Insert your custom message here. close ×

Just open the case

You’d think it wouldn’t be that simple. But as soon as the case is open, you’re looking at the guitar. And as soon as you’re looking at the the guitar, it’s difficult to not pick it up. Once you do, it’s difficult to not start playing it.

And now you have to make a decision.

What’s your intention for picking up the guitar. Fun? Improvement? Those two things don’t always go together.

If it’s for fun, you usually play stuff you already know. If it’s to get better, you generally need to work on new stuff, listen to new stuff, work on new ideas. 

That can feel like work. One of my college students once told me that I had taken something he loved, and turned it into homework. 

The plateau

Not looking at new things can lead to complaints of reaching a plateau, of not progressing, either technically or creatively. You just stay where you are, playing and making stuff that doesn’t feel much different than what you’ve already been playing and making for a long time.

So, how do you get to the point where you feel like you’re progressing?

It’s pretty simple. Stop playing stuff you already know, and seek out stuff you don’t. 

Deliberate practice 

Which leads to the idea of deliberate practice, something many people aren’t willing to do. Here’s what I mean when I say “deliberate practice.” This is from Ethan Mollick’s book on AI.

“Imagine two students: Sophie and Naomi. Sophie spends her afternoons playing the same pieces she’s comfortable with over and over again. She might do this for hours on end, believing that sheer repetition will improve her skills. She feels a sense of accomplishment as she gets better and better at this work. Naomi, on the other hand, conducts her practice sessions under the guidance of a seasoned piano instructor. She begins by playing scales and then moves on to progressively more challenging pieces. When she makes mistakes, her instructor points them out, not to chastise her but to help her understand and rectify them. Naomi also regularly sets goals for herself, like mastering a particularly tricky section of a piece or improving her speed and agility on certain passages. The process is much less fun than Sophie’s experience, because Naomi’s challenges escalate with her skill, making sure she is always facing some degree of difficulty. Yet over time, even if both students clock in the same number of practice hours, Naomi will surpass Sophie in skill, precision, and technique. This difference in approach and outcome illustrates the gap between mere repetition and deliberate practice. The latter, with its elements of challenge, feedback, and incremental progression, is the true path to mastery.”

In other words, practice stuff you’re not already good at. No, it’s not always fun, but experiencing yourself getting better is worth it. 

Listen to stuff you don’t like, and ask yourself, “What makes this good?” Does it feel like you’re threatening your identity as a hardcore metalhead, a pure-hearted folkie, a whatever? Don’t worry. Nobody’s watching. And you might learn something about your own tastes.

As you get better technically, as you accept other approaches, your creativity will soar. You will be able to do things you couldn’t do before. You will get ideas you never knew existed. That’s exciting. That’s worth the exploration.

It’s really about getting your brain moving down different pathways, to stop thinking the way you normally think.

Consider all that for a bit, and then check out the next post.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Notes between notes

Ultimately, you want to feel totally free to do anything you want when you’re improvising. The old advice, “Learn your scales, then forget them”, implies that the scales, while important organizing structures, can become constraining if relied on too heavily.

So check out the notes between the notes in the scale. That’s where you’ll find the resources to control tension at a much higher level.

A sense of freedom starts developing when you realize that there are no mistakes that you can’t fix. This essentially means that there are no mistakes, just your story about what you’re playing. Those notes outside the scale aren’t mistakes, they’re opportunities.


“Mistakes” that concern note choice just means that you put your finger somewhere that you didn’t mean to, which feels like a mistake. Most people’s stories about mistakes is that they’re bad. This story can short circuit your ability to actually hear what you played, and instead of playing through that note to the next one, you fumble.  

And that’s the mistake.

Always keep playing, searching for the note (often a chord tone) that resolves the interesting tension you’ve unintentionally set up.

If you signal that you did something you didn’t want to do by making a face, or by some weird body language, then you transfer your story about screwing up to whoever is listening to you. That just makes them uncomfortable. And making a face is time you’ve wasted that you could have used to play something really interesting.

