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He Got the Beat: A New Times Writer Learns to Rock

As a music writer, I am insulted for every bad album review and unflattering mention of Radiohead. But worse than the time I was called a "waste of genetic material," there’s one charge much harder to shake: Writers don’t understand the craft of music. Which is to say, the lot of us can’t tell an arpeggio from an artichoke, and that lack of knowledge diminishes any subsequent insights.

Whereas some writers can jam out, I'm among those pen jockeys with nary any musical skills — until now. In the spirit of learning and the back-to-school season, I worked with two local musicians for a brief study of the guitar and drums, and I’m sharing a few observations below in the name of personal growth. Will this studying ultimately bolster my critical authority? Who knows. I can, however, do a pretty decent rimshot.

Guitar: Nate Shrake of Post Hoc

Always Ask Why: Shrake says even before strumming note one, figure out why you want to play the guitar. Is it a cheap ploy for fast love and rock stardom? Or, are you more interested in expressing something deeper? Both answers are totally fine, but knowing beforehand sets expectations and helps you focus on certain skills and a depth of knowledge.

Keep It Simple, Stupid: The first-time guitar buyer may be swayed by some $1,000 setup with lots of effects and other doodads. Instead, never pay more than $100 on an acoustic guitar that you wouldn’t regret if you gave it up two weeks later. And, as Shrake adds, shop at local instrument stores for better deals.

Prepare for Pain: As it turns out, playing guitar is super-painful; Shrake says bleeding isn’t uncommon, especially when playing the bottom, thinner strings. But, he adds, if you’re experiencing a little agony, then you’re on the right path. Part of the process is developing muscle memory, and it’ll take time for your fingers to feel comfortable holding down certain chords.

Get Your Callus On: Calluses are unfortunately another part of becoming an awesome guitar player. Shrake says it’s better to develop them closer to the tips of your nails than the pad of each finger. That way, you have better control over the strings while saving yourself from further pain.

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Take a Peek: As part of the idea of muscle memory, Shrake says to pay attention to the "shapes" of playing, and the way that certain gestures feel. For instance, you can play chords in different notes. The trick is to look at how the fingers are bent and the placement on the strings and between the frets. Learning guitar is often a visual experience as much as an auditory one.

Never Go Solo: While it may be against your better judgment, Shrake says to learn alongside a friend or collaborator. This is an easy, (mostly) unembarrassing way to share feedback and develop camaraderie. Barring that, you can use your phone to record your sessions for later playback. The point is to make yourself play outside a bubble and to attach stakes to the learning process.

Use Some Tricks: If you don’t want to take the time to become a proper guitarist, there are a few cheats available. Shrake says the best is the pentatonic scale, which features just five notes. It's the basis for many of your favorite tunes. Or, opt for songs that are simple and repetitive, like Semisonic's "Closing Time" or Red Hot Chili Peppers’ "Californication," to help "fake" it.

Get Real Committed: Even if you’re still learning the basics, Shrake says to try writing songs ASAP. Even if you’re only doing it on the first string, it’s a great way to get in the habit of thinking about the fundamentals of music. To ease that process along, he suggests having patience and making the guitar part of everyday life, like keeping it on a couch at all times. Plus, you’ll impress houseguests.

Drums: Etti Bowen of Harper and The Moths

Start with Junk: Bowen says that, as with guitars, there’s a tendency for people to think they need the best drum equipment right away. Instead, try not to spend more than a couple of hundred bucks, and don’t be afraid to beat your equipment into an early trip to the dumpster. You can always buy more expensive stuff when your skill level demands a sturdier kit.

Write It Out: Not everyone who plays music understands theory, but Bowen says it does help. He encourages people to write out drum parts; the end result looks like an NFL playbook. This way, you get a visual idea of what you’re doing and what's coming while playing a song. Eventually, Bowen says, you can do this charting in your sleep.

Get the Brain Right: During my lesson, I tried to visualize what I’d be playing in my head, and Bowen says that a lot of beginning drummers need this "support." However, he says there comes a point when you’re more comfortable and can focus on other things. My playing improved (no matter how marginally) when I visualized a giant white void instead.

Choose Your Tunes: For drummers, the best thing to do is to play along to your favorite music. If you hate, say, The Rolling Stones’ "Satisfaction," you'll be less inclined to play through a few dozen times. Bowen also suggests a song like The Ramones’ "Blitzkrieg Bop" because it’s easy and provides the fundamentals for "beginner" drum parts.

It’s All About Feng Shui: In drumming, it’s all about developing your muscle memory. Bowen says drummers need to take steps to streamline their movements and set up the kit in a way that encourages efficiency. For instance, some drummers cross their hands to ensure fluid movements between parts. No matter what, always adjust your seat before playing; the more comfortable you are, the better aligned your hands, mind, and feet are.

Leave Your Comfort Zone: As a teen, Bowen says he would learn drum parts from playing alongside the likes of Travis Barker of blink-182. However, he adds that the best drummers pick up different styles along the way. Not only does it expand your skill set and give you a new appreciation, but it forces the brain to think about music in an entirely new way. But never be afraid to rep that niche.

Fill It Up: If you’re a novice, there’s a great way to fake ability early on: fills. As their name implies, these are basic riffs that go between melodies and help keep the listener entertained and engaged (unless your frontman's doing that). The easiest two fills are "Pat Boone/Debbie Boone" and "Bucket of Fish," both of which involve basic, repetitive rhythms that lay the groundwork. Master these, and you may not feel so deeply inept.

Drop the Ego: At least for this enterprising writer, the drums were an instant source of frustration. Bowen says that people often feel that way for some time. He recalls feeling pretty confident as a youngster, but learning new styles reminded him that learning and growing is an ongoing, extra-tricky process. Drums are as much a mental battle as they are a physical expression.

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