Posts Tagged ‘Guitar’

by Chaz Bufe, author of An Understandable Guide to Music Theory

Decades ago, in my 20s, I took up piano en route to getting a degree in music theory/composition. I’d taken a couple of years of lessons as a ‘tween with an incompetent teacher who hadn’t even taught me to count, and then gave it up in frustration a couple of years after I started, thinking the problem was with me.

When I hit 25, I decided to go to school, and rather than choose a money-making, academic-track, or scientific career, I decided to do what I really wanted to do: music. I was essentially at ground zero, and had to learn an instrument. I chose piano, because I at least had some technical rudiments.

For the next five years, while taking a full load, working 20 to 40 hours a week, and shutting down the bars two or three nights a week (hey, I was in my 20s), I practiced three hours a day on piano damn near every day. I was fairly decent by the end of those five years.

For the next year and a half I was a t.a. in grad school (since you asked, Washington State), where I continued to practice three hours a day, while teaching 9 credits per semester (ear training and class piano) plus assisting with another 8 credits of classes in theory, all for $350 a month, out of which they took tuition. I spent an entire winter walking up the hill to the department with one of my feet in a cracked boot, with my foot wrapped in plastic bags to avoid the wet, but not the cold.

At the end of that time I was utterly disgusted. I hated two of the three people on my committee, they hated me — the department was giving m.a.s to outright incompetents, but me? Hell no; they simply wouldn’t do it — and I was tied to the written page. I could sight read like a son of a bitch, and could also realize figured bass at full speed at first reading, but could I improvise? Not a chance.

More importantly I was nauseated by the snake pit, by the departmental politicking, so at the end of my third semester I took my loan for the following semester, bought a 1961 Rambler, loaded all of my shit into it, and took off for San Francisco.

An Understandable Guide to Music Theory front coverThen I quite playing for eight years.

But two years after I escaped academia, I decided to put my time there to good use, and wrote An Understandable Guide to Music Theory: The Most Useful Aspects of Theory for Rock, Jazz and Blues Musicians. It was a wise move, as the book was well reviewed and has sold considerably north of 10,000 copies over the years.

A few years after I wrote the book, I started playing guitar in a regular jam session with some other SF musical hippies. My technique was nonexistent, but my time and phrasing — thanks to my time in academia — was right on. We were doing a lot of off time and compound meter stuff which was all over the map and which, thanks to Bartok, I had no problem with.

Front cover of The Drummer's Bible Second EditionAt that juncture, I talked my longtime pal Mick Berry, an excellent New Orleans drummer, who hadn’t played in ten years while pursuing a futile career in stand-up comedy, into coming out of musical retiremen and playing with us. That eventually led (with co-author Jason Gianni) to See Sharp Press’s best-selling music book, The Drummer’s Bible: How to Play Every Drum Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco.

Two years after that band started, by which point I was almost a semi-decent guitarist, my dad had a stroke, and my parents wanted me to move to Tucson to help. (A horror story all its own, which I won’t get into here.)

Once in Tucson, I realized there were only two ways to go: blues or country. (Jazz/avant garde shit was out of the question; punk paid as badly — not at all — as it ever did.) The choice was easy.

I shortly started making musical friends and playing in a blues cover band (yours truly, bassist, drummer, and vocalist). A few years into it, I started, in my late 40s, to write tunes.

Since then, it’s been a succession of ever-evolving blues bands, involving people I barely knew to people I loved dearly who killed themselves with booze and hard drugs. (See Slow Motion Suicideabout my closest friend and longtime bass player Randy Oliver.)

After that, more evolution. First as Pinche Blues Band, with just me, wonderful bass player Jaime DeZubeldia, and my now-longtime friend and musical partner Abe Acuña doing both drums and vocals. I loved it. So much fun. I could just stretch out whenever I wanted, without fear of running into anyone else.

Following that we went through a lot of permutations, most notably with the addition of extremely good player and nice guy Fred Hartshorn on keys/sax. Following a bunch of personality b.s., we just reformed and will be hitting the circuit shortly.

Throughout this time (2005 to present), I’ve been writing more material, sometimes with Abe, sometimes by myself, and sometimes with former bandmate, great vocalist, and lyrical genius Brian Hullfish.

Lately, I’ve also started playing with Paul D, a former session guy from NYC, who’s an extremely talented bassist, guitarist, and vocalist, plus Fred and drummer Dave Miller.

I’m mostly playing bass, plus doing occasional lead vocals, which has given me a fresh appreciation of how good the bass players I’ve played with over the years have been, and how hard vocals are.

It’s a revelation. Bass playing at least is a hell of a lot of fun. (At least so far, vocals not so much — I’m filled with shame.) And bass playing is challenging. Here are probably the best examples of the bassists I’ve played with:

I hope you find this at least interesting if not useful.

Hail to the bass players, if not Hail to the Chief (and fuck that lying, bullying, narcissistic, seriously mentally ill piece of shit).