The fix

It’s easy to fix notes that you don’t like. If the note sounds really dissonant, it almost always means that it’s a half-step away from a chord tone. Just slide up or down a fret. In every case, you will have played a phrase you never would have thought to play. In many cases, it will be better than what you were thinking of playing. If you let the note you didn’t intend to play destroy your focus, you won’t see that. Don’t lose focus. Keep playing. Resolve the note.

This is not heart surgery. Nobody will get hurt. It’s your job to take chances, to risk looking stupid. Doing that makes it a lot more fun.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

All the notes

So now you have all the notes in the scale. Or do you?

Well, you do if we’re talking about the seven-note, diatonic major scale. But you don’t have all the notes if you’re talking about the chromatic scale. That takes five more notes, and you should be asking yourself, “Can I use those when I’m improvising, too?”

The answer is yes. But you have to be careful because they all sit a half-step away from a chord tone. Here they are:

Db  D  D#  E  F  Gb  G  G#  A  Bb  B

    b9        #9          b5        #5       b7

These notes are most often used on the dominant 7th chord, which accepts the tension of these notes more readily than do the minor7 and major7 chords. But if you use them wisely, you can use them anywhere.

Using tension    

Since these notes are a half-step away from chord tones, the obvious strategy when using them is to resolve them to the chord tone. But there are other things you can do that might be more interesting.

Here’s an example of a phrase played over a G7 chord. The altered tones are Ab (b9), Bb (#9), Db (b5), and D# (#5). The phrase here doesn’t use the D#.

This is an example of using these tones to create arpeggios that are outside of the key, creating a sense of movement that disguises to some extent the dissonance of these notes.

Arpeggios are things that humans have been hearing for centuries. They’re in our DNA (figuratively speaking). They’re so familiar that you can put them in weird contexts and, while they might sound strange, they don’t sound completely out of place.

The three arpeggios in the above phrase are relatively normal. The Gmin arpeggio has the root and the fifth of the G7 chord, and a #9 sandwiched between them. This just winds up sounding a bit bluesy. The Bbmaj arpeggio has the fifth and the seventh of the G7 along with that #9 – a bit more tension, but not much.

You can also think of the combined notes of the Gmin and the Bb arpeggios (G, Bb, D, F) in this example as a Gmin7 chord. I’m presenting them like this to demonstrate two different strategies.

The Amaj arpeggio is the most dissonant/interesting with the 9, the b5, and the 13 of the G7 chord: two extensions and chromatic note, no chord tones.


Create a list of triad arpeggios using the b9, #9, b5, and #5 of the G7 chord. Then try using them  in some improvisations. Just make a G7 backing track and practice using the arpeggios you create by inserting them into scalar passages, remembering to resolve the arpeggios to diatonic notes.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Extensions – 9, 11, 13

“Extensions” is the name given to the other notes – the non-chord-tones – in any scale. Here are the chord-tones and non-chord-tones in a C major 7 chord. Notice that you wind up with a C major scale.

C          D          E          F          G         A          B

They’re called extensions because, as you build the chord up in thirds from the root, they extend into the next octave. In that octave, they’re called the 9, 11, and 13. Within the octave, they’re called the 2, the 4, and 6.

C(1)   D   E(3)   F   G(5)  A    B(7)  C   D(9)  E    F(11)   G    A(13)     

In order to get a feel for how these notes sound, do the same thing that you did for the chord tones a few posts ago:

  1. Loop a single chord. Use a Cmaj7 chord for simplicity.
  2. Play the 9th and nothing but the 9th while the chord plays. Really figure out how that note makes you feel. Play it with the same articulation for a while (soft, hard, staccato, etc.). Then vary the articulation. Don’t vary the rhythm. Keep asking how it makes you feel. Don’t worry about coming up with an answer. The point is to feel, not explain.
  3. Do the same thing with the other extensions – the 11 and 13.
  4. Improvise using only two extensions. Your choices are 9 and 11; 9 and 13; 11 and 13. Play around with each pair.
  5. Use all three extensions in the same manner.
  6. Use every note in the scale.

