The Two Types of Guitar Players

It’s been ages since I posted anything on this site, so here’s something to break the trend of laziness!

When I hear other guitarists play, at first I really try to listen with an open mind – regardless of the type of music, or what context I’m hearing them, I try to see what they bring to the table as far as style, approach, tone, technique, etc… It usually does not take long for a player (of any instrument) to reveal some things about themselves, such as experience, seasoning, taste and technical ability…often this can all be displayed in mere minutes during a performance. If I really had to pick the one thing that separates players and sums up an overall approach to music, it would be how a player reacts to the rhythm in a song.

In short, the two types of players are:

1. Ones that really play with the rhythm

2. Ones that don’t

Sound like an over-simplification? I don’t think so. Either you’re really trying to lock onto the rhythms, syncopations, and tempo, or not. Sure, technical ability plays into this…but if you’re not comfortable playing over certain rhythms and can’t lock-in, you should probably simplify what you’re doing and focus on the beat…this will do more for your overall musicality than just shredding a million notes with no regard for time or groove.

Locked In Or Just Go For It?

Not that one approach is necessarily better or worse, as it is hard to say what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to an art form, for me personally, listening to a player that really acknowledges the time and syncopation in a song makes it more listenable. To give an example of what I’m talking about, here are a couple of little improvs, the first one being ‘Just Go For It’ style, and the second more of a ‘Play Off of the Beat’ approach.

Not in the pocket

Notice how I just jump in and start noodling, with no real connection to the drums or groove – it sounds like I’m more concerned with impressing somebody (somebody who doesn’t expect much musically!) instead of really digging in and interacting with the track.

Hey – There’s a band there!

In this example I put a little more ‘air’ in the phrasing…I’m reacting a bit more to the drums and groove of the track, which really (to me anyway) is what music should be about – especially in a band situation – you should try to lock in with the other players, and when they play something you react to it musically, so it sounds like you’re playing together.

Avoid Being Predictable

Another aspect of playing more rhythmically is that you will not sound so predictable – when a solo is constant noodling and scale gymnastics, the listener wears out quickly. There is little in the way of surprises…no tension and release, which is a big part (or should be a big part) of music, especially improvised music. The key word here is Phrasing, which means playing ideas that fit together, compliment each other and the rhythm section, and keep the listener interested.

So What Makes Good Phrasing?

For one thing, phrasing really isn’t just about playing technical ‘licks’ or fancy lines on your instrument. Phrasing is the combination of rhythm and melody, in contrast to the song you’re playing along with. Also, phrasing is not just an improvisational tool – vocalists phrase the words they sing…in fact some of the best phrasing you’ll hear is in old-school crooner’s work like Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett just to name a few. Elvis had a really strong rhythmic sense to his singing – which of course people have copied for decades ever since. Guitar players like George Benson, John Scofield, BB King and Eric Clapton are so known for their phrasing that just a couple of notes identifies them. The term for what these guys have is ‘Time Feel’ – great musicians know that it’s the key to really making great music, and it should be your goal to develop it.

For an improvised solo, your thoughts should be focused on the band (or track, or whatever you’re playing over) first, LISTENING to what is happening, then reacting to it. Think like a drummer – really lock onto whatever the rhythm section is doing…you don’t want to just jump in and start wanking away like an over-caffeinated grinder monkey! Let your phrases breathe…build some tension in your solo by starting out at one dynamic level and building to a crescendo. If you just come out of the gate blazing, you leave yourself no room to go anywhere. You’re taking the listener on a journey, not throwing a bucket of cold water on them.

Look for part 2 of this article for some more playing examples and phrasing ideas!

Economy Picking Lessons Building Speed and control – Videos!

I’m getting too lazy old to type out lessons, so I figured I would start doing more videos! This one is about economy picking and how to build up the technique little by little, while focusing on keeping your picking motion nice and relaxed, tension-free and smooth. Go at your own pace and enjoy!

** DISCLAIMER ** Economy picking is a specialized technique that is not the only picking method you should learn! I also think alternate picking is essential, and here’s an alternate picking exercise to help with that.

And of course, Part 2  (ascending scale)

For more about playing guitar tension-free, check out this article:

Playing Guitar Without Tension

Chord Fragments

Let’s see…how many silly puns could I have used for a title…Frag-gle Rock…Frag-en-stein….Count Frag-ula…Frag-ocaster…Ok enough of that.