I’ve been playing for decades, and have never paid more than $300 for a guitar or an amp. Why? Aren’t some higher priced guitars and amps better? Yes, they probably are. But there’s a point of diminishing returns with damn near everything, including guitars and amps.

My main guitar for the last 20 years has been a 1986 Japanese Stratocaster for which I paid $300 including the (now incredibly battered) hardshell case. My other guitars are an early 2000s Godin SD, for which I paid $200 including the hardcase, an early 2000s OLP Wolfgang for which I paid $100, and an ’80s Peavey Patriot (the T-15 with a slightly different body shape) for which I paid $75.

Sure, I could have paid more, but why? I just had the Strat set up, and it plays and sounds like a dream. The Godin is a beautifully built Canadian/American guitar that’s perfect for blues and rock. The Peavey is a Telecaster on steroids — ideal for country and surf. And the OLP is a great humbucking rocker built to the same specs as the Musicman originals that cost four or five times as much.

In recent decades, the price of reasonably good guitars and amps has fallen drastically. When I was a kid, cheap guitars were exactly that: cheap, usually hard to play, sounded like shit. Now, there are tons of good cheap guitars, Squiers, the better Epiphones, Ibanezes,  Peaveys, Yamahas. If you know what you’re doing, you can get a pretty good guitar (check craigslist) for $100 to $150, and you can find the guitars anyone in their right minds would want, Fender Stratocasters or Telecasters (if you play country), for under $300 on craigslist. (These are mostly made-in-Mexico guitars and the quality varies — some are great, as good as anything made in the USA, others are simply awful.)

You can pay far more, but why? Once you’ve passed a Strat or Tele, you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. Buy a Gibson, yeah they’re good, but you’re almost certainly paying two-thirds of the price for the brand name. Same with other pricey electric guitars.

As for amps, again don’t pay more than $300 for one. My main amp is a Peavey Classic 30, an all-tube 30-watt amp that might be the best blues amp you can buy. I paid $250 for it used. My other main amp is a Peavey Bandit (solid state and 65 watts) that sounds almost as good, for which I paid $80.  (The other solid state amp I’ve owned and would recommend is the Fender Stage 100.)

And, yes, you don’t need to pay more than that. About 15 years ago, when I was already in my 50s, I was using a Marshall half-stack (JCM 800 or 900 head [for which I’d paid $200 20 years ago]; I forget which), and had to lift by myself  the cabinet’s 4X12 100 or so pounds into the back of my pickup whose gate didn’t work.

The last time I dd that, I said to myself, “Self, why in hell are you doing this?” I sold the amp immediately after.

Guitars and amps are so good nowadays that you can buy cheap and get something better than “gigable” for almost nothing. If you know what you’re doing. Check craigslist, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, find a friend who does.

It’s incredibly easy to get going on guitar. I wouldn’t recommend it — the world needs more guitar players like it needs more people — but if that’s what you want to do, don’t waste money.

(If you just want to play, and get there fast, learn the easiest instruments, learn sax or bass, or drums — harder than sax or bass, but not that hard — not guitar.)


We put up our 1,000th post a few days ago. We’re now looking through everything we’ve posted, and are putting up “best of” lists in our most popular categories.

This is the fourth of our first-1,000 “best of” lists. We’ve already posted the Science FictionAddictions, and Interviews lists, and will shortly be putting up other “best ofs” in several other categories, including Anarchism, Atheism, Economics, Humor, Politics, Religion, Science, and Skepticism.

Best Music Posts

An Understandable Guide to Music Theory front coverby Chaz Bufe, author of An Understandable Guide to Music Theory: The Most Useful Aspects of Theory for Rck, Jazz and Blues Musicians

Over the years, friends and acquaintances who don’t play music have asked me one question over and over: “I want to learn an instrument — what should I learn?”

At that point I ask, “Why? What do you want to do with it?”

If they just want to  learn one for their own pleasure, just want something to play at home, I tell them to learn whatever they want, but that they’ll probably be happiest learning an instrument that can produce chords (basically guitar or piano), or drum set (which is a lot of fun to play by yourself), that they shouldn’t spend more than a few hundred bucks for it, and that they should bring along someone who already plays the instrument when they go out to buy one. (As a beginner, if you walk into a music store by yourself and buy an instrument, chances are you’ll be reamed.)

(One note here is that of the other popular learn-to-play-at-home instruments, the flute is probably the easiest and the violin is very probably the hardest to learn. An additional advantage of flute is that the fingering is the same as for the sax, so if you ever decide to learn sax and already play flute, you’ll be most of the way there.)

