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Missing Ingredient?

Active Member
Joined: 13 years ago
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Hi all! I've been playing guitar for about sixteen years now, and I've bought countless guitar books and read articles online until I was blue in the face, but something still seems to be missing in my playing.

I know many scales, from pentatonics to the modes, and I've learned them from a variety of perspectives, including the CAGED system and others. My chord vocabulary includes everything from power chords to the various 7th chords used in many jazz applications, and learning new chords isn't much of a challenge if need be for a certain song.

The fact that on paper my knowledge base seems fairly good makes it even more frustrating that I can't seem to play with the kind of taste, soul, and enjoyment that I had hoped for. When I play leads over chords, it just sounds like a guy playing scales over chords, not really any kind of expressive playing. It's becoming harder and harder to feel creative and motivated to keep playing when I am just drawing blanks and falling back on the same few songs I've been playing since I was fourteen.

Does anybody else understand what I'm trying to say, or better yet, have any ideas for how to "break on through to the other side" (thanks Jim Morrison!)?

Thanks and Rock On,


Noble Member
Joined: 14 years ago
Posts: 2135

<All the GNer's sing together now>

"Play with other people!"

It'll cure what ails you. Seriously.

Famed Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 4478

I agree somewhat with Laz but it's more than that. Playing with others does maybe give you a new perspective but that alone isn't necesarily (I know I spelled that wrong) do it either.

I haen't been playing as long as you and probably don't know as many scales as you but I feel the exact same way. I can pretty much play any chords thrown at me but my soloing skills are still sorely lacking and most of the time ( not all the time sopmetimes something sounds better) the sound like scales or the same ol same ol.

I have been with a teacher for about 3 year now and you'd think I'd be waay better by now but I ain't and it frustrates the hell out of me. But when I get to down on myself I do know I have some skills so I'm not a total hack and I really want to concentrate more on soloing skills.

For the most part I work out songs with my instructor so I know a lot of songs now that I think I can play fairly well and it does come in handy.

As an example I play with a guy that blues the blues almost exclusively and for the songs he plays (not alot) his lead playing sounds fantastic both his phrasing and his tone, everything. But ask him to play a lead to rock song and you get nothing. Ask him to play the rhythm to anything but the blues and again not that impressive so I guess he's kind of like a one trick pony but he does it very very well.

I want to be able to go beyond that and be able to solo over blues progressions (which I personally don't care much for) rock, metal whatever and I'm just not there.

I did mention this last night to my instructor so hopefully we will start something new along those lines next week.

I have to say most of it is my fault I always want to learn a new song every week so that's pretty much what I do and neglect the soloing part..gotta change that.

OK that probably didn't help you other than now you know someone else is in the exact same boat.

"It's all about stickin it to the man!"
It's a long way to the top if you want to rock n roll!

Noble Member
Joined: 14 years ago
Posts: 1283

I have no serious advice, other than i totally understand what you are saying. I posted a thread last year saying a similar thing.

What seems to work for me (and you have played a lot longer than I, so i am sure your ahead of me on this), is that i spend a huge amount of my practice time targetting notes over specific chords on backing tracks etc, and really getting to know which intervals give me the sound I am looking for. I have also tried to grow my arpeggio repetoire as much as I can, but also learned which other arpeggio's sound good to me over major and minor chords, instead of just the playing plain major or minor arpeggio of that chord e.g playing relative minor arpeggio's etc

But most importantly for me, is that I also spend a lot of time practicing mixing the major, minor and blues scales together so I can change the "feel" of my solo's at will, and this really was a break through for me, as I knew I could snap out of the familiar blues scale sound at will, into a major feel and back again to break things up.

All this has also changed the way I play, and slowed me down a bit instead of me just flyng around the scales as fast as I can. Targetting notes and getting different sounds from different scales sounds good to my ears, so i dont feel as if i have to keep "busy" on the fretboard, as i have more opportunity to hold the notes I want to, and build tension where I want to.

Having said all that, i do realise you have been playing much longer than I, and are probably far more accomplished than I, so this isnt really advice, as im sure you know this all anyway in more detail than me.


