29 January 2013

Why I Stopped Practicing Guitar Scales (and Got Better at Playing Solos)

Sor Guitar Studies
On my bookshelf I have a collection of classical studies for guitar by Fernando Sor and Matteo Carcassi. Fernando Sor is famous for his numerous "studies" - short guitar exercises - that have formed a staple part of classical guitar learning since the early 19th century.

How many scales are played in the 100 pages of music notation? Not one. Instead, the book is filled with melodic exercises designed to develop dexterity and skill with both fretting and picking hands.

Who Wants to Play Scales?

Like many of us I learned about the pentatonic scale boxes when I started to study blues guitar. I diligently practiced these scales, up and down, in all the five positions. I even learned the diagonal patterns that linked the boxes so I could move up and down the fretboard from one box to another. I practiced these scales in binary and triplet time and I used a metronome to get faster and faster.

But despite all that effort, when I put on a jam track and tried to solo things just didn’t work out. I didn't know how to turn those scales into a decent blues guitar solo.
It wasn't until much later and much frustration that I finally began to understand what was wrong with my approach.

“Goodbye Scales”, “Hello Melodies”

Scales provide a map of your guitar fretboard that shows which notes are good to use at a given time.  They can also be a good tool to build strength, dexterity and coordination of hands and fingers. Spend your practice time playing scales up and down and you will obviously become quite good at doing that. But real music is not made of scales played up and down.

Get hold of a songbook for the kind of music you like and take a look at the vocal melodies. You'll see that they hardly ever follow a scale linearly. Instead, the notes go up and down in irregular steps and jumps. Up a note and then down a couple before climbing back up again. These little roller-coaster sequences usually repeat many times along the way.
One thing you will almost never see are lines of notes moving neatly up or down a scale one step at a time.

Wake Up Those Rhythms Too

While you’ve got those melodies before you take a look at the note durations too. Flurries of short notes are cut by longer notes. A series of long notes is woken up with a flurry of short ones.

But when we practice scales its almost always with a constant rhythm. It might be quarter, eighth, sixteenth or triplet notes, but it’s the same played all through the scale.
Of course, when you solo you repeat these same rhythm patterns that have become habit through practice. Your notes all have the same duration. Boring.

You have to practice rhythmic variations like those you see in the songbook so that they become the habit that comes out in your solos. So why spend your practice time teaching yourself to do exactly the opposite and play those same old eighth notes all the time?

Melody Practice

It's really quite easy to avoid these scale practice problems. Give up on racing up and down the scale boxes on your guitar neck one note at a time. Get hold of some melodies and practice them instead.

There are lots of different sources you can use to find melodies to work with. Here are just a few ideas to get started.

  • Get a songbook of your favourite songs or artist and practice the vocal melodies on your guitar. You can break them down into small chunks of 2, 4 or 8 bars to work on.
  • Get hold of some guitar licks collections to give yourself lots of musical phrases to practice. You can find these in lick books, learn them from a teacher, a magazine, or even from Fernando Sor.
  • An excellent way to gather melodies is to pick them out by ear. Have a go at this and you'll do your musicality a world of good.


I hope you understand now that there are more effective ways to spend your guitar practice time than running up and down scale boxes. You can use melodies instead to:

  • Build strength, dexterity and coordination of hands and fingers
  • Train your hands and fingers to work musical roller-coasters, not boring straight lines
  • Have more fun as you play real music

What is your experience with scale practice? Do you find it useful? Do you use alternatives like melody practice? Click the comment link below to share your thoughts.

19 September 2012

Blues Rhythm Guitar Riff Accompaniment

Have you ever watched a kids football match? You don't see much in the way of strategy or tactics. No elegant sweeping passes around the pitch. Instead you see a single clump of little players weaving its way around the pitch as all the kids follow the ball.


Sometimes guitarists at blues jams are like those kids. Instead of the elegant sound of a real blues band there's a kind of muddled din as everyone bashes away on those same 7th chords. Wouldn't it be great if there was a different way to play. A way to open up some space in the music so that the notes could be passed around elegantly?


Well, here's a way to do just that the next time you're playing some blues with friends. The answer is to play some rhythm riffs instead of full chords. This post teaches you a simple single-note riff that works great as a rhythm part in a band.


If you're comfortable playing some pentatonic scales then instead of playing chords that muddy up the sound you can weave in a neat little riff like this to create space and elegance. Sound good? Then let's get to work on an example riff on the I chord.


Example I chord riff

We're going use the key of G for this example. The figure below shows the riff played over the I chord, G7.


The lick starts just ahead of the first bar with a slide into the major 3rd to announce that G7 chord. It continues with a simple run on the 2nd string before winding back up on the major 3rd again.


The lick is repeated in the second bar with a slight twist at the end, it finishes on a G note instead of the major 3rd. You could just repeat the major 3rd ending, that would work fine, but I like the little extra bounce the change introduces.


The presence of the major 3rd at the 4th fret of the 3rd string really supports the sound of the G7 chord. You might be thinking that that note isn't in the standard pentatonic minor, or blues, pattern that you've learned. In fact, what's going on here is that we're mixing the minor and major scales.


Mixing the minor and major pentatonic scales

This mix of notes from the major and minor pentatonic scales can be thought of as a scale on its own. It even has a fancy name - the mixolydian scale - but you don't need to worry about that if you don't want to.