If someone wants to learn an instrument to play in a band, my answer is a bit different. I still tell them not to spend more than a few hundred bucks and to bring along someone who already plays the instrument when they buy one. In most cases, however, people will want to learn guitar or, less commonly, piano, and I advise them to learn something else. Here’s why:

  • Guitar — guitar is relatively hard to learn, and there are far more guitar players around than players of any other instrument. In addition, audiences are used to a very high level of musicianship from guitarists, much higher than from players of any other instrument in a typical band set-up. So, it’ll take a relatively long time (probably several years)  to get your playing up to an acceptable level to play in a band, and even once it’s at that level you’ll face a hell of a lot of competition. That’s why guitarists in bands commonly haul around the p.a. system (a major pain in the ass)  and do the booking (a perhaps even worse pain in the ass). If you’re an adult beginner, want to play in a band, and want to learn guitar, my advice is simple: don’t —  learn something else. If you’re dead set on learning guitar, though, also learn how to sing: that’ll help in finding bandmates, and if you learn to do it well it’ll eliminate a major headache: dealing with vocalists. (I’d phrase it “egomaniac vocalists,” but that would be redundant.)
  • Piano — learning to play piano well is perhaps even more difficult than learning to play guitar well. There are fewer keyboard players than guitar players, but unless you’re content with staying in the background and serving as support in simple styles (most types of country and rock), it’ll again take a long time to get your playing up to an acceptable level. Audience expectations of keyboard players aren’t as high as for guitar players, but they’re still pretty high.

That brings us to the instruments I’d recommend to beginners who want to play in a band:

  • Electric Bass — This is probably the easiest instrument to learn, and if you practice an hour a day your playing should be good enough to be out playing in a rock, country, or blues band within six months. Another advantage of bass is that decent bass gear is cheap: if you know what you’re doing, you can put together a (barely) “gigable” used bass rig (bass guitar and amp) for three hundred bucks. One disadvantage of bass is that while there are fewer bassists than guitarists, there are still a lot of them, so you’ll face plenty of competition. Another disadvantage is that bass isn’t a whole lot of fun to practice by yourself. A third disadvantage is that bass gear is heavy. (Years ago, I played with a friend who used an SVT. The cabinet alone weighed 155 pounds, and it took two of us to lift it out of the bed of a truck. Bass combo amps aren’t as bad, but they’re still quite a bit heavier than guitar amps.)
  • Drum Set — The advantages of drums are that it’s relatively easy to get your playing to an acceptable level on them, they’re a lot of fun to practice, and you can buy an okay, gigable set used for around four hundred bucks, maybe a little less. Another advantage is that if you have good time, a good kick foot (playing the bass drum pedal) and a good backbeat (on the snare), you’ll have a relatively easy time finding people to play with, even if your chops are only decent. (Few things are more aggravating than playing with a rushing [speeding up] or dragging [slowing down] drummer. A drummer with good time, a heavy kick foot, and a heavy backbeat is worth his or her weight in gold; chops are secondary to those three things.) Still another advantage of playing drums is that while the number of drum patterns is virtually endless, you can get by in most rock and blues bands playing only two patterns: the standard rock beat and the standard shuffle. Add in a few others (probably polka, standard surf, soca, mambo, waltz, and two-step) and you can handle a good majority of gigs.  The primary disadvantage of drums is that hauling them around, and setting them up and breaking them down, is a major drag.
  • Saxophone — Sax is relatively easy to learn, very easy to haul around, and there are considerably fewer sax players than bassists or drummers, let alone guitarists. So, if you can play sax decently, you should have a relatively easy time finding people to play with, and you almost certainly won’t get stuck hauling around the p.a. or doing the booking. One disadvantage is that the saxophone of choice in almost all styles of pop music is the tenor sax, and a decent used one will set you back about fifteen hundred bucks. However, alto saxes can be used in almost all styles, you can buy a decent one for about three-hundred and fifty bucks used, and the fingering is the same as for the tenor (and baritone and soprano), if you’d ever want to upgrade to a tenor.

If you’re thinking about learning an instrument, I hope this is of some help to you. If I’d known these things decades ago, I’d have saved myself a lot of time and grief by taking up sax or drums rather than guitar.



by Chaz Bufe, author of An Understandable Guide to Music Theory: The Most Useful Aspects of Theory for Rock, Jazz, and Blues Musicians

Several years ago I was talking with another guitarist–Larry Hauer, as I recall–about the best musical advice we’d ever received. I mentioned a suggestion from a piano instructor decades before: “Always count, and always subdivide.” (If you’re not familiar with counting and subdividing, here, for example, is how to do it in 3/4 time: If you’re just counting eighth notes, count “One and Two and Three and”; if you’re counting sixteenth notes, count “One e and a Two e and a Three e and a” — the point being that counting helps you develop a good sense of time, and the more you subdivide the better your time will be.)

This is excellent advice, but Larry topped it. He told me that when he was thirteen his first guitar teacher told him something that saved him decades of musical aggravation: “Learn to sing. If you don’t, you’ll be at the mercy of some asshole vocalist for the rest of your life.”

Enhanced by Zemanta