If this feels tedious, remember you’re laying the groundwork, really getting to know how every note makes you feel. You can ignore all this, but you won’t feel what you’re doing as deeply.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Learning the guitar neck with licks

Learning the neck

Here it is:

Keep it in mind as we take a look at that Louis Armstrong solo again.

What’s the first thing you see in the first bar?

Nothing but C major chord tones. But where are those notes on the guitar? This is the crucial part. If you study the diagram above, you’ll find four practical locations to play it.

  1. Open position using an open E string to start.
  2. Fifth position starting with the E on the B string.
  3. Ninth position starting with the E on the G string.
  4. Fourteenth position starting with the E on the D string.

Finding the notes in all the positions might take a little while. Be patient. It’ll be worth it.

Play the lick in all of these positions, saying the names of the notes out loud as you do. Move randomly between positions, and see if you can play in each position five times.

Do this every day for a week, and you’ll know where the four pitches in this lick are in all the practical positions on the guitar. You’ll also have a lick that you can use in a number of different places. Don’t like the lick? Find one you do, or better yet, invent one. Don’t make it longer than four pitches; you want to make it easy to learn where the notes are.

Then learn two more four-note licks. Each of these three licks should have their own unique set of notes, different than the other two. Do this and you’ll cover all twelve pitches. Don’t worry about making licks that only use chord tones. Just make sure all twelve pitches are represented in the three licks.

Learn each one in two different octaves, and you’ll have covered most, if not all of the guitar. Give each lick in both octaves a week, and in six weeks, you’ll have a reasonably solid knowledge of the fretboard. And you’ll have six licks you can use in your improvising. Six weeks is nothing in the scope of things.

Then just keep learning new licks, and your knowledge will get stronger and stronger.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus


I should say, before I go any further, that my intent with these posts is to emphasize the depth of relationships between notes and notes, and between notes and you. That’s implied in the last post, but as strongly as I would have liked.

Music is not just about making cool sounds. That definitely happens, but it’s much more than that. Really paying attention to the sounds you make, and how they make you feel, is the first step in establishing your own, unique voice.

Ok. So on to today’s post…

Chord tones vs. arpeggios

If you wanted to answer the question of who first started soloing over jazz changes first, good luck. Who did it best is a bit easier, and most people would say Louis Armstrong. So how did he approach things?

If you look at the first 12 bars of his solo on Basin Street Blues, you’ll find a lot of chord tones, arpeggios, and chromatic neighbor and passing tones. Scales don’t dominate the picture, and this emphasis on chord tones and chromatic movement give his work drive, direction,  and coherence.

There are exceptions of course, but look at almost any jazz solo and you’ll find chord tones all over the place. They give cover for creating tension by providing places to resolve whatever tension you may have set up.

Knowledge of chord tones give you solid control over what you’re doing. A lot of people enter the world of chord tones by learning all their arpeggios, but you don’t need to learn all your arpeggios to know your chord tones.

You just need to know the note-name of every fret on the neck of the guitar (at least up to the 12th fret). Then you need to know what the chord tones are in any chord you encounter. Then, as you move through different chord charts, chord tones light up on the frets, alerting you to safe harbor.

No matter what trouble you’ve gotten yourself in, you can get out of it by landing on a chord tone. This creates a lot of confidence.

Arpeggios give you shapes. The guitar is really good at shapes, so it makes it easy to just memorize arpeggios without looking at the guts of things, without getting to really know your instrument.

Knowledge of the neck combined with knowledge of chord theory gives you freedom and confidence that simply knowing shapes doesn’t.  It’s work, and it takes time, but it’s worth it.

And once you got that in place, go ahead and learn your arpeggios. They’ll mean more.

In the next post, I’ll present a way to learn the neck through the use of licks.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

1 2 3 30