Turning Practice into Play #1 – “Drop D Happy Blues”

Words are powerful. But more often than not it is you who gives a word its power. We’ve all given words connotations that make us react to them in different ways, from joy to absolute disgust. If you don’t believe that, just talk and listen to other people talking, especially if someone is discussing his or her “job,” or (much worse) politics. Quite often people react so negatively to certain words that they totally miss out on what the actual conversation is about and instead focus on the “negative word.”

With musicians, just talk about the difference between “practice” and “play.” We all love to play our guitars, but few can hear the word “practice” without experiencing a twinge of some sort. But the reality is that practicing is, at heart, playing one’s instrument. You’re just playing with a specific focus.

Part of the dislike for practice stems from the perception that practice is not “fun” like playing is. But that’s something you can fix with a little imagination on your part. To help, I’ve put together this lesson (and others to follow) that give you a song specifically made up to help practice different techniques or ideas. Since we’ve recently had a focus on finger picking guitar, and since just about everyone loves the blues, your first lesson is a song called Drop D Happy Blues. It may remind you of Taj Mahal’s rendition of Fishing Blues or even Buckets of Rain by Bob Dylan. And that’s a good thing if it does, because then you’ll be noticing how this made-up-specifically-for-practice song is something you can easily do on your own.

We’ll be using Drop D Happy Blues to work on Travis style finger picking as well as to get a better handle on the ideas of syncopation and anticipation, not to mention working on timing in general. This song will also give you a workout with “two finger hammer-ons,” like those used in the Amazing Grace lesson here at Guitar Noise. And if that’s not enough, we’ll also touch on the use of two-string harmony – playing pairs of strings much in the way we did with Bookends. Not to bad from one fairly simple song, no?

And I want to stress that word – “simple” – if for no other reason than to point out you probably liked it! Seriously, I’ve tried to make this first “practice song” one that most of you should be able to handle fairly easily but give it some challenging aspects as well.

Something else I tried to do is to make this a “multi-purpose” arrangement, meaning that it will (hopefully) work equally well as a “chord melody” style song, for those of you who don’t sing, and as an accompaniment, should you decide to create your own melody to sing over the guitar part. And please feel free to do so!

First things first, though, and that means getting our guitars in Drop D tuning. We’ve run into this tuning in a few of our Guitar Noise lessons, such as Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. To place your guitar in Drop D, you want to lower the low E (sixth) string down one whole step to D. You can do this by means of a tuner or even your ear. Just be certain you’re tuning the string lower in pitch and not higher! If you’re using your ear, you can match the new note of D against the normal open D (fourth) string (it will be an octave lower). Matching the twelfth fret harmonic of the newly tuned sixth string to the open fourth string will also do the trick, as will matching the note of the open A (fifth) string to the seventh fret of the newly tuned sixth string.

You may wonder why we’re going through the trouble of using Drop D tuning in the first place! Believe it or not, it’s to make things easier on your picking while you concentrate on other things. Throughout much of the song, you’ll be using your thumb to play a steady four-beat-to-the-measure bass line that simply alternates between the new lowest open D (sixth) string and the regular open D of the fourth string, like this:

Bass line using open D string

For many players the trickiest part of finger picking, especially Travis style picking, is dealing with the picking that gets played with the fingers. More often than not these notes fall on the offbeats, creating syncopation and anticipations in the overall picking pattern. So, as silly as it sounds, you want to take a few moments to get comfortable playing this in a very steady rhythm. Don’t worry about speed but concentrate instead on being able to count and hold the beat steady and sure.

Keeping the beat steady is vital when you add the melody line of the song to the mix. It’s not at all difficult, but if you’re not familiar or comfortable with playing on the offbeat, it may take a few tries to get it right. Here is the first phrase, which is four measures long. Notice that the first and third measures are identical while the second and fourth mirror each other in rhythm even though the notes are different:

Example 1
Example 1 continued

I’ve added the count to the first line so you can see and hear how this plays out. For picking, you may find it best to use your middle finger to play any notes on the high E (first) string and your index finger to pick the notes on the B string. But you can also alternate your fingers, using the middle finger and index finger to pick alternate notes. You can certainly also add your ring finger to the mix as well or simply use one single finger to pick all the notes. Which way is best? That depends on who you ask. But it truly doesn’t hurt to be comfortable playing it using any of those finger picking suggestions.

For fretting the notes, though, you’ll probably find it best to start with your index finger on the seventh fret, which will allow you to use either your ring finger or your pinky for the notes at the tenth fret. At the second measure, using the middle finger for the first note (sixth fret of the B string) allows you to hammer onto the seventh fret with your ring finger while keeping your index finger in the perfect position to play the last note at the fifth fret of the high E (first) string. Similarly, in the fourth measure, using the middle finger to start with means you’ll have both the index and ring fingers in the right spot for the second and third notes of the melody.

Another option worth considering is using a slide instead of either the hammer-on or pull-off. You’d start the second measure, for instance, with your ring finger on the sixth fret of the B string and slide it up to the seventh fret. Likewise in the fourth measure you’d use your index finger for the first note (sixth fret of the B string again) and slide the index finger down to the fifth fret of the same string for the second melody note of that measure.