Let’s face it…it’s not fun to just play full barre chords all the time, and sometimes it’s already being done by the other guitarist in your band. Or perhaps your keyboard player is squatting all of the sonic real-estate and you only have a wee little bit of space to claim as your own.

That is where fragments come in. Instead of playing the entire chord, you can play little pieces of them, and make fills and ornaments that add some style to whatever you’re playing. Hendrix is a well-known user of such tactics, among others.

I’m going to assume you have a basic understanding of the barre chords and how they move up the neck, so let’s jump in.

The biggest challenge when you first dig into this is just knowing how to navigate the fretboard for any given position, in any key. Once you get a handle on how the notes connect, you can pretty much wander freely around the neck making up little pieces as you go. BAM! Guitar is fun again, people are happy, dancing breaks out in the streets…

Here’s a quick and dirty tab of some fragments in the key of C. Note that the C chord is carried all the way up the neck through it’s inversions. You can do this for all 12 keys, and all chord types. (Sounds overwhelming, huh?) But really, once you get a few strategic ideas under your fingers, moving to other keys is a snap.

C chord fragments

Each line shows the chord and then some simple shapes to play around it. You’ll quickly see the same basic ideas popping up again and again, in each position on the fretboard. Did I plan it that way? You betcha! Once you learn how to find the same sounds in multiple locations on the neck, what do you have?? That’s right – Freedom of Movement! Damn this is fun.

Ok, here’s the audio for each position, all still in C major. Starting in open C and moving to the octave just like the tabs.

Open position:

3rd fret:

5th fret:

8th fret:

10th fret:

12th fret:

Note that there are a few notes here and there that aren’t directly from the C Major scale. I like to add a little spice like a dom 7 or min 3rd, etc… every now and again to spice things up. This is music, not math class…

The main thing to take from all this is how you can add some variety to your rhythms by sprinkling little fragments around in cool ways, breaking up the monotony where appropriate. Of course you should use with discretion – I’m sort of overdoing it for the sake of the article, and besides… it is MY website. Muuuhhaahahaahaaaaaa!!!

I will leave you with this final blurb, this time in the key of E major, similar stuff, moving randomly around the neck (maybe a bit too random, but hey) Just to give you another variation of these concepts.

Around the neck:

Go forth and Fragify!

Get In Synch

The secret (ha! like there’s only one…) to good picking is getting your right and left hands in synch with each other. If one of your hands decides to go on auto-pilot and just ignore what the other is doing, you end up with something like this: (This is what NOT to do)


But, with a little effort, you can smooth things up:

GOOD: (well, better)

On the first clip, the picking hand isn’t getting to the notes at the same time the fretting hand is, which makes it sound all squirrely and un-musical. That is what we want to work on.

Example 1

To start, lets take a pretty unassuming little sequence and focus on getting the pickstrokes nice and tightly synched with the fretted notes. Trickier than it seems when the tempo increases. Give it a try.

example 1

Note that the pattern changes slightly the second time through…


Just make SURE the notes sound even and your left and right hands ‘feel’ in time with each other.

Easy enough? Ok…let’s take it a step farther

Example 2

This time I’m using swing 8ths and alternating between half and double speed. Make sure you alternate pick everything, starting on a downstroke and alternating the rest. Concentrate on relaxing your hands and arms, don’t let ANY tension creep into them. Tension is the enemy to smooth picking. Your natural tendency is probably going to be to tense up on the double speed part, but resist the urge! Just keep it nice and relaxed.

example 2


And a bit faster…


Example 3

This example is all on one string, all alternate picked, and all silly sounding. No, really…it sounds like a bad irish fiddle tune, but it’s going to make you jump around a bit, (like a crazy Leprechaun) which is what I’m after.

Play this at each of the tempos I have here and work your way up to the quick one (250 bpm). Just make sure you don’t miss any notes or have weak articulation. Strict alternate picking on this too.

example 3

The basics:

slow (120bpm):

fast (175bpm):

really fast (250bpm):

Can you see the Leprechaun yet?

Example 4

This is one of my favorite little repeating licks. You can use it on any set of two strings, all over the neck. I’m in the key of C here, but once you get the pattern you can move it anywhere.

Alternate picking is very important here, and once you get your hands in synch this lick has a really cool perpetual motion feel to it. It’s good for moving up or down the neck and even across pairs of strings. Here’s a short snippet:

example 4



If you don’t have good sychronization between hands on this one it just feels all wrong, so really work on getting it dialed in and you’ll see what I mean about how this one feels.

