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So you want to play solos?

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So you want to play solos? Where do you start? What skills do you need to have? What do you need to know? How do I look cool doing it?

This is one of the most common questions that I am asked in lessons and the best answer is the good old tried and true K.I.S.S principle. understand what is needed and play it. Easy right? Not always but we will look at a few things that will help you on your way to playing great solos.

Now people always say you need to be at an advanced level to play solos. This is not true obviously if you are at an advanced level then you will be capable of playing a more difficult solo but this is no indication of weather the solo is good or not. The best example of this is “Mary had a little Lamb”. Four notes played at a steady pace without a lot of fanfare. Now this piece would only present a challenge to a very small group of people but most people would be able to play it fairly easily and quickly. Now the thing about this tune is it is memorable, sounds pleasing to the ear, and is recognisable. This is a great example of a solo.

First things first. We need a basic understanding of how chords sound with the notes we play. If you play one note over particular chord it may sound great but if you play another note it could end up sounding really bad. The reason why is that some notes just don’t sound good together. How do I know what notes will work over what chords? Now we could get a friend to play a bunch of chords while you check and see what notes will work. Or an easier way would be to learn some scales and know what keys you can play them over.

Now before we jump in and learn a whole bunch of scales we need to understand what a key is. The best way to describe a key is to look at it like it is a bunch of notes that sound good together. This means that if we are playing the notes from a key and the chords that we are playing over are from the same key then theoretically this should sound good.

So what keys should we learn first? Well the best type of scale to start with is the Pentatonic scale. The reason why is because it only has five notes in it. So on any Instrument it is fairly easy to learn where five notes are on any instruments. I like to teach people three scale shapes and how they link together.

These shapes need to be learned so well that regardless of what note you are fretting you will be able to see how they link to the other two scales. You need to be comfortable linking them moving up the neck (towards the bridge) as well as moving down the neck (towards the headstock).

The scale shapes used here have two different colours marked on each shape. At first we will be focusing on the ones in black. These notes are the notes that most easily fit over the chords we will be using. Once you are comfortable using the black notes you can start to incorporate the red ones.

The numberings refer to which fingers should be used to fret the notes. For ease of reference, you should imagine that the guitar headstock is to the right-hand-side of the page and the first (high E) string is at the bottom of the diagrams.

These shapes are moveable and can be played anywhere on the fretboard. For best results, try to play them in as many positions as possible. Remember, the more thoroughly you learn these shapes, the easier it will be to use them in solos.

The first thing we need to do is learn the scale shapes and how they are linked. These shapes need to be learned so well that regardless of what note you are fretting you will be able to see how they link to the other two scales. You need to be comfortable linking them moving up the neck (towards the bridge) as well as moving down the neck (towards the headstock).

1. Minor shape one: The second note of this scale is the same as the first note of the next scale

2. Major shape: The third note of this scale is the same as the first note of the next scale

3. Minor shape two: The second note of this scale is one tone (two frets) from the first note of the fist scale. If the second note of this scale is on the 7th fret then the first note of the first scale will be on the 9th fret.

Now that you are familiar with the shapes and how they are linked, you need to find some note groupings that you like. A good solo is recognisable – you can hum along to it and most of the more memorable licks are very simple. Try to focus on a single idea with only four or five notes and then use the techniques mentioned earlier in this book to enhance them. You can also add other notes from the scale shapes to give it some variety. The more you do this the better you will get.

The key to playing good solos and creating great licks is to focus on the melody or tune you are trying to play. The stronger this is, the better your solos will be. Always hear the tune in your head and then try to replicate it on your guitar. If you can do this then you will be well on your way to playing guitar solos.

And this is just the beginning. Once you are fluent using the black and red notes while playing along with the CDs, experiment with using other notes outside the scale shapes to see how they sound. There are 12 notes that can be used in music – so why limit yourself to just five or seven?!

How do I get better fast? 2

By | Bass Guitar, Guitar, Piano, Ukulele | No Comments

Once you are aware of the right movements then it is time to practise them. Most people think that if they run through the correct movement enough then they will perfect the techniques. But the musicians that improve the fastest are the ones who concentrate each time they run through a technique and get it 100% right each time. This generally means that they start off learning the movement at a very slow pace (so slow that they can control all of their movements, even the involuntary ones). Using this method, as they work through the movements they can stop any incorrect tension or action as it starts to occur. This means they get rid of bad habits before they form. This also means that, if they are performing an action that needs the hands to do something unnatural, they are more able to complete the movement because at a slow speed it is much easier to make the hands work in unfamiliar ways.

