Thoughts on Scales, Barre Cords, and whatever else in between.

I have a lot of thoughts. This post might end up being a little bit all over the place. I’ll try to keep things coherent, but since thoughts and ideas don’t tend to happen in a sequential way without beating them into submission, all bets are off.

I was going to put of writing about the Intro to Guitar course again until I finished, it, but I changed my mind, because I don’t want to forget what I’m thinking about now in favor of what I’m going to be thinking about later.

When last we left on this subject, I was bitching about how learning scales from a video is ridiculous, and – in spite of my love for interactive lessons – said ‘just learn your scales from a damn book’. In case you haven’t been following along to date, I’ll reiterate here that I fall into the kinesthetic/tactile learner camp, so when I tell you to learn something from a book, well, that’s saying a lot.

While I haven’t changed my mind on the subject, watching through the scale lessons wasn’t entirely useless. Do I have any scales memorized? No. Not hardly. No amount of pausing is going to make the videos the most effective way to learn and memorize scales. BUT, I do know that a chromatic scale is all the notes in order and starts and ends on the same note. And, I know that if you assign the first number of your scale as #1, then you can number the rest of the notes in order, and discern from that what the 3rd and 5th etc are.

At a glance, that doesn’t seem like immediately useful information. From a pragmatic point of view, you can say ‘okay, and, so what?’

Well, here’s the thing, the guy who teaches the Intro to Guitar course isn’t great about explaining why he does things in the order he does them in, but each lesson has this magical way of applying the one before it. So, when I moved onto the next block of lessons which starts by explaining basic open chords – and tells you that a major chord is the first third and fifth, and a minor chord is just a major chord with a “flatted” third (move the 3rd back a half step – effectively 1 fret), then it becomes clear pretty quickly that if you know a moveable chromatic scale, you therefore can figure out what the third and fifth of any note is, and effectively are able to build open chords without a chord diagram. Now, that’s handy.

In short: scales are the building blocks we use to create chords and licks. And if you don’t know any scales but are still building chords and licks, you’re still using the scales to do it – you just don’t know it.

So, okay, I still don’t know any scales, but I do know why they matter, and I consider that a good step in the right direction. Knowing why you’re learning something always makes it easier to focus on. All of the instructions and videos I’ve read/seen before this never really explained this in an accessible way, so props to this particular course for building the lessons in a way that makes my brain connect the dots.

That doesn’t mean all of the lesson building is flawless. After one ten minute overview on notation, a few videos later one of the quizzes was in all notation, as if I could possibly have memorized it from that! I was forced to blindly make bad guesses until only the correct answers were left so I could move on to the next lesson block. I may have a terrible memory, but I refuse to believe ANYONE can learn to read music THAT quickly.

So, now I’m on to barre chords. It’s odd to me that barre chords are listed before power chords. Usually I see lessons go the opposite way: open chords → power chords → barre chords. So, hopefully it will be revealed why the barre chords came first here, but either way, barre chords still suck.

Actually, I have some pretty contradictory thoughts about barre chords.

My first thought was that I don’t really see why the hell the guy is teaching us several different barre shapes when, until I can consistently perform a clean barre, the chord part of the equation is moot. So, I spent some time trying to do just that last night – just forming a clean barre. In spite of all the tips and tricks in the video (pull, don’t pinch), this ended up being harder than I felt it should be. I could get a clean sound out of everything but the middle two notes. D and G were muted. If I managed to shift my hand enough to get them to sound, either the high E ended up muted, or the tension in my arm was epic and I could only do it once. My wrist ended up at this horrid almost-right angle that was, to say the least uncomfortable. But, on reflection, that’s familiar – it’s not entirely unlike the issues I had when I was first learning the G chord waaayyy back when. I kept bending my wrist in this insane position as if my wrist could make up for the reach my fingers lacked(news flash: it can’t. Stop trying to do that.).

So, I took stock. Problem 1: too much tension (this is a chronic issue for me when learning new things. In spite of what my brain has to say, my hands still try to muscle their way through things.). Problem 2: Angle. I’m convinced the issue here has more to do with the angle of my hand approaching the strings than it does with finger strength. We talk about ‘finger strength’ a lot in guitar lessons, but in my experience so far, I tend to use too much rather than not enough and I don’t think this is an exception (see problem 1 – tension is a dead give away that I’m trying too hard).

And, here’s where my thoughts contradict themselves. I spent a few minutes trying to get that clean barre tonight, and I realized that, technically, you don’t necessarily need a completely clean barre. You need a clean barre on the notes you’re not fretting with other fingers. Since a barre chord has a barre AND fingers fretting notes the barre therefore technically doesn’t have to be effective on all the notes – just on the notes that you don’t have other fingers already taking care of. And, I don’t know if that’s a productive way of thinking or not, really, but, I am of two minds on the subject at the moment, after all.

In any case, I still have about a week and a half worth of videos in the course, so I will probably have other thoughts, but for now the progress is the usual: my brain understands more than my hands do, and my limited attention span keeps handicapping me, but the momentum is sort of meandering forward.

One thought on “Thoughts on Scales, Barre Cords, and whatever else in between.

  1. Barre chords were difficult for me when I first started to play. That was probably more a product of having a terrible guitar with God awful action on it. I understand what you’re saying about too much tension. As I got more comfortable playing bass and guitar, my touch was much softer. Over time, dynamics became more important as I felt better about how my fretting hand could accomplish things. As a side note, I recorded that Oscar Schmidt uke bass. It has onboard electronics, so I went into a preamp, then the I/O. I liked the way it sounds in the mix. Almost like an upright. I recorded uke and harmonica for the first time too. Aside from not being good at either, it’s my vocals that are hurting the most.


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