By: Jamey Andreas
Yes, I have often felt that I run a Hospital For Dead And Dying Guitarists. The cripples hobble in to the emergency room, or are carried in on stretchers, and I diagnose their case. I take their medical history, and assess the harmful, and sometimes fatal effects of what some teacher has done to them, and/or what they have done to themselves through ignorance and bad practice.
I had a very dramatic case recently, as a new student signed up for a group of four lessons. When Terry walked in, he explained to me he was a naturally right handed, but had to play left handed due to a motorcycle accident many years ago. He had been playing his left handed guitar for about 4 years, and wanted to play rock/heavy metal/blues, which he loves.
He had taken lessons with a few different people; the latest teacher was, he told me, an extremely talented player who plays in a local rock band. My ears perked up when Terry told me that this teacher had told him the exact opposite of what I teach about how to do bends and vibrato on an electric. "He told me definitely keep your thumb behind the neck when you bend a string and do vibrato, not wrapped over like you say".
For those who may not know, vibrato on an electric is that wonderful, undulating, pulsing quality a player imparts to a note as he or she plays. It is done by bending the string, and moving it up and down in a rhythmic manner. It is the single most essential technique an electric guitarist must have. In fact, I always say, "if you have a good vibrato, people will think you are good, no matter what you play. If you have a bad vibrato, you will sound bad, and people will think you sound bad, no matter what you play."
Now, being the humble person I am, I was quite willing to learn something new, and was anxious to see Terry amaze me with a great vibrato using his hand in this way. True, I have never seen anything but the most incompetent attempts to do so, but hey, you never know.
Well, I guess sometimes you do know! What I saw was another very incompetent attempt to bend a string. I don't even think we got to close to the "try to do a vibrato" part. Terry was huffing and puffing, probably putting out enough energy to light a small city. In fact, as I looked at his hand and arm, everything seemed to be moving except the string!
Well, I knew I had a tough case in front of me. Here I have a guy who is forced to play lefty. In addition, he has been following advice from a trusted source, and basically, HE CAN'T PLAY! I mean, he really sounds bad on the most basic level of functioning on an electric, bending strings and getting a controlled vibrato.
But last, and I don't think least, the amazing thing is that Terry is not really aware, at least I don't think so, of what state he is in. In fact, he was quite happy to show me some scales that he felt he was doing well with using the sweep picking technique. They were okay, but the picking was weak, and they contained essential flaws in execution that would have prevented improvement.
So I am having a hard time understanding why Terry isn't screaming about how he is not able to bend a string properly. He told me he loves rock and heavy metal, and he sure isn't going to play any this way. He told me he spends a lot of time jamming to tapes, and I am wondering why he hasn't noticed that he doesn't sound like the guys who play the way he wants to play.
But over time I realized "there I go again, insisting that every body be like me". But I can't help it, at least when it comes to guitar. However I realized that it's not really Terry's fault. It's not like he is able to devote all his time to the guitar, or is planning on becoming professional. He's 43, has a job, and just happens to find he loves the guitar, wishes he started sooner, and is basically going along trusting his teacher, and probably figures it will all come together eventually.
But still, I had to get across to him, no, it isn't. It's not all going to come together. I had to tell him "You, Terry, are doing this SO wrong, you must be taken apart, and put back together. Please notice that there is no result happening from what you are doing. Your teacher is wrong. Maybe he CAN do a great vibrato the way he has told you to do it, I don't know, because I haven't heard him. But I have heard you! And, I have seen you. And, I hope you will agree with me that YOU, Terry, are not doing it. And further, trust ME when I tell you, you are not going to be able to do it if you continue this way.
And of course, these things were not addressed by his previous teacher, these hard cold facts were not being acknowledged. Instead, it was the usual "well, I know you can't actually play anything, but how about we learn ten new scales this week anyway". And for that, I firmly feel, there is no excuse. The teacher is the professional, and should certainly be willing to address the reality of what is happening, and not happening, with a student.
Bends and vibrato are the building block of all rock licks. Competent control over these building blocks, along with solid technique with the basic mechanics of picking the notes of a pentatonic scale, is kindergarten and first grade for the rock guitarist. Instead of acknowledging reality, and trying to find a way to deal with the fact that the student is not really even able to handle this level of playing, he is getting "high school" material; long scales with sweep picking. What possible good would that do him? If Terry were jamming with a band, and tried to pull out those scales and run them up and down some chord progression, he would be blown away by the first teenager who came along and just laid out a few long, slow beautiful bends with a shimmering vibrato. For Terry, right now, those scales are a bunch of meaningless crap!
In fact, as I just demonstrated a couple of simple licks, Terry's eyes got wide and he said "man, that sounds good". And it did, and it was just simple licks and bends. The job was to get him to be able to do that. And I will tell you how I accomplished that, or I should say how Terry and I accomplished it together. But first, let me make a little "public service announcement...