Once we have all of the right parts behaving in the correct manner we need to be focused on making sure we perform the techniques the correct way each time we perform them. This will train the muscles to remember them and if we do them the same way (the correct way) each time then we will master them a lot faster and miss out on those long hours of fruitless practise. Once we are comfortable and in control of the action we can then move on to try and complete them at a faster tempo.

This is best done with a metronome (a time keeping device – a link for an online version of this can be found on our website under Student Resources). Set the metronome to a tempo at which you are able to perform the technique easily and perfectly. Once you have gone through the movements at this tempo and have performed them correctly three or four times then increase the speed slightly. At the start you may be able to perform the movement well, and you may find yourself doing it at a much faster tempo then you had started off but eventually you will get to the point where you might have to stay at a certain tempo for a while (even a few weeks) until you can comfortably get it right each time. Keep going with this method until you have achieved the desired speed but before you move on to a faster tempo make sure you are executing the movements correctly.

The last thing and another important factor is the question of how much time you should spend practising. And how long you should do it for? For the best results, practise as often as you can sometimes a few times a day. You may think you don’t have time to practice several times a day. But now we will consider how long you should practice for. This varies from person to person but you want to be practising for as long as you can without losing focus on controlling the actions. For some people this is 20 minutes but for the vast majority this is only 1-5 minutes. If you are daydreaming or thinking about something else then you will not be focused on being perfect. If this is the case, stop playing and do something else for a few minutes then return to practising once you are refocused. Many small practice sessions are infinitely better than one or two long sessions.

I have spent years learning, teaching and performing and I have seen some truly great musicians applying these techniques and reaping the benefits of this method. I am sad to say that I have also seen lesser musicians ignore or avoid this method and never progress or, if they do progress, they do so at a much slower rate. Try to run through something that you find difficult now and if you adhere to this method you will see visible results and improvement very quickly.

How do I get better fast?

By | Bass Guitar, Guitar, Piano, Ukulele | No Comments

This is the number one question that I am asked. And the best way to answer it is to say ‘by practising’. This is a topic that I have spoken about in the past (see ‘Practise Makes Marginally Better’), but this time I want to look at it from the perspective of the beginner who is impatient or unwilling to put the work in to get results.

We have all either been this person, or have seen this person complaining about their current level of ability. Or we have had to teach this person how to play an instrument. To turn these people around and get them improving quickly we need to understand why they are not getting results. Once we understand this then we can remedy the situation.

All of us who have practised and become better know the value of hard work and perseverance. For a person that has never had to do this before it can be a daunting task. Also people want to believe that you can sit and dream about playing well and it will happen. Unfortunately this is rare and for the vast majority it is unrealistic. Once we are able to accept that some form of practice is required then we are ready to take the next step.

To help a person see the benefit in practising you need to make them aware of the results. Now the easiest way to do this is to let them see the improvement. As we all know, with some things it can take a while to see the actual results of practice. This will cause a lot of people to think that their hard work is fruitless and that they are not making any progress. But if they practice the correct movements and concentrate on keeping their movements efficient and relaxed then results will appear a lot faster.

In my experience I have seen both extremes of this type of behaviour. I have noticed that the students who improve the fastest and see results the quickest are the ones who focus on gaining control over the correct movements. They also make sure that they perform them extremely slowly until their muscles become familiar with the movements and they have developed control over them. On the other side of the ledger are the people who think that running through chord changes and difficult single note passages without any focus on control or efficient movement will get results. It is sad to say that this is not always the case – yes you will improve but not as fast as somebody who has worked on efficient movement and technique first.

Beginners are not the only people guilty of this type of behaviour. Many more experienced musicians can fall into this trap when learning new techniques or styles. What we all need to do is come up with a plan or template to help us on our way. The first and most important thing to do is ask ourselves ‘is this the most efficient way to perform this technique?’

Now before you rush in to saying yes or no you need to be aware of a few things. Are the fingers moving in the most efficient way (i.e. are they only moving enough to perform the technique without any excess movement)? Are the correct muscles or body parts performing in the correct manner? Are all other parts of the body that are not required kept in a relaxed state? If you have answered yes then you are on the right track.

Check back soon for the next part of this article.

