Four ways ‘noodling’ helps you develop as a musician
‘Noodling’ is when you grab your guitar and just play around. If you’re a beginner that might mean just repeating those first few chords you’ve learned. Maybe you play them in a different order, slide them up and down the neck, or pluck the strings separately. If you’re more advanced, you might play a chord, followed by a blueslick, followed by another chord, followed by… you get the idea. You’re just being creative without expectations and having fun, which is vital for learning your instrument and learning about music in general.
But sometimes noodling is seen as unproductive and unhelpful. And if you use it wrong it might well be. First, noodling is not very goal oriented. So if you want to improve your weak points or learn new specific things, just playing around is not an effective way to achieve that. Second, if you keep repeating bad habits that might have slipped in, it will be harder to get rid of them. So no, JUST noodling around is not a good thing. You also need goal-oriented practice to keep improving your playing. But now we’ve reached a keyword: ‘play’. After all, you don’t ‘work’ music, you play music. The element of fun shouldn’t be there just because it’s possible, but because it’s essential. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater and have a look at how noodling will help us.
1. Noodling helps process your practice
Say you’ve been putting in the practice to learn a new lick or some theoretical concept, such as triads on the fretboard. Sitting down and being able to play what you’ve been practicing is one thing. But you want to get a step beyond that: you want to be able to use what you’ve practiced in a playful and intuitive manner. You need to test and ‘practice’ being able to do that. That’s where noodling comes in. When you’re just playing around, you’re internalizing what you’ve been working on. You’re noticing if the practiced material comes out naturally, and when it does, how you can use it creatively. You can do this in the rehearsal room or on stage, but in the comfort (and privacy) of your home as well.
Also, if you’re only ever in ‘study-mode’, there’s a danger that you’ll be in study-mode on stage as well, while that’s when you should let your instincts and playfulness lead the way. If you notice that while playing around you’re not able to use what you’ve practiced in a real musical way, you might need to spend more time polishing up whatever it is that you’re working on. It might also help to change how you practice that thing, possibly trying to mimic a more musical setting. Whatever the case might be, ‘noodling’ has taught you something. It has shown you what the fruits of your labor are in real life instead of during focused practice. So in short: noodling is a way of processing and testing what you’ve learned, and it gives you feedback on your practice routines.
2. Noodling helps you find your voice
When you’re noodling, you’re in a free-flowing playful explorative mode on the guitar. When you’re in this state, you’ll likely find the things that feel comfortable and like ‘you’. That’s something you won’t find out with only goal-oriented practice. There are a lot of things you need to practice in order to be able to produce good sounding music, but some things will ‘click’ more with you than others. So if you notice you enjoy playing long notes, you can work that into your practice to become a master of it and make it a trademark of your playing. If you feel like using open strings in chords really does something for you, you can practice chords that incorporate those open strings. In short, you need to noodle around to learn what feels like ‘you’. When you find what feels like ‘you’, it helps to determine what you want to develop. So this is another way noodling helps shape your practice routine. But more importantly, it helps you play ‘you’. Which is probably the highest goal in expressing yourself through music.
3. Noodling is a tool for songwriting and composition
Just like helping you find your voice, noodling can be a tool for composition. When playing around without thinking of any ‘rules’, you can come to creative ideas which defy ‘regular theory’ or normal songwriting tools. For example, when you sit down to write a chord progression, you might consider diatonic harmony to find chords that are theoretically supposed to sound good together. But when you noodle, it’s just your ears, your instrument and your instincts, which can lead to original ideas that ‘break the rules’.
Once you find an interesting idea, the noodling part is over and the work starts of turning your rough idea into a song or composition. So if you do find something you like while noodling, be sure to quickly record it or write it down. It doesn’t matter if it’s on your phone or on a napkin, just make sure you have something to refer to later. Perhaps your idea might develop into a great song or composition!
4. Noodling is fun and motivating
Perhaps the most important advantage is simply that noodling is fun. And it’s easier to keep doing something when it’s fun. It’s the time to see the guitar as a toy you can play with and make music without any expectations. This is when we truly notice our frustrations and happiness with our playing, so you know what to practice when you get back to study-mode. It helps you stay motivated, which is key to continue playing guitar and grow as a musician.
Let the noodling begin!
I hope I’ve convinced you not to forget to just grab your guitar and play whatever you want. Let your ears and fingers lead you to those places that feel good to you. And not just because it’s fun, but because it’s an essential part of growing as a guitarist and musician. If you keep a good balance between noodling and goal-oriented practice, it will strengthen both your practice and your musicianship. And that makes playing guitar more fun, which makes you want to practice and play more, which makes it more fun, which makes… you get the idea. So, is your guitar on your lap already?