Category Archives: Guitar

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

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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?

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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.

Practice makes marginally better 2

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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

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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.

Buying guitars

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So, what kind of guitar do you buy when you first start out on what will hopefully be a lifelong love of guitar playing?

Well, I have seen so many students, colleagues, friends and family over the years attempt to learn the guitar with varying results and one of the most common reasons why someone will give up is because they feel like their hands just aren’t cut out to play the guitar.
Now on very rare occasions this is true but generally the person doesn’t realise that it is not them that is the problem – it is their instrument that is stopping them from becoming better. I have heard every excuse from ‘my hands just aren’t big enough’ (get a smaller guitar to learn on), to ‘my hands are too weak to hold down the strings’ (make sure the action is set properly) and the classic my fingers hurt when I play (try nylon strings if you have them. Or just harden up!).
The key to playing well is having control over your hands and more importantly over your fingers, and that control is easier to gain if you are playing a guitar that is the right size for you and if the strings are easy to fret. Once you have the correct technique and know how it feels when you are playing properly, then you can apply that to any guitar.
The students that learn the fastest and end up being the best players are the ones who do everything right from the start – and that includes buying the correct guitar to learn on.
If most of your practice time is spent twisting your hands and body trying to come to grips  with playing your instrument or if you are worried about how sore your fingers are then not a lot of effort or concentration will be going into becoming a better guitarist!
So let’s take a look at some of the points you should consider when buying your first guitar.

First things first…
All of this information is written so you will be able to understand it whether you are right or left handed, so I will refer to your hands as the plucking hand (the one that strikes the strings) and the fretting hand (the one that holds the strings down).

Now, the first thing we need to consider is something that is usually overlooked when making this decision – what kind of guitar will help me to master the skills that are required to become a good (or maybe great) guitarist?
Now I know what most people are thinking – the first thing that popped into their heads was ‘what guitar looks good with my leather jacket?’ or ‘what guitar does my favourite guitarist play?’ but the most important thing a soon-to-be guitar owner needs to ask themselves is ‘will this guitar get me to the skill level I need to be at to achieve my goals?’
If the guitar you want does not get you there – and it doesn’t matter how great it looks – you should put it on lay-by and not buy it until you are at a high enough level to play it properly.
Now there are some people who have natural ability and talent. These people could learn and excel on almost anything but most people out there need to make the right choice when selecting their instrument. So let’s take a look at what factors should be considered…

Now, what guitar will help you get to the level you want to be at? Well there are a few things that your first guitar will need to be. The first thing is that it needs to be able to be played without discomfort. So it has to be the right size for you – not your 6’10” best friend and not the child-guitar-playing-genius you saw on Youtube.
When I say that the guitar has to be the right size for you, that means you need to be able to reach all areas of the guitar without having your arms bent at funny angles. If you’re in a comfortable position it will be a lot easier to learn the essential skills required to play.
If you have larger limbs or hands then a small guitar may be too cramped for you to fit all of your fingers on the fingerboard. There are a lot of different sizes of guitars available these days from a full-sized dreadnought acoustic steel string on the large side, to a half-sized nylon string classical guitar on the small side, so there really is a size for everyone. The only downside as far as the smaller guitars go is the sound quality (although there are some really good-sounding, albeit pricey, small guitars available nowadays) but if you are using a smaller guitar when you first start to play then, when you have developed your technique, you will be ready to apply that technique to a larger guitar.

Electric or acoustic?
Another thing that needs to be considered is whether you are going to play an acoustic or electric guitar. If you choose electric then you’ll most probably need a strap as the shape of most electrics makes it difficult to balance them on your legs. You will also need to make sure that the guitar isn’t so heavy that it puts pressure on your neck and shoulders. If so then it may not be the guitar for you.
Most steel string guitars (both electric and acoustic) have narrower necks as the strings are closer together. This can make it easier to play certain chords and perform more difficult stretches. However, this can be a negative for people who have really thick fingers or “dad hands”, as the fingers are so thick that they get in each others’ way on the fingerboard.
Electric guitars have thinner bodies (even more so than a nylon string acoustic) so this will make things easier for the right hand and you should be able to reach all the right parts easily. But the same problem exists if you fingerpick with thick fingers – your fingers will get in the way of each other on the plucking hand as well.
If you get an acoustic guitar, you will have to choose between steel and nylon strings. The downside for nylon strings is that the neck of the guitar tends to be wider, which can hinder your fretting hand when playing some chords. However, the thinner body will make it easier for your plucking hand to reach the strings comfortably.
The body of a full-size steel string guitar can be very large and sometimes it can be hard to use your plucking hand well on these guitars.

Nylon strings are easy on the fingers – this will allow your fingers to develop calluses without a lot of discomfort and this in turn will allow you to practise regularly. Because steel strings are more rigid they tend to be harder on the fingers, especially for beginners. I hear a lot of people get discouraged from buying a nylon string guitar, as once you are better many people will want to move on to playing a steel string guitar, but this is complete rubbish!
Yes, when you are used to certain guitar strings it will be a bit of a change but only a slight inconvenience – the biggest thing that you will have to face changing from nylon strings to steel will be how much smaller the neck of the guitar is and for most people this is a plus. Another thing to note is that most electric guitars have lighter gauge strings which means they are easier on the fingers than a steel string acoustic.

The action – this is the name for the distance between the strings and the fretboard – needs to be low, as this means the fingers will not have to press too hard. This also helps to keep the notes in tune. A low action also promotes a relaxed fretting hand which in turn will allow the fingers of your fretting hand to move faster.

Make sure all the frets sound well without buzzing on any string, as that is a sign of a poor set-up. If you are buying a guitar secondhand then you might have to get someone to set it up correctly and this can be expensive. If you are buying it new make sure that the store you are buying it from will set it up before you take it home.

So what guitar should I buy?
This all depends on what size you are, how long your limbs are, how big your hands are and what your pain threshold is.
People with large hands can handle the width of a nylon string guitar whereas people with shorter limbs are better off with an electric or half sized nylon string. People with a low pain threshold should use nylon strings and those who are not bothered by the pain should use steel strings.
Buying your first guitar can be tricky, so talk to someone who knows guitars and preferably has some teaching experience, as this will provide a different perspective on what is good to learn on.
There are so many choices of guitar in a lot of different price ranges so don’t worry, there will be a guitar that will help you achieve your goals at the right price. All you need to do is be honest about your size and shape and limb size. You will start off on the right foot and progress much faster because you have the perfect guitar for you.