Posts Tagged ‘instruction’

I was reading an editorial in the latest Premier Guitar issue, where the author talked about providing plenty of “space” in your playing; that is, part of what makes a great song is what you don’t play. The premise is that it’s so easy to play a bunch of notes to the point where your ears just stop perceiving all the content that’s being played.

With respect to soloing, space is more commonly known as letting your solos “breath.” Blues greats like the “Kings” (Albert, Freddie, BB) are masters of letting their solos breath. But breathing also extends to playing through chord progressions as well. Generous palm-muting and what I call “blank” space draws listeners in as their minds fill in the blanks.

Here’s something to think about: You ever wonder why a casino has flashing lights, bells and other sounds going off, highly patterned carpets and walls, complicated ceiling patterns, etc.? It has been proven that the human mind can only deal with at most seven things at once. All that stuff in the casinos is meant to disorient people. In that state of disorientation, they lose track of time (there are also no clocks in a casino), and they also lose their will to keep from spending more money. So what does that have to do with letting your playing breath? If you barrage your listeners with just too much to deal with, you’re likely to lose them. Of course I haven’t done a scientific test with that, but it’s certainly plausible.

Now what about time? Well, of course, tempo is absolutely important, and playing “in the pocket” is what great players do. But “time” goes a bit beyond that, in that you also play stuff at the appropriate time. I’ve been around lots of players over the years, and many have killer technique, but there have also been many that just play the wrong thing at the wrong time. Where a single note or maybe a simple two-string chord would do, they’d strum a full chord; or where a song’s feel calls for a more flowing rhythmic attack, they use a staccato rhythm. I don’t know if this can be taught, as being able to choose what’s appropriate for a particular segment of music really requires listening and “feeling” the song.

For instance, I was playing with a guy once and we started playing a real smooth, moderate tempo song that called for either light, even strumming, or finger picking. Though the guy was in tune, he opted to use a “bluesette-style,” syncopated finger picking rhythm. It completely threw off the entire flavor of the song! Of course, I asked him to stop, but he looked at me, and puzzled, “I don’t understand. It sounds just fine to me.” I replied that it would sound fine if the melodic structure supported a syncopated rhythm, but it just didn’t work. I pointed out how the drums were setting a simple four-on-the-floor kind of rhythm; the bassist was using a fretless, and sliding in between notes. I was using flatpick and playing triads up on the neck. His part called for just a simple claw-hammer style. In this case, it was the guitar that was actually holding down the rhythm. He finally relented, but that’s a perfect example of playing what’s right at the right time.

Guitarists whom I have admired over the years who are always in the pocket and always playing the right thing at that right time include: Davey Johnstone (Elton John), Steve Cropper (Otis Redding), both Matthias Jabs and Rudolf Shenker of the Scorpions (especially Rudolf), Dominic Miller (Sting), and lest I forget, John Frusciante (Chili Peppers). There are lots more, but these guys popped into my head immediately.

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Guitar teacher and guitarist extraordinaire Chuck D’Aloia has just added some new material to his instructional video arsenal, and I have to say that again, Chuck has hit another couple of homers. The first video, “Modal Studies,” covers the 7 modes of the major scale, the melodic minor, lydian b7, alt and the diminished scale. And in typical Chuck D’Aloia style, he teaches the concept then immediately demonstrates how it can be applied, with little “tricks” to help remember them. For me, I’ve always had a bit of a mental block with learning modes mainly because while I could intellectualize the note structure of each mode, I couldn’t immediately match that up with how it actually sounds and how to apply it. Chuck makes it easy! For instance, when explaining the Lydian mode, Chuck spelled out the note sequence, but he said something that really stuck: “…to get a Lydian sound, one way of getting it really easily is to take the root and play the triad one step above it.” Now THAT’S useful information, and easily remembered!

The other lesson he has available – and I haven’t gotten to it yet – is called “Playing over One Chord Grooves.” As Chuck writes, “The material is designed to open doors and present different options when playing over one chord grooves. Using pentatonic scales, triads, substitutions, chord scale relationships and other devices you will be using some of this material on your next gig as well as having new concepts to study.” How cool is THAT?!!!

In any case, each of these lessons is only $25. I highly recommend checking them out! For more information, go to Chuck’s site!