Example 5

Didn’t think I was going to let you go without a little bluegrass picking, did you? This one is a generic snippet from any number of fiddle tunes. It uses open strings and strict alternate picking, with a swing 8th note feel. It really seems simple but getting it to swing and stay synched up at faster tempos is tough. Stay very focused on accurate picking here, and getting the swing feel.

example 5




A really good example of this feel is Mark O’Connor’s ‘Picking in the Wind’, off of the guitar record he did when he was 16. Smokin!

I hope these exercises help you get in synch – I wanted to give some examples that really focus on a certain picking challenge, instead of just playing scales. Be your own worst critic – listen very objectively to recordings of yourself (you do record yourself sometimes, right?) That’s the only real way to hear clearly what you are playing – sometimes while you are playing you can get lost in the fun and forget to LISTEN to what’s coming out.

Until next time!

Building a Solo – Country Style

It’s easy (well, sometimes) to pick up a bunch of licks and tricks, especially in the twangin’ tele style, but sooner or later you are going to have to assemble them into something that resembles music. Getting your chops sorted out is a big part of the game, yes…but I would argue that being musical with even simple ideas will get you farther.

I put this together over the rhythm of Haggard’s ‘Working Man’s Blues’. This is a very common tune if you end up on a gig with guys wearing cowboy hats and/or belt buckles larger than your fist. And, conveniently, it’s often a head-cutting tune of sorts, made to jam over and see who is really worthy of the buckle (or the hat.)

So, as with any tune in this style, the first thing you need to do is learn the rhythm part, know the chord changes backwards and forwards. To really sound good over tunes like this, you need to play to each chord, and even anticipate the changes with ‘lead-in’ notes that take you into the next chord.

I’m only playing through one solo section here, but in the ‘real world’ you will likely run through it a couple of times or more.

Solo Section – A | A | A | A | D | D | A | A | E | D | A | A ||

Ok, now…to ‘get into’ the solo, I start with a little lick over the A7, which builds some energy to lead me into the D7 (next lick). Sort of like revving up the engine before dumping the clutch.


The next section drops to the IV chord, D7. This is really where the solo ‘starts’. I’m sliding into the root, hitting some twangy bendy stuff, trying to mix up the ideas so I don’t play too much of anything that sounds the same. Always try to relate your licks to each other, either in a ‘call and response’ sense or in a tension-building sense where you build up the tension and then break it with a really nasty bit. Just remember that EVERY lick doesn’t have to be a killer. If you try to do that, you wear the listener out, never letting your stuff breathe. But, this is an uptempo tune, so if you let it drag too much you’ll lose them just as fast. Think balance.

Here’s lick 2, which leads us back to A.


Moving right along, the last lick left me in A, so I continue there, and throw a little breathing room in there with some double-stops. These are really just 2 separate chord shapes moved through 4 positions.

This section moves so quickly, I didn’t try to break the track up, and just played through. The single measure E and D go by pretty fast, so you need to plan ahead to hit the changes right. I’ll break it all down lick by lick. The last lick when I get back to A wasn’t really worth tabbing out, but as I mentioned before, you may get another ’round through the solo, so here you should be thinking about setting yourself up for the IV chord again.

Final Section:

A section Slower:

E section Slower:

This lick in E sounds harder than it really is…keeping some open strings going adds a lot to it. Another key is keeping your fretting hand loose and visualize where you are going next…anticipate the move down the neck – it goes quick!

D section slower:

Pretty straight-forward here, just sliding into some 6ths and adding that nice little low bit on F# and the A string to top it off, for the return back to A where you would probably be setting up to go through another 12 bars!

All Together Now!

Here’s the whole thing together:

It takes a lot of practice to become ‘fluent’ with the language of twang, and it’s really just a matter of putting in the time, and playing in situations where you have to rise to the occasion. Oddly enough, pride can be your strongest motivator to get better at something like this. All it takes is one good embarrassment on stage and BAM! you’re locked in the woodshed practicing your butt off.

A good source of inspiration outside of straight country is Bluegrass, Western Swing, even some jazz, because those styles really rely on playing over the chords in a tune and making flowing, lyrical melodies on the fly. It’s not really pure improvising, where you’re out to break new ground with every measure, it’s putting phrases together that support the style of music you’re playing, and just flat-out sounding good. If you try to get too wacky it’s going to sound wrong, and the guys with the hats and buckles really don’t like wrong.

