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You Can Learn to Play the Blues--Fingerstyle

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

Now it is easier than ever to learn how to play the guitar and even how to fingerpick. There are instructional videos on YouTube and you can purchase instruction books with video that “show” you how to do it. Also tablature is available and is way easier to read than sheet music. There is really no excuse for not learning how to play if you really want to. But when I learned it was different.

I first learned to play the guitar when I was in the 7thgrade. My mother told me I had to learn a musical instrument. I wasn’t attracted to any of the “band” instruments that we could play in junior high school and thought that the guitar was cool. I told Mom that I wanted to learn that. So, she bought me a cheap guitar and got me lessons in downtown Lincoln with an older lady who was a retired music teacher and who now taught lessons. This was in 1958 or so.

My mother drove me down to my guitar teacher’s place. She was a nice, older lady, but she had no interest in the current rock and roll music that was exploding on the scene at the time and that I loved. She had me learn scales and taught me to read sheet music. I do have to hand it to her as she gave me a fairly good introduction to music in general.

But, I wanted to learn to play the songs that were popular at the time. So, I finally quit going to her lessons and bought some guitar books that had the words and chords to songs I was hearing on the radio. I taught myself the chords I needed from a chord book.

In high school some friends and I formed a combo. We called ourselves ‘The Downbeats.’ We had a bass, piano, and two guitars. My buddy played the lead guitar and sang. I was the rhythm guitar. I learned a lot from that experience and enjoyed playing the few gigs we had. That was until my buddies replaced me with a more experienced guitar player. Being kicked out of the band hurt, but it also spurred me on to improve my playing.

In my senior year of high school (1963-64), my parents bought me a Gibson 12 string that I still have and play regularly. That was my nicest guitar for many years and it is now a classic.

I played through college and then put the guitar aside when I was drafted and went into the army. After the army I was busy with grad school and climbing and all so only played once in a while. It wasn’t until I moved to Australia in ’76 to teach that I took up playing again. I lived in Torquay in a small flat down near the surf beach and didn’t have a television. So, to keep busy I bought a nice inexpensive guitar and some songbooks and began working on my flatpicking in earnest. But I felt something was missing.

I discovered what it was over the 76/77 Christmas holiday when I flew to New Zealand to see the country and mountain climb in the Mount Cook area. The day before I was to fly back to Australia from New Zealand I stayed at a hostel in Christchurch for a night. One of the other travelers staying there was an American who had a guitar with him. He played using finger picks and it was the coolest thing I’d seen. I decided that I wanted to learn to play that way. I’d always loved Leo Koetke and it had been a mystery to me how he could make so many notes come from his fingerpicks.

I talked with the guy and he told me that he’d taught himself to fingerpick from a couple of books. So, when I got back to my place in Australia I went down to a music store and bought a fingerpicking book that taught me how to play the alternating base with my thumb and notes in between with my fingers, starting with simple songs like “Freight Train,” and then building on those skills to learn more complex songs. I also began to listen to the music of finger style players and discovered Stephen Grossman who had a number of books on ragtime and traditional blues guitar players. Grossman’s tablature helped me develop my style.

It was also in Australia that I was exposed to Jorma Kaukonen and Hot Tuna and I fell in love with his style of playing. Jefferson Airplane had been one of my favorite groups but I hadn’t really listened to Hot Tuna before this.

While I was still in Australia I heard that Stephen Grossman was going to be in Melbourne to put on a two-day guitar workshop. I missed the first day but was able to go up and attend the second. It was so cool to meet Grossman and learn from him in the workshop setting. I picked up a lot from that and it gave me a shot in the arm to learn more. It was interesting to me that all of this came together to push me to play finger style.

I carried my guitar across Asia and enjoyed meeting people and jamming with them. I’ll write about that experience in another blog post: Have Guitar Will Travel.

When I got back to the States in 1979 I knew it was time to get a better instrument so I bought a nice used, custom-made acoustic guitar in Fort Collins and began to use finger picks instead of just my fingernails. I feel that I really made progress over those years.

I took that guitar with me when I moved to Singapore to teach in 1987. And I continued to play and worked to improve my playing while there. My wife and I went to a cocktail party one evening where I met an American businessman who played the acoustic bass. We began playing together and soon formed a group: the Bagus Blues Boys. (Bagus means excellent in Malay). My friend and I would play outside in one of the parks in Singapore and people would stop and listen. Another guitar player joined us and we began to get gigs. We played at the Union Bar in the American Club and at parties. Playing with other people was one of the best things I could have done to really improve my playing.

Now I teach fingerpicking to a friend of mine once a week. He brings a six-pack of beer over to my house as payment for my instruction. We each drink a beer and I help him develop his style as we jam together for an hour or so.

There is no secret to learning to finger pick. One needs only to have the desire and make the time. If you are earnest you will learn.

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