Archive for the ‘How To’ Category

Video: My Ramen Noodle Recipe

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

Be gracious people, this is my first adventure with video. I couldn’t remember which way was up!

We all know Ramen Noodles are cheap. Why else do we buy them? Cooked solo they aren’t very tasty, so I like to spice it up a little and add some fat and protein while I’m at it. In this video I added some pork based meatballs that can be found in the frozen section of any grocery store (I used Homestyle here, but I think I’m going to try Italian next time). I also pre-boil a few eggs to throw in, along with about a teaspoon of oil and soy sauce to help bring out the flavor of the spices. I’m a big fan of serving Ramen with a garnish of a few small squares of Nori, but I didn’t have any with me for this video. For those of you who don’t know, Nori is dried, flattened seaweed. Most know of it as the green stuff that wraps up sushi. In Japan, Ramen is customarily served with Nori fanned out on the side of the bowl.

The price breakdown:

1 bag Maruchan Ramen Noodles – $0.17

1 bag frozen precooked meatballs ~$6.00, calculates to about $0.14 for three

1 dozen eggs – $1.69, $0.27 per egg

Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Soy Sauce add a minimal cost.

Total – $0.58 per bowl!

Other suggestions include Tabasco, Welsh Onions, Lime, Garlic, Ginger, Tuna, Honey, and Spinach. Do you have a favorite way to make good food on the cheap? I’d love to hear about it.


How to Figure Songs Out: Rhythm Guitar and Chord Progressions

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

If the King loves music, it is good with the land – Mencius

On the mellifluous musical journey to magnificent mastery of the guitar, everybody wants to learn uber-sweet songs on the way. I still remember the first time I tried to learn a song by ear. It was Black Dog by Led Zeppelin, and as you can imagine – I failed miserably. It’s not exactly the first song you want to try learning on the guitar, but I kept at it and eventually got it down, but not without a lot of pain and woe. The problem I had when starting out wasn’t so much the mechanics of the guitar (fingering, strumming, etc), it was figuring out the music theory. Beginners might not believe me, but fingers learn chords faster than brains understand theory. The notes on the fretboard were a kind of mystery to me. I always wondered why one sequence of notes sounded great, and a different one sounded awful. How come people were always using the same set of chords together? How do they know when to use this chord or that chord, and how do they know what notes sound good when played together? The mysteries of the music world didn’t reveal themselves instantly, but rather came through persistence. This article is designed to help you figure out that song that’s been plaguing you, and in doing so, gain a better understanding of music in general.

There is no 10 step method for figuring out songs, but I hope I can give some pointers that will hopefully point you in the right direction. This article is directed toward beginners and intermediate guitar players, but experts might still be able to gleen a few good ideas.

Some people might suggest learning easy songs when you start out, but I don’t like that idea. Why would you learn boring stuff so that you can get to the good stuff? That doesn’t make sense does it? So don’t worry about the songs you “should” be learning, or the songs that you “need” to learn in order to get to the fun ones – ’cause that’s just plain ridiculous. You’ll get tired of playing your guitar faster than you can say “Celebrity Marriage.”


Start with your ears. Listen to the song at least five or six times before you even start trying to figure it out. The goal is to be able to sing or hum the entire guitar part in your head. This is important because the next step is to go and check out the tabs, which are notorious for being dead wrong. If you can’t hum the song, don’t ever plan on figuring it out with an instrument.


The next step in stellar song p0wnage is getting the tabs. I have a love-hate, dualistic relationship with internet tabs, and anyone who’s ever used them can understand why. Tabs, like I said before, are often very wrong. But why?  Why are they always so out-in-left-field-picking-the-daisies-and-otherwise-nonchalantly-soaking-up-the-sun? Because the people who write them are brought up by seedy looking parents who make them live in the basements of dirty houses where every day is Halloween.

Okay, to a large extent, I’m joking (can you tell?). But the truth is, the dictionary on my computer keeps wanting me to turn these “tabbers” into “stabbers”. Who knew? Anyway, moving back to serious, tabs can be very helpful in figuring out songs. This is because stabbers, though often wrong, will often be right, and this is to be highly praised. They have done much of the grunt work for us (for free!) in figuring out songs. This will especially true if the song is a popular one, because then more people have figured out the song. If more people have figured out the song, you have a better chance of finding a skilled stabber’s tab. This should be the platform from which you launch your song learning attack, but take care to use your ears. If something doesn’t sound quite right, then it most likely isn’t, and you’ll have to figure it out yourself.

