Tales from the Practice Monkey

Let’s talk about “practice” versus “jamming”, and how each is important to your development as a player. After several years of playing drums and then bass guitar, I picked up the six-string, motivated in no small part by lunch-hour excursions home from high school with my friends to crank up the first couple Van Halen albums, and ask “how’d he do that?” over and over again.

That was a great time to get started, to see the ongoing development of rock guitar, from giants such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck (and so many more), to the fertile post-EVH boom of proto-shredders. Once I had mastered most of the Van Halen and Randy Rhoads material, I turned my attention to what at the time was unheard-of speeds of playing.

Players such as Paul Gilbert, Nuno Bettencourt, and Yngwie Malmsteen (and again, literally dozens of others) gave me an appreciation of where impeccable technique could be matched by real musicality. There was room for both, and players were experimenting with all sorts of unusual techniques and scales, and (just as important to me, as a learner trying to take in all these new sounds and styles) sharing tips and tricks with one another.

Tab was still in its infancy at the time, and things we take for granted now — such as, you know, home computing, websites, YouTube, software that enables you to create awesome neck diagrams and tabs with a few mouse clicks — were not even a dream. I still have a huge notebook, spiral-bound binder paper, full of handwritten tabs that I either copied out of magazines or created painstakingly, hunched over the guitar, working out one sweep-picked arpeggio at a time.

Also, we walked to school in the snow, uphill both ways, barefoot.

Anyway, it quickly became apparent that, having average manual dexterity, a systematic approach to learning all these great new tricks would be the best way to go. Many players (also, by definition, being in the middle of the bell curve) figured out the same thing, and started really taking practice seriously, and breaking down mechanical techniques into their most fundamental forms. It was still cool to blast Buck’s Boogie or Cat Scratch Fever with your older cousins when they were around and felt like playing, but it was clear that if you wanted to compete with guys like Paul Gilbert, it would take some time and preparation.

And when it came to breaking everything down to its mechanical basics, and providing some clues as to how much time you should really spend on acquiring a high level of technique, the great Steve Vai came along and threw down the gauntlet, hard, with his infamous 10-Hour Guitar Workout. The title alone tells you he’s not screwing around, right? (In fact, Vai later expanded upon the original for Guitar World magazine, creating an even more comprehensive article called The 30-Hour Path to Virtuoso Enlightenment, comprised of three 10-hour-per-day sessions.)

Such a level of commitment and dedication was nothing short of a challenge, and many players (including yours truly) wanted to see if we were up to it. There were days I would call in sick to work, and spend 10-12 hours with a stack of books and my Ibanez, going over scales and patterns and arpeggios and solos. It was a lot of fun, and a tremendous amount of work.

Even with that sort of lopsided, time-intensive commitment to anything, it’s important to leave at least some time for other things, for some sort of life balance. For probably 3-4 years, I probably never took a full day off, unless I was sick. There was always at least an hour or three, after work, on lunch break, watching football on the weekends, for practice. Where there’s a will there’s a way, as they say. But there was also time for riding motorcycles, for dating, for recreation, for reading, etc. Even so, most weeks were in the 30-40 hours of practice range, so it was basically like having a second full-time job.

After a few years of that, I became accustomed to referring to myself as a “practice monkey” — that is, someone obsessed with the mechanical minutiae of playing things that required very little active intelligence, merely rote memorization and pattern recognition. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, I still routinely use many of the pieces I learned at that time as practice material. But in retrospect, it may not have been the most balanced approach to things.

Don’t get me wrong; if there’s been one consistent theme here since day one, it’s that practice is vital, and it is defined distinctly from jamming (which is also important). Things like goal setting, tracking progress, closely observing fundamental motion in both hands, learning music theory, are all crucial to effective practice that will really accelerate your learning curve.

Or you can learn a few patterns and boxes you’re comfortable with, develop your ear to the point that you can hear where and how they fit, and write songs based around that. Which is a perfectly valid approach to the instrument. But there’s a lot more you can get out of real practice, with time and attention, and that sort of thing is not really “practice” anyway, but jamming. And again, that’s fine.

