“David Brandon has been a top influence in my son’s life. His excellent guitar instruction has catapulted my son to a level of playing that has made him stand out among his peers. Even more importantly, he is a model for my son’s character. That is something no one can put a price tag on!”

- G. Eddins, mom

Give us a call at (806) 799-1916 to schedule your first lesson!

Guitar Tips, News, and Reviews

Read our most recent posts below or just click on a category of interest in the sidebar. You will find multiple entries on a variety of topics. Have fun!

The Art of Practice

Practice makes perfect. While many have tried to improve that saying, such as “perfect practice makes perfect,” or “practice makes permanent,” the general intent is all the same: it takes work to do something great. However, musician Ash Raymond stated, “Every single aspect of playing is simple. Woven into a brilliant performance, they become altogether dazzling. But even the most stunning feats consist of simple movements in understandable combinations.”

I am often asked how much a student should practice. The answer has two parts, often in direction proportion to the other: quantity and quality. The time you spend with the guitar should have focused goals to achieve maximum results.

Here are seven keys to effective practicing:

1. Develop a routine. I suggest a brief warm-up regimen with a few exercises, next I like to practice new material, review old material, and then end with free time. In the last segment, you could revisit the inspiring new material, practice improvisation, sight-read, or study music theory.

2. Use good technique. Maintain good posture, use correct hand positions, play on the fingertips right next to the fret, and use economy of motion. Cultivate a good sound with a minimum of extraneous noises (buzzes, clicks, squeaks, etc.). Really listen to your playing and ask yourself quality control questions.

3. Balance your repertoire. Choose pieces that inspire and challenge you, but are still within your ability. These pieces of music will often go through four stages: Read (explore), Remember (memorize), Refine (Polish), and Review (maintain). Strive to keep pieces in all four categories for maximum interest and results.

4. Play with feeling. Every note you play has four unique qualities: Pitch, Duration, Volume, and Tone. The amount of variation you use in each of these areas determines your musical expression and interpretation.

5. Set goals. Create a plan, focus on specific elements to accomplish, and then take action. Work hard, but work smart.

6. Solve problems. When you observe a mistake, analyze the problem, and correct it by proper repetition. Break things down into smaller components, and practice separately. Repetition is the key to learning, but you must force yourself to slow down and do it right.

7. Be creative. Vary your routine some. Invent exercises, improvise, and have fun!

J.S. Bach said that playing a musical instrument is easy—all you have to do is play the right note at the right time. When it comes down to it, that is what technique is all about: accuracy (right note) and speed (right time). Everything else has to do with the artistic expression. That is the ultimate goal of making music.

Speed Techniques

When famous banjo player Earl Scruggs (Beverly Hillbillies theme song) was asked how to play fast, he replied, “Practice playing accurately, and the speed will come…Or it won’t.” There is certainly some element of truth to what he said. Everyone has his own speed threshold – a level beyond which he may never play.  However, I have found that most guitarists never come close to reaching their own speed barrier. But with the proper approach I have seen students maximize their own potential and play faster than they thought possible.

Playing fast is just one tool in the guitarist’s box. It should not be the end goal but rather a means to express musical ideas. To help develop this tool, I suggest working on a musical passage with these three ideas in mind:

Speed – Accuracy – Endurance

Ideally we would like to play with all three. However, at first, choose any two and concentrate on that goal.

Here is an exercise I included in the Parkening Method Book Two and have given to students for years to develop speed technique. It may be played on any string, and many variations are possible. It should be played continuously, although I write it here in four-note groups so you can see the patterns. Here are the frets:

5 8 7 5   4 7 5 4   7 10 8 7   5 8 7 5   8 12 10 8   7 10 8 7   5 8 7 5   4 7 5 4    5

Use alternate picking (down-up with a pick or index-middle fingerstyle). Assign one finger per fret. For example, 5875 would be fingers 1431, and 4754 would be 1421. Keep the 1st finger on the string for the whole exercise and use economy of motion.

Here is how to practice the exercise using the above approach:

A) Play the whole passage (Endurance) with Accuracy and gradually increase the Speed.

B) Play a short passage with as much Speed as possible with Accuracy, and gradually increase the distance (Endurance). I start with one group and always end on the first note of the next group (58754); then do two groups (587547547), etc.

C) Play the whole passage (Endurance) with as much Speed as possible and try to increase the synchronization (Accuracy). This third approach should be used sparingly, as you don’t want to practice bad habits. However, it’s good to experience what it feels like play the whole thing fast without worrying so much about the details. Sometimes by doing so, both hands start to synchronize and it all comes together without much effort.

Use of a metronome will help monitor your progress. I have seen this process quickly achieve great results in students time and again. Try it and see!

Creating Cool Chords

Cool chords. How do we learn them? From a teacher, book, or the Internet? Yes to all. However, one of the most intriguing ways to find new chords is to create them yourself. While the theory can come later, it’s exciting to discover new chords and sounds by pure experimentation. I remember the first time this happened for me as a kid. I was playing a basic D chord and decided to add my 4th finger on the first string, third fret. I thought I had discovered the greatest sound in the world and even wrote a song with it (so did Tom Petty, but his was actually good). I now know this as Dsus4 and found it also goes great with Dsus2, with the first string open. What’s great is that these sounds are so basic and easily found with a little trail and error.