Finding the key

The second step in figuring out a song is to find the key. This is sometimes called the root or tonic, and in a way, the note which everything in the song rotates around. So how do we find the center of the music universe? If you’ve got some experience under your belt (i.e. you know your scales), then this will be much easier. The first, and often easiest way to figure out the key is to look at the first note played in the song. 90% of the time this will be the root note. With tabs and the first note as a guide, you can find the root of 99% of the songs out there. Just as a rough guide, most songs are in one of the following keys: E, Emin, G, C, C#min, D, A, Amin, and F.

After finding the root note, you want to find the key to the song. Now, key and root are closely related, so try not to get them mixed up. The root note tells us only one thing: the note which acts as the center of gravity. The key however, tells us the root note and if the key is major or minor etc. I’ve included some charts and stuff below that might aid in understanding this stuff a little. Basically, you’ve got two keys: major and minor (there are others, but they aren’t used very often), and these keys define the notes in the scale. At the same time, they define the chords that are assigned to each of these notes. So what this means for us (once we figure out the key) is we have a kind of guide or basic structure for figuring out songs.

To find the key, start with your ears again, and decide if the song sounds happy or sad (nothing to do with the lyrics, everything to do with sound). Use this as a rough point of reference and start messing around in the major and minor scales below while the song is playing, using the root note as a reference. Happy songs are often major, and sad/dark sounding songs are often minor. Monkey around with notes in the minor and major keys until you can figure out which one it is. It will most likely be one of the two (major or minor), where one will sound good and one will sound bad. If not, search the internet for something called “modes”, which might help you out.

Finding the Chord Progressions

Now that we’ve got the key, we can begin figuring out the chord progressions. A chord progression is the sequential movement of chords in a song. Aside from a few simple-type songs, you’re going to find that songs are built up of different sections: Chorus, Verse, Bridge etc. – where each of these different sections have distinct chord progressions. Our goal is to define these sections, and then figure out the chord progression for each one.

It’s snowing outside. I mean, its stellar coming down out there. Like a thousand diamonds it is. I know this has nothing to do with figuring out songs, but Beethoven’s third piano concerto is blasting out of my computer, the snow is raging just outside the window, and I’ve got a cup of hot chocolate here next to me. Just wanted to share that with you. Life is good.

Play the song over a few times and try to pick out the bass line. Don’t worry about majors and minors and 7ths and 9ths and all that jazz just yet. Just the bass – avoiding all the flourishes. You’ll find that the notes are usually in the key of the song, which should really help in deciphering them.

Usually it’s not too hard to solve the bass part, but you might run into something called transposed chords, which can really throw you off. When you feel like you know what the chord is, but the bass note just doesn’t seem to match, then they’ve probably used a transposition. A very common example of this that I’ve seen is G/B. The guitar and other instruments will be playing the full G chord, but the bass sticks right to the B, thus making the G chord not so strong. Transposed chords make it tough to figure out what’s going on sometimes, but it really pays off when you do.

The next step is to work out the chords that are associated with the bass notes you just figured out. Like I said before, each of the notes in the scale has a chord assigned to it.

Capital roman numerals mean major, lowercase mean minor chords

Chords are just given as one example. Use the same idea for any key.

Use this as a rough guide to figure out what chords are played in the song. You’ll find that the more songs you figure out, the more intuitive you get about what chords are played. When I started, I was surprised by the amount of similarity between many of the songs I learned. I kept thinking “How unoriginal!”, but then later came to the realization that these chord progressions have been in use for hundreds of years by hundreds (or thousands) of people. I don’t feel so bad anymore about stealing someone’s progression.  You can get away with it quite easily actually: just call them one of your influences.

Another thing you’ll find is that genre’s have their own special “flavor” of chords. Rock and metal use power chords heavily. Pop and folk stuff will often use full open chords utilizing 7ths to create tension. Then Jazz jumps out like a rebellious child and ignores all the rules using everything under the sun. Each of these styles of music have patterns and chords that they tend to stick to. Once you get accustomed to the style you develop a sixth sense about what’s going on under the hood, thus making you a more intuitive guitarist.

Some other hints for figuring out songs

An often overlooked tool for figuring out songs is video media. Things like music videos and recordings of live shows are a really good resource that I think many people overlook. A few days ago I was getting clobbered by this Mute Math riff in the song “Typical”; I just couldn’t figure it out, and I knew it wasn’t complex. The many tab renditions I found were close, but not one was perfect. Half an hour or so I sat down at this one lick. Then I decided to look it up in the good ‘ole me-tube, and watched real close, and figured it out right away! Don’t underestimate the value of pictures ladies and gentleman.

Another good tool is slow-mo. Audacity is a free tool that will do it, but I think you can figure that one out yourself.


