Learning to play the bug
I had to stop using the straight key after having a mouse arm caused by incorrect use of a computer mouse. Having more time to spend after retirement I took up the challenge of learning to use the bug. Why invest time in a bug after using an iambic B keyer for 47 years? CW represents the essence of radio communication. Using a straight key or cootie or bug fits the essence better than an electronic keyer. Just like a glider instead of a plane with a motor. Or a real musical instrument instead of an electronic synthesizer.
I have played a musical instrument for 40 years. Learning and playing the bug has a lot in common with learning and playing a musical instrument. It is certainly not the first time CW is compared to music! It is both about communicating a message. The message should be easy to understand and so clearly send. It is not about what you think you played, but what is actually played and received. So you have to be able to hear what you play, to hear your own fist. Listening is your only feedback.
When using a keyer you don’t pay much attention to the timing of the dots, dashes and spaces. You don’t develop your hearing. Can you hear the subtle timing deviations when sending with a straight key, cootie or bug? An instructor can give the needed feedback. But in the absence of it an alternative is needed. The program PCW fistcheck is very well suited for giving you all the feedback needed to develop hearing your own fist. PCW fistcheck shows and measures your timing of the dots, dashes and spaces. And more. The focus however has to be on hearing, not on seeing. So on trying to hear your fist with PCW fistcheck as a check.
Why is a bug more difficult? I think it is because the rhythm of the dots are made in a different way than of the dashes. A straight key or cootie seem more logical. Just as with learning a musical instrument, it will take time to learn. You can’t learn to play a musical instrument in a few days or weeks. It takes practice every day over a longer period of time and you will never stop learning. Even professional musicians keep practicing every day. Some will learn faster or reach a higher level. Just as with music, you can have fun in playing the bug at any level. Don’t hurry to make your first QSO on the band. It took me 10 month before I had enough confidence in my fist to make my first QSO. Learning a musical instrument takes much longer.
Some musical instruments can be very frustrating in the beginning. A bug is no different. It is all about take your time to learn sending with a correct fist. Only if you have mastered it, you can vary your fist in a controlled way and increase speed. May be you like more legato or staccato CW? But at all times it should be well readable for the ham operator receiving your code.
If possible, build a separate setup in the shack with the bug, a tone generator and a computer running PCW fistcheck. It makes it much easier to practice for one or more short periods in a day. Each period needs to be no longer than 10-15 minutes.
I approached learning the bug the same way as with a musical instrument.
First you have to setup your bug. Setting up the bug is part of learning the bug. There is enough information on the internet. Select a comfortable, but not too low, speed for instance 20wpm. However 20wpm is rather low for a bug. Most bugs need extra weight. Important then is a not too small dot distance for minimizing contact bounce. May be you need a debounce circuit. PCW can be used to set the speed and the correct dot length. Dash pressure not too low. Keep the index finger close to the paddle when making dashes. The wrist has to do the work.
Keep practicing on this speed. It makes no sense to vary the speed when you have no control of your fist at a fixed speed. If you can’t hear your fist at this speed, for sure you can’t at a higher speed.
It makes no sense to practice complex characters when not mastered the simpler characters first! Learn characters in order of increasing complexity. Add more complex characters only after having mastered the simpler ones.
Order of increased complexity:
• e, i, s, h, 5 only dots
• t, m, o, 0 dash length and spacing
• a, u, v, 4 space between multiple dots and a single dash, length of that dash
• n, d, b, 6 space between a single dash and one or more dots, length of that dash
• g, w, z, 3, 7 two dashes before and after one or more dots
• j, 2, 8 three dashes before and after one or more dots
• 1, 9 four dashes
• r, k and y, q and f, l and c, x, p: multiple transitions between dots and dashes
• , . <AR> <BT> <KN> <BK>: longer and more complex characters
It also doesn’t make sense to practice a sequence of multiple characters if not mastered single characters first. I think it makes sense to start first with a sequence of two or more same characters and go from that to words, sentences and off air QSOs.
What deviations in fist can you expect?
I had the habit of making the last dash too long in a sequence of dashes or at the end of a character. For instance J, O, 8, 9, but also the Y and Q.
But making a first dash too short. For instance in the C, Q, G, 9, but also P, J or W.
The last spacing in the F and the first spacing in the L were difficult for me to control.
I think these are typical deviations. For instance I hear other hams sending CQ having a too short first dash in de Q.
I also noticed that I made the space before the character “e” too long or too short after it. And the space between the “s” and the “t” in “best” too short.
As with a musical instrument, at first you will get tired quickly. Regular practice or making QSOs each day will make it much easier after a while. It will become second nature.
Before starting a QSO on the band I always practice a few moments with PCW. Just as a warming up. Did always a warming up when playing music. For now I leave PCW active so I can check my fist now and then. However I try to stay focused on what I hear, not on what I can see on PCW!
Goal is not a perfect fist as with an electronic keyer.
Appreciate the imperfection like in Japanese Wabi-sabi.
See for more on my bugs on https://www.qrz.com/db/PA0SIM
A few bug related links:
Last update: August 4, 2022