A few years ago, Grammy-winning guitar legend Eric Johnson gave a workshop at our Studio. He was asked how he finds the unique chords that he his so known for. He responded by giving the following example of cool chord creation: He started with a basic E chord. He then removed the 3rd finger from the 4th string and added the 4th finger on the 4th fret, 4th string, calling the chord E2, or Eadd9. He then replaced that finger with the 3rd finger and moved the 4th finger to the 4th fret, 2nd string and called it Emaj9. Finally, he moved his 2nd finger from the 2nd fret, 5th string to the 4th fret and called it Emaj13. On each variation, he was narrating his thought process as, “I wonder how this would sound?” or, “What would happen if…” It was just a series of experiments with chord colors. And again, the names of the chords didn’t matter at this point. It’s all about finding sonic shapes that please the ear.

For some other ideas on exploring new chords, try taking a chord shape you already know and move it up the fretboard or to a different set of strings. The juxtaposition with the open strings can create some phenomenal sounds. Also try familiar shapes in altered tunings for a similar effect. Combining (overlapping) two chords that you already know will create a brand new chord also. One example is an Am with an F bass note (Fmaj7). Another is a power chord starting from another power chord (sus2 sound, think Police and Dave Matthews).

Harmony has two basic aspects. If you look at a chord vertically, as we have been doing, you are referring to the formula of a chord. It is the color of the chord, how it’s spelled and how it’s played. If you look at a chord horizontally, you are referring to the function of the chord. That is how the chord is used and its relationship to others in chord progressions. For example, a C7 is spelled 1-3-5-b7 (formula), and it is the V7 (dominant seventh) chord in the key of F (function). Once you have found cool chord voicings and colors, you can create new chord progressions by linking it all together. Music theory, which is all related to the basic major scale, may then be studied to open the door to many more unique chords and chord progressions.

Vertical Guitar Shapes

The guitar is a shape-oriented instrument. Once we have learned a fretboard shape or pattern, it can be moved around the neck to different frets and strings. This ability allows us to assimilate musical information much more quickly, develops muscle memory, and assists in improvisation. The only caveat to this process is due to the nature of the tuning system we use. All of the strings are tuned in fourths, except between the 3rd and 2nd, which is a major 3rd.*

This is a blessing and a curse. The tuning arrangement allows for many sounds that could not be achieved otherwise. However, it does make it more challenging to move the shape vertically. If you learn a chord shape, you can slide it horizontally to any fret and have the same sound, only transposed to a new key. However, the same shape when moved vertically across a fret will change to a different type of chord if the movement involves crossing the 3rd and 2nd strings.

For instance, the chord shape achieved by depressing the fifth fret on the 1st-3rd strings creates an Am chord. Moving horizontally two frets higher to the seventh fret, it becomes Bm. It stays a minor chord no matter where you move it. However, that same shape moved vertically to strings 2nd-4th becomes a C major chord. Moving to strings 3rd-5th or 4th-6th changes it to Gsus and Dsus, respectively. This anomaly means some extra time spent learning various shapes, but it can make a lot of chords a lot easier once you know where to put them.

In order to master vertical fretboard movement quickly, I suggest practicing the following shapes across the fifth fret on every possible set of strings, starting with the bass strings and moving toward the treble. You may add more advanced shapes after you learn these basic buildings blocks. Remember the one-fret warp factor: raise the note one fret higher as it crosses to the 2nd string.

These shapes start with the first finger on the 5th fret of the 6th string. All the numbers are the frets, and each string is separated by dashes. Note: With intervals and chords, the notes are to be played simultaneously; with arpeggios and scales, they are to be played consecutively.

Intervals

two notes, two strings

Perfect 5th: 5-7, 5-7, 5-7, 5-8, 6-8

Perfect 4th: 5-5, 5-5, 5-5, 5-6, 6-6

Major 3rd: 5-4, 5-4, 5-4, 5-5, 6-5

Minor 3rd: 5-3, 5-3, 5-3, 5-4, 6-4

Major 6th: 5-4, 5-4, 5-5, 5-5  (skip a string between notes)

Minor 6th: 5-3, 5-3, 5-4, 5-4  (skip a string)

Tritone: 5-6, 5-6, 5-6, 5-7, 6-7

Octave: 5-7, 5-7, 5-8, 5-8 (skip a string); 8-5, 7-5, 7-5 (skip two strings)

Arpeggios

three notes, two strings

Major: 5-47, 5-47, 5-47, 5-58, 6-58; also 59-7, 59-7, 59-7, 59-8, 6 10-8

Minor: 5-37, 5-37, 5-37, 5-48, 6-48; also 58-7, 58-7, 58-7, 58-8, 69-8

four notes, three strings

Major 7th: 5-47-6, 5-47-6, 5-47-7, 5-58-7; also 5-4-26, 5-4-26, 5-4-37, 5-5-37

Dominant 7th: 5-47-5, 5-47-5, 5-47-6, 5-58-6; also 5-4-25, 5-4-25, 5-4-36, 5-5-36