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A few years ago, Mel Gibson starred in a movie called “The Patriot” in which he was a self-avowed pacifist who was pulled into the Revolutionary War to avenge the murder of his son by a British colonel, played by Jason Isaacs. In one scene where he and two of his young sons are ambushing a British patrol to save another son who was in their custody, Mel turns to the boys and says, “Do you remember what I taught you about shooting?” They replied, “Aim small, miss small.”

I was thinking about “Aim small, miss small” where I was talking to a close friend about an amp he recently purchased off EBay. The amp was one of those 100 Watt Marshall Plexi hand-wired reissues. The seller had done some major work on it, replacing the caps with original mustard caps, swapping out the transformer, swapping out resistors; in other words, lots of things. It was a pretty good price, and my buddy bought it on the basis of the upgrades. Unfortunately for him, when he compared its tone to another 100 Watt Plexi he has but with a PCB board, it sounded stale and “stiff.”

During our conversation about that amp, I shared some thoughts with him, “You know, if it’s one thing I’ve learned about tweaking, you have to do it incrementally. Making wholesale changes provides you with no moving reference point to fall back on, and if you don’t like the end result, you have no place to back up to but the beginning. Looks like what that dude did was make a bunch of changes at once, didn’t like the sound, so he sold the amp.” My friend agreed, but luckily he’s an whiz at electronics so backing out the “upgrades” won’t be too much of an issue for him.

This leads me to a discussion about tweaking. Remember: Aim small, miss small; that is, do small changes – one at a time – so in case you don’t like what you’ve done, you can easily back it up. After all, it’s easy to back up one step than several. Also, try to get the low-hanging fruit first; that is, change what is easiest to change first. In many cases, that could resolve a LOT of tonal issues.

For instance, I wasn’t digging the fizziness of the original pre-amp tubes I had in my Aracom PLX18-BB 18 Watt Plexi clone. I loved the dynamics of the amp, but it had a really fizzy finish. Some people like that, but I wasn’t bonding with it. Since I had a bunch of NOS 12AX7’s, I started there first. But I didn’t just start with replacing all the tubes. Sometimes it’s just a single tube, and since the fizziness was occurring on both channels, I decided to swap out V2 first. That reduced the fizz a ton, but there was still a little left. So I then swapped out both V1 and V3. That improved the tone even more, but it wasn’t quite there as I wanted a bit more bottom-end response. So I swapped out the speaker for one that had a great, tight bottom-end. The tone was perfect after that! I could’ve gone further and had Aracom swap out caps and resistors, or even have a “fizz” cap added to the circuit, as Jeff suggested. But I didn’t need to do any of that because I was able to get the tone I wanted with the simple changes I made. I felt that any further changes were just subjecting myself to the law of diminishing returns.

So to recap the lessons learned:

  1. Aim small, miss small.
  2. Get the low-hanging fruit first.


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Writing GuitarGear.org has always been a labor of love for me. When I first started the blog, I didn’t know how well it would do at all; in fact, I didn’t even envision it to be widely read. I put what I wrote out there and just shared it; first with just a small group of WordPress bloggers and a fairly narrow set of people outside of the WordPress community. In the past three years, GuitarGear.org’s readership has really expanded, and it’s great to meet some of the wonderful personalities that come to visit!

Now and then though, a visitor comes along who’d like to contribute to the blog. It hasn’t happened that often, but I’m always open to and excited at the prospect of having others contribute because heaven knows I can’t cover everything, and widening the scope of what GuitarGear.org has to offer is always a good thing! So without further ado, I’d like to introduce a new author to GuitarGear.org, Brett McQueen.

Brett contacted me last week to see if he could contribute to GuitarGear.org to help drive traffic his own site: Guitar Friendly, where he provides free guitar lessons and other insights on playing guitar, and of course, acquiring gear. So not only does GuitarGear.org now have a new author, we’ve got a new sister site! I’m really excited by this partnership between us, and I think it’ll help both of our sites grow!

The most amazing thing about Brett is that he’s a full-time music student, and even cooler still, his degree is in worship ministry. As you know, I’ve never made it a secret that I play at church service. It’s a great venue for playing, and also one of the most challenging places to play. Plus, for the gigging musician in me, it’s a regular gig, and I’m all about playing as much as I can. With Brett, we share a passion for music as well as a passion for playing music in a church setting. Talk about alignment!

In any case, get set for some great material! Brett’s first article will be about buying your first electric guitar, and for those new to electric, it provides great insight on the process of evaluating and ultimately choosing your first axe.

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Click on the picture to see the magnets.

