Where Do You Go From Here?
Now that you’ve been possessed by the spirit of the guitar you may be asking yourself; “Where do I go from here?” You probably started the same way that I did, by learning your favorite songs. And probably like me, you got to the point where you realized that if you wanted to go any further with the guitar, you where going to have to do some studying. Coming to the conclusion that you are going to have to study is one thing, knowing what and how to study is another. I’m going to walk you through the process of becoming an ever growing guitarist. I’m going to teach you all the things I did right and also teach you how to avoid all the same mistakes I made along the way. I’ll show you how to construct a well balanced practice schedule and how to set realistic goals, how to find yourself a good teacher and how to work with him. I’ll also include a few “life lessons,” some important things I learned the hard way so that you won’t have to.
Playing Versus Practicing – Recently Jennifer Batten (solo artist, Jeff Beck, Michael Jackson band member) did a seminar at Tokyo School of Music, the school I run in Tokyo. She said this about practice; “Practice as much as you possibly can stand without it turning into something you hate to do.” Practice should be fun but challenging. Practice should be done with specific goals in mind. I know tons of guitarists who think they are practicing but what they are really doing is just playing. Playing is important too but practice is something different. What you practice should come out in your playing. If it doesn’t, you’re not practicing efficiently. Before you sit down to practice, make sure you know what goals you are trying to reach by practicing, short term and long. It may even help to keep a log of your practice sessions. When and how long you practiced and what specifically you practiced. If you have a guitar teacher, go over the log with him at your lessons.
Continuance – Just like going to the gym, the important thing is to practice just about every day. Four hours today and nothing else for a week will amount to close to nothing. If you can only stand practicing an hour or so, that’s fine, just as long as it is almost every day.
Goals – Remember the dreaded F chord? You almost gave up didn’t you? Me, too. After you got it under your fingers, it was smooth sailing for a while until the next hurdle came up. More so than any other instrument, the guitar will challenge you this way. That is why it is important to set realistic goals for yourself. Always remember, nothing can be learned in an hour or so. The goals you set should be for weeks or months. Some of the things that I am currently practicing will take me a year to get together. Don’t get discouraged, anything worth learning will take time.
Balance – The way you practice should change with time. I’ve been playing for twenty somewhat years, so what I practice these days, is completely different than what I worked on my first few years. I know all my scales and have enough chops that I don’t need to work on those very much. I usually work on improvising over really hard chord changes. Stuff like John Coletrain’s “Giant Steps” or a Wayne Shorter song. I may sequence my own chord changes and try playing over them. I also find that working on the tunes for the gigs I do often turn into a good learning experience. For that reason I never turn down gigs that I know are going to be a real pain in the butt to get the tunes together for.
In the Beginning – If you are just starting out, you should dedicate a lot more time to technique than I do nowadays. But don’t let that be the only thing you work on. If I could change anything about the way I practiced when I first started out, I would cut down the time I worked on technique and would have dedicated more time to rhythm playing and reading. When I think back, it kind of cracks me up because I was working on scales and arpeggios for about five or six hours every day. I was sure that I was destined to be the fastest guitarist in the universe.
Life Lesson 1 (Chris gets forced to look in the mirror) – When I went to MI in the eighties, I was shocked because every student around me was really, really fast. You have to recall, this was about the same time Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani were at their zenith and Paul Gilbert was just getting his start in Mr. Big. Everyone was lightning fast and it dawned on me that I had been focusing on something that was soon to be in little demand. I completely failed to shine amongst my fellow students. I have to admit, all the scales and arpeggios I worked on in my younger days left me with chops that I still have today but there was a time that I struggled because I didn’t have my rhythm and reading chops together. I realized that I was way more likely to get a gig because I could play great rhythm or could read anything upside down than because I have fast fingers. It is now a whole different era of music and chops don’t count as much any more. That’s because the eighties was one big guitar sporting event.
I actually notice a whole different trend going on with young guitarists these days. It seems a lot of students have no interest in getting their chops together at all, which is a whole different problem. The point I’m trying to make here is that balance is the key to good practice. Work on your chops, your reading and comping skills, your ears and your theory knowledge.