Why do you want to play the piano? 2

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Now, if you wanted something to use in a band situation then a grand piano is out of the question and so is a upright for the simple reason that these pianos cannot be transported easily. so you would start of looking at an electronic piano or keyboard. Now if you require the piano to make a lot of different instrument sounds then you will need something capable of producing these sounds but things like keyboard width and weighted keys are optional. The same type of instrument is suitable for a person that is looking to compose complex pieces but is not applicable to some body trying to program notes in to a computer. For this task all that is needed is a small keyboard that is compatable with the computer you are using.

Now the last and what will be the most important factor is the price. Now if price wasn’t an issue we would have the best sounding coolest looking and most hi tech instrument available sitting in the piano room of our mansion but unfourtunatley for most of us we don’t have this choice. So how do we get all of the features we want at the price we want? Now there are a lot of pianos and keyboards available and depending what you need them for you can spend under one hundred or could spend in to the tens of thousands. Buying pianos or keyboards especially well known brands new can be expensive but if you want some thing that has a decent warranty and a proven track record then this is the way to go. If you are willing to look at other makes then you might be able to get some thing that fits the bill at a reduced rate because the brand name is not that well known. The only way to know if you are buying a dud or a hidden treasure is to do some research.

Now to do that look at the specs for the piano are they right for you? Will they do the job? Is it a practical instrument for you? If so then how do you know that it will do the job you need it to do. Try it out that will be the easiest way to tell if the piano does what you need it to do and most good piano/keyboard outlets will let you spend time making sure that you are making the best choice. Ask questions. If it is a piano. How much does it weigh? Will the removalist be able to get it in to my house? if it is a keyboard. How are the keys weighted? as older or lesser quality electronic pianos have springs to create the feeling of weight but the higher quality and newer instruments have a mechanism that feel very close to an acoustic piano. Do you have any reviews? Does it come with a warranty? You can also look at some of the reputable review sites or forums online these are usually real people who have tried these instruments. Ask your piano teacher if they are familiar with the brand. If you are looking in to playing in a band ask other musicians. Is it hard to transport? Is it reliable? What is the sound quality like? If you are going to use it to input music into a computer. Will it be compatable with my computer? Will I need more software? Will I need to buy any accessories? If you are satisfied with the way the instrument sounds and it does what you need it to do and you are happy with the answers for the questions and research you have done then this may be the piano for you.

The next option is second hand now choosing a piano or keyboard this way can be fraught with danger as every one has heard those stories if people getting lumped with a lemon. Now this is where experience will be invaluable. If you know some one who has experience with pianos like a piano tuner or keyboard sales person or piano teacher then try and get them to help they can advise you weather the instrument you are looking at will be right for you. They can also tell you what a fair price would be for the instrument. When buying pianos second hand you need to know things like how long ago was the piano tuned? Because the longer a piano has stayed untuned the more likely it will be that it may not be able to be tuned to concert pitch. Try all of the keys and pedals to make sure they are in working order this applies to electronic keyboards as well. If there is some thing wrong find out if it will cost you to fix it and how much it will cost. Have a look and make sure that the piano is in good shape structurally as this may cause problems as well. Use common sense pay when you pick the instrument up. Check that all things are working the day you pick it up. If you are buying a keyboard to use with your computer make sure it will work with the computer you have.Now buying second hand can knock $150 -$300 off the price of an instrument so this can be a really good way to get an instrument cheaper but you will miss out on warranties and garantees. if you use common sense and do your research it should make this process run a lot smoother. If you are buying make sure you factor in the cost of removals and tuning as this may make a great price seem expensive really fast.

Remember why you want to play the piano? And what your goals are? And what kind of piano is right for you. Does the piano/keyboard do all of the things you need it to do. Will it fit in to the space it will be positioned. If you are using it for a band is it portable? Does it have the audio capabilites required? Is it the right price? If the instrument does all of these things then it could be the instrument for you.

Why do you want to play the piano?

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This is the first question you should be asking before you even bother going to buy a piano. There are a lot of factors that need to be considered before you take the step towards piano ownership. And the most important is not price or availability, or even colour – you need to know the reason you will be playing the piano in the first place.

There are many reasons why a perfectly normal person would want to take a leap in to the realms of the musically gifted. And there are many possible outcomes from embarking on this journey. The key to buying the right piano for you is thinking about what the purpose of the piano is, what are your musical goals and what pianos do you like playing?