Guitar Scale Magnets – Major Scale Strips
Summary: Great “cheat sheet” for learning where the various major scale modes start on the fretboard. Very convenient, and very easy to install!

Pros: Magnetic base strip attaches easily to the side of your fretboard. The strips provide a superb way to visualize the starting point of the major scale boxes.

Cons: Just a nit, but only available for 25.5″ scale guitars. Not a really big deal as that’s pretty much a standard. Of course, I have different scale lengths, but they fit my Tele perfectly!


  • Base strip has a very weak adhesive that sticks to the side of the neck, but will not peel varnish.
  • Magnetic strips are made of the same material as those “refrigerator stickers.” They’re pliable and very easy to use.
  • Major scale strips include all keys from C to B.
  • Includes scale charts for all modes. Very handy.
  • Comes with a convenient storage tube for storing the strips when you’re not using them.
  • Great way to visualize the modal starting points in any key.

Price: ~$19.99 plus $5.00 S&H

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ I’m a very visual learner, and having visual cues helps me learn much more effectively.

I’m not much of a guitar theoretician, not because of not wanting to be, but simply because with my busy lifestyle, having the time for academic pursuits is limited. So for my learning, I rely on tools and videos that will help me learn concepts quickly as opposed to traditional step-by-step methods that dissect the concepts into chunks. It may not be the best method of learning, but it’s all I have. But besides that, I’m also a very visual learner, and definitely a learn-by-doing type of guy. So if I can get my hands on something that will give me visual cues, my learning experience is much more valuable to me.

Enter Guitar Scale Magnets. One of the things I’ve been wanting to learn for awhile is modal theory. It has always interested me, but I’ve never seemed to have the time to really sit down to learn it – nor did I have the funds to take lessons (I spend it all on gear). So when I found out about Guitar Scale Magnets, I was immediately intrigued, and asked Jason Ellestad, the inventor of the guitar scale magnets to send me a set of major scale magnets to review.

In a word, these things are awesome! Made of the same magnetic material as those flexible “fridge” magnets – but not at thick – the magnets provide a very convenient way to learn the major scale modes by giving you visual cues of the starting points. Of course, you still have to learn the patterns, but you get the patterns on a couple of 8.5 X 11 sheets that you can tape to your wall for reference. Not bad for $19.99.

To attach magnets to the side of your fretboard, Jason provides step-by-step instructions. But you don’t even need the instructions. The base strip, of course, has no markings on it, so it’s easy figure out that it’s the base. It also has a weak adhesive that’s tacky enough to stick to your fretboard, and stay in place as you play, but not strong enough that it’ll peel your varnish. Once you have it in place, it’s just a simple matter of finding the key you want to practice, and laying it on top of the base strip. Each key is color-coded to show you the starting points for each mode. Click on the picture above to see an enlarged version of what they look like.

I won’t belabor how useful I’ve found these to be. I’m just going to recommend that you try them out. Jason has three types of strips available: Major Scale, Pentatonic Scale, and Learn the Fretboard/Tab strips. So if you need some visual cues for learning your scales, Magnetic Scale Strips are a great tool! For you teachers out there, I think these would be invaluable to give to your students to help them learn and practice in conjunction with your curricula.

For more information, go to the Guitar Scale Magnets site!

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Though I’m quite a bit out of shape to play nowadays, I’ve always had a love for the game of tennis; especially watching the tennis greats over the years, and thoroughly enjoying the pure artistry in their playing. Having played a bit of competitive tennis myself – albeit, nowhere the level of my tennis idols – I have a good idea of the hard work that goes into being good. These guys and gals make the game look so effortless that it shadows the fact that they literally spend hours each day developing their craft.

Within the past couple of decades, I have been privileged to witness history being made in tennis. In the 90’s it was Pete Sampras who had won an unprecedented 14 major singles titles. That guy was an absolute machine! No one at the time could even match that! But early Sunday morning, between 12:30 am – 3am PST, I witnessed Roger Federer become the first man to win his 16th major singles title, and the thing that hit me afterward was that I’ve had the fortune to live in a time to watch the greatest tennis players to ever walk the planet play.

Watching these guys play, the one thing that strikes me is their absolute calm and focus on the job at hand. Few visible outbreaks of emotion. Just patiently playing and doing their thing – and this is important: Responding, not reacting, to different situations; adapting their games to fit with the current conditions. It’s as if – though I’d say there’s a bit of truth to this – they are hyper-aware of everything that is going on around them, and sculpt their play in response to whatever may come at them. It’s thought-filled as well as instinctive.