I prefer to just think of it in terms of the basic minor pentatonic scale with a couple of notes from the major scale thrown in. This also works if you think of it the other way around - as a major pentatonic scale with a couple of minor pentatonic notes thrown in.


Those notes on the third and sixth frets come straight out of the first minor pentatonic scale box in the key of G.


The other notes - those on the fourth and fifth frets - are taken from the G major pentatonic scale. These added major tones outline the chord sound and make the riff work well as a rhythm accompaniment.


But while these major sounds make the lick a great tool to outline the sound of the G7 chord, they pose problems when we move to the IV or V chord. Try playing the riff over C7 and D7 chords to hear for yourself.


The major 3rd of the G7 really doesn't sound good over those chords. Luckily, there's an easy solution for that problem.


Moving the riff to the IV and V chords

When the song moves to the IV or V chords we need to modify the riff to remove the troublesome major 3rd note. We're going to use an easy solution, we simply move the whole lick up five frets on the IV chord and two more frets (seven in total) on the V chord and play it there instead.


The figure below shows what happens when the lick is moved up to the 8th fret over the C7 IV chord.


Now the lick does a great job of outlining those chords for us and the shape is the same so it's easy to play. And here's how it's played over the D7 V chord. Note that this chord only lasts for one bar before moving down to the C7 version shown above.


Putting it all together

If you string the lick together in all three positions then you get the complete arrangement shown in the figure below. Now find yourself some blues recordings in the key of G and try it out.






9 July 2012

3 Ways I Worked on Guitar With a Broken Collar Bone

On Monday 4th of June I broke my collar bone. I was cycling to work in the morning as usual when I hit an obstacle and flew through the air over the handlebars. I landed on my left shoulder and rolled a little on the hard tarmac.

In the heat of the moment I thought I'd come out of it pretty well, a few cuts and bruises but I didn't imagine I'd broken anything. But a check up at the hospital revealed that my left collar bone was in fact broken.

The hospital sent me home with strapping around my shoulders and instructions not to do any sport or lift things. Four weeks of immobilisation lay before me.

I could do almost nothing. I had to rely on my family to run the house and even to wash me and tie my shoe laces. I had a go at playing guitar but quickly discovered how important a well-anchored shoulder is to playing. I had to resign myself to give up on guitar too.

It was a frustrating time, not playing guitar and not doing anything else all day was hard for me. But I found three musical activities that kept me working on my guitar skills and helped to sooth my frustrations.

1. Pick Out Melodies on a Piano

Right after my accident my right hand fingertips were pretty cut up and sore. But with my middle finger that had escaped without harm I could pick out little melodies on my son's piano.

I'd recently watched a film about Woodstock because my daughter studied it for a school project. So I tried to pick out Hendrix's star spangled banner that I'd seen Hendrix play by ear.

I don't think I actually got it right, but I had fun trying and I'm sure I learned in the process so I'll be a bit better next time I try to pick out a melody by ear.

2. Strumming and Picking Exercises

After a few days I thought to myself that I could work on my picking hand, I didn't need to move my left arm for that.

So I propped my guitar on my lap and worked on some strumming and picking exercises with my right hand. I did all that with open or muted strings and left my left arm in peace.

3. Playing Ukulele

About 10 days after my accident I caught sight of a ukulele in one of our cupboards. I immediately thought that I might be able to play its very short neck without moving my left arm about.

I was right, and I spent a happy hour strumming away songs on it. I repeated the experience regularly during the following weeks.

A couple of days ago I had a check up and my collar bone is healing nicely. I still can't hold my guitar strap over my shoulder, but I can start to play the guitar a bit again.

I'm thankful for that. But I'm also thankful that my experience taught me that no matter how improbable or difficult it seems, no matter what obstacles there are, I can always find a way to learn and develop my musical and guitar playing skills.

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Photo by starpause kid.

11 May 2012

Rhythm Guitar Octaves

Earlier this week I posted a lesson on How to Play Octaves on the Guitar. If you'd like an opportunity to put the octaves shown in that post into practice you should enjoy lesson on rhythm guitar playing with octaves. Click here to open Music Radar's site to view it.


If, like me, you have a little trouble finding the tab for this lesson then click the photo of the guitar player or the "View in gallery" text link underneath it. A new page opens with a larger version of the guitarist picture and a right arrow to show the tab.


Have fun practicing with the jam track. I'll be following up with some more examples of octave playing for you to try. Be sure to subscribe (it's free) so you don't miss them. Click here to subscribe by email or click here to subscribe in an RSS reader.

9 May 2012

50 Ways to Become a Better Guitarist

The UK magazine site Music Radar recently published its list of 50 tips to help make you a better guitar player. There are a lot of tips that will help you to make progress in this densely packed list, enough to keep you busy for a long time. In fact there are so many that if you try to put them all into practice at once I'm sure you'll be overwhelmed. I think it's a great list to bookmark so you can revisit it from time to time and pick a tip or two to work on for a while.


Maybe you'll find my list of favourites a useful place to start. It's not that the other tips are not all valuable, they are, but there are just so many you can't work them all at once. These are just my personal favourites at the moment.



If you're in a real hurry to get going, then here are the 3 tips I think are the most essential. First, realise that it's never too late. Then immediately book yourself a gig, even if it's only playing for your grandma at the end of the month. Finally, get off that forum (or web site) and get practicing.


What About You?

Do you have a favourite tip in the collection, or your own personal one that didn't appear in this list? Click the comments link below to share it with us.

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