Playing Guitar Without Tension

December 20th, 2009

Hand Tension

In my younger days I played a lot of fast noodly stuff, aggressive rock or classical playing where my muscles and tendons were tortured for hours on end. I had some issues with tendonitis, a ganglion cyst, which caused all sorts of pain when playing, so I started focusing on ways to help it. I looked for ways to reduce the tension in my hands and arms while I played, and by sheer necessity I greatly reduced the pain and vastly increased my endurance.

Bad Guitar Habits

Something I’ve noticed in the last few years is that my technique has changed, mostly due to the type of music I play. I still play a little fast noodly stuff, but most of my gigs these days are rock & roll and country, where 90% of the time you’re playing rhythm guitar, and the solos are more listener-friendly, just solid ‘fit-the-song’ type stuff. All well and good, but that style of playing causes me to let my focus on technique slip, and bad habits develop.

Finding a Fix

I tried all sorts of things to help alleviate the pain when playing, from different hand positions, sitting positions, etc… I was told about Alexander Technique, which isn’t just for musicians, but many practice for it’s benefits to posture and proper alignment of the body. I am not a big disciplined routine kind of person, so I just had to plow my own way, taking bits and pieces and discovering my own way to fix my problem.

Follow the path

One thing I got from every relaxation approach was that tension doesn’t always necessarily originate in the place you think is the problem. For guitarists, that’s the hands and arms. But, the problem isn’t always directly related to how you wiggle your fingers…it could be starting in your head, your neck, back, shoulders, etc… It is amazing how your body can hold stress and tension while your mind is focusing on something (like playing guitar…) Whether it’s clenching your teeth, tensing your shoulders or arms, or simply holding the guitar wrong, just being aware of the origin and following the chain of tension can help fix bad habits.

Start with breathing

Grab a metronome or drum machine, set it to a comfortable tempo, and practice playing something easy like a scale or lick, while paying strict attention to:

First – Your Breathing. Should be nice and even…Don’t hold it! Lots of people do this.

Second – Your Jaw muscles. (don’t clench!)

Third – Your Shoulders & Back. Relax them, don’t hold one shoulder higher than the other, etc…

Fourth – Your Elbows – They are a common place to hold tension when picking.

Fifth – Your Wrists/Hands.
Press only as hard as you need to fret the notes
Don’t strangle the neck with your thumb
Make sure you are not holding your wrist (on either hand) in an unnatural position/angle.

The Bottom Line

The purpose of all of this is to get you to think about the many places you could be creating counter-productive tension, and eliminating it. Bad habits can effect your tone, your timing, and your stamina. Not to mention you can create serious problems like tendonitus, carpal tunnel syndrome or worse. It is truly possible to play virtually tension-free, and with a little practice it comes pretty easy. But, if you’re like me and slip into bad habits easily, things can slide downhill pretty fast. Keep things loose and relaxed and you will play better, guaranteed!

Les Paul

August 14th, 2009

I got my first ‘good’ guitar back before the price of ‘good’ guitars was through the roof. I still have this guitar, the only guitar I’ve kept through the years.


I never met him, but Les Paul seemed like such a cool cat. So full of energy and always living life to the fullest. I may have never known him, but his name has certainly been a standard (unintended pun) around my house.

This has got to be the coolest commercial ever. We’ll all miss Les Paul.

Best alternate picking exercise ever

May 25th, 2009

Well, ever might be a bit exaggerated, but really, this little exercise can really help to focus your technique and get some specific things happening with your picking. The lick itself is short, so learning it and remembering it is easy.

Here’s a short clip of the lick, played pretty slow – play along or just listen.

example 1:

And here is the tab for the line.

Alternate picking- open position

The repeated downstrokes are swing 8ths with the last note missing… The alternate picked notes are 8th note triplets (all 3 notes).

Start at a tempo that is completely comfortable for you to play through it with total control. Don’t let the simplicity of this fool you! Here are some things to keep in mind:

The whole point of the exercise is to gain control over picking, so don’t take shortcuts. You must ALTERNATE PICK every note. Make sure you are not economy picking the notes (repeated up or down-strokes. This lick is very easy to play w/ econo picking, so there’s really no point to that. We are after super-tight alternate picking here.

Keep your hands relaxed. Even when you speed it up. The muscles you use to pick fast work much better when they are not clinched up tight. Chill out…breathe…

Don’t speed up until you can play through the notes over and over with NO mistakes or fumbly notes. Accuracy and clarity are key.

Try it in a closed position

Playing in open position messes with some people’s heads for some reason – if so for you, try it in a closed position. Here’s the same idea at the 5th fret:

Alternate picking- closed position

On the low strings

One more variation, this time on the low strings. Your hand will be in a slightly different position, so keep relaxed, loose, don’t move any more than necessary to pick each note.

low variation:


And here is the tab for the low version:

Alternate picking- low strings

Give it time

Results from this exercise will come in time. Just loop it until you can repeat the notes without any mistakes, and you really feel ‘in control’ of the up and down strokes. Once you feel this, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Your up-strokes will be just as strong and even as your down-strokes, and you will not be scrambling to get each note. I use it as a warm-up exercise or just to tune up my picking when I get slack.

How to be More Musical?

November 21st, 2008

Technical problems usually have technical solutions…I always post technical things because they can be addressed and/or aided by technical means – like if you want to get better at chords…Practice Chords! or if you need to improve your bending or vibrato…Practice bends and vibrato! It’s easy to give suggestions and examples of technical stuff, and most of the time progress can be made.

One question I don’t think anyone EVER asked me when I was teaching guitar lessons was… “How can I be more musical?” Hmmm…after all, the guitar is just a medium, right? a means to an end…a blank canvas, waiting for input. John Lennon once said, “I’m an artist, and if you give me a tuba I’ll bring you something out of it.”