Learn Any Language in 6 Months

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Read Time: 15 minutes

By utilizing techniques such as spaced repetition, complete immersion, and prioritized learning, I’m confident that anyone can learn any language to conversational fluency in six months or less.  I started learning Japanese in November of 2008 and within two months I had learned the meaning of 2000+ kanji, and within six I was having conversations with strangers at rock concerts (cute Japanese girls!). I’m not trying to glorify myself here either – I’m a particularly weak-willed person and getting motivated for me often involves a literal act of God. Language learning has been put on a golden pedestal for most people, achievable only for the super-intelligent. Because of this false imagery and a bad case of failure-leading-to-lack-of-motivation seen in high school language classes, very few people achieve any real success. But if you are simply willing to put in the time, you too can have interesting conversations with people from distant lands.

Step X: Prepare Your Mind

You can do it.

Believe and have faith, this is the first and most important step. I know it sounds cheesy and motivational, but it’s true. Decide that you want to learn a foreign language and commit yourself to it. Imprint it to your mind and imagine yourself already at the goal. The most successful people are the ones who can best visualize their goals, and they don’t let excuses prevent them from reaching their goals – they find a way get around them. Understand that you’ll encounter barriers preventing and hindering you from reaching the goal, but decide beforehand that you’ll find a way to overcome them.

Step X: Learn the Characters of Your Target Language

For languages with alphabets differing drastically from English (Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Arabic, etc.), learn the alphabet first. This shouldn’t take more than a day or two when using an SRS (I’ll explain what this is in a moment).

For Chinese, Japanese, and languages with characterized written languages, I suggest familiarizing yourself with the meanings of characters before learning their pronunciation. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but there’s a reason. Essentially there are three parts to a character – meaning, pronunciation, and the written character. By skipping pronunciation you can simplify the learning process and familiarize yourself with characters faster than by trying to memorize two things at once. Check out Charles Heisig’s books – “Remembering the Kanji” or “Remembering the Hanzi” for learning characters and further discourse supporting this method.

Step X: Using an SRS (Spaced Repetition Software), Make Native Sentence Cards

SRS is a flashcard-like computer program which allows you to create digital flash cards and study them in the most efficient manner possible. Basically, our memory works best when we repeat items that we want to learn. Just like when you repeat the chorus of your favorite song twenty times on your iPod, SRS imprints the facts into your mind by repetition. But the problem with conventional flashcards is that you end up studying the difficult cards with the same frequency as the easy ones, wasting your precious time. Using an SRS solves this problem by automatically repeating the cards at the optimum time interval. Difficult cards get seen more often than easy ones, and you learn your language faster.

The SRS I use is called Anki, and I highly recommend it.

Now that we have the right tool for memorization, we need to know how to use it for maximum effect. From personal experience I’ve found that learning complete sentences, even if they are small, is the best way to study a language. Cognitive reasoning is one of our most powerful tools here. The brain easily takes phrases and pieces them together to create sentences and communicate ideas. Don’t study vocabulary by itself as this is a waste of time. All you have to do is fill your mind with example structures of everyday sentences in your target language, and your mind will automatically fill in the necessary vocabulary and verb conjugations.

Example flash card from my Anki deck (you may need Japanese text support enabled):





Who is person who watched movie?

There are a few things to take notice of in this example. First, I didn’t worry about “translating” the sentence into English. As long as I can understand the meaning it doesn’t matter. Second, the sentence is short and simple. Linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen suggests the “i + 1” method, where you add one new item to your knowledge. Try to never make a card with two new words in it.  Thirdly, the sentence is native. I don’t remember where I got it, but it’s not an English thought translated into Japanese, it’s real Japanese from a native Japanese source. A dictionary with good examples sentences is one of the best sources for word-specific native material.  Thinking in L1 (your mother tongue) and trying to translate to L2 (target language) is detrimental. Learn to think like a native by imitation, just like a baby!

Step X: Complete Immersion: Input Before Output

Another deciding factor for success is immersion. Complete immersion. If you want to learn this langauge, really learn it, then you have to spend every waking moment in it. Most people fail at learning new languages because they simply don’t spend enough time in L2. Taking classes is especially deceptive because they make you feel like you’re learning, when in fact your going at a snail’s pace. I got straight As in my High School Spanish class, but when I took a trip down to Mexico City I realized just how valuable my two years of study were worth: NIL. I was one of the best students in my class, and I still couldn’t handle the most basic Spanish conversations.

Every aspect of your life should be entrenched in your target language. Do you use the internet? Download your internet browser in L2. Do you read the newspaper? Find a way to get it in L2. Do you have a smartphone? Switch the default language to L2. Watch movies in L2. Listen to L2 music exclusively. Every aspect of your life from now on should be done in the language you want to learn. If you want it bad enough you’ll find a way.