"I like to play that guitar. I have to stare at it while I'm playing it because I'm not very good at playing it."
Noel Gallagher (who took the words right out of my mouth)

Famed Member
Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 3460


I'm sure that just about everybody who reads your post will be able to relate to what you're saying. Probably only the very experience players will feel that they've got it nailed. I'd certainly agree with Laz that playing with others can be a help. But for many of us, a reliable supply of “others” just isn't realistic. I used to play once a week with a small group and it was a lot of fun, but trying to keep it going was tough. Unless you're lucky enough to have family or close friends who have the same musical interests as you, the pattern is likely to be fairly short bursts of common enthusiasm follow by a drifting apart. Both Al and Chris who posted above can tell you how hard it is to keep bands together for any length of time. In my own situation I have found it very difficult to find suitable music buddies who are available during the day, at the times when I'm free. During the day people are at work and in the evenings most of us either have other commitments or have just run out of the required energy. I suspect that's pretty common. The best opportunities probably occur when you're at school or college, or perhaps in the armed forced or working at mining camps etc where you are thrown together in a close community situation. If you have a close extended family/friends situation, with shared musical interests and compatible schedules then I'd say you're part of a very fortunate minority. Which leaves the rest of us….

I've also got a pile of books that I could stand on to paint the ceiling (and I've read most of them too). I can play all the cowboy chords and switch between them with relative ease. Ditto for more than enough sevenths, ninths, barres, and general decoration to play squillions of songs. Like you, I can play enough basic scales/lead/melody to make a fair go of it. Yet when the record button is pressed the ‘happy bubble' usually bursts and the revealed results just don't sing the way they should. :( What's in my head just isn't making it all the way to the hard drive.

So what's the answer?

Part of the problem may be that we're now used to hearing huge amounts of music via CD and radio that has been very highly produced and polished. Dozens of people were involved - professional session musicians and singers, producers, arrangers, audio engineers, specialist mixers, and so on. Am I going to be able to match that level of slickness? On my own? Apart from their skills in getting a good track down in the first place (and let's not forget that it can take many takes and hours of time) a good software engineer can correct all the small mistakes and inconsistencies in pitch and timing, add extra layers of timbre, and so on. And they can use hundreds of thousands of bucks worth of top line gear to do it. I think that we've all been subtly conditioned to expect pretty unrealistic standards in our own playing. Unfortunately, the counter-balance - casual social sing-songs and play-alongs - are not as much a part of life as they once were.

Basically I think there's two answers. Sadly, one of them is going to be the same old one - more practice. If I'm playing alone I'll need to have reached a reasonable standard in rhythm, harmony and melody, not to mention the subtler aspects of touch and timing. It's also going to be a massive asset if I can sing - because that allows me to tell a story, and also takes the pressure off the melody aspect of playing. Basically, it allows me to play two instruments at once. Being comfortable with the recording process and having a decent familiarity with the software will help too. So that's a number of hats to wear - each of which would normally take thousands of hours to master. Big task…. but….

The second answer (for me anyway) is also fairly clear - Start Simple. If I can't find the joy in the simple then heading for complex won't give me the answers I'm looking for. For some reason I have to constantly remind myself of this. Play simple solos with a few notes over straightforward and undemanding progressions. Don't move on again as soon as the notes are just in the right order - do it until it really start to sing. No matter how basic it seems there is always new energy and freshness that can be brought to it. If Mozart (and other well known composers) could use the melody to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in brilliant classical works (which they did) then it should be good enough for me. If you watch a band or orchestra on Youtube the individual players are often making pretty simple contributions - it's the combination that's powerful. So I need to shape the situation to fit my current skills and aim three paces in front, not three miles. The answer is not always a few chapters away in the next book, in the need for ten more chords or three more scales, or even six months of lessons away. It's here now. I just need to look in the right place, which is right at my own feet, not at the top of some imaginary mountaintop.

I may have to print this out and pin it to my guitar, because tomorrow I'll probably be making the same mistake again...

Good luck finding what works for you.


Noble Member
Joined: 14 years ago
Posts: 1497

I can't answer your question, because I think first of all some of it is inborn talent and to develop your inborn talent is different from one person to another.

