Ever feel like there’s just too much to learn and not enough hours in the day to practice it all? I remember being overwhelmed by information at Music College, so much so that I didn’t know where to start. More than a decade later I realized that a large portion of that information was… I’m tempted to say useless but let’s call it ‘of little use’, as far as being a fairly rounded player goes, so let’s take a look at a selection of hacks to reduce information overload.
Hacks for Scales
At Music College I remember being handed a thick binder containing, among other things, the CAGED and 3NPS scale patterns. These were to be learned as quickly as possible, and in all keys. I duly went to the woodshed and worked on my patterns, which was rather like pulling teeth, and began to wonder if it was necessary to learn all the positions.
If you watch most guitarists you’ll see that they tend to favor certain areas of the neck when they solo. I think only Guthrie Govan, Allan Holdsworth and Eric Johnson use the whole of it. And in fact, limiting yourself to certain areas/patterns on the neck will often produce more melodic and results as the more scale patterns you know; the more tempting it is to become lost in mindless widdling. Moreover, in the aforementioned scale systems there are patterns that fall nicely under your fingers, and patterns that are just downright annoying. You can probably guess which kind of pattern you’re likely to remember and use.
Hack 1: Find some comfy scale patterns that fall nicely under your fingers over 2 or 3 octaves and you should have more than enough notes for most playing situations.
Hack 2: Try out the 2 Position Scale System where I promise you’ll only ever have to learn 2 shapes per scale.
Now you probably know that octaves on the guitar repeat every 12 frets, which is why it would seem logical to only learn patterns up to the 12th fret then simply repeat them by imagining that the 13th fret is the 1st fret. This is all well and good in theory but in practice it’s a little disorientating. The problem is the 12th fret or the 0 fret/nut because you can’t visualize the imaginary frets before it. Transitioning into the next octave at the 12th fret requires you to approach it from the 9th, 10th or 11th fret which you can’t do at the nut.
Hack 3: Practice scales up to the 15th fret to be sure you can deal smoothly with the octave transition.
Another impracticality of the CAGED/3NPS systems is that they encourage you to associate the beginning of a scale with the root note on the low E string. Most guitar players will start a solo somewhere in the middle of the fretboard or on one of the top two strings as starting a solo on the low E string a) sounds weird and b) does not grab people’s attention.
Hack 4: Make sure you can get into any scale pattern in the middle of the fretboard.
Hacks for Chords
A lot of guitarists struggle to learn chords on the instrument. This is mainly because a) soloing is much more interesting and b) they don’t apply them in a practical sense. For example, if you’re a rock or metal guitarist, there aren’t really a whole lot of chords you need to know. Power chords would be essential and you would occasionally dip into maj7, min7, 7 and even 9 chords. I found that when I started to look at more advanced chords, they just wouldn’t stick. I later discovered that I had no context for them i.e. I wasn’t applying them in a practical sense. I would learn a few new chords then go back to playing rock stuff.
Hack 5: If you’re going to learn more advanced chords, they must have a purpose such as a composition or piece of music you’re learning that involves them.
How many chords should I know?
The CAGED system has 5 chord shapes per scale, some of which are of little use and not very accommodating, but I’m more of the school of thought that 3 or 4 chord shapes that you like and can easily call upon are more than enough. Within your selection there should be one each for the roots on the lower 3 strings and perhaps one that has a root on the high E string.
Hack 6: 3 or 4 comfortable chord shapes are more than enough for most playing situations.
If you don’t play too much jazz or fusion then you won’t need a lot of extended chords though it is useful to be able to form these chords on the fly. The names can be daunting but all you’re really doing is adding notes to chords or triads you already know. Take a look at the following chords:
The first chord is C Dominant 7 and if you can spot the intervals you’ll see 1, b7, 3, 5 (from left to right). Therefore the next chord, C7b5, is the same only with a flatted 5. Simply modify the interval. In the final chord we still have the 1 and the b7, we just need the 9 (same as 2) and the sharp 11 (same as #4 or b5).
Hack 7: Know and be able to locate intervals on the fly to call on extended chords as and when needed.
Hacks for Keys
You may have noticed that there are certain keys, particularly in rock and blues, which are used way more than others on guitar. This is due to the fact that these keys are more guitar-friendly than others, especially those that incorporate open strings. I remember at Music College Guthrie Govan once telling us that when he was asked to do session work, it would normally involve him coming up with parts and solos in one of 5 or 6 keys, which is only half of them. I imagine he was referring to the classic guitar keys of C, G, D, A, E and maybe a flat key such as Eb.
Hack 8: Make sure you’re proficient in the most-used guitar keys.