If I Only Had (Another) Brain

Oct18

I was thinking about drummers the other day, probably because I was trying to tune my guitar – the international symbol for “start drumming now” – and I was reminded of this Discovery Channel show about dinosaurs.

As we all know, dinosaurs had brains the size of a walnut; and no, that is not the common link in my thought process. But some of these critters were so big that they had a second brain at the base of their spine to control their tail. The theory goes that the signal from way up front would take way too long to take to get to the back and balance would be impossible. Where am I going with this you ask?

Think about what a drummer has to do: left foot, bass drum; right foot, high hat; left hand, cymbal; right hand, snare, often in syncopated rhythm. If I tried this I would spontaneously combust. Perhaps this is the real reason for the dinosaurs’ extinction: one of the smarter ones invented drums.

Wouldn’t things be so much easier if you had a right hand brain, a left-hand brain and a singing brain? I mean, fingerpicking and chord changes are hard enough. Try to add in singing while doing that.

But this is exactly what we’re going to do. Remember when you first learned to play a finger picked song? Odds are you chose to learn the right hand picking order ’til you had it down, then the left hand chords, finally adding in moving bass. Or, you used some variation on that theme. Order in this scenario is not that important.

So the right hand goes to work, over and over playing the picking pattern, and slowly it comes into focus. You may even get it up to performance speed. So it’s obvious you had the ability to play the right hand part all along. Why couldn’t you just play it right off the bat? You had to create a muscle memory. It’s like a golf swing, sleight of hand magic, or ballroom dancing. You ingrain a repeatable pattern into your brain and create a memory that you can call back.

So now you got to get that left hand going. Even though you could play the right hand pretty darn well by now, you had to slow it down to let your left hand learn new things. You may not notice this effect because it often doesn’t last that long. You’d expect the slower tempo to be a piece of cake for your right hand. Yet, its performance degrades slightly as you are forced to concentrate elsewhere.

Notice that you didn’t just stop the right hand and practice with only the left, fretting the notes without picking. You added the two together. With practice you got faster and faster with your left, until finally it could keep up to tempo and you could play.

Two things happened there: you developed muscle memory in each hand independently, and combined muscle memory. In other words, you memorized a joint, associated muscle memory. They became a single memory.

The best example showing muscle memory is from the Guitar Noise lessons. If you learned Blackbird first, then learned Scarborough Fair, you’ll notice that a couple of places in SF are the same as Blackbird. The first few times you try to play through SF, it just doesn’t fit. Your muscle memory is suddenly trying to play Blackbird rhythm. You have to create a new memory.

So now you have a single muscle memory of both hands. You have consolidated two into one. Okay, here we go into the meat of the lesson.

This consolidated memory is exactly what you have to do with singing and playing. Don’t treat your singing like the red headed stepchild of this group. Be patient with singing just like you are with your hands.

Go back and play slooooowly. Look at the words written under the chord changes and sing so slowly you can get them both going at the same time. Once you have a song down on guitar, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can bring the voice along for the ride. But you have to take the voice on the same ride you gave the hands. That is the only way to create a new joint memory.

Let’s take a look at the bridge from David’s Blackbird lesson:

Blackbird 1
Blackbird 2
Blackbird 3
Blackbird 4
Blackbird 5
Blackbird 6
Blackbird 7

We only want to look at the six words “black bird fly, black bird fly.” First let’s take some time to memorize them. Let me know when you’re done. I’m going to go practice Give A Little Bit.

Done already? Wow, you’re good.

Just play the two notes directly above the word “black.” Do you hear your starting pitch? It is the 10th fret on the D string.

Ready? Here we go. Do you have a fire extinguisher handy? Spontaneous combustion could happen, you know. You are going to play the two notes right above “black.” Stop playing but let it ring. Now sing the word “black,” just the one pitch.

Whooo hoooo, you are on your way now.

Notice in the tab there are two beats and two pedal notes before you get to “bird.” Try this: pluck the two fingerpicked notes and sing “black” at the same time. Don’t stop singing the word “black.” Just hold it out, same note, no change, and play all the way to “bird.” Congratulations.

Now do the same thing with “bird.” The note you are looking for is the 5th fret on D. If you have a problem with the transition, go back and work slowly through it, just like you did with your hands.

Does this seem just a tad simplistic to you? Well, it is just that simple. Imagine you were trying to tell someone how to make your left-hand work with your right. It would sound about the same. But the principle is sound. If you want to sing and play, you have to put in the work to merge the memories.

Someone once asked about how to sing during solos. Personally, I take the B.B. King approach to singing during solos: I don’t. Sing, solo, sing, solo. It works for him, it works for me. Besides, you only want to show off one thing at a time or the rest of the band will hate you.

But if you want to be like Hendrix and do both, just take the time, fix that associated memory between voice and hands and you can do just about anything.

And sorry, but I can’t help you sing solos while you play with your teeth.

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About Nick Torres

London born, Washington DC area native Nick Torres has been involved in music for more than 20 years. From singing with the Paul Hill Chorale at the Kennedy Center, to Regional Chorus, soloist at Trinity UMC in Alexandria VA, bell ringing, amateur and professional musical theater, and a band or two along the way. Currently Nick is focused on spending as much time as possible with his lovely wife and two children. When he's not doing that he's practicing his acoustic guitar and hanging out in the Songwriters Forum here on Guitar Noise. And writing articles and reviews, let's not forget that...

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