In this article we look at a few things that you need to consider before you buy a piano. The reason you should ask yourself why you want to play the piano is because this will give you the first impression of what kind of piano you will need. This will save time because you will know where to go and what you are looking for. It will also save you money because you will not end up buying something that is either too extravagant or is not up to scratch and needs to be replaced soon after buying it.

So what are your musical goals? Are they to play a song for your family every now and then? Are they to play in a local band that performs every month or so? Are they to be the next great songwriter? Or the next Jerry Lee Lewis? Are you planning to sit examinations? Whatever your goals are you need to be familiar with them because this will determine the kind of piano you will need.

If you are only going to play for friends and family, your ability may not be at a level (as you are not playing very often) that requires all 88 keys or even pedals. So you may be able to use a small portable keyboard. Not only will this save you money but it will give you the option to play chords with one finger or even program backing tracks.

If you were looking to play in a local band then you may need something a bit bigger and a little more flexible. Because of the nature of local bands, you may end up playing different kinds of musical sounds (like brass or string sounds) as well as playing piano parts. This means you will need all 88 keys, pedals and the option of playing different musical sounds. And because you will be travelling it will need to be portable. So a good quality keyboard will be fine.

If you want use your piano for songwriting it depends on what role the piano will play in this process. If you will be writing complex piano pieces you will need something similar to what you would need if you were playing in a band. But if you will only be using it to enter notes into a computer, it would need to be compatible with your computer (and have the right software). You may not even need all 88 keys.

For these first few examples, weighted keys will not be important nor will the width of the keys, as these are features that do not relate to what the instrument is being used for The feel and width of the keys in these instances are more to do with personal preference.

For examinations you will either need a real piano or something that feels as much like a piano as possible. It will need 88 standard-width keys, pedals and be weighted (the keys need to feel like the keys on an acoustic piano). The examinations will be performed on an acoustic piano and you will need to practice on something that simulates the feel and sound of a piano as much as possible.

Once we know what your goals are then we can look at the practicalities involved with the type of piano that is best for you. How much space do you have? This is an important question to ask because if you need an acoustic piano and you have your heart set on a full-size grand piano but you live in a small top floor apartment with no lift, it may be impossible or extremely expensive to get it into position. So does the piano that is best for you also fit in the space that it needs to go? If not we need to get as close as we can while keeping the components that are important to our goals.

If you are doing exams then you will need a keyboard that feels like an acoustic piano so that you will be able to practice on something that is similar to an acoustic piano. This can be achieved in a few ways, the first is by getting an upright piano. Uprights take up less space and are easier to fit into smaller spaces. If an upright is still too large for the space, the second option would be a weighted electronic piano or keyboard. Once again, this would need to have standard width keys.

Check back soon for the next part of this article.

Practice makes marginally better 2

By | Bass Guitar, Guitar, Piano, Ukulele | No Comments

Pack well

So now we know where we need to go and we know how to get there. Now we just need to make a list of things that we will need to get to our destination. Is our instrument in tune? Do we have a suitable area to practice? Do we know exactly what the point of this practice session will be? Do we have all the materials that we need?

If we have all of these things then we are ready to start. All of these things are important. If you practice with an out of tune instrument it will be hard to develop your musical ear as you will not get used to hearing what the notes should sound like. The place you choose to practice needs to be free of distractions as this will inhibit you from concentrating well. And if you do not know the point of each practice session, then you will not have any idea of what you are doing and therefore will not progress. If you do not have the correct material then you may not learn the technique correctly.

Practicing is not just repeating something over and over again until we can do it. It is performing something correctly until we are able to do it as well as we want to be able to do it. That is why we must work on each specific step of a technique (or song) to get it right. When we start each practice session we need to know the step we are working on and then concentrate on getting that part right. It is best to start slowly and try to get it perfect at a very slow speed before moving on and trying to speed it up. Only work on one point at a time – that way it will be learned more quickly and in a more thorough manner.

Let’s go!

We have our destination. We have a map. We have directions. And we have all of the things we need to start the journey. This may seem like the hard part is done and in a lot of ways it is. But now it is up to us to put everything into practice. Work through your map making sure each minute step is worked on and perfected before moving on to the next part. For fast, effective learning it is important to concentrate completely when you practice. For most people they can only concentrate for a short time so you should do a lot of short sharp sessions instead of one long one. Anyone who has had to study for an exam will be familiar with the drop in recall after spending too long revising.