If you’re one of those players who, once you pick up the guitar and start learning, you know that you’ll never stop learning or playing, then you know what I’m getting at here. The old bit about it being a journey and not a destination holds true. The thing to recognize is that over such a course of many years of playing, your focus will (and should) shift from one to the other, from an emphasis on practicing mechanics and technique, to spending the majority of your playing time on improvising and composing.

Back in the 30-40 hours of practice per week days, probably 80% of that time was spent on mapping various patterns all over the neck — scales, modes, arpeggios, chords, etc. Included in that would be time spent on learning classical pieces like we frequently tab here, and solos from songs I liked. The remaining 20% would be left for more jamming-oriented playing. Included in that would be composing riffs and progressions, writing and arranging songs.

As time has passed, that ratio has shifted, probably to almost the opposite — while my weekly playing time is closer to the 10-12 hour range these days, probably 75-80% is spent jamming and noodling around. The patterns have been long ago internalized, and putting them together, running through them randomly, and finding progressions over which to apply them, is the whole point of learning them in the first place.

So while we spend most of our time here going over scales and patterns and classical pieces and exercises to memorize, please keep in mind that these things are just a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The object is not to hone your mechanical dexterity until you can play a C major scale pattern at a thousand beats per minute, it’s to help you attain a solid level of mechanical ability and musical understanding in a shorter length of time, so that you then have the ability to play whatever you come up with, whether it’s composition or improvisation. It’s a matter of getting your hands, ears, eyes, and brain all on the same page, working together effortlessly.

Think of it as a continuum, starting with a ton of practice and some jamming, to eventually the other way around. And again, jamming is the arena where you apply the patterns you’ve drilled on for so many hours. If you’ve played organized sports, you know the dynamic right away — you work out with weights and cardio (basic motion) to get physically conditioned to execute without too much strain, then you drill on specific movements that you will need in a playing situation. Then comes the game; then you play. That’s the difference between practice and jamming.

Realize that it takes time to learn all the patterns and pieces that we’re going over on this site, and even more time to put them all together in some sort of coherent context (which is music theory). Understand that all that material gets learned a piece at a time, and will take repeated visits to learn and internalize and commit to memory. Keep it all in perspective; no matter who your favorite player is, no matter how brilliant they are, it took them years of patience and dedication — and yes, practice — to get their playing to the level that you’re hearing.

In the meantime, be persistent and consistent in learning the patterns, and take advantage of the tools at your disposal. If you can’t afford recording software, go grab a free copy of Audacity, and record some basic grooves to improvise over. Don’t feel like you need to write songs right away, unless that’s your focus; if you’re a lead guitarist by nature, record some simple progressions that have a clear key, then move on to more complex progressions and songwriting as your ear becomes more attuned.

Above all, if you find yourself in “practice monkey” mode, make sure that the time you put in is matched up to concrete goals, short- and long-term. Take at least some time during the week to apply the things you’ve been working on.

And when you hit the inevitable wall or rut, don’t be afraid to put the guitar down and take a walk, hang out with friends, just get away from it for a while.

Kreutzer Etude #5, Part 2

Here’s the second half of the Kreutzer Etude #5. Let’s recap the first half of the 24-bar piece:

K5_01

K5_02

We’ll pick up from bar 12 (the last bar in the excerpt above, and look at the second half (bars 13-24) of the piece. Here is the second half tab:

K5_03

K5_04

Please click the link below for a printable 1-page PDF of the entire piece [tab only]:

Kreutzer #5

Continuing with the breakdown, analysis, and exercises for this half of the etude:

Section C (Bars 12-17):  The 1-3-4-5-6-7 sequence from Section B continues into this section, but with a slight twist. You may recall from Etude #2 a device called melodic displacement, where the beginning note of a phrase is moved before or after the main beat in order to throw it “off” the beat. This provides some rhythmic tension, and keeps the passage from sounding like a straight up-down scale run.