What I would suggest is this:

1) Listen to everything, especially things out of your comfort zone. From Earl Scruggs to Sergei Prokofiev to Stan Getz to Mark Murphy to Sweets Edison to Pyotr Tchaikovsky to Muddy Waters to Chet Atkins to Antonin Dvorak to Shirley Horn to Elvis Presley to Luther Vandross to Jimmy Smith, etc., etc. Especially melodic players and vocalists (notice I didn't mention guitarists - that's your comfort zone). I learned as much about playing sax from Jimi Hendrix and Mark Murphy as I did from Stan Getz.

Listen until you can sing along with your favorite solos. Analyze how the solos are developed and then listen some more without thinking until you can pretty much hear them in your head without the recording. These licks will become part of your inner vocabulary.

2) When practicing think about theory, but by the time you have learned the song well, turn your "left brain" off and just play. You no longer have to calculate what scale fragment goes with what chord, that is for your practice, not for your performance. Practice this with backing tracks, Band-in-a-Box or something else, then do it with other musicians.

I've heard it said that the best music is played without thinking. What is meant by that is turn off any words in your brain (thinking) and let the music come out of your subconscious.

3) Have fun making music. They don't call it playing music for nothing. After a symphony concert Leilani and I stopped for a cup of tea before heading home and we noticed one of the musicians and we got to talking to him. Now he is playing what is considered the most serious and demanding music in the world, yet what he expressed is how much fun he had that evening.

If you are having fun playing the music, the joy will come out of the music.

I hope this helps.

Insights and incites by Notes ♫

Bob "Notes" Norton

Owner, Norton Music Add-on Styles for Band-in-a-Box and Microsoft SongSmith

The Sophisticats >^. .^< >^. .^<

Illustrious Member
Joined: 15 years ago
Posts: 8306

there are two suggestions i'll repeat.
one is practice more. i find that any problem i'm having on the guitar goes away after about 3 or 4 days of practicing for a couple hours a day. i don't have any kind of regimented practice going. i just jam away, play whatever song or lick comes to mind or just mindlessly play. invariably, all the backlog of junk and recycled licks gets played through, sometimes ad nauseum, but it seems to clear out of my system after a while and i almost magically find a fresh approach to playing. the melodies get sweeter, the notes become easier to find, the music gets more interesting, and i just feel like i'm in the zone.

if you don't have time for that, there's suggestion two. play simple. you probably feel like you're flailing around looking for feeling, and it probably sounds like that, too. i've been there myself. for me, if i just play some simple 2 or 3 or 4 note muddy waters or howlin wolf lick or something like that, and jamming over the gaps. really just feeling the groove, getting into it, getting that swagger while i play, swaying and stomping, it gets to be really fun. du DUH nuh da DUN boom boom, boom boom. yeah i'm a man boom boom, boom boom, i made 21 boom boom, boom boom... you jam over something that really rocks your soul, gets you from the inside, and after a few minutes you can't help but try to make that guitar scream.

there's one other thing. record yourself. you may be better than you think you are. sometimes that frustration you're feeling's actually coming through and you don't realize it. or at least you can hear what you should do.

Member Moderator
Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 5366

I know many scales, from pentatonics to the modes, and I've learned them from a variety of perspectives, including the CAGED system and others. My chord vocabulary includes everything from power chords to the various 7th chords used in many jazz applications, and learning new chords isn't much of a challenge if need be for a certain song.

When I play leads over chords, it just sounds like a guy playing scales over chords, not really any kind of expressive playing.

What I think part of the problem is, is that you're looking at something like a two octave scale in one single chunk and not as a box of Lego bricks from which to build something.

What I encourage my students to do is play chunks of the scale - say three or five notes - and then play a different chunk of the scale starting from anywhere else that's not the next note up or down the scale. This breaks up the "beginners' habit" of early soloing which normally consists of playing up the two-octave scale, then down it again, by step.

Then I have my students start varying note lengths in groups of three or five notes - short-short-long / long-long-short / short-long-short and so on.

Playing with other people will help. So will trying to copy other people's solos; don't start with "Stairway to Heaven" or "Operation Ground & Pound," start with "Paranoid" or "2-4-6-8 Motorway" and just get a feel for what's going on. Your own sound will start to develop from there.