Wasting Time – Don’t practice something you aren’t going to use. We guitarists often make the mistake of practicing exercises that have nothing to do with music at all. It makes no sense because there are so many things that we could be working on to increase our chops that we can actually use in a song or something. Instead we tend to work on these real mathematical chromatic exercises or something that will never find its way into a guitar solo. I often get students who ask me why, even though they practice all the time, they don’t have any chops. They haven’t realized it but they actually do have chops but the only thing they can play with real precision is these strange mathematical chromatic lines. Work on what you can use.
Stop What you’re Doing – Sometimes you will feel frustrated about your playing. Don’t worry, it’s completely natural. It seems like you practice and practice and nothing seems to change. You sometimes seem to lose all your creativity. I often have this problem myself. This is what I do: I stop whatever I’m doing and get out a CD of some musician I really admire. I listen to the CD and find some phrase that I want to know and figure it our by ear. I may have to slow it down to do so. I then analyze it to find out how I can use it (this is why music theory is so important). Then I practice it over some chord changes and let it be come a part of my vocabulary. It never fails to amaze me how something like this can start to get my creative mind working again.
Life Lesson 2 (Joe’s Advise) – When I was studying guitar at music school in the eighties, I fell into a horrible rut halfway through the year. I asked Jazz legend Joe Diorio what he thought I should do. He asked me; “Have you been out on a date lately?” I answered; “No.” He asked; “How about to the movies?” I answered: “No.” He then asked me; “Read any good books lately?” I answered; “Well, I’ve kinda been looking at a book on orchestration these days.” Then he said; “No wonder you can’t do anything creative on the guitar, your life is a complete bore.” He then instructed me to not touch a guitar on Sundays and have some fun. Go on a date or read a book, see a movie, give your brain some food. To be a creative musician your life has to be somewhat creative. One time I sent all my guitar students of to make pottery one weekend.
Get Going on Your Daily Practicing
Some Practice Advise – Use rhythm whenever you can. The one thing that hasn’t changed about the way I practice is exactly that. When I started going to lessons my teacher would often give me scales and the chord changes that would work with them. I would tape myself playing the changes on one of them super gigantic tape players that we had back in the dark ages and jam along with it. These days I use a Yamaha QY20 that I program the changes into. It makes practice time way more interesting and helps to develop my ears. A metronome is fine for practicing but it will only help your rhythmic ear. It won’t help your harmonic ear.
The Five Areas of Practice – As I said before, what you practice will change as you advance as a player. No matter how long you play, the basic five things you work on will most likely stay the same. The amount of time spent on each of them will probably vary to accommodate your changing strengths and weaknesses. I can’t tell you exactly what and how much you should be working on any one of these five different sections because I have never heard you play so I don’t know your strengths and weaknesses. Nor have I ever discussed your goals as a guitarist with you. You or you and your guitar teacher will have to decide how much time to dedicate to each one of them. Use the following section as a guide.
Scales, Arpeggios and Chops
Single Note Studies – Scales and arpeggios are important to work on for two reasons. One reason is because the only way to develop chops is by practicing them and the other is because any solo you play, regardless of genre, is going to be based on a scale or an arpeggio. If you don’t have much experience working on scales and arpeggios, at first the whole thing will be just plain mathematics and that’s okay for the time being. Don’t worry if at first the whole thing seems a little mechanical at first.
Start with your major scales. There are five patterns, roots in black:
Start with just one and practice it up and down. Make sure to use a metronome or better yet sequence, record or get a friend to play a rhythm track for you to play over. What chords do you use to play over? Try starting in C major. Use any of these chords to make a rhythm track: Cmaj, Dmin, Emin, Fmaj, Gmaj, Amin and Bdim. If you want to, try using 7th. chords: Cmaj7, Dmin7, Emin7, Fmaj7, G7, Amin7 and Bmin7b5. Try moving around to different keys and use alternate picking.
After you feel comfortable playing up and down the scale try to work in sequences of thirds and fourths. Slowly work in all the other five scale patterns until you can play all over the neck.
Do the same with the arpeggios. Try to learn all the arpeggios that are inside each of the five scale patterns. That’s right, you’ll find a Cmaj, Dmin, Emin, Fmaj, Gmaj, Amin and Bdim arpeggio in each of the five scale patterns. See if you can match them up to the proper chords in the chord progression you are improvising over.
