Howls From The Woodshed #1: The Left Hand and The Right Hand Should Be Friends!

There are a blessed few musicians who don’t have to practice much. I work for one: the great Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander. He never warms up. On the few occasions when a piano is available for him backstage, he looks at it and laughs but doesn’t touch it. His wife, a fine musician herself, claims he doesn’t practice much at home either. I don’t know how he manages this, but he does. (Monty’s explanation is that he played long gigs practically every night for decades, so he doesn’t need to practice much. He just has to get his fingers moving once he’s on stage.) For the rest of us, practice is the iceberg of which performance is the tip.

Recently I’ve increased the amount of private teaching I do. I’ve also started playing bass in a group that performs a lot of soca tunes, requiring me to go back into the shed myself. For both these reasons, I’ve started thinking about the practicing process more, and I thought that some of you might enjoy reading about some of the things I’ve discovered recently.

The Left Hand And The Right Hand Should Be Friends

One of the wisest insights I’ve ever read about the guitar is the following (I’m sorry that I can’t give credit where it’s due, I just don’t remember who said it): “Your left hand is what you know. Your right hand is who you are.” It follows that developing as a guitarist requires both increasing your knowledge of music and your understanding of what kind of person you are. Unlike the piano, where both hands are doing different things most of the time, playing the guitar well requires the fretting hand (the left hand if you’re a righty) and the picking hand (the right hand if you’re a righty) to be perfectly synchronized. Most guitarists have more facility with one hand than the other. In my case, my left hand has always been ahead of my right hand even though I’m right-handed. This makes sense on some level because as a person my level of knowledge about music is far ahead of my personal development in some areas. So musically, I spend a lot of time on developing my right hand to try to help it catch up. As to personal development—it’s a secret!

Recently I’ve been working on two separate projects, one for each hand. For the right hand, I’m practicing the chromatic scale, A to A over two octaves, four fingers per string, one finger per fret. I’m using alternate picking and working not on speed, but on making as little extraneous noise with my left hand as possible when shifting. I’ve discovered that for some reason the work I do on minimizing noise, while useful in itself, also seems to increase my speed and facility. My two hands get along better after some time playing chromatic scales. I don’t know why yet. I just know that it works for me.

For my left hand, I’m doing exercises to expand my reach. I start high up on the neck at the twelfth fret, playing a root position major seventh chord on the top four strings. (From bottom to top, I’m playing F A C E, with the E on the twelfth fret). Then I move each finger in turn down a fret, leaving the other fingers where they are. So I play F A C Eb (F7) next. Then I play F A B Eb (F7b5). Then I play F Ab B Eb (F-7b5). Finally I move the F down to E, which gives me E major 7th (E G# B D#), the same chord I started with a fret lower. I continue this down the neck as far as possible. Then I go back to the top and try the same thing, this time moving each finger down two frets, one at a time, while keeping the other fingers in place.

A word of warning: If you haven’t tried anything like this before, go slowly! Unless you have huge hands (mine are of average size), this will hurt a bit. A bit of discomfort is normal, but if it really hurts, stop! Wait until the pain goes away and then try again.

If It Hurts, Why Bother?

I’m glad you asked! The first reason is simple: these chords sound good. I first realized this when I saw a picture of the great guitarist Johnny Smith fingering a major 6th chord in root position. The six fret stretch looked impossible. Why would anyone even try it? There are plenty of ways to play 6th chords on the guitar. But I figured if Johnny could do it, I could do it. So I tried. It took a few minutes and I had to go way up the neck to do it, but I was able to play it. As soon as I heard it, the answer was obvious. It’s beautiful! I was an instant convert.

So the next step was to try the other seventh chords in root position. I got similar results. Hard to play, but worth the effort. But I really got serious about this when I encountered the Barry Harris method of improvisation, which is based on sixth chords of various types and diminished chords. I found that being able to play a sixth chord in root position put diminished chords close at hand, and that I was able to harmonize an entire diatonic scale with sixth and diminished chords. Now I was off. What other chords lay close at hand?

As you may know, lowering any note of a diminished seventh chord one step gives you an inversion of a dominant seventh chord. So when I started lovering notes of diminished seventh chords in root position. I started uncovering piano-like four note chords, along with a system with which to organize them. I love making the guitar as piano-like as possible when I can, so this was a big step toward the goal of harmonic mastery.

All this was very exciting. However, there was a bonus. When I went back to playing single string phrases, all of a sudden I was faster, clearer, and more articulate. How could learning new chords improve my facility with single notes? I don’t know! But I’m going to find out. Perhaps the increased left hand strength I was developing had something to do with it. But my right hand seemed more controlled also. Why? I don’t know, but what I do know is that I’m onto something very useful.

More to come…

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