"Be good at what you can do" - Fingerbanger"
I have always felt that it is better to do what is beautiful than what is 'right'" - Eliot Fisk
Wedding music and guitar lessons in Essex. Listen at:

Active Member
Joined: 13 years ago
Posts: 5
Topic starter  

First, thanks to everyone who viewed this topic and especially those who posted replies. It's great to feel like part of a community, albeit virtually. Getting together and playing with people has been a challenge for me, but I did get a few jam sessions in while deployed this past year, and they were very uplifting and educational experiences.

One thought that came to mind while I was meditating on some of your thoughtful replies was that the music I tend to listen to or enjoy mostly doesn't feature virtuoso guitar playing or even much lead guitar at all. Aside from Jimi Hendrix, who was my first guitar hero, most of the other bands and players I admire aren't really known for their leads.

Perhaps I've bought into the fallacy that a good guitar player must sound like he's shredding up the fretboard to be considered good!

One solo I really enjoy is in Orgy's cover of Blue Monday at around the 3:05 mark. It is supremely simple and unimpressive skill-wise; however, it is perfect for the song and really sounds amazing. Another lead style I really admire is Daniel Kessler and Paul Banks of Interpol. Both players play very rhythmic double stops, chord fragments, or octaves that blend well with one another and create a tapestry of atmospheric sound that is amazing. Finally, I'm inspired by Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs whose playing is also very simple but tasteful.

All of this to say the following: I think my solution is to muster up the courage to play the kind of minimalist riffs and chords that I admire and not worry about whether I'll be perceived as a good guitarist or not. I think I have all of the technique I want, it's just the mental furniture that needs rearranging.

As always, I welcome anybody's thoughts on these ideas! Thanks and Rock On!


Estimable Member
Joined: 12 years ago
Posts: 146

Try humming what you play. Try humming even before you play. You might be losing direction while playing, not knowing where you want to go with your music and using technique to replace that. Step out of your scale sometimes. Experiment with notes that wouldn't "fit", and jump to places completely unexpectedly on your fretboard. Play around with backing tracks, and switch your rhythm. Just do whatever you can to get out of your comfort zone! :D

Illustrious Member
Joined: 15 years ago
Posts: 8306

i didn't mean play simple as in only play really basic riffs. i meant start with something that's more visceral than technical, get the feeling there, and keep it going as new ideas flow out of you. using that muddy waters riff as an example, i'll start with the 4 note riff, and keep that going, but after a minute i might be all over the fretboard, returning to it as a backbone, but not necessarily staying on it if i'm moved to do something else. this approach can work with basically anything. the most obvious and well known example of this sort of thing is beethoven's 5th, which starts as a riff and ends as a symphony. the idea isn't to just play easy stuff, but rather to play something basic with feeling, and let that spread out into whatever you're doing. it's a good way to get into that flow and create without getting frustrated when your hands are going at the limit of your ability but you're still not making music that moves you.

you can sound good playing busy, or sparse, but the point i was trying to make was that if you start out trying to impress yourself, it's really tough to do. i've found that if i just focus on keeping the groove, that even as i start to get more complex, i'm still playing with feeling, but if i start out trying to play busily, it often ends up unmusical and i get frustrated with myself. trust me, i can get out there, but when it happens organically, it gets good. when i force it, it feels forced, and it sounds forced.

Estimable Member
Joined: 15 years ago
Posts: 129

How are you doing on bends and vibrato? Great Rock and blues players use a lot of this. The more I work on these, the better I get at them, and the more music turns me on! Once I started being able to perform this technique, that was the point where my pentatonic scales went from boring and lame to a lotta friggin fun!

I spend a certain amount of time each day working on my bend/vibrato technique, there's always room for improvement, ALWAYS.


Illustrious Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 10340

Some great suggestions there - a combination of Jason's and Gotdablues suggestions works for me. Start simply, then add the bends and vibratos. Most importantly, you have to FEEL the music you're playing...for me, I have to have my mind in the right place. If I'm playing blues, I have to visualise sadness and FEEL down - if I'm playing a shiny happy love song, I have to visualise being full of life and bouncy. You can't play a love song if you're feeling blue - and you can't play the blues if you're feeling on top of the world. You have to VISUALISE.....well, that's what works for me, anyway.

:D :D :D


"Sometimes the beauty of music can help us all find strength to deal with all the curves life can throw us." (D. Hodge.)