“But I don’t live in country X!” “How can I be completely immersed with all this English around me?!” – I feel this is one of the biggest language myths ever. You don’t need to live in France to learn French. You don’t need to live in China to learn Chinese. You don’t need to live in Latin America to learn Latin. Wait a second… that’s not right. Anyway, there are plenty of resources available to you (many for free) where you can get a life-like immersion experience without a 10 hour plane ride. Granted that the real immersion experience is better, but I can surf YouTube for hours and get nearly the same native language exposure as somebody who lives in Japan.

There is no need to worry about understanding the language right away. Complete immersion means you won’t understand everything, and that’s okay. Listen even when you don’t understand. It usually takes babies a year of listening before they start talking, and as adults we have the advantage because we can already think logically and don’t have to figure out our vocal chords.

Don’t force output. It will probably take months of high quality input before you’ll feel comfortable speaking. I feel this is a major flaw in modern teaching methods, and one of many reasons to avoid the classroom. Many college professors expect their students to produce native-like sentences after the first few lessons! Their theory is that you should make mistakes often so that they can be corrected, leading to a better understanding of the language. Bull. Mistakes only create bad habits and confusion. Learn it right the first time and you don’t have to worry about it. Output should feel natural and mistakes should be avoided at all costs; don’t be in a big rush to speak.

Recommended Inputs:

  • Listen to free audio-book downloads before going to bed. When was the last time someone read you a bedtime story? It’s incredibly relaxing.
  • Always carry an L2 book with you. Everywhere. Audio-books in conjunction with paper books are awesome when you want to learn pronunciation.
  • Computer programs with any clout will have a slew of language options. Switch them to your L2.
  • Buy an iPod touch or smartphone and download the Anki app and a dictionary. You’ll be able to study your flash cards anywhere.
  • Think in L2. Whenever I thought a thought in English, I did my best to rethink it in Japanese.
  • Eat your country’s cuisine. Life revolves around food in most countries, so being accustomed to and knowledgeable about native foods will give you an automatic “in” when visiting.
  • YouTube
  • Movies – but DO NOT use English subtitles! They’re a crutch that prevent you from diving into the language fully.

Step X: Prioritize

A typical unabridged Chinese character dictionary will have more than 40,000 independent entries. It would take a lifetime to familiarize yourself with all of these characters, but thankfully languages follow the rule of 80/20, a.k.a. the Pareto Principle.  What this means is roughly 20% of those characters are used 80% of the time. A well-educated Chinese student will recognize upwards of 7,000 characters, and reading a newspaper may require a working knowledge of 3,000 characters [1]. We can find the same thing in English – “The Reading Teachers Book of Lists claims that the first 25 words make up about one-third of all printed material in English, and that the first 100 make up about one-half of all written material [2].” Using an SRS like Anki and a dictionary with good example sentences, the initial effort of memorizing 100 words should take three days at most. Three days for 50% comprehension! I know I know, that number is slightly overstated because many of those 100 words are lemmas (more than one word – like “is” can be “He was”, “I am”, “You are” etc.), but you see the point I’m trying to make right? By learning the common words first, you quickly increase your effective comprehension of the language. Note: You can find the first 3000 common Japanese words in this post.

Step X: Make it Fun; Choose Material Comparable to Your Current Interests

Beyond the first 500 words or so, I suggest learning interest-specific or field-specific vocabulary. Take the things you currently do in L1, and do them in L2. Find a way to make an L2 copy of your current self. Language learning isn’t difficult, but it does take focused effort over a long period of time. If you want to make this endeavor sustainable, and it must be sustainable, it sure as hell better be fun. Like any good drug addiction, you want to keep coming back to it again and again. I treat myself to a cup of coffee or tasty drink every time I do my SRS reps.

When I was studying in Japan, I completed an introductory program for the PA-10 Mitsubishi robotic arm. It involved learning basic robotic arm control, which was comprised of creating a computer program from scratch, solving inverse kinematics problems, and a mother trucker load of questions for my Japanese lab-mates. In order to communicate effectively I had to learn some of the technical jargon associated with robotics. Now I’m pretty confident using words like 逆行列  (inverse matrix), 再起動 (restart), 軸線 (shaft axis), 運動学 (kinematics), and 機械工学 (Mechanical Engineering). This kind of vocabulary would be useless for anyone else, even most Japanese, but it was essential for me and my situation.