So once you have the bag of tricks, transcending the technical and making music is not so easy. In fact, there is no answer to that one. No solution, no way to pinpoint it. Sure, you can emulate emotion, play with more dynamics, feign some sort of tortured soul act, jump up and down, roll around on the ground…whatever passes for passion. But really, how direct is the conduit from your heart to your hands? Do you stop by the head on the way to the hands? Does is take years of heartache to forge a ‘real’ musician or can the neophites play too?

See, none of these questions really have answers…I sure don’t know. I do know that for me, the only way to feel like I’m feeling the music is to STOP thinking about music and just think about LIFE. Whatever that might entail. Thinking about music or guitars or amps or some new chord shape or scale or tricky lick does nothing but feed my technical side…it’s not going to help me dig in to a song and really add anything to it. That’s the goal I think – adding something by giving a part of yourself, imparting something to the music that could only come from you. That’s why the really great players have a strong signature sound – they are putting their whole being into it, transcending the details of technique and gear, making music that could only be theirs.

So I guess the place to start when trying to be more musical is right in your own life experience, your ‘wheelhouse’…figure out what means something to you beyond fingers and frets and speakers…how does what you’re playing relate to YOU? Where does the sound you are making cross paths with the human that you’ve become?

One thing I did learn from teaching guitar is that not everyone is a deep, poetic, artsy-fartsy mysterious musical madman that parties like a rock star, dates supermodels and sacrifices something for their art. The fact is, most people are far from that, and that’s just fine. Most people just want to play an instrument for fun, or the technical challenge, or just to hear themselves play the opening riff to every rock song they grew up listening to. It’s funny how mentioning that you play guitar immediately conjures up (in other people’s minds) the image of some crazy musician type with no responsibilities, no worries…just SEX DRUGS AND ROCK & ROLL, BABY!!!

Ok, sorry if this rant took a strange turn, but I thought it would be a good way to inject a little reality into the topic, which is my whole point – your reality is what is going to shape the way you play. Embrace it – anger, happiness, frustration, loss, fun, jealousy, rage, love, hope, fear…all are necessary to make the world go ’round. Let them all be your motivation, throw ‘em all in the pot and stir!

Chord Fragments

September 5th, 2008

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

July 27th, 2008

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

May 21st, 2008

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.

Learning By Ear

April 10th, 2008

Probably the most asked question in any guitar lesson is “How do you do that?” I always thought a better question for the student to ask would be “How can I do that?” Really, who cares how the teacher did it? Students are there to learn how they can do it themselves! The original question is usually followed by some finger-wiggling, and the student walks out with a riff or two but not the underlying knowledge…how to learn it themselves.

Being able to hear something and translate it to your instrument is (to me at least) a fundamental part of being a musician. Train your ears just like your fingers – the more you
-practice LISTENING and transcribing, the faster and more accurate you get at it.

There is no ‘magic bullet’ or ‘secret’ to learning by ear. It’s a combination of many things, all used together and developed over time, through experience. With practice, you begin to instantly recognize things you’ve heard before.

Use Deductive Logic

Picking parts off of recordings can be tricky. You need to use a little deductive logic here. Some things are pretty easy to hear right away, even something like the first chord in ‘Stairway to Heaven’…there is really only one way to grab that chord shape and move the notes like the song does, without really overworking yourself.

You can make assumptions based on a few things – You can use the notes that come before or after a part to determine what’s happening, and if something seems illogical like a huge jump in frets, maybe that’s not how it was played, try another way. You can listen for specific tonality – does it sound like it’s on a low or high string, wound or unwound string?

Is the lowest or highest note only available in certain places on the neck? That can quickly limit your choices. With practice, you can very quickly figure out things in your head this way. By eliminating the illogical options, you narrow it down to the logical (usually easier) ones.

General Tips for learning music by ear

  • Learn things in small pieces, then build from there. It’s much easier to learn bit by bit than a whole long section. If that means pausing the recording after each note or chord, then do it!
  • Don’t start with music that is too difficult or foreign to you. You really need to be somewhat familiar with the style to visualize what is happening. Once you learn the basic vocabulary of a style, picking out things in that style becomes much easier.
  • Practice as often as you can – transcribe stuff as part of your regular routine. There’s really no substitute for putting in the time.

Tips for figuring out guitar parts by ear

  • Always listen for open strings, because they have a very specific and (often) easy to recognize tonality. Long sustained notes while others are changing can also indicate open strings.
  • Is it an acoustic guitar? Acoustic parts are usually played on the lower frets, and there could possibly be a capo involved. Does it sound like a familiar chord shape, like an open G or D. just higher? Suspect a capo.
  • Take into account the guitarist’s style. If they don’t normally use really weird or difficult chords, you can at least assume that they aren’t going to use something too far out.
  • Listen for things like hammer-ons and pull-offs – if you hear a pull-off then you can assume the interval didn’t span two strings. Likewise, hammer-ons on a single string have a certain sound and can determine the fret location.
  • String bends can be a dead giveaway of string and fret choice.
  • Listen for notes played at the same time, like double-stops, as these can often only be played in certain places on the neck.
  • Always try to use fingerings that are efficient and easy to get in and out of smoothly. Chances are good that the original artist did the same thing.

Keep in mind that guitar playing doesn’t have to be based on dogmatic ideas. Learn EVERYTHING you can and don’t base you approach on any one concept…use everything you can learn, whether it’s the CAGED system or whatever, just learn it, internalize it, and use it! Just don’t get hung up in any one method. Music is too diverse to be pigeon-holed by a narrow approach. Remember, the carpenter with only a hammer sees every job as a nail…