The goal here is to be able to improvise freely all over the neck so make sure to make some time to just play randomly. Try to make up your own phrases. A good guitar solo should have a motif so try to create melodies.
Your goal is to eventually learn and use to improvise using the: Major Scale, Minor and Major Pentatonic scales, The Blues scale, the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aolian and Locrian modes. After that, the Harmonic minor scale and the melodic minor scale and its seven modes. The symmetrical scales: the whole tone and diminished half/whole scale, triad and 7th arpeggios. Starting from scratch, it should take you a good ten years or so to learn how to use them freely. I’m still working on them myself.
You may choose to start on the blues rather than the major scale patterns. That’s what I did. There are also five patterns of the pentatonic and blues scales. Just record or sequence a blues and go to town.
Rhythm – Make sure to be aware of what you are playing rhythmically. Try playing whole, half, quarter, sixteenth notes and triplets. Sometimes we tend to just play without thinking of how we rhythmically play the notes.
Life Lesson 3 (Scott Henderson lets me have it) – One time I was in a guitar lesson with Scott Henderson. We where playing some Jazz standard or something and I was doing my solo. He stopped me in the middle of it and said; “Chris, you know what scales to play and you have a good sense of melody but your rhythm sucks!” He continued; “If you are going to play a triplet, play a triplet. If you want to play sixteenth notes, play sixteenth notes. Everything you play is in the middle somewhere”. I had never actually though about it before, as strange as it may seem. I went home that night and got out the metronome and made a conscious effort to divide up what I play in definite rhythmic subdivisions.
Chords and Rhythm Playing
Harmony – Harmony is one of the most overlooked aspects of practice. It’s strange because we generally start off playing the chords to our favorite songs. As soon as we learn to solo a bit, we never think about them again. When I started out, I made the mistake of buying one of those chord dictionary books that just ended up frustrating me because there was so many chords and no explanation about how to use them. It is important to see how the chords fit together with one another. I use the “Real Book” to practice with a lot of the time. The “Real Book” is a fake book of hundreds of Jazz standards. I look at the chords and try to find voicings that work well with one another. I may even record them and improvise over the changes after sight reading the head. I can knock off my sight reading, scales and chords all in one shot this way. It’s best to kill a bunch of birds with one stone when it comes to practicing. Each individual style of music has its own rhythmic styles and unique chord voicings so work a little on everything. Some styles lend them self well to the fingers rather than the pick in the right hand and some, like Funk, leave you little choice but the pick.
Get Going Now – This is where I made my big mistake as an aspiring guitarist. I didn’t dedicate enough time to reading. I still regret it to this day. I’ve learned to read okay I guess, but I wish I was a better sight reader. It would have saved me a lot of stress. As I said before, I tend to use the “Real Book” to practice my reading. Get going early on if you can.
Brain Power – Music theory is important because without understanding theory you will never really be able to analyze music. Without being able to analyze music you will never be really be able to understand why you like certain songs or guitar solos that your hear. Without being able to analyze music you will also never be able to conceptualize certain melodic or harmonic techniques and make them your own. Especially if you want to get into Jazz, you will need to understand theory because of the complicated nature of chord scale relationships in the genre.
Since you are working on your major scales, start working on writing them too. Get yourself a good theory book and check it out. Scales, intervals, chords and arpeggios are all important to study. The good thing about theory is that you don’t necessarily need a guitar to work on it. You can do it on your morning commute or while you are waiting in some line somewhere. Theory will help you glue together all the other things together.
Tunes and Your Ears
Use Your Ears – Figuring songs and solos are important for developing you ears. I was fortunate to not have all the resources that we have today. I was forced to get out the records and work everything out using my ears. I think it is great that we have everything transcribed these days but try to the transcriptions as a tool to help you figure stuff out. Try it first using your ears.
