2023 Musical Developments and Review

This past year felt like a big year for me as far as improved or developing musicianship compared with recent prior years. Most likely this is because this is the first year in 35+ years of playing guitar that I kept a rehearsal/practice journal and made even the slightest effort to structure my practice around material and technique. In any case, here’s a look back at how my year went from a musicianship POV.

  • I continued developing my flatpicking skills and bluegrass knowledge
  • I began learning to play mandolin
  • I started to use a journal to track what I’m practicing or working through
  • I started to learn how to play the Telecaster (as distinct from playing any other kind of electric guitar).

Bluegrass – more Stanley Brothers!

On the bluegrass and flatpicking front, I continued to dive into the Stanley Brothers. I read the Ralph Stanley autobiography, Man of Constant Sorrow. Really long book, but chock full of great stories and observations that helped solidify my believe that playing bluegrass music is part gift and part responsibility. Or, perhaps, part an honor and part an obligation.

Either way, playing bluegrass guitar ties me to a long chain of music and musicians in a way that no other music I’ve played does (though, playing in a Dead cover band, I think, will someday achieve this same level of meaning).

I also enjoyed listening to more current instances of bluegrass music, especially guitarists like Grant Gordy. He’s a far cry from Doc Watson and yet totally connected by the bluegrass thread.


Partly out of reverence for the tradition and partly for my own interest, I took up mandolin in June. By autumn I knew a few scales and could play a half dozen (fiddle) tunes at a pretty good clip. Much of this fast progress was due to having a good friend who 1.) lent me a mandolin and 2.) is an extraordinarily patient teacher. That, and learning straight out of the gate to not approach the mandolin as an upside down guitar. Those all made a huge difference for me.

Some combination of bad typing practice at work and poor left hand technique on the mandolin lead to some kind of RSI on my left hand that I’m still recovering from to some degree (heat, massage and some finger exercises as well as improved typing posture all helped here). As such, it’s been several weeks since I’ve played the mandolin for any length of time.

Still though, I had multiple opportunities to play mandolin with other mandolin players and deeply appreciate the sound of two mandolins playing in unison and it is gratifying to attend a guitar-heavy jam and be able to pull out the mandolin and chop with some moderate level of competency.

Day One Musical/Rehearsal Journal
I do not know why it has taken me almost 35 years to begin a practice journal, but now that I have done so, I do not think it is a practice I will ever abandon. I’m not a structured rehearsal type player. I play a wide variety of material and have to learn a wide variety of lyrics, styles, etc. Meaning, on Monday I may be working on a fiddle tune and by Wednesday I’m working on chord substitutions and Thursday learning how to sing the melody line on a Stanley brothers song. With all of those balls in the air, I was regularly forgetting any nuanced learnings or finger positions about the fiddle tune or forgetting about certain substitutions, etc.

By writing them down in a dedicated Day One journal and by occasionally revisiting the journal before sitting down to practice, I wasn’t constantly reinventing the wheel. I am tracking which songs I’m working on, notes around different live performance takeaways (e.g. I notice that I move around too much in front of the mic), the way the Osborne Brothers sing the second half of the verse of Kentucky Waltz, etc.

I also started to track certain baseline stats around max tempo/bpm for certain fiddle tunes, etc. Helpful in so many ways. I don’t have any kind of template or model for the journal, though I looked at many online before starting my own.

If you don’t already keep a practice journal, I cannot recommend it enough. It has been enormously helpful. Especially in light of my hand injury recovery. I didn’t play for over two weeks, but by revisiting my journal I was able to pick up right where I left off.


By far, the biggest leap in my knowledge this year (though sadly, not with my proficiency or skills) is around Telecaster guitar. I have been enjoying certain types of post-bluegrass Bakersfield-type music for several years now (Clarence White, Buck Owens/Don Rich, Chris Hillman, etc.), but suddenly this year felt a strong urge to play the telecaster in a very specific way that is unique to the telecaster guitar tradition: an instrument that bridges the gap between acoustic guitar and pedal steel.

I took a few online lessons, watched a lot of YouTube videos but, mostly, listened to telecaster players. James Burton gets referenced a lot for being an influential telecaster player. Digging deeply into his work with Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band is a masterclass in why he is such an important figure in the development of telecaster technique. That said, there are way too many to name here but I’ll mention two Telecaster players who I got to see live when I visited Nashville: Stuie French and Luke McQueary. See my Nashville Notes for more on these two amazing players.

I will admit to being a bit scared about the pain in my left hand preventing me from being able to resume playing but I’m getting more confident that the pain will eventually subside entirely. With that in mind, I think I need to focus my energies a bit more. While I love playing mandolin, I don’t think I can allow it to eat in to my guitar practice time which is already limited enough. I will continue to play mandolin but without any especially lofty goals, just being able to play a few fiddle tunes and chop behind other guitars is plenty satisfying.

On the guitar front, I want to continue to learn inversions and substitutions as they are the key to my understanding/unlocking the fretboard. The inversions and subs are great on the acoustic but even cooler when applied to the Telecaster and trying ring 6th chords out with the volume knob to emulate a pedal steel.

I’ll try to do all this while maintaining my current “OK-ness” as a bluegrass flat picker. I don’t want those skills to diminish too much while I explore alternate forms of playing. And, perhaps more importantly, I’d like to do all this while not sacrificing the time or energy required to write original music which didn’t happen nearly as much in 2023 as I’d hoped.



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