Let’s face it, improvisation of any kind on guitar is hard but if you work at it, you’ll be rewarded. Guitarists are notorious for diving in at the deep end when it comes to learning to improvise, thinking they have to learn hundreds of patterns and permutations to be able to solo like a boss. It’s more often the case that too much information leads to a fragmented approach, when the thing to do would be to reduce the amount of information to the level of, ‘just enough to be dangerous’, which is what we’ll look at in this post.
Have you ever watched a Troy Grady video but didn’t really get it? I know I have. You’ll be surprised to know that this is not due to Troy’s rambling nature of explaining things – you’ll never get a short answer from this guy – but it is in fact due to the sheer amount of information he bestows upon us in each video and the brain power required to process it. Most guitarists never give a second thought to the way they hold a pick, at what angle they slant it, string-hopping, downward pickslanting, upward pickslanting, two-way pickslanting, edge picking… You see what I mean? It’s a lot to take in, which is probably why when you go to apply some of these mechanics, you don’t really see any giant leaps forward, or find your fingers can suddenly fly around the fretboard like Eric Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen or Troy himself. In this post, we’ll look at the infamous downward pickslanting technique, derived mainly from Eric Johnson, and how to get past the pitfalls and incorporate it into your playing.
If you’re a fan of three-note-per-string (3NPS) scales, and have gotten all the patterns down, you might want to add in chromatic passing tones to give your improvisations a more fusion or jazzy feel, even if you play mainly rock stuff. I got this idea from watching Joe Satriani’s hand movements when improvising, though I’m not sure whether he thinks about it this way. If you haven’t gotten the patterns down, check out our free eBook which shows you how to use just three patterns instead of the usual (and unnecessary) seven.
As guitarists, we tend to get comfortable with our playing at a certain level and not venture out of our comfort zones too often, especially if there’s no one close at hand that’s better than us. If, on the other hand, you do fancy taking a step outside your comfort zone, how do you go about it? If you’re anything like me, you probably want to do something radical that will give you some much-needed inspiration or insight into your playing. If you’re not like me, and you just want some kind of quick fix, do some ear training – it’s one of the few things that encompasses and improves all other guitar skills. But, for anyone who’s slightly masochistic, here are five things you could try.
Most guitarists get stuck in a scales rut sooner or later; this is somewhat due to learning patterns which, because of their enclosing nature, train our fingers not to stray outside of them and encourage us to play almost on autopilot within the confines of a set of notes. The good news is that it’s not so much the patterns that are the problem, but what we do, or don’t do, inside of them that counts. If you search this blog, you’ll find a bunch of articles on breaking out of scale patterns that involve doing something other than playing a scale pattern, but in this one we’ll look at how to mix it up inside those boxes to get that sense of breaking new ground you might be striving for…
While playing fast for the sake of it is probably not a worthwhile pursuit on guitar, once you’re over 17, it’s nice to have a little speed on-tap for those moments when the emotion of the piece requires it. Playing chromatic scales with a metronome for hours on end to build speed never really did it for me, and if it doesn’t float your boat either, you’ll be pleased to know that there are plenty of other ways to tweak your playing for a quick injection of speed, or simply to get a better tone and more consistent attack.
While you might have been dazzled into thinking that phenomenal technique and a mastery of music are a fundamental part of being a virtuoso guitarist, and they are, there’s an even more fundamental skill that is often overlooked by budding virtuosos wanting to follow in the footsteps of their heroes. What lies behind the blistering technique and the all-encompassing knowledge of music are an equally phenomenal pair of ears, so in this post I want to convince you to take up the lost art of working things out by ear, which is not to be confused with ear (s)training.
It’s no secret that your average saxophone player is lightyears ahead of your average guitarist when it comes to improvisation; this is mainly because your average saxophonist knows the shit out of chords, but your average guitarist doesn’t. This is slightly ironic because you can’t play chords on a saxophone, but anyway, what I’d like to do here is look at a concept that saxophone players use to improvise and apply it to our beloved instrument to see if we can’t beat them at their own game. Both guitarists and saxophonists learn and practice scales, but a saxophonist must know what notes are in the scale in order to play it. A guitarist, on the other hand, can learn a scale without knowing what notes or intervals are in it by virtue of a pattern on the fretboard. This is where we, as guitarists, screw ourselves over somewhat as we shall see…
Out of the 20 something years I’ve been playing guitar, I’ve had lessons for about 3 of those, so I’m largely self-taught, which is probably why you’ll find all kinds of unorthodox stuff on this blog to try out. On the other hand, for the three years that I did receive formal lessons, I was spoilt beyond belief with lessons from Guthrie Govan, Dave Kilminster, Eric Roche, Pete Friesen, Mike Goodman, Tristan Seume, Jamie Humphries and my very first guitar teacher, the amazing Steve Dodds. Truth be told, they collectively provided me with lifetimes worth of insight but I was always inclined to want to figure things out on my own, so here are ten or so tips for those of you who are also on the self-taught path.