Life Lesson 4 (The most depressing day of my life) – When I was about fifteen, I was practicing in my bedroom with the windows open (the joys of suburbia) and the guy that lived down the street came to my window. He was, oh, I guess, about twenty-one or two or so and said he was playing the drums in this band that played around town and that one of the guitarists had just quit and that he heard me playing in my room and maybe I should audition. I told him I was only fifteen and probably couldn’t play in bars but he said we’ll worry about that later. He said he would pick me up at about 7:30 and bring me to the warehouse where his band plays. I was in heaven. While I put on my favorite concert T-shirt and jeans and got my guitar and amp together I imagined that I went to the audition, played some incredible stuff and everyone fell in love with me and hugged me and welcomed me into their band and I was on my way to being the most famous guitarist the world has ever known.
So, I get to the warehouse and the other guitarist was there. His name was George. He was the coolest thing I had ever seen. He had this real long hair and played a Flying V through a real big Music Man half stack. Anyways, he asked me what I wanted to play. I said I liked Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix. So we started it and it fell apart because I only knew some of it. We went on to something else and it fell apart too. Finally he asked me if I knew something easy like “Johnny B. Goode” and I didn’t. I could tell that the whole thing was a fiasco and I had no right even being there in the first place.
George was a real decent cat. Even though he knew I didn’t have enough experience to ever play with them, he told me to get some songs together, really together, the intros, endings and everything in-between and come back again. I went home, and for the second time in my life debated quitting or not. As you know by now, I chose to not to quit.
What I decided to do was to build a repertoire of songs, from beginning to end paying attention to all the small details. I also decided that the songs I would learn would have to be universal standards, songs that I could pull out of my hat on a moment’s notice, on request, songs that I could play anywhere, on an audition or when I sit in on someone’s gig. And that’s exactly what I did.
Strangely enough I would end up working with George later down the road and we would laugh at times thinking about the little fifteen year old who couldn’t even tune his guitar who came to audition five years before hand. The lesson that George taught me became one of the most important lessons I ever had, and thinking back upon it, I never thanked him for it. So if you read this George, Thanks.
Whew, took me long enough to tell you the story. The point is: learn as many standards as you can, and every detail counts. The key word here is “standards,” songs that you can use and people will request you to play, not just your favorite songs. Those are okay to learn too but whether they will get you any work is a different thing all together. In the school that I run in Tokyo I have the students play in their instrumental ensemble classes such songs as: “Freeway Jam” and “Blue Wind” by Jeff Beck and “Footprints” by Wayne Shorter. “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” by Joe Zawinul. By knowing tunes like these you will always be able to sit in on other musician’s gigs. I also have the students learn some Blues, Rock and Funk standards also.
Listen – One of the most important things you can do but a lot of people forget is to listen. You will be surprised how much you can absorb from just listening alone. I usually tell my students that they have to get the blues together before anything else. Blues is the mother to all modern music. For that reason I think some time should definitely be dedicated to at least listening to it while learning it. Besides the Blues, there is a ton of stuff to listen to. If I had to suggest some CD’s to learn from I would suggest these:
Stevie Ray Vaughn – “Couldn’t Stand The Weather” – Good overview of the blues.
Muddy Waters – “Best Of” – Once you hear these tunes you’ll understand how someone like Jimi Hendrix and the 60s musical era was born.
Albert King – “Best Of” – Just good plain blues. A dictionary of guitar blues licks.
Jeff Beck – “Blow By Blow,” “Guitar Shop” – An old one and a newer one. Jeff gave the guitar a voice in instrumental music.
Jimi Hendrix – “Are you Experienced,” “Axis: Bold as Love,” “Electric Ladyland” – Jimi Hendrix took various styles of music and combined them to make something completely new. He would change guitar playing forever. Without him, we would still be in the dark ages.
Led Zeppelin – “1”, “2” – Jimmy Page is a genius song writer and player. The blues influenced him immensely.
John Scofield – “Still Warm,” “A Go Go” – Great fusion guitarist. Before you start getting into scales other then the major scale and its modes and pentatonic scales, adjust your ears by listen to John. Warning: like anything great, it will take you a few listens to get used to.
Pat Metheny – “Bright Size Life,” “Letter from Home” – Again an old one and a newer one. Pat Metheny is a genius because he is a true artist who manages to appeal to a wide audience. A great improviser and writer.
Weather Report – “Heavy Weather” – No guitar playing going on here but great writing and incredible synergy.
Miles Davis – “Nefertiti,” “Miles Smiles,” “The Sorcerer” – Classic Miles Davis, No guitar here either but improvisation at its very best.
