How Kelly Got Her Groove Back


steve150Recently I had the pleasure of spending a weekend of total debauchery with a bunch of really close friends in Collingwood, Ontario. There were many beers consumed, not to mention an inordinate number of shooters and other such silliness that combined for what was reportedly a good time had by all.

There was dancing, there was music, and of course there were guitars for after the dance music was done. 

As you may know, the best way to hear me play guitar is when the audience is drunk, and I am not. On that fateful Friday though, I was quite pickled, and I’m certain that I didn’t sound nearly as good as I thought I sounded at the time. Of course when alcohol is added to music, my thinking instantly becomes that any gaps in the technical aspects of playing can be covered simply by playing louder.

As part of my penance from both church and state, I must now publicly declare an apology for the massacre of such gems as Riverboat Fantasy, Brown Eyed Girl and something that we can only assume was an attempt at playing an original, which ended up sounding something like the slow and purposeful skinning of a live llama.

When more sober heads prevailed the following day, I was able to catch up with my close friend Kelly, who has been learning to play the guitar over the last few years. I was and am very impressed with how far she has come with her playing. She is also blessed with the voice of an angel, which of course means that somewhere there’s an angel who can’t speak at all. My guess is that this is probably Keith Richard’s guardian angel, who must revert to miming warnings about ingesting enough substances to paralyze a rhino. Keith is obviously quite bad at charades. Also, can you imagine a stoned rhino? It would probably just sit there wondering why it has a horn in the middle of its face. And why it doesn’t go cross-eyed looking at it. And how it would find a mirror in the middle of the jungle?

But I digress…

Kelly approached me with a problem that is quite common among us fledgling guitarists – the ever-dreaded plateau. She felt it hard to distinguish in her own playing from one song to the next.

You know the feeling: suddenly the songs that you play – the solos that you play – the tempo that you play them – all seem to sound the same. You’ve been learning a lot, then suddenly you don’t know where to go from there. We’ve all been there, and there are many things that can be done to overcome them. Here’s what helped Kelly to break free.

I asked her to play a few of her songs, and she did. Keep in mind, this is a person who had to pause between chord changes not too long ago, and here she was playing song after song, switching between chords now seemed effortless to her. She was playing country, folk and pop songs. Her practice had paid off…she was making all the right sounds. But she was right; the songs did have the same flavour. The same vibe. The same groove. 

And that’s when it hit me. 

When we first learn the guitar, we concentrate almost exclusively on the actions of the left hand (for right handed guitarists) to make sure that we are holding down the correct string, with the correct pressure, on the correct fret. This is ultimately very important, as this will determine if we are playing the right notes. But it does nothing for the groove of what we’re playing.

Enter the right hand. (Or as I like to refer to it, every night in high school.)

The right hand sets the groove for what you play. In Kelly’s case, she had become used to playing every song with a finger picking style. This sounded lovely, but was the reason that many of her songs started to sound the same. I suggested that she use a pick. She refused. I suggested more adamantly. She suggested something about me shoving a pick up my…well let’s just say that she wasn’t crazy about the idea.

Thankfully I’m not the brightest person in the world, so I kept gently encouraging her to play with the pick – and lo and behold she was able to give a new flavour to one of her songs. Then another. Then another. By the end of the weekend, I would say that she was starting to work her way out of that plateau. 

Fortunately, I was able to work the pick out too, and another trip to the hospital was avoided.

So that’s lesson one when fighting a plateau…look to the right hand to give a new spice to an old song. Try reggae, fingerpicking, harmonics…there are so many techniques to try with the right hand that you can change the style of a song by simply applying the strumming / picking pattern from a different genre to that song. Give it a try! Bob Marley can be played with a country feel. Try “Free Falling” reggae style. Some will work, some won’t, but changing what you do with your strumming / picking hand can break you free of a plateau. Just don’t suggest it to a friend who insists on relocating your pick to your posterior. 

(I’ve decided to NOT talk to her about a capo.)   

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