Minor 7th: 5-37-5, 5-37-5, 5-37-6, 5-48-6; also 5-3-25, 5-3-25, 5-3-36, 5-4-36

Chords

three notes, three strings

Major: 5-4-2, 5-4-2, 5-4-3, 5-5-3

Minor: 5-3-2, 5-3-2, 5-3-3, 5-4-3

Scales

eight notes, three strings

Major: 57-457-467, 57-457-467, 57-457-578, 57-568-578

Minor: 578-578-57, 578-578-57, 578-578-68, 578-689-68

six notes, three strings

Major Pentatonic: 57-47-47, 57-47-47, 57-47-58, 57-58-58

Minor Pentatonic: 58-57-57, 58-57-57, 58-57-68, 58-68-68

*When tuning the guitar, you match the 5th fret, 6th string with the 5th string open and make them sound in unison (same pitch). You do the same for each pair of strings except for the 2nd string, which is tuned at the 3rd string, 4th fret.

Classical Gas

In 1968, Texas-born guitarist Mason Williams made musical history when he released his guitar mega-hit, Classical Gas. It was the first and only time a classical guitar piece has appeared on the top-forty charts. Not only that, it is the highest selling instrumental of all time, and arguably, the most famous guitar piece in the world. Sprinkled with catchy melodic themes, key modulations, and complex rhythmic syncopations, the piece sparkles with ingenuity. Although Mason originally wrote the piece as a guitar solo, Mike Post arranged it for guitar and orchestra. The result earned three Grammy awards, and only The Doors kept it from being number one on the charts when it debuted. Countless artists have done cover versions of the piece (including Chet Atkins and Glen Campbell), and Mason has recorded it four times that I know of: the original Grammy-winning version, a solo version on the Handmade album, an American Grammaphone (Mannheim Steamroller) version, and a rendition in his Folio.

I had the good fortune to meet with Mason when I was on tour with Christopher Parkening in Oregon. He attended our concert and reception, and we also met for breakfast the next day. It was an honor to discuss Classical Gas with him, as it had been one of my earliest influences on the guitar. Mason was warm and gracious as I told him of his great influence on my guitar playing and that Classical Gas was one of the two most requested pieces for me, the other being Malaguena. Mason then offered some advice for the piece that he said I could pass on to my students. First, he said that in order to play the 2nd main theme and the modulatory sections the way he does, you must use a 3rd finger bar chord. Specifically, to bar a D chord at the 5th fret, you bar the 5th fret with the 1st finger and strings 2-4 with the 3rd finger on the 7th fret. This is tricky because you must not bar the first string with the 3rd finger. The second piece of advice is regarding the middle section where the horns come in so strongly in Db major. Mason said even Chet Atkins had called him while recording his version of the piece and asked what he would suggest there. Mason told him that in that spot, he could take the piece in whatever direction he wanted (and then come back to the piece later). When he told me this, I immediately remembered a series of Guitar Player articles where Chet had discussed his arrangement. It did have a brand new section in the middle, and I now knew why. Mason said that he just left the section out in his solo version and told me I could tell my students to create whatever they wanted to there. I told him I had always played the horn section on guitar. While he said he had never done that, he didn’t seem to mind the idea. In his new folio, he includes a guitar version of the horn section for those wishing to play that part on the guitar.

Interestingly, a few years ago I started to notice students asking about the Eric Clapton version of Classical Gas circulating on the internet. I said I wasn’t aware that Eric played it, and that I would like to hear it. When one of them played the recording for me, I thought “that really sounds like Mason playing, but without the orchestra.” I checked with Mason to see what was going on. He told me that it was indeed him playing. The piece had been used in the movie, The Story of Us, and Eric Clapton had done the rest of the music. Somehow Eric’s name had ended up on some of the internet recordings.

I still hear Classical Gas frequently, whether on the radio, in the dentist office, or in movies like Cheaper By The Dozen or The Dish. Students play it for me regularly, and I perform it myself quite often. What is amazing, is that I never tire of hearing it or playing it. In fact, through the years as I have studied the piece from a more mature perspective, I realize even more what a masterpiece it indeed is. A phenomenal guitar solo, it captivates audiences and enthralls guitar players who attempt to play it. Whether students play just the intro, or master a full version, it is easy enough to enjoy, yet challenging to master. I imagine that countless guitarists have come to the classical guitar because of that very piece. Beatle George Harrison is famously quoted as saying, “Andres Segovia is the father of us all.” I believe that if Segovia holds that position among guitarists, then Mason Williams is certainly the favorite uncle! By his amazing Classical Gas he has inspired generations of guitarists to pursue the guitar and unlock its treasures.

For the sheet music, check out Classical Gas – The Music of Mason Williams, published by Warner Brothers Publications. The book also includes many of his other great compositions including Saturday Night at the World, La Chanson de Claudine, and Flamenco Lingo.