If you have tried for years to play an instrument and are not pleased with the results from your practice time try to have a more methodical approach to your practice. This approach is all about planning. Once you have a clear path it will make it easier for you to reach your goals. If you are clear and precise with your planning and thorough with the way you work through each technique, improvement will be faster and you will be able to see results a lot quicker. So let’s turn the phrase “practice makes marginally better” in to “practice makes perfect”.

Practice makes marginally better

By | Bass Guitar, Guitar, Piano, Ukulele | No Comments

Have you ever heard the phrase practice makes perfect? Well just because you spend the right amount of time practicing does not mean that you are doing the right kind of practice. Most people know that to improve they need to practice. But what a lot of people do not realise is that the way you practice and the things you concentrate on while doing so are just as important. If you are trying to play a song and you just can’t get it right it is likely that you have not developed the technique to perform the song. So instead of going over the song again and again, it is better to focus on perfecting the technique that will make it possible to play the song.

If you were going on a journey to a place that you had never been before, how would you get there? Most people would try to find out about the place they were going. Or get a map. Or even find a person to give you directions. This is exactly how we should view learning an instrument.

Planning the journey

Practicing is often overlooked when budding musicians begin learning their instrument. They think if they practice for a certain amount of time regularly then they will become great musicians. This is only partly true. Yes, if you do regular practice then you will improve. But you may not improve as quickly as you could if you had practiced correctly.

So how do you practice the correct way? The first thing you need on a journey is to choose a destination. So what is your destination? Your destination is your musical goal. What piece of music or level of musicianship do you want to achieve? So pick a goal – pick a target to aim at. We need to understand the things we need to know and the skills we need to reach our destination. So make a list of all of these things. Once you have the list you can start working on gaining these abilities.

Mapping it out

So how will we get to where we are going? We need a map or directions to get to our destination and this is the part where most people fall off. We all have our goals and we all have an idea in our heads of where we want to end up but very few people have a clear idea of how to get there. So let us look at the route to our goals. If we make the route as detailed and clear as possible then it will make it easier for us to find our way. We already have a list of skills that we need to acquire so now we have to make a plan to achieve them. The best way to do this is to find the key points of the techniques to work on and spend time concentrating on them to get them right.

What counts as a key point? These are the steps involved in a technique that make the technique possible. If you do not perform the key points well, then the technique will be harder to perform. Each technique will have key points – these points could be something as simple as how you hold your thumb, or how you move your fingers or even what your inactive fingers do. Now to identify these practice points you may need some directions. You can get these directions from books, online or even from a teacher, but make sure they are very detailed as this will make it easier to plan out your journey. The key is knowing exactly what needs to be done step by step to learn the technique.

Check back soon for the next part of this article.

The Bass Guitar: So Underrated! 2

By | Bass Guitar | No Comments


Now that we have a very basic understanding of how your note selection contributes to your bass part, let’s look at what the rhythm can do to a bass line when you play. The rhythm of the piece has nothing to do with you – this is decided by the piece itself and what the drummer/percussionist is doing.

As a bass player you need to provide the link between the rhythm, the melody and the harmony. You can still play the notes that will improve the song but you will need to play them when the drums or percussion are hitting. This will tie the rhythm in with the rest of the music.

If you look at a drum kit or percussion set you will notice that each element is a different size and they should be treated as though they are different notes. Using this approach, we could start to put together a bass rhythm that can highlight the low drum sounds by only playing when a lower drum is played and playing a low note to accentuate it. Alternatively, you could do the same thing with a higher sound.

You could also help reinforce a rhythmic pattern by playing the same rhythm beat-for-beat for a section or let the whole thing breathe by only playing every few beats. The thing you must remember is to tie all of the parts of the song together (rhythm, harmony and melody) – if you can manage this you are well on the way to being a good bass player.


Playing the bass guitar is sometimes looked down on but if you do it well, understand what you need to do and have the technical capability to execute it with the best interests of the song in mind, then you are well on the way to becoming a great bass player.

People often try to be flashy and say things like: “I would play a descending G minor scale over two octaves in that section”. And, while that might sound impressive, you should remember that you should only do this if it makes the song better. I have played some guitar-inspired speed licks at times but only if it enhances the melody and helps tie in the rhythm. Make this your motto: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should”.