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Build your own chords

A chord is defined as two or more notes played together. Most chords are at least three notes, and if they’re three notes that’s called a triad.


If you want to make a three-note chord on adjacent strings, there are three ways to do this. .


  1. place one finger across three adjacent strings
  2. use one finger on one string and one finger on the other two strings
  3. use one finger per string


Let’s look at each in turn.


One finger across three strings – the barre.

3 note chords1

                 1                              2                                3


You can barre with any of the fingers. Use your index (pointer) finger or ring finger for now.  Barring can be painful if you’re not used to it. Change fingers from time to time.


Place your index finger or ring finger across all three strings in each example and press down.  Which is easiest?


Now play each example. If you’re strumming with a pick, numbers 2 and 3 can be tricky. The idea is to play only the three notes indicated. It can be difficult to miss the other strings. You can fix this problem by playing the notes fingerstyle.


One finger on one string and one finger on two strings

 3 note chords2

               1                              2                               3

This means that you have to barre two strings with one of those fingers. Try it with the shapes below. Numbers 2 and 3 aren’t so bad. For number 2, you can use your first finger to play the two first two strings and your second finger to play the note on the 3rd string.


For number 3, use your middle finger for the note on the 1st string, and your index finger for the other two notes.


One finger per string


This feels the most normal. Here are a few examples.


3 note chords3

              1                                2                             3


Some of these nine examples are standard triads (especially the one-finger-per string examples). Some are not. This is a way of taking things that you’re used to playing, and using them with things that you aren’t. Part of the reason for doing this is to find sounds that you aren’t familiar with. This helps you hear harmony differently. Hearing harmony differently gives you new ideas.


Moving it around


Try these on any string set.  String set 1 would be strings 1, 2, and 3; string set 2 is strings 2, 3, and 4; string set 3 is strings 3, 4, and 5, etc.


Now start moving between the shapes. Try moving them to different places on the neck. This is experimentation, so don’t expect to always find stuff that you like. Just play around for 10 minutes or so, and write down the things that you like.



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More two-note patterns

In the last post we created 2 note patterns with a minor pentatonic scale. Then we strung them together and re-ordered them.


This post is a bit more complicated.


Let’s take a look at the last set of patterns we looked at in the last post.


2 note pattern2 


fig. 1


Change it to this.

2-note sequence3

                                          fig. 2  

For each 2 note pattern, I’ve started on a note other than A. Then I maintained the amount of distance between the notes. Compare the two notes on beat 1 in figure 1 (A down to E)  with the first two notes on beat 1 of figure 2 (D down to A). You’ll see the same amount of notes between each pair (A G F E) – figure 1; (D C B A) – figure 2.  By the way, counting back in the alphabet means you’re going lower in the scale.


Compare beats 2 and 3 of figures 1 and 2. Same thing applies as on the first beat. Beat 4 is the same in both examples.


The space between the notes is called an interval. The interval is calculated by counting up from the bottom note. The first beat goes from the low A up to the D. This interval is called a 4th, defined by the number of notes from A to D: A B C D.


How many other 4ths can you find in the pentatonic scale?

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Learn your scales.

This means playing them enough to have them memorized. It doesn’t mean playing them from top to bottom over and over again. That’s robot work. Guitar players do it to be able to play as fast as possible. It’s ok to do that, but don’t make it the only thing you do with scales. Other things are possible.

Guitar scales and creativity

A scale is a set of possibilities. More specifically, it’s a set of possible patterns. As an adventurous creative type, you want to discover those patterns.

There are a lot. Approach this as play instead of work and it won’t feel so overwhelming. And remember that learning a little every day translates to a lot after only a few months. Be patient.

Finding patterns

If you’re a guitar player, chances are you know the minor pentatonic scale. If not, here it is.

minor pentatonic

There are 12 notes in the scale as I’ve presented it here. The pentatonic scale only has 5 pitches – A, C, D, E, G. I’ve repeated these in the second octave; then I added the C at the top.

You can create patterns with these notes in many ways. The simplest pattern you can make is 2 notes long. Once you have some, you can string them together in different ways to create a lot of variety.

Steps for making a two-note pattern

Every note that you use in this exercise has to be from the pentatonic scale above.

1. Choose a note. I’ll use A. Now choose a second note. Play the two notes sequentially.
2. Go back to the first note (the A). Choose a second note that is different than the second note that you chose in step 1
3. Continue until you have gone from the A to every other note in the scale. If you’re using the scale above, you’ll have eleven two-note patterns
4. Play them again and pay attention to the patterns you like the most. Write those ones down.
5. Now play the all the patterns that you wrote down in step 4 sequentially. This means that you’ll be going from the first note (the A) to another note, then back to the A, then to another note. Continue this until you’ve gone from the A to all the other notes in the patterns that you chose. You’ve just played one sequence of all the two-note patterns that you like. There are a lot more.

If my favorite choices are these…

2-note pattern1

Fig. 1


…then simply playing them in that order would be one sequence.

Here’s another:

2 note pattern2

Fig 2.


The two note patterns in figure 2 are the same as figure 1. I just re-ordered them. Find all the possible re-orderings.

I’ll explore ways of creating more patterns in the next post.

