Zen and the art of guitar practice

I promised several Blogs ago to write about Guitar Practice.

My Practice Schedule (PS) is my ‘Daily Prayers’.  I do it 4 days a week – Monday to Thursday, and time willing, sometimes on Friday, Saturday, and/or Sunday.  It takes about 5 hours to get through the whole thing.  The PS I do is very highly structured and ritualised, and covers everything I use when performing and teaching.  Because I’ve been doing a PS for many years, it has grown with my development as a musician, and to go through it is sometimes like looking back through a diary.  Also, because it is highly structured, I find that often my mind wanders into other areas while my hands and subconscious go about their business of maintenance. This is my Zen. Here’s what a typical day with my PS looks like:

10 am.  Turn gear on, get coffee, light incense.  Warm ups.  The so-called ‘Spider Exercise’, using semi-tone shifts (4 frets).  How do my hands feel today?  If it’s Monday, a bit slow.  Not to worry; by Wednesday, they’ll be better.  I move on to the same drill using Tone shifts.  Much harder, covering 7 frets.  Then on to a few minutes on muted string inside and outside picking drills. 4 fret chromatic drills on all strings from 2 fret to 12, and back.  These are all picked with alternate outside picking.  I used to pick everything, but about 10 years ago I found that I didn’t like the ‘metal-ish’ vibe this gave, so I switched to Legato.  I still do this drill with Alt picking though, just to keep the Right Hand (RH) in shape.  I wonder how my students will be today?  I enjoy teaching very much.

Graham & Clyde - Copy
My mate Graham and I talking Blues

10.30 am.  On to Legato drills.  4 fret drills going 1234, 4321, 1432, 4123, 2314, 4231, plus some variations, all at 2 fret. These are then expanded to frets 2 456, and 234 6.  Got to get those stretches with the pinky and the middle fingers going.  Nice day outside.  Coco the cat has just shown up and is now asleep at my feet.  Diminished intervals, 4 note per string drills.  Fret-wise, these go 1 34 6, but I start at fret 7 (B) because I practice these over an E7b9.  This shape expands to Major and Melodic Minor. I can smell the roses from my wife’s garden mixing with the incense.  Beautiful.  I love being able to see the garden through the window.  Magpies sometimes come into my studio (the garage where I’m set up), and help themselves to the cat food.  Two little sun birds sometimes fly in, and check the windows and walls for bugs.

11 am.  My variations on Melodic Minor.  A tricky fingering, but I love it.  As with all I do, I practice this through all keys.  On to one of my favorite Major scale variations – sequenced scales as 12 4, from all intervals.  It’s been a big year.  In earlier blogs I mentioned the people at the Retirement Village where Mum was.  The lady I named Sue passed on shortly after I wrote about her.  She was a lovely lady.  Then the master guitarist Allan Holdsworth passed on, too.  You may remember I said that that all the major Guitar Magazines would be honouring him when this happened, after ignoring him for many years? Well, that didn’t happen.  A few pages here and there, but nothing truly honouring his significance.  There were 2 magazines that had Hendrix covers and big articles.  Go figure.  I’d have liked to have had a chat with Allan.  In all the interviews I read over the years, no one asked him the big questions.

11.30 am.  My first time loss. Seriously, I can’t remember the last half hour, but my hands tell me I’ve gone through the 12 4 shifts in all keys in Major and Melodic Minor.  Now to my string skipping drills.  These take a lot of time.  The intervals are 1 6, and 1 9, kind of, through all intervals and keys of Major and Melodic Minor.  Sometimes I find a new sequence and fingering for these, and I check it out, but often it just goes to the ‘for further investigation’ file.  Everything is Vibrations.  The frequency of sound can be multiplied until it becomes light.  Just as notes harmonise, so too do the colours of the spectrum.  Should I try experimenting with the current idea of tuning to  A = 437?  It’s said to be more in line with the ‘natural’ frequency.  Fractals and the Golden Ratio – now there’s something to ponder!

12 noon.  The Bach piece.  Bach’s First Prelude in E Major.  I’ve been working on this piece for many years, but I’m still not happy with how I play it (and I hope I never will be).  A beautiful piece, stunning in its logic and structure.  One day I’ll include it in my live set, but now it marks one of my breaks in the PS.  Time to give our 2 beautiful dogs their lunchtime bone, grab a sandwich, and check out the back garden.  The dogs and the cats recognise the Bach piece as ‘our’ lunch break!