Step X: Goal Setting – Small and Achievable with Consistency

During my most intense period of learning Japanese, I bought this calendar for 100 Yen ($1) at a thrift store and used it as a daily visual reminder of my goal to become fluent. Each day I accomplished my (small) goal, I took a big red marker and made an X on the day. The sense of accomplishment I felt after each X’d day helped to create even more momentum for the next day.

Learning a language takes a lot of effort, so keep your goals small and achievable while finding ways to keep them sustainable over long periods of time. A small effort every day for a month is far more productive than three days of caffeine-induced cramming. After a few days of studying you’ll become more aware of your physical limitations; it’s at that point you want to create a daily goal. Make your goal achievable, but somewhat of a stretch. Too easy and you’ll end up cutting yourself short, too hard and you’ll get disappointed by failure. The key is long-term sustainability.

In contrast to this, don’t put an extended timeline on your goal to become fluent. When you’re first starting out you shouldn’t worry about when you’ll arrive at your goal, or make baseless assumptions about how long it should take you to acquire a 10,000 word vocabulary. Yes I know, the title of this post is “Learn any language in 6 months”,  but it may take some people longer and others shorter. Just start walking the road and have a surprise party when you get to the end.

Step X: Never Stop Learning

I attempt to live my life in such a way that I’m always exposing myself to new ideas and attaining new knowledge. But at the same time, I make an effort to not forget the things I’ve already learned. Learning a new language is an exciting and fulfilling experience, but not quite as fulfilling ten years from now when you’ve forgotten everything you’ve learned. The initial effort of learning is long and tough, but the fun kind of tough, and similar to getting a freight train moving. The power you need to start is immense, but as soon as you’re moving, it’s not too hard to keep going. Many people are willing to put forth the effort to get the train started, but don’t quite realize that the train will eventually come to a slow stop if they don’t keep shoveling the coal.

Step X: Further Reading and Resources – All Japanese All the Time dot com.  This is the blog that inspired me to pursue fluency in Japanese and provided the resources and ideas that are making it possible.  Purveyor of the 10,000 sentence method: learn 10,000 sentences in an SRS to achieve native-like fluency.  Major props. – Polish pioneers of the SRS/sentence learning method.  These guys learned English to college level fluency in 3 years using their method.

How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months – Author Tim Ferriss wrote an enlightening article that directly inspired my writing this post.  Hence, credit is due.  Our content is similar in many ways, but disagree with him on some points.  I encourage reading his post also to gain a broader perspective on language learning.

Anki – The free SRS that makes it all possible.  I suggest watching the Intro Videos to get a better understanding of the concept.

Supermemo Articles – Supermemo, the original SRS, was created by Dr. Wozniak who has written not-a-few articles about SRSing, memory, and acquiring knowledge.  Recommended reading: 20 Rules and Memory Myths. Fascinating stuff.

Do you have any language acquisition stories?  Failure/Success stories?  Discussion and idea-sharing are encouraged, so post a comment!


How to Memorize Songs

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

A few years ago my girlfriend invited me to a barbecue in her backyard. Her uncle brought a Gibson acoustic from the ’50s or ’60s, and was playing all these nostalgic backwoods guitar tunes. He must have played 10 or so songs in a row with perfect execution, no mistakes, and remembered all the verses of every song just as easy as buttering bread. It wasn’t really my style of music, but he was nevertheless exploding my mind to pieces. I was amazed at how he was able to remember everything so easily. Then my girlfriend blurted out “John plays guitar, and he’s pretty good too!” The lofty Uncle Gibson himself proceeded to hand me the guitar in eager expectation “Let’s hear it then son!”


Now I had been playing diligently for about 3 years at the time, and *thought* I was pretty good. I could play just about anything (aside from wicked fast solos), was writing music all the time, and my band had won first place in the talent show the year before. I knew I was no virtuoso, but I seriously thought I was a “good” guitarist. Funny how pride sneaks in unnoticed huh?

So he handed me the guitar, and I was lost. I knew riffs, and played the riffs; I knew parts of songs, played parts of songs; I knew some interesting solos too, and played them but fumbled horribly. I realized that I couldn’t play a single complete song from memory. It was one of those points where reality hits your right smack in the face, knocks you on the floor, and yells “Wake up you big ugly bloke!”.

From that point on I decided to commit myself to memorizing complete songs, and developed a strategy to accomplish this. A few years after that incident, I spent some time in Japan studying Japanese and learned some seriously intense methods for memorization which helped to refine my strategy for memorizing songs. This strategy will work for any type of musical memorization. May it be complex lyrical landscapes, piano concertos, intensive guitar solos, drum parts, or anything else, you can memorize it and feel more confident playing in front of others.

