Well, I’ve had some thoughts about Power Chords for a while, but it was more like I was on the verge of thoughts rather than actual coherent thoughts. In previous posts on the subject, I knew I was doing something wrong. There was no way my wrist was supposed to bend THAT much, to hurt THAT much. I felt the issue was partially flexibility, but that there was something bigger going on, something in the technique that was distinctly wrong. I just couldn’t pinpoint what precisely it was.
Fast forward a bit, and it became pretty clear that there was something intrinsically different about the positioning for power chords that broke all the rules I’d learned about playing guitar thus far. I knew, for example, that a flatter finger position relieved a lot of the wrist pain (a bad kind of pain, not to be confused with the pain one gets from developing muscles) and tension. As I considered this, I realized that really, since you’re only playing 2-3 strings at a time with power chords, muting the lower ones is advantageous anyway. In retrospect, it’s obvious. A flatter finger position solves a whole host of problems. But, it also didn’t occur to me immediately because everything a beginner learns before getting to that point is about keeping your fingers segregated onto their own unique strings and making sure you’re not muffling anything. But, really, that only applies when you’re actually playing all the strings. When you’re not playing a string, that rule kind of goes right out the window. But, beginner brain being what it is, we try to always follow the rules we’ve learned. So we STREEETTTCCCHHHH, and we hurt. There’s a mentality that guitar is going to hurt, but we never discuss HOW it should hurt, and that’s important. We don’t discuss the difference between good pain and bad pain. I don’t think it’s quite fair to say ‘learning guitar should hurt’; it’s not really accurate. Learning guitar may leave you tired and sore, like a good workout, but you shouldn’t push yourself to the point of tendonitis. When you feel a pain that is less about weariness and has more of a sharp edge to it, I think that’s a time to stop, look at what you’re doing, figure out why that’s happening. After all, we’re learning a musical instrument, and that’s awesome! But, we want to be playing that instrument for a very long time, so it’s super important to listen to our bodies and figure out what they’re telling us.
That is, more or less, where my slow and careful approach to power chords came from. I knew from the start these were going to require a bit of flexibility. When I first picked up the guitar, I could barely span three frets with my four fingers. Things have improved since then, and I hope they continue to. I can now span four frets, but it’s a stretch I definitely feel. That’s good pain; it’s the same kind of pain you get from bending over and trying to reach your toes, each time feeling a bit more of a stretch, gradually working up to a point where you can go a little further.
I’m also ultra-conscious of what my wrist and arm are doing. I only have one set of hands, and I use them for a LOT of things. I type a lot. I am learning three instruments, sometimes, I even draw. We use our hands to cook, to turn doorknobs, to pick up our gigantic felines (okay, that last one may just be me, but seriously, I have a gigantic black cat who is about 20 lbs of pure muscle and loves hugs, and I intend to be able to continue to scoop him up for as long as that is true.)… My point is, I really can’t afford to screw them up, and I’m sure the vast majority of musicians would be hard pressed to try to create and learn without theirs. So, I do what makes sense to me and pay attention. I don’t continue to drill techniques that are clearly wrong just because it’s the only way I am physically able to execute them at the time. Instead, I look closely. I try to sleuth out what’s going on. If the issue seems to be flexiblity, I work on stretched and/or drills that can help with that as a small part of my lessons until things improve, then I try again.
And, sometimes something just frustrates you, so you have to step away from it for a while. Looking back, I’ve had a lot of enemies. For a while it was slides, then it was bends. Throughout all that, there were power chords. (Barre chords suck, too, but I haven’t worked with them as much so I don’t hate them yet.) And, as time goes on, each enemy and I eventually come to a truce (seriously. I hated slides. But now, they’re so fun…)
So now, on power chords, I’m doing them with a flat finger position. On 3 note power chords, I’ve started to use my ring finger to barre the two higher notes in the moveable chord. If your ring finger can’t reach, you can totally do it with your pinky, but the pinky muscles tend to be pretty weak. I find I start to tense and strain if I try to use my pinky for a barre, even just a two string barre, to get the notes to ring clear. I just haven’t got enough strength in that finger to make it work at this time. Luckily, I can now span 3 frets with 3 fingers, so I can essentially make my power chords using just my ring and pointer fingers, resting pretty flat against the strings. This actually has proven to make the chord ring more clearly for me. I think the reasoning is actually fairly simple. When you put two fingers in one fret, one is going to be closer to the next fret over (example. if I use my ring and pinky finger in the 5th fret, by nature of human anatomy, the ring finger will be closer to the 4th fret than the pinky is.) which means that string is not going to ring quiiittte as true as the string the pinky is fretting. If you use one finger to hit both notes though, the distance is equal, and this seems to add balance to the sound. At least, that appears to be the case when I do it.
My wrist isn’t exactly straight when I form the chords this way, but it’s not tense, and that’s an important distinction. There is still a bend in the wrist I feel is a bit larger than it ought to be, but the whole arm relaxes, which makes moving that moveable chord a lot less like trying to shove a brick along by blowing on it.
Which brings me to why Rocksmith is trying to kill me. I entered the night at 66.0% completion on the Power Chords lesson. Trying and ironing out this new approach left me each time through at between 94 and 98% accuracy. Usually, the accuracy was over 96%. But, Rocksmith was still not giving me new notes to add to the progression. It still wasn’t advancing me on the lesson. And, when it finally gave me new notes, it STILL wouldn’t advance me. With consistently about 4-5 missed notes, and only about 2/3 completion, it just was not moving me forward. I was on that lesson for over an hour tonight. (I actually had to take a break and do something else for a bit, it got so bad, so I did a level of scale warriors somewhere in the middle. It was really frustrating. What kind of voodoo magic was required to make progress in the lesson? Apparently, the answer was ‘play it with over 95% completion 10000000000000 times, and then we’ll give you a new chord. Play it another 10000000000 times, and we’ll give you a set of chords. Play it another 100000 times, and your progress will go up .1%. Yes, you did read that decimal point right. After an hour of playing, and being told I’m doing awesome (not perfect, but pretty close), I got 1/10th of a percent progress.
My hand was tired. My eyes were tired, and I was convinced Rocksmith was doing this just to mess with me since I haven’t worked with the program in a week or so (I was working via youtube most of that time). As I sit now, I FINALLY cracked past the 66% barrier from hell and have gone up to 67.7%. It’s not much, mind, but after being taunted with that 66.0% for an hour tonight, I feel much better to see that percentage change at all since I was drilling the exact same thing (and doing consistently well) for what felt like an eternity.
It doesn’t really get under my skin when I don’t see the percentage change when I’m missing lots of notes and not doing well. Example: Aloha Oe in Yousician? Yeah, it’s going to be a while before I can play that and not feel like I’m bungling through something way beyond my abilities (though, surprisingly enough, I am seeing progress. Yousician seems to think I’m doing better than I feel like I’m doing on that front). But, when you’re seeing yourself missing very few notes, being on time, etc…and still unable to move forward…that’s a rough mental space to be in, because it feels like ‘wtf hoop do I need to jump through?’ That’s where Rocksmith decided I needed to be tonight, but I fought my way through it.
At the end of the day, power chords haven’t been perfected, but they are massively easier, and while my hand does get tired, I’m not getting wrist pain and much less overall tension, so I think I’m headed in the right direction.
Until Next Time, I’m going to be dreaming this crap, seriously.