HEADS UP ALL YOU GUITAR STUDENTS OUT THERE! If you are in lessons, and you seem to be constantly "shoveling away" the mountains of material your teacher is always piling on top of you, BUT YOU CAN'T REALLY PLAY, then you better start considering whether something is wrong with that picture. I'm telling you there is. And I have seen it so often in my thirty years of teaching, that I am quite confident that a lot of people will be nodding their heads in agreement as they read this.
Now, back to Terry's "recovery".
The essence of Terry's wrong approach to bends and vibrato had to do with the fact that all of his "anatomy" was working the wrong way; he was using it the wrong way. He was trying to bend and move the string by the action of FINGER MUSCLES alone. In other words, he was actually using the muscles that extend and flex the fingers themselves. This is how a beginner will almost always first attempt to do string bending on an electric. This is because those actions are familiar, and the actions of the muscles that SHOULD be used are not familiar.
As Terry tried to get that string to move, he was not only using only the finger muscles, but also tensing and moving his entire shoulder. I explained to him that the muscles he was really using to do all of that were located in his back, chest, and sides of his body. By using all these muscles in this way, the only thing that might bend would be his spine, not the string.
So, how should it be done? Hold your hand up in front of you, palm facing you. Then, turn your hand so the palm is facing away from you, without moving at the elbow. That twisting motion of the forearm, which is performed by muscles and bones in the forearm itself, provide the motor power for bending and vibrato on an electric guitar, NOT the muscles that extend the fingers. The fingers are held FIRM, and simply serve to DELIVER that power to the string. That is why it is hard in the beginning, because usually the fingers will collapse at that point; they are not strong enough to hold up under the pressure of the string as it is bent. And, as the fingers collapse, the student does the most logical thing, tries to push the string by extending the collapsed fingers.
Another big tip-off of the wrong approach being used, which I want to mention so that all you electric players can troubleshoot your own problems with the area of technique, is that Terry's elbow kept coming in to his body. The muscles that bring the arm into the body are located in the back and sides, and again, have nothing to do with bending a string or vibrato. This action was just another of the body's rather un-intelligent attempts to get what the mind wants.
Well after pointing all of this out, and working with it, and grabbing his arm, hands, fingers at various times, we started to get some results. I was extremely pleased that by the 4th lesson Terry was producing the right action, and the right sound. Most importantly, he is on the right track for continuous development now.
In the past, I've told you that there are 3 kinds of students. The third kind I described this way...
"The person whose natural talent is not really showing up on the radar screen! There are certain people that I have taught that I am convinced would NEVER have learned to play without the kind of intense, "let me take you by the finger" kind of instruction I have given them. These people flounder around for years in the usual type of instructional setting, and they NEVER get it. The physical obstacles are never overcome, because they are never addressed at the sufficiently deep level they need to be addressed at."
Terry is definitely that kind of student.
In many ways this is the most satisfying teaching experience. Talented people are easy. They will be players with or without you. But to actually take somebody who is so far from the right track, because for some reason, God only knows why, his foot was never set ON the right track, and to in a sense, "plug them in" for the first time; well there is just something special about that.
There was a poignant moment during one lesson, when we were both expending an extreme amount of energy to attack certain problems in the way Terry was using his body to attempt to get the right sounds out of the guitar. I had to get downright anatomical with Terry as I was explaining which muscles he was actually using to cause movement at various joints, and which muscles he wasn't. It all sounded so complex that he looked at me in wide eyed amazement and said, "Man, does everybody have to go through this?!"
The fact is, no, everyone doesn't have to go "through" this. But, everyone must "do" this in order to be able to perform these actions of bending and vibrato properly. We must leave it to the general state of unfairness of the Universe that SOME people are able to just pick up a guitar and with very little trouble get to the point where they can do these things, and other people, like Terry will never do them, unless taught as illustrated above. But, there are two very important points to appreciate here. First, as far as one's "potential" for becoming a good or great musician, it absolutely doesn't matter! Once set on the right track, Terry may develop into an incredible musician doing wonderful and valuable things on the guitar, just as someone with dyslexia may have trouble reading for years and be thought un-intelligent, and prove themselves extremely intelligent upon being properly treated (President Woodrow Wilson is a case in point).
Secondly, we must realize that the appropriate attitude, the attitude that is going to bring us success, is that we DO WHATEVER IS NECESSARY, and we base it on ourselves, and our own situation, no one else's. And we do it with humility. We don't feel like spending time practicing some "simple" thing is beneath us. I don't know why, when it comes to singing, I was just like Terry, unable to do things it seemed everyone else was just able to do naturally. I said to my voice teacher the same thing Terry said to me as she was breaking things down into atoms and molecules for me (and I knew plenty of people that could DO these things who wouldn't know what she was talking about), I said to her "what am I, an idiot!"
Lastly, I like my students to understand that the incredible expenditure of will power, effort and focus that is needed to break through our limitations, such as I have outlined in Terry's case above, essentially never changes. It is the same effort I must make on a daily basis to transcend whatever my limits are at any given time. Acknowledging this, respecting this, and acting accordingly is what leads any of us to our next level of ability.