12.15 pm.  Sweep Picking.  3 string, 4 string, 5 string, and 6 string forms through all diatonic Triads and 1357 extensions, plus altered dominants through Minor 3 shifts, plus runs, extended breakdowns, and party tricks.  I moved here in 2010 to care for Mum after Dad died, and Mum passed on in June this year.  What a time that was: To have held the hand of a loved one as they die is one of the most life-changing events one can go through.  I’m glad I was able to be there for Dad, and my wife and I were able to be there for Mum.  You never look at your own life the same again.  There are so many things that we feel are important, but then you realise that at the end, love is all that matters.  It also makes you realise that at some point, you will die.  How does one prepare for that?  What has your life meant?  I wonder where I’ll be in 5 years time?

1 pm.  Another time shift.  My hands tell me I’ve finished with the Sweeps, and Major, Minor, Dominant, Minor b5, and Altered Dominant Arpeggios. Time for Scales! 7 Major scales in all keys, using extended fingering.  I stopped practicing the conventional forms years ago, although I still think, use, and teach them.  4 Variations on Altered Dominant scales, 2 Diminished scales, and Whole Tone.  7 Melodic Minor, then Altered Dominant and Diminished sequences and extensions through all keys.  Various sequences, patterns, and string skipping drills go in here, too. I also stopped practicing Harmonic Minor forms many years ago, although I still use it sometimes.  It started sounding too ‘heavy metal’ to my ears, although it is a lovely scale.  The scale part of my PS is where I have major ‘time loss’.  Sometimes the entire section is done while I am ‘away’.  I managed to reform my old band INDABA for some gigs here in August.  We hadn’t played together since 2005.  I really never thought I’d play with those wonderful guys again (Brad Wenham on Bass, Scott Dean on Drums).  It was an experience that sadly can only be appreciated in hindsight.  I hope we can do it again.  We had one rehearsal, and the first chords of our first tune (All Rivers Long for the Sea), nearly brought us all to tears.  I should practice our set more often.  One never knows!

2 pm.  Usually I start teaching around 3 or 4, so now I start watching the clock. I put on a favorite CD and loop a section of it, and practice improvising and applications.  My CD player can loop, change tempos, and change keys, so I make sure I keep things interesting.  Here is where I also work on solos for my own tunes. Fridays tend to be my special day.  If I practice at all, I’ll sometimes do a shorter PS, then work on specific things that need special attention, or composing and/or recording.  I hate trying to record anything ‘cold’, so I still must warm up for an hour at least before the buttons go red.

My PS hours fly when I move into the Zen zone.  I’ve given my body something to do while I think – eternal thinking, it never ceases. Just the other day the Prometheus Scale snaked through my sub conscious and after a couple of hours of analysis (while my hands did their thing) I found it had chased its tail back to familiar territory but with a new perspective. Joy! Trepidation! Fun! Learning!

Whether these enlightening Zen moments last for a mere second, a few hours, or ten years, it doesn’t matter, it’s still the same principle. This is my understanding of the nature of Zen and it works for me!

In hindsight my Zen decade of healing began in 2010 when I left Brisbane and came to Yeppoon – I was exhausted spiritually and physically. I came up to care for Mum and retreat to the sea and renew. 2017 saw Mum pass away.  2018 will be the year I and my wonderful wife Janet return to the South East Queensland area to start the next chapter of our oh-so-interesting lives! We’ve sold the house here, and have bought a lovely old Queenslander in Gympie – my work here is done, and my batteries are fully charged!  We will be living close enough to Brisbane to commute when necessary, and far enough away to be out of the high-density/high-intensity city living that we both abhor.

I’m going to miss Yeppoon in some ways.  I had a lot of time to think here, and made some lovely friends socially and with my students.  I am looking forward to being back in a playing environment, and catching up with some of the old crew.

Dh’fhaodadh do strings-còmhnaidh a bhith ann le fonn ur cridhe

(Gaelic – May your strings always be in tune with your heart).



Published by clydeschipke

Professional guitarist and teacher based in Gympie, Queensland.

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