OBB’s Strategy for Memorizing Songs

When you learn a song for the first time:

  1. Correctness is key. This is especially important for difficult parts of a song, where we often have a habit of “letting things slide”. Don’t settle for those “fake” books they sell in stores just because they’re easier.
  2. Use mnemonics and emotional triggers for vocals. Lyrics by themselves can be difficult to memorize, but our brain often remembers better when we associate them with other, “outside” information if you will. For me, I’ve noticed the most difficult part of memorizing lyrics is the first part of verses. To combat this, I often use mnemonic tricks and emotional triggers to help my brain remember. This might involve acronyms or stories with an emotional plot involving the lyrics. I’ll give an example: In The Beatles song “Hey Jude” the verses are all very similar, and I kept mixing them up until I assigned a mnemonic (in this case, just a single letter) to each of them. Taking the first letter of the key word in each verse, we can make BAD (Bad, Afraid, Down). Needless to say, I don’t have problems remembering it anymore.
  3. Practice the harder parts more often. Our tendency as humans is to go through the path of least resistance and play the easy parts of a song. You have to make a conscious effort to play the hard parts more often.
  4. Practice until you can play the song completely through without any aids. Then stop, and do the same thing tomorrow. Maybe you have the time to play it more, and maybe even the willpower, but if we’re talking about efficiency then more practice won’t do you any good at this point. Why? Read the next number.

After learning for the first time:

  1. Memories fade quickly, but get stronger over time with practice. The first time you learn a song, your memory of it will fade quickly. Very quickly, as in – completely gone the next day – quickly. But thankfully our brains will strengthen that memory when we practice again the next day. This is why practicing a song 100 times in a single day is actually not very productive … unless you have a show the next day. You’re much better off practicing 20 songs one time than one song 20 times.
  2. Make a list of songs to practice. Not only does your brain forget parts of songs, but it forgets that you even learned a song in the first place. I’ve been in jam sessions with other people, and they started playing a song that I knew, but I had completely forgotten about it for years! What a waste! I could have been playing that song all these years, but it got lost in the abyss. So here is what I do, and you can do the same if you want, adapt as you see fit: Make a list of songs that you know in their entirety, and use this as a guide for practicing. Go through the list and play each song one time, but no more. If you encounter problems, solve them quickly. Have those solutions close at hand too – internet, song books, tabs, lyrics, whatever. Do whatever you need to get the song back to correct. If you do this I promise (pinky swear if you want!) you’ll get more out of your practice time.
  3. Continue to practice the difficult parts more often. Pursue those leeches like a rabid wolf! You are the predator not the prey. Don’t let difficult or confusing parts continue to get the best of you. Sometimes it’s not even a skill issue; you can play the part easily skill-wise, but something is just strange in the tempo or you keep forgetting what comes next. These are problems as well and need just as much attention as the (quote-unquote) “difficult” parts.
  4. There are few valid excuses for being old. (If you aren’t old, then disregard this comment. Ha ho, apologies to old people for the blatant nature of my comments.)  Studies have shown that old brains have just as much spunk as young ones, and even the dumbest brains show extremely good resilience. You keep forgetting stuff because it happened a long (and getting longer) time ago, NOT because your brain is getting fried like scrambled eggs from old age. Repeat the tasks you once did, and it will all come right back like a flash, Scout’s honor. Don’t blame age when the real problem is lack of practice (or lack of proper practice methods).
  5. I was a Boy Scout for like 2 months. That counts doesn’t it?
  6. Don’t use crutches when your legs are good. I’m talking about lyric sheets, tabs, sheet music, fake books, and playing to your stereo. They are not necessary. You don’t need them. Learn to deal without them because they won’t always be there to lean on. And besides, what would you think if your favorite artist came up on stage with a big book full of music and lyrics, and instead of making eye contact with the audience, he was looking at his music every … second … of … the … entire … show? Lame, is it not? Granted, crutches are necessary when you are starting out or forget something, but they are a means to an end – that end being full on memorization.

For those who need a more intense memorization plan (Lyrics Only):

Look yourself into something called SRS (Spaced Repetition Software). This is something that I used to study Japanese and other things, and I still use it almost everyday. SuperMemo is the original SRS program – complete with some great articles about memory and SRSing, but it’s quite old and costs money. So, I use a different program called Anki (Japanese for “memorize”), and it does virtually the same thing as SuperMemo at the cost of ~ free (無料だよ!). Using SRS, cloze deletion and some mnemonics you can memorize songs at the highest level of efficiency and effectiveness.