While using a metronome to get your timing down is an essential part of being able to play guitar well, it doesn’t do much for your groove. That’s not to say you can’t learn to groove with a metronome but I always found it way too dry as the essence of groove is to do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do with a metronome; i.e. play within the range or spectrum of the beat but not right on it. Groove is best developed with a live rhythm section but you’re unlikely to find one that’s willing to play all day while you work on your groove, so in this post I’ll show you an exercise you can do with the next best thing.
When you come to write your own material as a solo artist, band member, composer, or anything else, you’re going to need to know which chords belong in which keys. Even if you plan on ignoring all the rules and creating a dissonant, atonal masterpiece - you need to know the rules before you can break them. Assuming you’re already able to play a few chords with a solid technique and you’re starting to know your way around the fretboard a little, here’s a lesson on how to know which chords belong in which keys. At first, this may seem like a long-winded process, but I can assure you from working through it with many of my students, that with a bit of practice, the process speeds up and before long, you’re doing it in no time at all.
Continuing our look at how to use the different intervals in blues playing, we come to the versatile 6. The 6 is not part of the minor pentatonic or blues scales, but it can be used to great effect in a blues in a couple of ways. You will find the 6 in the major pentatonic and Dorian scales, which can also be used over a blues, but in this lesson, we’ll look at its effect from the perspective of the minor pentatonic and blues scales.
The blues note is of course the b5, and if you’ve been following this series of blog posts, you’ll find it just after the 4, which we looked at in Blues Soloing Tricks: What to Do with the 4. I remember discovering the b5 through learning the blues scale (1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7), which is the minor pentatonic scale with the added ‘blue note’. I found it hard to use at first because it sounded so out, as if I were repeatedly hitting the wrong note. further down the line I discovered that perhaps scales weren’t the best way to get used to this striking sound, and had better luck with the following method.
This lesson follows on from the approach we looked at in Blues Soloing Tricks: How to Blend Major and Minor Sounds, so be sure to check that one out if you haven’t already as it contains the building blocks for where we’re headed next. The 4 is an interesting interval in a blues, yet a lot of teachers will tell you to almost avoid it altogether, use it as a passing tone, and not to stay on it for any length of time. They’re right to a certain extent but I think if you approach it with this kind of thinking, you’re never going to sound convincing.
In my opinion, the hallmark of good blues soloing is the ability to seamlessly blend major and minor scales/licks/runs to exploit that minor/major third ambiguity in the blues. If you feel that your blues soloing isn’t sounding authentic enough, this is probably what’s missing. Most people’s approach to this seems to be either some kind of hybrid major/minor pentatonic scale, or learning a bunch of licks from players that have already mastered the art of blending major and minor. While there’s nothing wrong with either of these approaches, they don’t get to the nuts and bolts of it, which is what I’d like to show you in this blog post.
This is a common problem among guitar players: they get very good at getting some great licks and runs from major and minor pentatonic scales, then decide to learn modes and it all goes to shit. This is mainly because guitarists believe that to learn modes you need to adopt some other method such as the CAGED or 3NPS patterns. In doing this, their chops go back to zero because the plethora of new patterns bear no relation to the pentatonic ones they know and love, are very clunky, and harder to get under control. So, what if there was a way to keep playing pentatonics but have them sound like modes instead? Read on…
In this series, we’re taking a look at what I like to call, ‘fretboard motion’, which is ways of moving around the fretboard that create musical motion and avoid obvious sounding scale patterns, licks and runs. In Part 1, we looked at horizontal scale patterns and their numerous advantage; while in Part 2, we combined 3NPS and 4NPS scale patterns for moving across and up the neck in a symmetrical way. In Part 3, we return to those horizontal patterns and enter the warp zone—that major third bump in the road between the G and B strings in standard tuning…
In Part 1, we looked at dividing the fretboard up into string pairs in order play horizontally up and down the neck. In Part 2, we take the symmetry idea a little further by creating diagonal patterns across the string sets which combine 3NPS and 4NPS scales. If you haven’t looked into 4NPS scales, check out the introductory tutorial here, and if you want a more efficient way to learn 3NPS scales, grab our free eBook here. We’ll be working up at the 12th fret to make the initial stretches easier on your hands.
If you take a closer look at John Scofield’s playing, you’ll see him play lines up and down the fretboard using scales based on pairs of strings. I’ve also seen him explain this in various workshops and instructional videos. It’s a very useful technique as it helps you a) join up different scale shapes you may have learned; b) it doesn’t confine you to one box position on the fretboard, and c) it allows you to play in a more symmetrical way. It could be a personal thing, but I also find it a more comfortable way to move around the fretboard, as well as generate more speed. Let’s check it out.
I’m a huge fan of pentatonic scales, but not just the major and minor ones; there’s so much more you can do with pentatonics. After all, pentatonic means 5 tones—any 5 tones—and there are literally thousands of combinations available, if you just take the time to permutate them all. If you don’t have the time, read on because I’ve permutated a bunch of them below for you to wail away on. As guitarists, we’re so used to pentatonics and they feel reassuringly comfortable under our fingers, so why stop at just the major and minor?