In this case, the phrase extends one 16th note into the next beat with the octave (root) note, thus displacing the phrase by a quarter-beat, before descending to repeat the 3-4-5-6 and then b7 from the lower octave. Starting on bar 13, instead of going back to the root to start the phrase at the next scale degree, like in the previous bars, the phrase begins on the 6, then shifts to the pattern for the next degree, starting on the 3. This continues through bar 16, then bar 17 reverses the pattern to descend into the final section.

If the above paragraph seems confusing, don’t worry. Just practice a bar or two at a time, start connecting them together, and listen to the musical changes as you go along. Once the patterns are comfortable and sound like music, you can go back and map things out. The exercises are designed to help in all of those areas.

This exercise is based on that initial 1-3-4-5-6-7 sequence we saw in bars 9-11, that ascends an octave and then descends back down, with the entire sequence moving up one scale degree at a time. This is a great opportunity to map out the sequence all the way up the neck, as shown below:

K5_ex_05

This is a cool exercise to work on legato chops. Note the final run that ascends a second octave instead of descending. Mapping that second octave is the goal of the final exercise of this post.

K5_ex_05b

Use the printable PDF tools on the Resources page (fretboard maps, blank tab sheets) to map out the rest of the neck with this scale. Whether we refer to the scale as Bb Mixolydian, Eb Major, or C minor, the notes used are the same:  C D Eb F G Ab Bb, repeating in an endless cycle in either direction. The scale is sequenced 1-3-4-5-6-7, moving up one scale degree each time.

So the first 2-octave run goes C-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C’-Eb’-F’-G’-Ab’-Bb’-C” and back down, then D-F-G-Ab-Bb-C-D’-F’-G’-Ab’-Bb’-C’-D” and back down, and so on. This is where diagramming the notes and mapping out the scale and patterns really help you visualize all that information and get it down tight. Remember, for this exercise we’re just using the same seven notes all the way up the neck, just beginning from the next note up in the scale each time.

Section D (Bars 18-24):  While this entire etude is relatively simple and straightforward, the finale is the easiest section of the piece. The first four bars of this section (18-21) consist of an Eb major scale ascending and descending, twice. Bar 22 recaps and displaces the 1-3-4-5-6-7 motif one more time, heading into bar 23, which restates the first bar but heads straight down the scale, landing on a final Eb note (which you can play as a big power chord if you like).

Okay, so as we’ve been mentioning throughout the two posts on this piece, C minor is the relative minor to Eb major. It seemed like a good opportunity to look at playing in the 6th position, where you would usually play in Eb major. Here are the first few bars of that tabbed:

K5_alt_01

Now you can see where all various ways we practiced the same scale really pays off. Also, as shown in previous etudes that are in a low enough position and span only a certain range, it’s a great idea to transpose them up an octave (12 positions up the neck) whenever possible.

In this case, we can transpose both versions, here is the 3rd position version, transposed up to the 15th position:

K5_u_01

Here’s the 6th position version, moved up to the 18th position. This is a great way to get comfortable at “higher altitudes”:

K5_alt_u_01

Finally, here is a ZIP file containing complete PDF tabs for all four versions, plus complete Guitar Pro tabs for all four versions (free demo of the program on the sidebar). It is strongly encouraged that you get into those GP6 tabs and move them around as you see fit. Also included is a WAV audio file of the piece, so you can get an idea of what it should sound like.

Kreutzer #5

It is a moto perpetuo (constant rhythm) style piece all the way through, but as with alternate picking, learn it the “right” way first, then start finding spots to display your own style and personality — legato, palm muting, dynamics, slowing the tempo, etc. There’s a wealth of techniques to be explored in this piece, and plenty of things to incorporate into your own playing style.

While all this information may seem overwhelming, keep in mind that you don’t have to learn or play it all in one sitting, or even several. Again, concentrate on the etude first, and bring in the analysis and exercises as they start making sense, and become useful to you. Like a large pizza, take it a slice at time, save some for the next day. Have fun!

Kreutzer Etude #5, Part 1

Let’s check in on our ongoing Kreutzer Etude series, and take a look at a short yet melodic piece, the #5 Etude. It is just 24 bars (the final bar is a single ending note) of triplet 8th notes. Some of the etudes we’ve looked at so far are useful in developing specific techniques, such as alternate picking or sweep picking.