Memorization can be a seriously difficult task for some, but I feel that I’ve address solutions for just about any problems that you might encounter. These solutions are not an excuse to practice less, but a way to practice better. In fact, I feel like this should make practice more fun for some people since you get more time for learning songs, and a strategy for remembering them at the same time. Remember, the goal here is to have the songs written on your heart and not in some song book. Hopefully you don’t have any more excuses for not memorizing your songs, but if you do, post a comment below so I can (probably) prove you wrong. Also, do you have any other tips for remembering songs? Tell me about it, I’m eager to hear what angles other people have taken to tackle this problem.


How to Play Harmonics

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

One would think that playing a note on the piano or guitar or violin will give off that note, and only that note, right?  Well, thankfully/unfortunately it’s slightly more complex than that.  Something called “harmonics” comes into play, and since there are several terms associated with them (including various guitar techniques using the same name) it’s easy to get confused.  This article will explain what harmonics are first from a scientific standpoint, and then how to achieve those sacred, squealing “harmonic” techniques on the guitar.

Naturally Occurring Harmonics

Harmonics from a musically scientific standpoint are extra frequencies or overtones that occur naturally when playing an instrument.  For example, when you play an A on the piano (440Hz), other notes will resonate besides that A.  You’ll get the E (659.26Hz), the octave above A (880Hz), and (depending on the instrument) a whole boat load of other frequencies that are NOT A.  These frequencies occur naturally because of instrument shape and material, what the strings are made of, string tension, the finish on the instrument, the method and position of strumming or bowing or plucking, and any other random pieces of stuff you decide to attach to your instrument.  As you can see, there are a lot of factors that affect the harmonics coming from an instrument.  These things all add up to build the “sound” of an instrument that we’ve come to know and love.  This is also the reason a guitar doesn’t sound like a violin, or a cello like a piano.  Each instrument has its own unique flavor because of the combination of these overtones.

So naturally, when you go to buy an instrument, this is what you’re looking for.  You’re listening closely to the sounds coming from your fingers playing the instrument, and evaluating the overtones that the instrument is able to resonate.  Usually an instrument that doesn’t emit these extra harmonics well is one that we call “dull” or “dead” sounding.  Nobody wants to buy this kind of instrument (putting aside random artistic experiments).  On the other hand, an instrument that has a “rich” or “full” sound is one that gives off the overtones nicely.  This is the sign of good craftsmanship, and the reason people pay thousands for a good instrument.


That’s it for science.  From now on I’m gonna talk from a guitarist’s perspective, but many of these things can be applied to other stringed instruments as well.  Banjos, ukuleles, and mandolins are obvious, but you can technically do these tricks with anything that has a string (and I encourage such experimentation).  These are all names of guitar techniques, to be used sparingly, kind of like icing on a cake. But don’t worry one bit if you decide to make a cake solely out of frosting.  I’m sure somebody will eat it.

Natural Harmonics

When I was a new guitarist, I was really confused about natural harmonics.  Maybe I’m just slow (which I am), but I read an online lesson and didn’t get the technique at all.  If you’re in the same boat as I was, never fear.  It’s not too hard.  Also, don’t confuse the jargon “natural” harmonics with “naturally occurring” harmonics.  Naturally occurring harmonics come about naturally when you play an instrument, but playing “natural” harmonics is a technique.


Photo by: Mjchael

To play a “natural” harmonic, (as an example) simply place your finger on the 12th fret of any string, which is the exact middle of the string, and pluck. DO NOT press the string down to the fretboard, and make sure your finger is exactly over the 12th fret.  Try moving your fretting hand around a little if you can’t find the so called “hotspot”.  Playing the harmonic at the 12th fret sounds like the note at the 12th fret, but it isn’t.  It gives a note that is “pure” sounding, more like a music box than a guitar.  This means that there are fewer overtones, or extra naturally occurring harmonics, in the note.  A trained ear can hear the difference between a harmonic note and a regular note without even watching the performer.  Even the untrained ear can hear the difference I guess, but they probably wouldn’t know what the heck it was.  We can use this to our advantage because it sounds awesome.  Throwing in some harmonics into riffs and solos can really add the “spice” or “virtuoso” sound that you might be looking for.  More often than not, mastery of harmonics is the difference between

“Like, OMG! That guy is like, a pretty good guitarist and stuff, ya know?”



Now these harmonics can be played at several locations on the guitar, and will sound out different notes for each one.  You’ll find them on the 12th, 7th, 5th, 4th frets, and then sometimes on the 3rd fret.  The harmonics actually go to infinity (that is, WAY below the 3rd fret), but they are so quiet or hard to play that it’s not even worth trying.  And by that, I mean it’s worth trying; try to find out just how high you can get your guitar to play.  The picture above demonstrates the vibration of the string when you play a harmonic.  You can see the “nodes” where the string doesn’t vibrate, and this is the exact position you want to mute the string, right on those nodes.  Thanks to science the string will naturally vibrate just like you see in the picture, and gives us that “pure” tone harmonic.