6ths Sense

A good way to spice up your rhythm and lead playing is to use 6th intervals as double stops, or 2 notes played at the same time.
The most common guitar riff with 6ths is probably this:

common 6th's

To get some interesting finger exercise and train your hand to find the whole major scale in 6ths, try this example. This is the A major scale harmonized in 6ths. Pay attention to the fingerings on this one…to get the smooth transitions between notes, use the fingerings noted in the tab. Also keep your fingers really close to the strings – don’t lift them too high off the fretboard.

A major 6ths

Try this in all keys, all over the neck. Just knowing where the different 6th intervals are in each position will spark some cool ideas.

Ok, here’s another variation of the 6th, this time mixing the octave or unison in with it. The example is in G major, descending. This kind of thinking opens a ton of possibilities for mixing intervals in rhythm and solos, and also coming up with little counterpoint phrases where two notes are working in different directions, but in the same chord or scale family.

G major 6ths and octaves

Here’s an example of how I might work 6ths into a rhythm phrase – I am also using 3rds in this one.
The key is D major.

6ths rhythm

And finally, a little lick using the 6ths in a bit of a finger twister. I really like sneaking this kind of stuff into solos to get a more harmonic sound…not just single notes all the time. Try this one in different keys and figure out how to do the same thing over a minor and dominant 7th chord sound.

D 6ths lick

Develop that ‘6ths sense’! In a future article I will go into using intervals in partial chords and getting away from the barre chord way of thinking.

Single-String Modes

A great way to learn the characteristic sounds of the major scale modes, and a good way to discourage ‘pattern’ playing, or relying on memorized licks, is to play each mode on a single string. I think I first ran across this idea in the old Mick Goodrick ‘Advancing Guitarist’ book. The important thing is to STAY on the same string…do no play adjacent strings. Easier said than done!

I covered the modes in a previous article if you need a primer. This will be more focused on training your ear.

As I mentioned in the other article, each mode is basically one of three types:

MAJOR: (Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian)
MINOR: (Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian)

My examples use the root note E. You should try this all different keys, on all strings.
I am doing each one in E so you can hear the sound and color of each mode distinctly. My choice of key has nothing to do with the name of the string I am using for my example, it’s just a coincidence. You could just as easily do the exercise on the B, G or any other string.

Okay, Here is a little recap of the modes as compared to their parent major, minor, or half-diminished scale. The bold notes are the ones that really define the characteristic sound of each mode.

Ionian: (Parent Major)
Dorian: Minor w/ SHARP 6
Phrygian: Minor w/ FLAT 2
Lydian: Major w/ SHARP 4
Mixolydian: Major w/ FLAT 7
Aeolian: (Natural Minor)
Locrian: Minor w/ FLAT 2 AND FLAT 5

Here are some sound examples to get you started. I don’t recommend just learning the licks I played here. The whole idea of this exercise is to help develop your ear and ability to use the modes musically, without relying on rote patterns and mechanical functions. To really improvise, you have to break away from the licks and patterns your hands are comfortable with and rely solely on your ears. (Scary huh!)

So, lay down a simple rhythm track with the appropriate chords for each mode, then play over it.
If you have a fancy recording setup, great. If not, a keyboard with loops is fine, a tape recorder or digital recorder, it doesn’t matter. If you’ve gotten this far and don’t have a way to lay down a backing for yourself, back up and get one!

The backing vamp for each of these sounds similar, but I modified the chords for each accordingly. The bassline does have a B natural note, which isn’t part of E locrian (should be a Bb), but we’ll let that slide for now!

Also, you will notice I skipped the parent Major and Relative Minor modes (Ionian, Aeolian.) You should do them as well, but I just wanted to touch on the other modes for these examples. Listen closely for the notes that really define the character of each mode.






Note: At the end of the Locrian example, I started using the half-whole diminished scale, which is a more common (and much better sounding scale) than the locrian mode. The pattern for that scale is simply H-W-H-W-H-W-H-W etc…

Odd Over Even

The idea of polyrhythms always conjures up visions of geeks getting out their calculators, trying to figure out the best way to make something NOT groove.

If you want to inject a little poly into your rhythm, here’s a really simple concept.

One problem with playing fast lines is that there’s a tendency to sound too structured. To help break up some monotony, try adding odd groups of notes into the fray.

In a previous post, I used the combination of 4’s and 5’s. This time, let’s use consecutive groups of 5’s. Phrase them so the first note of each group falls on the 1/8th note or 1/4 note.

Another name for this post could have been “How to Sound like Eric Johnson or Jean Luc Ponty” so try to add some personal flavor.