs are truly easy. ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, for example, has only a G chord, an open A string, and a C note. (I am still bending my wrist funny when I stand to play the G chord, btw – planning some standing time with the mini-amp to work on that in the near future.) The Medium difficulty is the version I’ve been struggling with, which helped my ego a TEENY bit. I was able to get through it with a silver pick. That helped my ego, too. ‘Okay. I can fumble through ‘medium’ difficulty. It’s not as horrible as I thought.’

Being able to select how easy or difficult I want a song to be, and have that song stick to that difficulty from beginning to end without unanticipated changes in the middle, is a tool I wish I’d noticed sooner. Sure, percentage completion is not updated through the score attack, but each song, you earn a specific medal. It tells you exactly how well or poorly you did, and if you do truly terrible, you don’t get to finish the song. Playing a few songs in score attack gave me some much needed perspective. Easy mode WAS easy. Some songs I completed to perfection and earned a platinum pick for the very first time. Therefore, I’m not doing as badly as I thought. I’m just possibly annoying myself by trying to do things that are a bit more than I’m ready to try to tackle. Trying to run before I can walk.

I don’t necessarily feel ‘good’ about last night’s guitar practice, but I feel okay about it.

Part III: And, regarding the bass…

I restrung the bass. No major problems, though definitely a bit different than guitar. There was this intimidating moment when I realized with bass, you clip the strings first. I can wait until the end with Guitar, giving me less muck ups to worry about. I almost majorly screwed up by cutting the D string too short, but I mercifully gave myself a little extra, so it didn’t end up being world altering or a waste of money.

I don’t really love the D’Addario strings. I don’t hate them or anything, and maybe it’s just a matter of breaking them in, but they feel somehow too peppy. I guess that’s the “brightness”. Will see how I feel about them once they’ve worn in a bit, but I’ll try something different next time. After youtubing some string reviews and comparisons, I’m leaning in the Ernie Ball direction at the moment, though Dean Markley had some interesting offerings that I might want to try out, and GHS Boomers are also high on the ‘maybe’ list.

I’m sure it’ll be a while before I test any new strings; I’ve read that bass strings just about last forever. Lol. Even so, I’ll probably pick my next set soon, since I think it’s a little dumb to not have a spare set in case you happen to suddenly need it at midnight, when there is no chance of getting to any music stores to buy them. I know I’m not the only person who fiddles with my bass at weird hours of the evening. It would be really annoying to be winding down with some music practice in the dead of night and have a bad string make you stop cold.  I’m not sure what kind of crazy Hulk-like energy would be required to break a bass string, but apparently people do it all the time.

I know the time my guitar string wedged itself in place and had to be de-jammed from the bridge,  sucking up most of my guitar practice, I was out of sorts about the lack of play time well into the next day. I’m okay with uncontrollable circumstances, but I’m not okay with handicapping my down time with lack of preparation.

I feel oddly like I’m starting to identify more with the bass than the guitar. I’m sure that’s because I’ve been having much better overall practice sessions with it, that this particular bass is more comfortable in my hands than this particular guitar, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s happening. I find myself listening for bass lines in my favorite songs, paying more attention to that aspect of the music. I’ll notice things on the guitar end, too – I’ll hear a palm mute, or a slide, but I’m not actively listening for them like I am with the bass. I still am learning both, and intend to keep doing so, and I’m still trying to divide my time as evenly as I can, but there’s no way to avoid the fact that I’m thinking about bass more than guitar. There’s a really essential difference there, and one I’m not sure whether or not to feel alright about. Still, it’s natural, and it makes sense. The instrument that you feel most at home with will be the one you gravitate toward, and the others gradually become almost an aside.

I’m reminded a bit of Mark Tremonti when I say this, because he’s known as a fantastic guitarist and songwriter. What I only recently found out is that he’s also an amazing artist. He IS an amazing musician, but he also DOES art. One thing identifies you, the other sort of just hangs back in the periphery.

I don’t know if I’m going to continue to have that feeling as time goes on, but I do think it’s important to acknolwedge it now so I don’t forget I felt this way later. I’ll just have to let things evolve and see how they change as I grow.

Until Next Time, spreading the love of music – contagiously – one person at a time.

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