This F.A.Q. is a place to address some of the most common guitar, banjo, mandolin, and general music questions you may have. Please feel free to post any questions in the comments section below, and I’ll answer as many as I can, or at least try to direct you to relevant resources.
Q1: How do I make my rhythm playing more interesting?
A1: There are many ways to make rhythm guitar less repetitive and more interesting. The most obvious and easiest way is to vary your strum pattern. In most styles of rhythm guitar, and especially folk, country, bluegrass, and rock guitar, the strum patterns will consist mostly of quarter notes, eighth notes, and ties. Try combining them in different orders, articulating different beats and off-beats, and you will gradually develop a library of effective strum patterns.
A second approach, very common in acoustic guitar styles, is the use of a bass-strum pattern, playing the bass note on beats 1 and 3, while strumming on beats 2 and 4. This concept can be extended to an alternating bass, with different bass notes on beats 1 and 3, respectively.
Third, is the use of connective basslines between bass notes. There are many approaches to creating these connective lines. Here is an introductory lesson I wrote on the topic.
Q2: There’s so much to learn for the guitar, where do I start?
A2: For an adult learner, I begin by teaching the basic open chords, focusing on the I, IV, and V in a variety of keys. I begin the first week with the A, D, and E chords. Generally, by the second week, a student is ready to move on the bluesy A7, D7, and E7 chords. At this point, a student can play basic progressions in the key of A major.
Next, I add the G chord, and give songs in the key of D using D, G, and A7. By the fourth week, I usually assign songs in the key of G major, using the G, C, and D7 chords.
An alternative, if one has trouble with the stretches involved in the G and C chords, is to introduce the keys of A minor and E minor. These can be introduced with songs using the chords Am, Dm, and Em or E7 in A minor, or Em, Am, and Bm7 or B7 in E minor.
Either way, these are the first chords I recommend learning, and it usually takes about two months. Once these are learned, the keys of A, D, and G major, and A and E minor are accessible to the beginning student.
Here’s a brief recap and curriculum:
Week 1: A, D, E (Key of A)
Week 2: A7, D7, E7 (Key of A bluesy)
Week 3: D, G, A7 (Key of D)
Week 4: G, C, D7 (Key of G)
Week 5: Am, Dm, E7 or Em (Key of A minor)
Week 6: Em, Am, B7 or Bm7 (Key of E minor)
For more on this approach, check out my 8-week Beginner Guitar Series.
Q1: How do I get started on bluegrass banjo?
A1: Many beginning banjo players quickly become frustrated by the complexity of the three-finger Scruggs style of banjo picking. In addition to the technical difficulty of playing the rolls, many students find it difficult to identify the melody notes in greater texture. For this reason, I advise my students to start with the two-finger double-thumbing style.
Double-thumbing is a great precursor to learning bluegrass for many reasons. First, it’s a bit more simple, using the thumb to sound melody notes, while the index and fifth string provide a background drone. This makes it conceptually similar to bluegrass, with the melody played by the thumb within a droning accompaniment. Second, the repertoire is essentially identical, so double-thumbing is a great way to start playing tunes immediately. Finally, it is not excluded from the bluegrass cannon, in fact, it can be incorporated into the three-finger style quite nicely!
Q1: What kind of picks should I use for guitar/mandolin?
A1: The answer to this question depends partially on what style of music you play. In general, I prefer heavier picks, and do not recommend anything thinner than 1.0 mm. However, my playing on both guitar and mandolin is characterized by (often fast) single note lines, interspersed with rhythmic accompaniment. I personally use a very thick pick (the 3.0 mm.) Big Stubby, by Dunlop. I’ve also used a number of thinner picks, between 1.5 mm. and 2.0 mm., but prefer the volume, control, and tone of the heavier pick.
For players that prefer to strum, a lighter pick can produce a more mellow sounds, but the tradeoff is the lowered volume.
One final consideration is the material of the pick. I usually use plastic, but there are many alternatives, including tortoise shell (and faux tortoise shell), wood, bone, and horn. You can read my review of handmade rosewood, bone, ebony, and horn Brossard picks here.