Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

15 Jun 2003, 11:45 a.m.

Sumana Teaches You All She Knows About Playing The GEE-tar

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2003 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

For as long as I've cared that I was female, the sound of an acoustic guitar has enchanted me. I don't remember really tripping out to the sound of Mr. Motenko accompanying himself on "Good Morning" in sixth-grade music class, but he also introduced us to Weird Al, and like I said, guitar only really got to me at the same time as the hormones.

My sophomore year of high school, as in subsequent grades, I listened to a tape over and over again. That tape contained excerpts from the Academic Decathlon music. And I played one piece over and over again: Heitor Villa-Lobos, Etude No. 7 for Guitar. Sure, the Mussorgsky came in handy when in later years I recognized Night on Disco Mountain, but the Villa-Lobos really haunted me.

I had taken piano lessons as a young'un, then dropped off, and then taken up the trumpet in fourth grade or so, only to slack off with that one too. In general, I felt pretty defeated by music. I listened to classical on KUOP to improve my mind (some bizarre conflation of the alleged Mozart Effect and class snobbery), and to Weird Al for laughs. Peter Schickele's Schickele Mix (fan site) made some inroads with its geeky friendliness, but not enough to make me think, "I could do that."

The first time I hung out with Leonard, he played the guitar and sang his songs to me, and then again a week later. I must have mentioned to him that I'm a sucker for that sound. Now we've been dating for two years. And somehow half a year ago I got up the gumption to try plucking on the sacred thing myself. Leonard encouraged me, explaining that the guitar is quite easy to learn and fulfills the function of musical accompaniment for lyricists who are not musical virtuosos. He and I made a little diagram of the chords for Acres of Clams and I tried to learn to play it. Yet it was quite frustrating, as I was timid and extremely self-conscious and all mixed up.

How pretentious I am, trying to learn the guitar! It doesn't sound good, I can't seem to put my fingers at the right places with all the pressure I need, agh! And how do you tune this thing? What a black art! And I can't stand inflicting these awful sounds on others. I'll never be any good!

Last weekend, at a guitar store in Bakersfield with Leonard, I had a breakthrough. First of all, most people use picks, not their bare fingers, to strike the strings. That really helps. (Previously I had tried to imitate Leonard, who uses his bare fingers.) Second, there is an actual method to tuning a guitar aside from just striking all the strings and telepathically sensing that something sounds off. Now I can make things that sound pretty, which means I'm over the very first hump of the learning curve. Here's what I've learned and possibly mislearned from myself, from Adam, from Leonard, from random people, and from inference. Go ahead and correct me!

Sumana on the Guitar, With a Long Introduction For the Complete Novice (e.g. Sumana Seven Months Ago): So there are two parts to the guitar (far-too-complicated diagram). There's the "body," which has the hole in it, and there's the "neck," which extends away from the body. The six strings (taut wires) start at the end of the "neck" and end beyond the hole. One end of each string is just tied on to a little bar on the body, but the other end is hooked onto a "tuning peg" at the end of the neck. You twist the peg to loosen or tighten the string. The tighter the string, the higher the note it will play. In the standard tuning (wait several paragraphs to learn how), each string is set to play a "fourth" (music theory term) away from the string next to it. The six strings traditionally go from "top" to "bottom," where "bottom" refers to the thickest string, the one that plays the lowest note.

("Bottom" will be the string that is actually nearest you if you are playing in the traditional right-handed way, holding the neck in your left hand and the body in your right. Evidently the strength and dexterity in your dominant hand is more useful in strumming and striking and plucking the strings than it is in the complicated things you have to do with the non-dominant hand, but my jury's still out on that.)

The way you get the guitar to make sounds is to strike the strings, traditionally over the hole (so the sound can resonate inside the body). If you just strike a string, then that's called playing it "open." But if you press down on the string on the neck while striking it over the hole with the other hand, then you get a different sound! The length of the string that is vibrating has gotten shorter, so the note is higher.

To facilitate calculation as to exactly how much higher the note will be, the neck is divided into "frets." That is, there are several little raised bars, each of which spans the width of the neck, all the way down the neck. These bars are called "frets" (confusingly, the space between two of those bars is also called a "fret"), and so the neck is often referred to as the "fretboard," or the "fingerboard." If you press down on a string between two of those bars, the string presses into the bar nearer the body. If you then strike the string over the hole, then the note is systematically higher. The fret that is just beyond the tuning pegs, the one that has the strings set into it, I like to think of as the "zeroeth fret." If you strike a string while holding it down on the fretboard at the "first fret" (the space between the zeroeth and first fret bars) and play it again, and then the next fret, and the next, and so on, you'll find that the note gets half a note higher with each fret.

Pretty-Sound Tip: It makes the nice sound when you hold it down in that space and not (as I once mistakenly did) on the bar itself, because when you hold it down in the space between the bars, then you're letting the bar nearer the body actually press against the string more. The bar concentrates its pressure at one point, while your finger's pressure is spread out for an uneven tone.

So you see that by holding down some string at someplace in the fretboard, you can play basically any note you want. But the really cool thing about the guitar is how "easy" (it's not easy for me yet) it is to play pretty groups of notes, or "chords." You strike more than one string in quick succession ("strumming"), even all six, and it sounds nicer than it has any right to be. And if you use one hand to hold down certain strings at certain frets while strumming with the other hand, then you can achieve specific chords.

This is where diagrams and pictures come in handy, to show you where to put your fingers for particular chords. Books are nice, but just to give you a taste of what these diagrams look like, try the diagrams for the C major chord, a chord that people tell me is useful. To be specific, here's the diagram for the easy version. As you can see, this chord only uses the top three frets. Your index finger (1) goes on the second-to-"top" string in the first fret, and your middle and ring fingers go where indicated. When you strum, you'll have a C-major chord!

It's easy enough to memorize one positioning on the fretboard, but real musicians have to learn a lot of them, and switch back and forth really fast, while strumming and plucking strings with the other hand. That's the part that takes a lot of practice, I'm venturing.

Pretty-Sound Tip: Curl your fretboard fingers so they only touch the strings they're supposed to be touching. You may have to have someone else help you with this -- Leonard helped catch this for me.

Now that you know about frets and so on, here's how you tune a guitar (diagram). Thanks to those musical properties of the strings and the fretboard, a string and its neighbor should sound exactly alike if you hold one of them down on the right place on the fretboard. For most of them, you hold the looser one down on the fifth fret and play the other one open, and they should sound the same. (There's one exception, and it's easier to see it in the diagram than to explain it in words. Besides, I don't know why.) Adjust the tuning peg for the higher string until the notes match. If you are really tone-deaf this will not work, but you don't have to have perfect pitch, either. Reapeat the process all the way to the highest string, then repeat.

Random other stuff: a guitar lasts a long time but strings that are played regularly should be replaced every 9-12 months. All acoustic guitars can take nylon strings but some can take metal ones. A bass guitar is "not really" a guitar, Adam says. Tuning and fretting for the acoustic guitar is the same as on an electric guitar. Electric guitars have little dials that you can twist to do stuff to the sound, but usually they aren't labelled, which makes me mad the same way that Unix used to make me mad. Many beginning guitarists set the successful performance of a particular song as a goal. Some guitars have a big dentlike shape near the neck on one side of the upper part of the body; this is called a cutaway, and allows the guitarist to play more easily lower on the fretboard.

That's all I got for you, and I've repeated stuff you can find elsewhere on the Net, I'm sure. I have to get over my self-consciousness and allow myself to noodle on the instrument without guilt, and that will be easier once I live by myself with the old guitar that Leonard gave me. Wheee!