Chris Juergensen – “Prospects” – Just Kidding!
James Brown – “Best Of” – Just for the grooves.
Bela Batok – “Concerto for Orchestra” – Bold melodies. A dictionary of orchestration.
Stravinsky – “Symphony of Psalms,” “The Firebird Suite” – Scary. Harmonically intense.
Of course these suggestions are my personal favorites. Ask around and research yourself. If you decide to get any of these CDs or any CDs for that matter, I suggest you buy one at a time. Really ingest them one by one. Let each one become your personal friend before buying the next.
Equations – Good practice is only half the equation. The other half is education. Although I’m a big fan of formal music education, there is informal education. I mean private lessons at your local music store or with someone who has enough experience to point you in the proper direction. You can even find ways to educate yourself. The site you are looking at right now is one good example. No matter how you decide to get a musical education, the musical education is only as important as the practicing. One without the other neutralizes them both. Remember this; education will not make you a great guitarist, it will only provide a map on how to get to that destination. You, as the driver have to get yourself there. If you think a million guitar lessons will make you the greatest player around your wrong. Only the practice in conjunction with the lessons will. I often get questions from students asking why, even though they come to classes everyday, don’t seem to be improving on the guitar. The answer is simple, they’re coming to classes but they aren’t practicing what was covered in the classes. Even if you understand the concept covered in the class, it will never find its way into your playing without some good old fashioned practice.
The Perfect Student – Before you become the perfect player try to become the perfect student. I personally believe the keys to me becoming a somewhat successful guitarist was one; all the great teachers I had along the way, and two; all the great students I have had. They both have been the source of endless inspiration. When you find yourself a great teacher, keep him on his feet. Ask questions and challenge him from time to time. I drove my first teacher, Wayne Reese, nuts. I asked him some questions he probably never heard before: “Mr. Reese, why does a blues scale work over both dominant chords and minor chords?” “Why are all the strings on the guitar tuned in fourths except the second string? Instead of a B string, shouldn’t it be a C string?” “Why does a melodic minor scale get played ascending one way and descending an other?” I bet he was researching stuff all over the place before the next lesson. When I shipped off to California, Mr. Reese told me that the lessons with me were fun and he learned some stuff too. The student teacher relationship is exactly that, a relationship. It shouldn’t be a one sided thing at all.
Finding a good teacher – Research is important here. Ask around. If your local community college has a music program, they may be able to point you to a good teacher. Most music stores offer lessons too. If you are in high school, even if you aren’t active in the school orchestra, ask the music teacher if he can suggest someone. Try a search on the Web; “guitar lessons in your town.” If you are in the Los Angeles or Tokyo area, ask me! Whatever you do, when you find a perspective teacher, meet him first. Ask questions. Ask him to give you a basic one year plan. If he is a good teacher, he will meet with you and ask you some questions too. Questions like; how long you’ve been playing, who you listen to, and what goals you have for the future. Like I said before, it has to be a relationship. And any relationship starts with communication.
What to look for in a teacher – A teacher should cover a lot of basses. He should be teaching you about chords and scales, theory, reading and even help you learn some of your favorite tunes and some standards. Too much of any one thing will be bad in the long run. It is also about motivation. Your teacher should have a genuine interest in your advancement. My first teacher turned me into such a fan of education that I quit taking lessons from him and enrolled at a school of higher (music) education. The goal of a good teacher is to provide the tools to the student that will eventually lead the student to outgrow the teacher. You, like me, may just decide to enroll yourself in a great school like MI, LAMA, Berklee or (shameless plug) Tokyo School of Music.
The “Real Book” – The “Real Book” that I use is pretty difficult to find these days. There are some other great fake books that you can get:
- The New Real Book Vol.1
- The New Real Book Vol.2
- The New Real Book Vol.3
- The Latin Real Book
- The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine
Book Link: http://www.shermusic.com/
Good luck on your never ending adventure because it is just that, never ending. I still consider myself a music student and I will continue to practice and grow as a musician for the rest of my days and I hope you will too. If you read this all the way to the bottom, I would like to congratulate you. You have taken your first steps in becoming the musician you are destined to become. Please e-mail me with any questions or suggestions you might have.
Until next time…