The Zen term for this hyper-awareness and “intuitive instinct” is called “satori,” which literally translates to “understanding.” Satori is the first step of enlightenment to achieving nirvana. Japanese martial artists liken this state of satori as thought being the equivalent of action. Western cultures refer to this state as “being in the Zone.”

The Zone is a state of duality: Extreme focus and hyper-awareness; analysis and action; emotion and stoicism. In other words, being completely centered in your consciousness. We’ve all experienced “being in the Zone” in some way, whether we’re writing, running, or just sitting quietly, though it is most often associated sports or something active. But here’s the rub about being in the Zone: It doesn’t require any expertise at a particular activity. And while many people have experienced this sporadically and spontaneously, it is actually possible to get into the Zone at will.

Okay, I’ll pause for a moment and ask the question you’re all probably thinking: What does have to do with guitar? 🙂

Simple. Playing guitar in the Zone – no matter your experience level – is the difference between playing purely mechanical and playing with true expression – what’s really inside you. I know that people may argue that you should have some expertise and mastery of your current level of playing to really get into the Zone, but remember, being in the Zone is completely independent of any mechanics. It’s a state of mind, and that doesn’t require any expertise. Furthermore, I will also posit that playing in the Zone makes learning much easier because your heightened awareness and “centered-ness” makes you more open and much less analytical.

So given that, as I mentioned above it is possible to actually get into the Zone at will. But this takes a bit of practice, and a bit of mental preparation. People have different ways of getting into the Zone, but there are some fundamental things that you can do to get you on your way.

  1. First, breathe. It’s amazing how much we constrict our own breathing. I won’t give you any breathing exercises, but take note of and be aware of how you’re breathing. The more even the better.
  2. Relax your mind. Relaxing your mind is not that you block out everything going on around you, you just don’t allow your mind to wander onto things that are outside of your focus. This is a key of getting into the Zone.  From a neurological point of view, relaxing your mind means quieting your alpha waves, so your more creative beta waves take precedence.
  3. Relax your body. This doesn’t mean go limp. You could be jumping around on stage and still be relaxed. More to the point, relax your chest, which most of us have way too constricted.

Simple things, and I know they may sound a bit nonsensical, and for those of you who are more familiar with relaxation techniques, these steps are akin to getting into a meditative state. Being in the Zone is very much like being in a meditative state. Your mind and body are relaxed, and your attention is focused. But at the same time, you are completely aware of what is happening in the periphery of your consciousness.

To practice this with guitar, pick a piece that you know really well. But this time, do those preparation steps to quiet your mind a bit, then try to play it with your eyes closed. I suggest this so you’re playing completely by feel. Listen to what you’re playing, and just for shits and giggles, play the piece in response to things you hear around you, trying to express the emotional imagery you get when you hear the sounds. I do this occasionally when I’m trying to work out a phrase in a song, and I’m just not “feelin’ it.”

Don’t buy it? I’m not surprised. But there’s a reason that martial artists have practiced relaxation techniques for thousands of years. A quiet mind allows you to respond to any given situation with clarity; with a mind not cluttered by things it shouldn’t be thinking about – especially in the heat of battle where even a slight hesitation due to mental distraction could mean the difference between life and death.

Granted, with playing guitar, we’re not talking about a life or death situation. But imagine the level of expression – no matter your level – that you could experience when your mind is quiet, and you’re playing with the intensity of purpose that comes from absolute focus. That’s never a bad thing.

Give it a try. You may surprise yourself at what you create. From my own personal experience, whenever I’ve been in the Zone, I’ve created my best music be it on stage or in the studio.

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I’ve spoken about him before, but Mark Wein of Mark Wein Guitar Lessons really knows his stuff, and I’ve gotten a lot mileage from his free video tutorials. One set of tutorials that I found as a real useful review, plus learning some new stuff as well, is his series on Partial Chord Shapes. Really great stuff!

Anyway, here are links to the lessons themselves:

Partial Chord Shapes Primer
Partial Chord Shapes #2 – Backbeat Rhythm Guitar!
Partial Chord Lesson #3 – Funk and R&B Guitar Parts
Partial Chords #4 – Rock guitar parts on the first 3 strings.

Mark is such a great teacher! I love his no-nonsense approach to teaching guitar. Anyway, definitely give these videos spin!

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