Certainly the #5 will help with alternate picking as well, but its real strength is in taking simple scale patterns and developing them melodically. It’s also an interesting exercise for practicing position playing, and we’ll show you how to play this piece in no less than four different positions (two in the lower octave, two in the upper octave).

Since this etude is in a fairly unusual key for most guitarists (C minor / Eb major), it also serves as a great way to learn how to play effectively in those keys. As always, there will be additional exercises to help in learning the piece, as well as show you some ideas in scales and fretboard navigation.

So let’s take a look at the first half of the piece, break that down into a couple of sections, and check out some exercises to go with those sections.

K5_01

K5_02

Breakdown and Analysis

You don’t really have to know too much music theory to benefit from the analysis and exercises, but the more you know, the easier it is to follow along. If some of the terms don’t make sense right away, don’t worry about it. Concentrate on learning the piece itself first, you can always come back through and check out the extra parts later.

As noted above, the key signature for this etude is C minor (relative major is Eb major). The notes in the C natural minor scale are C D Eb F G Ab Bb. It always helps to match up the notes numerically, as degrees of the scale, so C is 1 (1st degree), D is 2, and so on, right up to Bb (7th degree of the scale).

For those of you unfamiliar with reading musical notation and key signatures, take a moment and look at the three flat () markings on the left side of the notation staff, just to the right of the clef. In order from left to right, those flats are Bb, Eb, and Ab, corresponding to the flat notes indicated in the scale.

Section A (Bars 1-4):  The first four bars introduce a 12-note pattern based on the C minor scale. This 12-note pattern is basically a doubled 6-note pattern, the second one lower than the first. Starting from the 5th degree of that scale (G note), you go up 2 scale degrees (to Bb, the 7th note of the scale), then right back down the scale, five notes in a row. The pattern then starts up again from the next lower scale degree.

The first bar works this pattern down twice, so let’s look at it first as notes, then as numbers of the scale.

Notes:      G-Bb-Ab-G-F-Eb      D-F-Eb-D-C-Bb

Numbers:    5-7-6-5-4-3           2-4-3-2-1(root)-7

(Note that the Bb at the end of the second 6-note pattern is an octave lower than the one near the beginning of the first pattern.)

Practice that first bar over and over again, until the pattern feels comfortable, and you can hear how the pattern sounds. Observing how the numerals correspond to the notes can be tricky at first, but it will make it easier to extrapolate the pattern through this scale (or any scale), and develop exercises to work along the entire fretboard.

Now looking at the second bar, we can see that, rather than continuing the 6-note base pattern straight down through the scale, it jumps back up a fourth (interval) to start up the pattern again. This happens again, going from bar 2 to bar 3, and again to bar 4.

Here’s an exercise that will illustrate what we’re talking about with “extrapolating” a pattern “through a scale” or along the fretboard. This first exercise takes our 6-note base pattern, and works it down through the scale in the 3rd position.

If you break it up into 6-note chunks, you can see that each one starts one scale degree down from where the last one began. Numerically that would go 5-7-6-5-4-3, 4-6-5-4-3-2, 3-5-4-3-2-1, 2-4-3-2-1-7, and so on. Those sequences will eventually repeat as you go down (or up) through multiple octaves. Check it out:

K5_ex_01

Now, we’ll take our full 12-note pattern, and work it up the fretboard along the G-B-E’ trio of strings, ascending one scale degree at a time:

K5_ex_01b

Unless otherwise noted, stick with strict down-up alternate picking, until the patterns feel comfortable. After that, feel free to start with an upstroke, incorporate legato, palm muting, etc.

With these and any other exercises, use whatever musical knowledge you have to transfer them into as many keys as possible. For example, how would you play this exercise in C major, instead of C minor? How would you start from a given key, and work the exercise through the entire circle of fifths/fourths? Can you play these patterns on other string combinations, and map them out along the neck? Those can be tough questions for people who don’t have much theory, but if you use our free cheat sheets consistently, that knowledge comes pretty quickly, and will make it much easier to learn more complex ideas with less time and effort.

