Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop is one of the go-to resources when you want to learn to play acoustic blues. One of Stefan Grossman’s cornerstone lessons, and a very good video lesson to start with, is “Fingerpicking Guitar Techniques”.
This 2 DVD lesson promises the beginning fingerpicker to learn the basics of fingerpicking and building a solid foundation and repertoire.
Stefan Grossman is a student of the legendary Reverend Gary Davis and the DVD starts off with a quote of Davis:
“Playing the guitar is easy. A piano player has only two hands (the left keeps an alternating bass while the right plays a melody) but a guitarist has three hands! Our right hand thumb is one hand and plays the bass figures while our index finger is our second hand and plays the melody. Our third hand is our left hand which fingers chords.”
The results produce a full and orchestrated fingerstyle sound with a rhythmic bass played against melodic lines. This is the alternating bass technique which we sometimes jokingly refer to as “bum-chick.”
After this intro the lesson starts with some basic fingerpicking exercises to build finger independence and develop the technique of the “alternating bass”. It maybe is not the most exciting part of the lesson but it is very important that you ‘nail’ these exercises to prevent a lot of frustration later on.
The tunes you learn
Now it’s time to get really excited and learn a lot of pieces. Stefan carefully chose the songs to learn, the build-up is very gradual so that the student can keep a steady pace while learning. This is one of the best things of this lesson: the build-up is extraordinary well designed!
The DVD consists mainly of traditional country blues tunes. In most cases though, these are renditions of Stefan himself while a LOT of country blues players played these songs in the heyday of country blues.
The songs you wil learn in this lesson are:
- Oh Papa (Key of G)
- Shake That Thing (Key of G)
- Death Come Creeping (Key of D, Drop D tuning)
- Nobody’s Dirty Business (Key of C)
- Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor (Key of C)
- Coffee Blues (Key of A)
- Crow Jane (Key of E)
- Oh Mary Don’t You Weep (Key of E)
- Delia (Key of C)
- Old Country Rock (Key of D, Drop D tuning)
- Will The Circle Be Unbroken (Key of D, Drop D tuning)
Apart from the instruction for each song, there is rare footage of great fingerstyle players such as Reverend Gary Davis, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Merle Travis, Brownie McGhee, Elizabeth Cotten, John Jackson, Pink Anderson and Doc Watson in between. Stefan stresses that you watch how these players picked the guitar and especially the different approach (think for example of the unique approach of Elizabeth Cotten- playing left and upside-down). This footage is a great addition to the instruction.
One of the lessons on the DVD “Shake That Thing”:
Stefan has very “patient” and pleasant teaching style. His style is very encouraging and supporting and there is no ‘ego’ involved. The focus is totally on the student! It feels as if you really have a one-on-one lesson with him, he exactly knows with which parts the student normally struggles and slows down at these moments and zooms in on these difficult parts – to me this was very helpful.
Each song is broken down in parts and Stefan advices to learn these songs part by part. When you mastered all the different parts you can start to play the whole tune. He stresses that, in the beginning, you need to play the tunes very slowly and then gradually build up the speed- “first you need to know how to walk before you can run”.
Stefan focuses on sound textures and how to produce an ‘authentic’ sound and phrasing. This is really an important aspect to him “make it sound like you play the guitar and not that the guitar plays you”. Focus on making music! This sounds very straightforward but actually is something that I miss in a lot of other lessons.
You can buy this lesson as a DVD and as a digital download/streaming. It is up to your personal preference, in both cases you get the video material split up lesson by lesson. Apart from the audiovisual material you get a booklet (or pdf) with the tablature and the lyrics of all these songs you learn.
I need to say that the tablature Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop uses is slightly different from the tablature we see nowadays. To me this was no problem and could read the music within a minute thanks to the short introduction and explanation in the booklet.
The video material is high quality (DVD as well as the digital download/stream) and you can easily pauze the video, rewind and repeat that very tough part you want to learn. Very handy!
Me playing Mississippi John Hurts’ “Coffee Blues” as learned from this DVD:
This cornerstone lesson for beginning acoustic blues fingerpickers is the real-deal. The teaching is the highest quality you can get. One of its strong points is the selection of the tunes you learn and the gradual build-up of complexity and new techniques.
This video lesson will really teach you how to play fingerpicking acoustic blues and builds that solid foundation that you need to play more complex material later on. This lack of a solid foundation is one of the pitfalls for the beginning acoustic fingerpicker Stefan says.
If you want to learn to play this style of country blues, delta blues and ragtime: buy this DVD and finish this lesson. A bit of foreknowledge and a little bit of experience (how to play chords C, G, A, E and maybe even F) is no luxury, but even without you will succeed in building that solid foundation and a repertoire of really cool sounds!
More info about this lesson here.
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