Artificial Harmonics

-are harmonics played while fretting the guitar.  The three following techniques are “artificial” harmonics, but not “artificial” in the same way as “artificial” sweeteners.  No risk of getting cancer.

Pinch Harmonics (Pig Squeals!)

Mastery of pinch harmonics is the true sign of a virtuoso guitarist.  The use of natural harmonics can get ditsy girls to fall in love with you, but the mastery of pinch harmonics is a step above that.  You can get ditsy major label presidents to turn their heads.  Pinch harmonics offer us one of the most expressive techniques the guitar has, but it takes (literally) pinpoint accuracy of the plucking hand to execute.

So what are pinch harmonics?  To understand them, you must first understand natural harmonics.  What we’re going to try to do is get a natural harmonic, but with the strum hand instead of the fretting hand.  This is somewhat hard because we have to simultaneously pluck the string and mute it at the same time.  To do this you’re going to have to hold your pick a special way.   You want hold your pick in a normal fashion, but move your thumb grip closer to the tip.   The goal is to have the first digit of the tip of your thumb almost even with the tip of the pick.

To start out, I would definitely start doing this with an electric guitar using a ton of distortion.  The electric guitar and distortion amplifies the high overtones better than an acoustic.  It can be done on an acoustic, but it requires another level of experimenting/skill.  The first time you do this technique it will be like trying to punch granite.  I’m serious; it’s REALLY hard to do.  Just keep fiddling around and you’ll figure it out.

Choose a note in the middle of the guitar and fret it normally (maybe the 12th fret on the G string is good), for me it seems the easiest place for pinch harmonics.  Now, almost simultaneously, you’re going to do two things: (1) pluck the string with your pick at a harmonic (preferably an octave higher than the note you want to play), and (2) instantly after that, brush the flesh of your thumb across the string to evoke the natural harmonic.  Just after that, you’re going to have to (3) move your hand away so that the string can vibrate freely.

Like I said, if you can’t get it, just keep messing around until you hear the right sound.  If you have problems you might try gripping the pick differently, as the flesh of your thumb has to hit the string in just the right way.  It has to hit the string to evoke the harmonic, but it can’t mute the string completely.  Another thing you might try is moving your picking hand up and down the string.  You must hit the string in a place where there is a natural harmonic or it won’t work.  This is the main reason pinch harmonics are so difficult, because you have to place your picking hand in just the right place, the “sweet spot” as it were, to get that awesome squealing sound.  The sweet spot changes when your fretting hand moves up and down the neck too, so you have to learn to pick like a surgeon.

Tap Harmonics

By now I’m sure you’ve seen/heard/done regular finger tapping, as made famous by Eddie Van Halen.  While experimenting with finger tapping, he discovered that he could cause those ringingly beautiful harmonics from tapping on the fretboard with his right hand.  As an example, grab your guitar and tap on the 12th, 7th, or 5th fret quickly, and precisely on the metal fret (i.e. not behind), and you should get a harmonic.  The energy used to “tap” the guitar is what causes the string to vibrate, simultaneously muting the string to get a harmonic.  It will be exactly the same as if you played a natural harmonic, but you get the special effect of a “click” or “tap” at the beginning of every note.  As with other harmonics, you might have to do some fine tune adjusting to get the harmonic to ring, but once you figure it out it’s not too hard.

One of the great things about tap harmonics is the fact that you can coordinate your right and left hands (playing essentially the same notes but 12 frets apart) and play quick, intricate solo or lead parts.  The effect you’ll have can be pretty mind blowing.  Especially since it’s rarely done and has a very distinct style if you can pull it off well.  Man I love the guitar.  It’s just so dang versatile isn’t it?

Concluding Harmonics

As you can see, there are many ways to evoke harmonic flourishes.  Those presented here are the main ones, but there are many others as well.  I actually found some I’ve never heard of before while I was doing research for this article, and want to tell you about them.  Maybe I can do another article later titled “Harmonics: The Lesser”, and it can involve large Norse Gods from Sweden playing nothing but harmonics at 200 bpm using their big toes.  Hey, that sounds pretty sweet.

Anyway, if you’re really interested just do a search for “guitar harmonics” and you’ll probably find an article better than this one somewhere, and cheaper than my free site.  As in, they’ll pay you money to read it.  If you ever find one of those sites, tell me.

Oh, I wanted to leave you with a link too.  This one has all of the harmonic techniques I just talked about, and more.  Yeah!