Easy Steps to Guitar
Homespun Video Review
Three DVD Set
By Paul Kucharski
Demystifying Alternate Thumb Style - DVD 1
Happy Traum has been teaching guitar for around 50 years and is the founder of Homespun video. One of the very first books I purchased in the 70's was a book he authored. I still play tunes from that book even today. His instruction style is clear, concise, and very easy to follow. All that experience is clearly evident in these videos.
This video is the first in a 3 DVD video series on Easy Guitar Fingerpicking. The series starts out with some of the fundamental techniques that are critical to playing in this style. Happy takes you through some basic exercises that you allow to follow along with the video and duplicate the right hand movements. A simple thumb thump on a single string gets you started setting the time and gradually adds more complexity. Because you can stop and repeat any section with this system, you can spend as much time as necessary to execute these basic moves. Happy slowly builds on each technique to add thumb and finger pinches, alternating bass, and then finally syncopated playing. If you have never played this style before, you should spend as much time as needed to hone these basic techniques as they will then be employed in all the tunes to follow. It may sound overly simplistic, but the beginning sections of this video will show you the majority what it takes to get started playing in this style.
One thing I should note as that this DVD assumes the player already knows basic chords in the first position, knows the note names of the open strings and first 4 frets, and can readily finger most first position chords cleanly (i.e. C, G, D, A, E, etc). It also assumes you know you to read guitar tablature.
Once the basic fingerpicking techniques are introduced, Happy proceeds to get you started playing fingerstyle pieces right away. As noted in the video description, this video gives you tablature for 6 different pieces; Skip to My Lou, Spike Driver Blues, Green Green Rocky Road, Staggerlee, Nine Pound Hammer, and Woodie Guthrie's Hobo's Lullaby. In Skip to My Lou and Spike Driver Blues, the tab shows both an "on-the-beat" version and a "syncopated version" so you have music from which to practice both techniques. As noted in the video description, each piece is broken down and described in detail; both at slow speeds and at full speed. Like all Homespun videos, the video shows both the right and left hands and is very clearly illustrated.
One of the great aspects to how Happy breaks down a fingerstyle piece is that he is also showing you how you can arrange your own pieces in the future. The key to his method is to find the melody notes of the song on the first 3 or 4 strings and then add the bass to those based on the chords used in the song. Once you understand the method, it is a process you can use to arrange your own tunes; especially if you already know the basic chords of the song.
Another thing I like about this video is that Happy chose tunes that are fun to play and listen to. Nine Pound Hammer, Staggerlee, and Spike Driver Blues are tunes still played by professional players today. So even though these are simplified versions, you have the basis for building a performance piece from these basic versions. So the time spent isn't wasted on songs that have little performance potential. I should also note that the tablature includes the lyrics to the songs. So you have everything to need to play these pieces.
One last note. While I am reviewing the complete 3 DVD series, each video can be purchased separately. So if you want to try one and decide later about the others, you can do that. Plus I should also note that Homespun does offer all these videos as DVDs if you decide you really prefer that physical media.
Songs in Dropped D Tuning - DVD 2
While the first video in the series starts out with basic picking technique, this video gets right down to business with teaching you to play more complicated tunes with the focus on the dropped D tuning. This is by far the simplest of the altered tunings and provides a wealth of advantages for the fingerstyle player; the main one being that you can play alternating bass between two open strings for sections of the tune that plays over D chords and A chords. It frees your hand to move around the fretboard and focuses on playing the melody. Happy takes advantage of that added freedom in these arrangements.
The other new thing you'll find on this video is that more time is spent on showing some more sophisticated left hand techniques that can be combined with the fingerpicking to great effect. If you master these tunes, you will have come a long way in bringing the right and left hand together to make some very appealing guitar playing.
The first tune in this video (Colorado Trail) introduces some additional chord forms from those basic first position chords like minor, minor 7, suspended chords, and 6th chords, etc. Happy uses these new chords to great effect in this tune. You can learn these from seeing how they are fingered in the tab, but Happy also discusses some of these while breaking down the tune.
The bottom line for this video is that it is a fingerpicking repertoire builder as well as showing you some tunes that work well in the dropped D tuning. It gives you some great tunes to play as you continue to develop your fingerpicking skills.
Graduating Into Classic Repertoire - DVD 3
This final video brings in some classic fingerstyle tunes like Deep River Blues that will give you performance quality material with great fingerpicking arrangements you can use to play them. Many of these tunes have been arranged by many different players over the years, but Happy breaks down the essence of each piece and give you detailed ideas on how you can play them using all the techniques shown in the prior videos.
Happy introduces a lot more alternative chord forms up the neck that show you ways to play those first position chords in different ways. This is really key to arranging fingerstyle pieces since often times the melody of the tune can only be found up the neck and you need to find ways to incorporate the bass notes of the chord while playing those notes. The secret to doing that is knowing a variety of ways to play the same chord up the neck. As you watch this video you will see how he finds those forms (i.e. take this first position D7 chord and move it up to the 7th fret to get a G7 chord). While there are instant access videos (like Ernie Hawkins C-A-G-E-D Guitar System Made Easy) that focus on just this concept, this video gives you a practical demonstration of what that knowledge can do for you as a fingerstyle player/arranger.
One thing to note is that in the tab with this video, lyrics are provided for all the songs except for "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out". I did a quick Google search for the lyrics and they're readily available if you decide you want them.
One last note about this fingerpicking series overall; if you are new to fingerpicking and make your way through all of these videos, I think it would be safe to say you have advanced from a beginner to an intermediate fingerstyle player. Happy covers a lot of technique over the course of these videos as well as gives you some performance ready repertoire. So if you master these tunes, you will have come a long way to mastering the art of fingerstyle guitar; particularly in the area of Travis picking and country blues.