Andrea Lea

When he started teaching guitar and mandolin, Duke Sharp went looking for a book that explains what his students needed to know. He searched book stores, libraries, universities, and on line databases. What he found were a lot of small pieces of bigger puzzles, and some complicated explanations of arcane theories and phenomena that didn’t matter, but nothing that provided a logically structured and complete picture of what accomplished musicians know and use every day.

So he set out to write a good guitar teacher’s manual, not knowing he’d be at it for seven years—articulating hundreds of non-verbal (i.e., musical) concepts, selecting what the reader needs to know and leaving out what they don’t, creating hundreds of understandable lessons, fnding the right place for each lesson in a basics-to-advanced structure, making hundreds of details for hundreds of diagrams, learning a dozen or so forever-changing software applications, surviving betrayal by forever-outdated and unreliable hardware, and endlessly editing, improving, and revising.

The result is Garage Band Theory, an unpretentious, understandable, and incredibly effective one-stop shop for anybody who teaches guitar, plays guitar, or wants to. First, it demystifes music theory. According to Sharp, a professional musician for the past 30 years or so, music theory is a “very well designed and a relatively simple solution to some really complicated communication issues. That’s what it’s for: communication.” He also says, “A two-word defnition of music theory that I like is this: music vocabulary.” So you might say you start learning, chapter by carefully constructed chapter, how to “speak music.” And you end up knowing not just how to play a guitar (or get better), but also how to play it with other musicians—whether they’re on strings, horns, woodwinds, or percussion.

Just leafng through its pages, I learned a way to tune my guitar that’s better and easier than the method I used for 20 years; that in addition to the F (bass) and G (treble) clefs, there’s another one in guitar called a C clef; what the Circle of Fifths is; how to use the capo that’s been sitting in my guitar case for such a long time; and… …that this one book teaches everything any normal person will ever need to know not just about playing “by ear” and skilled listening, but also musical notation, tablature, melody, harmony, dissonance, modulating and transposing, arpeggios, fngering, picking, tunings, scales and modes, and vocabulary.

For starters. This all goes for mandolin too. Not to mention a lot about the other stringed instruments: guitar, mandolin, mandola, bass, violin, viola, 5-string banjo, octave mandolin, cello (baritone and tenor), dulcimer, four kinds of ukulele, and tenor banjo. Or the hundreds of lessons Sharp devised using examples from swing, jazz, four-to-the-bar, Charleston, blues, bluegrass, rock and roll, American folk, be-bop, country western, nonwestern, children’s, huge famous hits, famous unforgettable standards, Olde English Tudor, classical, classical renditions of all these styles, modern renditions of classics, and more.

Then I get the idea that maybe not having this book all these years (rather than my lack of discipline) is the reason I got just good enough to fake I-IV-V camp songs, throw in a few bar chords, and do rousing concerts by and for myself in my living-room when nobody else is home—but have never been able to keep up with people who can play what seems like anything, with endless variations, on the spot.

So in the sea of information that this book is, something in the chapter on Progressions got my attention: “Have you ever seen a guitarist who is playing what seems to be a really complex chord progression, but somehow barely moves the hand that’s fretting all the chords? This section is an introduction to how that works.” I keep reading, and fnd out “Any fve-fret section of a guitar neck spans two full octaves plus a major 3rd. That is enough notes to play any chord without having to shift your hand up or down the neck.”

I spent the better part of a Sunday afternoon working through this section. Now, even though my fngers don’t get it yet, my brain fnally understands two new common and powerful improvisation techniques. Some proof, maybe, that Sharp’s right when he says that what musicians do to improvise and play by ear is teachable, learnable, and essentially “something we all do on a regular basis.”

Which reminds me: this book is like sitting down with a very friendly and down-to-earth master who’s doing everything in his power to transfer his years of practice and experience to you. Really. There’s no way you could read this book and not get the impression that Duke Sharp’s dedication to your success is absolutely genuine and whole. In addition to all the excellent lessons, he weaves in history, anecdotes, and lots of excellent advice that includes specifc, practical techniques for memory, practicing, mastery, studying, learning, playing for fun, and playing professionally. To name but a few. For any list of great how-to books, this one belongs right up there with such classics as The Joy of Cooking, How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, and Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain. And I’ll throw in The Artist’s Way too, because it wouldn’t surprise me if Garage Band Theory workshops pop up all over the place.

If you own a guitar, you will want this book. If you’re serious about playing guitar, you’ll miss it when it’s elsewhere, and you’ll head straight for it when it’s not. Write in it. Draw on it. Read the text. Take the advice. Practice the drills. Take the quizzes. Comprehend the diagrams. Sleep with it. Shower with it. Then go audition for a garage band. You’ll rock.