TANGENT SUNSET

Guitar Mistakes To Learn From
by Alex Cosper


I used to be a horrible guitar player. Now that I'm mediocre I feel greatly improved. The reason I sucked so bad was that I wasn't paying attention to the sound I was creating with my hands on the strings. I also wasn't paying attention to what my fingers were doing. I was pre-occupied with the dream of being a rock star on stage, so it held me back many years from learning to concentrate and practice. After awhile everything you learn mixes into one big familiar world of strums and fingerings.

I actually sucked for a number of reasons. At my worst, my playing was out of rhythm and out of tune at the same time. Whenever timing of instruments don't match, the performance becomes annoying. While it's true that outsider art allows for breaking any rule in music, you also don't want too many people to say you suck. Unless you're doing a brilliant masterpiece with a lot of surprises, play the notes in time with the drums or you will sound like Joe Beginner, more fool than cool.

Don't slam fingers down on the wrong chords or people will think you're intoxicated. Learn the chord changes by memorizing them. Don't think that just because you're gonna be a rock star some day that it's just gonna happen one day so you don't really have to practice or memorize anything. Don't be the star who never made it or you'll be written off as an ass.

If you grow long finger nails on the hand that fingers the chords, your chord changes will sound awkward, scratchy, sketchy, boring and muted. The secret to saving face is to keep those nails trim or give up the guitar, unless you learn to be good with long nails. The only thing worse than long nails on guitar strings is missed chord changes due to late or early timing, or even inaccurate finger placement. Hitting the fingerboard in between frets sounds so harsh on the human ear, it's no wonder how many new bands become no-hit wonders, because they never even learn to play their instrument.

The worst reason I sucked was because I twisted in my lazy own ethic with a rock ethic that had been established by Bob Dylan. The Dylan ethic placed songwriting high above all other facets of the process in creating musical recordings. I decided that the only thing that mattered was the songwriting, just so that I didn't have to learn the other facets, such as being a better musician. That attitude held me back for two decades, in the sense that I didn't start to pay attention to my playing until the late nineties. Before that it was just sloppy chord changes that you wouldn't want to hear recordings of.

Jeff Skunk Baxter once told me in the early nineties to just practice strumming with my rhythm hand without worrying about the changes. That helped, but I really didn't grasp rhythm completely until I started counting the beat out loud. I guess I was so busy analyzing and writing lyrics and melody that I didn't give a care about performance. I sounded like a dumb ass for the longest time on guitar. In the early 2000s I spent more time on practicing guitar, which allowed me to develop a better sense of rhythm through being more relaxed. I loosened up both hands - that's the key. Then just let your mind tell your hands what to do, don't fight it. Let it happen with a relaxed focus.

Listen to how far I've come since the days of messing up onstage in my latest project Tangent Sunset.

Note: the top photo is of me in May 1978.