Despite the simplicity of the etude itself, the above demonstrates very clearly how many ideas can be drawn from just a simple 12-note scale pattern (composed of a doubled 6-note pattern), played for 4 bars in a single position on the guitar. Pretty cool, right? Chances are that this post alone will give you plenty of ideas to keep you busy for a long time — and we’re only covering the first half of the etude right now.

Before moving on to the next section, let’s take a quick look at the scales for this etude, in various positions. Here’s the base C minor scale in the 3rd position, starting from the 5th (A) string, played two ways, first in position and then 3-note-per-string style, with the position shift:

K5_ex_02

Usually the importance of scale patterns that use three or four notes per string is emphasized here, and those patterns are more useful in encompassing a broader musical range, as well as navigating more of the fretboard. You can cover more ground with a 3-note-per-string (3N/S)pattern than with a position scale pattern.

However, position patterns are still valuable to know and use, in that they provide yet another way of visualizing the fretboard, and that minimizing movement along the neck can help simplify the notes and patterns. Certain positions tend to be more conducive to certain keys and scales, but the fact of the matter is that every key in every scale is contained to at least some extent in every single position on the fretboard.

The relative major key/scale to C minor is Eb major. Here is that scale, first in position and then as a 3N/S pattern:

K5_ex_02b

Use the suggested picking and fingering, and be sure to run all these scales down as well as up. Observe how the descending shifts may differ from the ascending shifts, and which fingers prepare to “anchor” for those shifts in each direction.

Also practice the scales along all 6 strings:

K5_ex_03

K5_ex_03b

Section B (Bars 5-11):  Bar 5 starts out with a straight run up the scale, starting from Bb. Modally, this could be considered Bb Mixolydian. On the descent in bar 6, notice that the second-to-last note in that bar is an A, rather than an Ab, implying Bb major (G minor). Bars 7-8 shift the A note back to Ab, and feature some nice back-and-forth intervallic play.

Bars 9-11 have an ascending-descending scalar sequence that misses the 2nd degree (spelled intervallically:  1-3-4-5-6-7), moving the sequence up a scale degree at a time. The tonality shifts the Ab back to A yet again for the first two of those bars, before settling back to the original key for the time being. We’re only talking about changing a single note (Ab to A and back) in the context of the scale, but you can hear how that small change creates melodic tension. This etude plays with that melodic shift repeatedly, and it’s a powerful tool to incorporate into your soloing.

Here’s a couple simple but effective exercises based on what we’ve seen in Section B. First, let’s take a look at three different ways to play the Bb Mixolydian mode. The Mixolydian is the fifth of the seven major scale modes. It is identical to the major scale, except for the flattened seventh, and is most commonly found these days in country music, but certainly has nice melodic applications in blues and rock.

The idea here is to play the same scale, starting with a different finger each time. Here is the standard 3N/S pattern, beginning with the index finger:

K5_ex_04

Easy enough, right? The first 3 strings have the same pattern, and the subsequent shifts are small and fairly easy to learn. Now let’s take a look at starting with the middle finger, and remaining in position:

K5_ex_04b

Note the position shift heading into the B string, in order to catch the Ab (G#) note at the 9th fret. You can also play that note on the 4th fret of the high E string, and not have to shift at all, but stretch the index finger down a fret to play the note. Needless to say, it never hurts to get familiar with both of those ways.

Now let’s take a look at playing the mode starting with the 4th finger. There’s a 1-fret shift at the B string, and then we’ve added a nice 4-note descending sequence to help work on the fingering and shifts:

K5_ex_04c

Remember when learning new scale patterns, that once you learn the basic pattern itself, to move beyond just running the scale straight up and down, and to plug it into different sequencing patterns. Check out some of these past posts on scales and sequencing for some ideas:

3N/S Patterns: Major Scale

3N/S Patterns: Minor Scale

3N/S Patterns: Harmonic Minor Scale

Melodic sequencing is the key to building technique and musical knowledge at the same time, and will absolutely give you a huge advantage in understanding how to create memorable solos and melodies. Stay tuned for the second half of the Etude #5 in a few days!