Whichever way you decide to play it (and I, of course, encourage you to try each one), the important thing here is to keep the timing correct. For whatever reason, many beginners seem to associate slurs, such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and bends, with grace notes and tend to play all slurs as grace notes instead of giving them their full rhythmic value. The melody for both the second and fourth measures uses the same rhythm. First there is an eighth note rest, during which the bass note of the open low D (sixth) string is played. Then you get the first melody note during the second half of the first beat. The second melody note (the one created by the hammer-on, pull-off or slide) falls precisely at the second beat, coinciding with the playing of the open D of the fourth string. The third melody note falls between the second and third beat and is held over the final two beats of the measure. Be sure to count it out if you’re worried you’re not getting it correctly.

And just to give you more to practice, here is an alternate rhythm to use for both the second and fourth measures of this first phrase of our song:

Example 2
Example 2 continued

Here the first melody note of the second and fourth measures falls right on the first beat. The second note falls between the first and second beats and the third note occurs between beats two and three and is held for the rest of the measure.

The first phrase of this song is repeated. In the final MP3 of this lesson you’ll hear me play the first variation one time through and then the second. As always, you should feel free to mix and match as you see fit. Have fun playing around with the rhythm but do make it a point to tell yourself, “I’m playing this rhythm” and do so. After all, you want to be in charge of what you’re playing!

The second phrase begins on the fourth beat of the second repetition of Measure 4, kicking off with a two-finger hammer-on. It goes like this (I’m starting with the third measure of the first phrase, with the second rhythm variation, in the following example):

Example 3
Example 3 line 2
Example 3 line 3

On the fourth beat that marks the end of the first phrase / beginning of the second phrase, you’re playing the open D note of the fourth string with your thumb, as you have been on every fourth beat of every measure up to this point. At the same time you strike the open fourth D string with your thumb, you want to play the open B and G strings. You’ll likely find it easiest to use your middle finger (on the B string) and index finger (on the G string) to do so. After striking all three strings on the fourth beat, you’ll want to perform a hammer-on on the B and G strings at the second half of the fourth beat. Use your index finger to get the D note (third fret of the B string) and your middle finger to get the B note (fourth fret of the G string).

Coming in ahead of the first beat in this manner is called an anticipation. We’ve run into this in many lessons here at Guitar Noise, from Three Marlenas to Man on the Moon. With this particular anticipation, though, you’ll notice that having the hammer-on take place on the second half of the fourth beat gives you a little space in which to get your finger ready on that low G note in the bass.

Using the two fingers on the appropriate notes as outlined earlier puts your ring finger or pinky in place to get the G note at the fifth fret of the low D (sixth) string and having all three fingers in place sets you up to play the rest of the measure with ease. The thumb will still be playing the same strings – the G note on the low D on the first and third beats and the open fourth string D on the second and fourth beats. Then it’s just a matter of adding the fingers.

And that will be a little tricky at first. The second full measure of this second phrase is probably the most involved part of the whole song, so take your time with it. Many players will find it easiest if they use their ring fingers to pick the open high E (first) string, the middle finger to pick the B string and the index finger to pick the G string. But quite a few will also find it simpler to use just the middle finger and index fingers for picking. And there will also be those who prefer to use the index finger to pick all three strings.

You’ll also get a chance to work on your two-finger hammer-ons a bit more as the phrase ends with a shift from the D and B notes to D and A (second fret of the G string). Again, you’ll want to make note of the timing and watch out for the anticipations.

Okay, there’s one final phrase to deal with and, compared to what you just went through, it should be somewhat easier;

Example 4
Example 4 continued

You start with a nice, single hit of the open A string and then play three easy harmony pairs on the high E (first) and G strings. Use your index finger for the high notes and your middle finger for the low notes. If you’d like, you can slide into the first pair of notes, as indicated in the notation and tablature. Doing so is usually easiest from two frets lower on the neck, so you’d start with your index finger on the third fret of the high E (first) string and your middle finger on the fourth fret of the G string.

In the second measure of this last phrase the harmony pairs shift to the B and D strings. Again, use your middle finger on the low notes but go with the ring finger for the higher notes on the B string. And you can also slide into the first pair again if you’d like.

You also get a chance to see if you can hit the offbeat without the aid of the steady bass notes. Notice that the third pair of notes in the second measure falls between the second and third beats of that measure. Finally you end up with the same two-finger hammer-on last seen at the end of the second phrase.

So far, so good! Let’s try putting it all together. We’ll run through the whole thing twice, extend the ending a little bit the second time through and then tack on a short little run of bass notes to give the piece an nice finish:

Example 5 line 1
Example 5 line 2
Example 5 line 3
Example 5 line 4
Example 5 line 5
Example 5 line 6
Example 5 line 7
Example 5 line 8
Example 5 line 9

That last chord, by the way, is an interesting open string voicing of D9. I hope that you have enjoyed this song lesson, even though it’s a song you’ve not heard before. Hopefully, it kind of sounds like some songs you have heard before!

And do remember the whole point of this exercise was to come up with a song that you could use to practice some different techniques, in this case the focus being Travis style finger picking (complete with playing off the beat and anticipations) and two-finger hammer-ons. You may not think so at this stage, but this sort of thing you could have come up with on your own if you were so inclined. All I did was to take a few areas of practice and create a way to make that practice (hopefully) be a bit more fun.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, we’ll try to work out some more “practice songs” for you. It’s easy enough to take other song styles as well as the techniques used in other songs you know and to incorporate them into an interesting and fun lesson. Let me know if that’s something of interest to you.

As always, please feel free to post your questions and suggestions on the Guitar Noise Forum’s “Guitar Noise Lessons” page or email me directly at [email protected].

Until our next lesson…