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Note reading 3

Here are the locations of the notes in the first position.

guitar notes, diatonic


The first thing to do is memorize where these notes are.


All you have are 7 notes, but each one exists in more than one place. Because of this, there are 18 note locations (count all the circled letters, including the open strings).


A quiz!

Quiz yourself.. The quiz question has the same form every time. Where is the (letter name) on the (letter name) string. For example, where is the F on the D string? Or where is the A on the G string?  You don’t need to do this for very long until you know where all the notes are.


The next part takes a bit longer, but it’s made easier by the step you’ve just taken by quizzing yourself.


Notes are pictures

Below are all of the notes on the staff in first position.


guitar notes, diatonic on staff


Think of these notes as pictures. Relating note names to the pictures is a recognition of location. Where is the C on the second string? On the second space from the top.


If you did the quiz, you know that the F on the high E string is on the first fret of that string. Now you just need to remember that the F picture is on the top line. Eventually, you’ll look at that location and think “F.”


Repeated note names

You may have noticed that there are 3 Fs in the diagram. Looking at the F on the 4th string will make you think of all 3 Fs for a split second. This will make you stumble mentally. This is normal. It will go away soon. After all, the picture/location for each F is completely different, and your brain will recognize that.


This isn’t as hard as it seems. But if you don’t have a good reason to do it, you’ll want to stop. You’ll tell yourself that tab will let you learn what you want without this tedium.


Find a song

Motivate yourself by finding a song melody or a simple solo that you’ve heard. Make sure that it’s in a book without tab. Don’t worry about the rhythm for now. Just figure out where the notes are. Since you already know the song, the rhythm will be in your ear.

This gives you a decent start. Keep working on this. Once you feel confident with what we’ve looked at so far, start looking at notes past first position. My favourite book on note-reading is Music Reading for Guitar: The Complete Method by David Oakes.



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Note reading 2

Twelve notes

Here are all the notes that exist in Western music:


A  A# (or Bb)  B  C  C# (or Db)  D  D# (or Eb)  E  F  F# (or Gb)  G  G# (or Ab)


Twelve notes. That’s it.


Accidentals (sharps and flats) can be a pain because each one has two possible names. But you’ll get used to that.


Where are they on the guitar?

The problem is to locate them on the neck of the guitar.  As it turns out, it’s ridiculously logical.


Start with the open strings – E A D G B E.


Let’s take the low E string and look at the first fret. All you need to do is count up one from E in that 12 note sequence that I have above. Doing that brings you to an F. The first fret’s name, therefore, is F.


Keep going up fret by fret. Every time you get to a new fret, go up one in the 12 note sequence. The second fret’s name is F#, the third fret’s name is G, etc. Do the same thing with every string.


Take at look at figure 1.





This is where all the notes are on the guitar, up to the 12th fret.  But not every note is created equal. An A on one fret may not be the same A on another fret.


Confused? You should be.


Here’s what I mean.


Too many choices

There are four different A’s on the guitar.  They look like this.


4 As


There are two places to play the first A; four different places to play the second A; four different places to play the third A; and one place to play the fourth A. This makes the guitar one of the most difficult instruments to read music on. No wonder people use tab.


But don’t worry. We’re going to stick to one area of the guitar, and only use one choice for every note we play. In other words, each note we play will always be in the same place.


I promise you that it won’t take long before you can look at a note on the page and know where it is on the guitar.


For now we’ll boil it down to the notes without accidentals.


These are: A  B  C  D  E  F  G


I’ve given you some background. The next post will be more specific. It’ll focus on notes in a single position.

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Note reading

Note reading on the guitar has become more rare, killed by tab. Guitar books all have tabs below the notes, but nobody I’ve ever talked to looks at the notes.  Tab is quicker at helping you play the sound.


The problem with tabs

But tabs make you a slave to playing music the way the tab tells you to. Most guitar players that use tab exclusively don’t know that you can play the same thing in 3 or 4 different places on the guitar. Tabs don’t make you think. They just say “do it this way.” No choice.


But what if you could play it better somewhere else on the guitar?


The power of choice

Developing as a musician means making choices. It means being in charge of how you do things. This is difficult to get across to players brought up on tab. After all, you can develop a lot of technical skill using tabs. You can learn to sound great. But you don’t learn to think in a fluid way. Being a guitar player means more than being able to put your fingers in the right place at the right time.


Pitch names

Even if you use tabs exclusively, learn the names of the pitches at each fret location. When you’re improvising (as opposed to just playing a solo that you’ve learned), you need to know what note you’re heading for. If that note is in the chord, it will sound one way. If it’s not in the chord, it will sound another way.


Good improvisers understand this relationship between notes and chords. Because they understand, they’re able to quickly learn which notes are best for their own tastes.


Exploring other music

Aside from that, notes give you access to non-guitar books. Sometimes you want to learn a saxophone solo. Or, like John Petrucci, you might want to use piano music to improve your technique. Knowing your notes allows you to do this.


This may not be important to you. That’s ok. But you should know what you’re missing. Players that know their notes can do everything tab players can do. The reverse isn’t true.


If I haven’t totally alienated you, move on to the next post. I’ll go over some strategies for reading notes.


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