How to Put Some “Nature” Into Your Music

I am about to tell you something you won’t expect:

Stop Practicing! 

Say what?

Ok, not really, but now that I have your attention, let me explain about how and when we practice.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a pro or are just starting out, this advice is for you.

I think that we need to all pay attention to why we are practicing and what we are really trying to accomplish in our music.

Let me explain by telling you a short story about a phase in my journey learning the guitar.

I promise you it will make sense by the time you get to the end, so stay with me…

Advice from the Pros

I have many Guitar Player magazines that date back to the early eighties. I read them a lot back then. (Ok, now you have an idea how long I have been doing this!)

Interestingly I don’t read as much of those articles now. I really should get back into it, there really is a lot of good stuff in that publication!

I also learned a lot.

Some of the contributing articles from so many of the guitar greats were my favorite reads!

For example, I still use some of the warmup techniques that I read from an article by Paul Gilbert WAY back in the eighties!

I’ll have to share that one some day soon!

Also, Rik Emmett had a fantastic Back to Basics series where I still use many of his thoughts and ideas with many of my students today.

But there was one article (1988) that had a big impact on me.

Actually, it wasn’t really one of those monthly articles but rather an interview with Vernon Reid from the band, Living Colour.

Before I talk about that, let me set up the reasons why it impacted me and why it should matter to you:

80’s Overplay

Whenever I listen to recordings of me back in the early days of my playing, especially in the early/mid eighties, I often times cringe!

My playing in those days was all about playing fast and getting through as many notes as I possibly could, within the number of measures allotted, in the solo part of a song.

It was kind of typical of the time though: the rising tide of the hair bands was entering the scene full force! I felt at that time that I needed to prove something (how many can relate?).

I wanted to be the big star and impress everyone, not just the girls!

So, I taught myself many of the scales (pentatonic, major, minor) by either reading music books or simply listening to a record over and over again to grab an impressive solo (how many remember going back and forth with the turntable needle trying to get that guitar part right?). And then I would sit in my room and practice them over and over and over…

I was actually quite proficient at it.

The problem was that it didn’t have a lot of soul to it. Hence, the reason I cringe when I listen to some of those old recordings now.

I can’t tell you how many times I wish I could find a flux capacitor and reach back into time to tell that 20-something kid to SLOW DOWN!

Middle of the Road on Speed

One of my “classics” was when I was in a band back in 1984 called Slipp Kidd (and no, we didn’t play any Who music. Yeah, real creative..).

The song was Middle of the Road by the Pretenders.

Take a listen if you never heard it. Check out the solos in particular. I can listen to it now and really appreciate the coolness of how he played it. Great sound and really fit the vibe of the song.

But the “me” back in 1984 would have none of it! Oh no, it was lame and didn’t have any pizazz! So I was going to “improve” on it and really show ’em how it’s done!

I proceeded to play the solo part with fast scales, dive bombs, guitar tricks, you name it.

Now, if we were going to do a heavy metal remake of the song, that’s one thing. But we weren’t doing that. We were simply a cover band rocking the song out at a club called Haywires in the Chicago suburb of Burbank (long gone, I think it’s a grocery store now or something).

Wanna hear it? Oh yeah, I have the recording (my apologies to former members! lol)! It was made from someone’s tape player in the back of the room.

Give it some grace though, EVERYONE in this band did get much better over the years! My guitar solo was really, well, over played to say the least! Listen with care: Middle of the Road – Slipp Kidd.

Slowing Down in the Moment

A few years later I ended up doing a number of recordings with a friend who really could write great jingles.

We would get together with a few other musicians and just create music that was catchy. There were a lot of overnight sessions where we would record all of this material on his 4 track.

I’m not sure exactly where he ended up but it wouldn’t surprise me if he wrote some jingles you have heard. I can’t find the recordings now, but I can say what it did for me was to work within the song. I really got more into the melody and playing the guitar parts with feeling.

Bottom line: I was creating music. It was a true eye opener. I loved listening to some of those songs we did.

And, in bands that followed, I could hear a distinct change in how I played.

One of my favorites was this original song from 1988 called Falling. It is definitely dated in it’s sound, but I was real happy with how my playing got into the moment of the song (can you also hear my “late 80’s Alex Lifeson”, Rush influence in the music?).

Gotta love the mullet in the video!

Get Out in the Real World

Don’t get me wrong, I still was playing fast and continuing to discover some great guitar riffs.

What I did learn (and still learning to this day) was to find the right place to play fast, if and when it is needed.

So around that time in 1988 I came across that Vernon Reid interview in Guitar Player. I wish I could find the entire interview, it was such a great read.

There was one part of that interview that always stuck with me. I think he was asked some technical question regarding practicing and scales, I’m not sure.

His answer was interesting and very impactful: There are so many players out there that feel it is necessary to sit in their rooms for hours on end learning and practicing scales and trying to figure out all the latest and greatest guitar tricks.

Look, those things are important. But they are all just notes within a greater part of the story.

In order to make music: stuff that people can relate to, can get emotionally involved with, can truly appreciate, and be a well rounded, true musician, you need to put that guitar down and get the heck out of the room!

Get out in the world: hang out with friend, go for a hike or a walk, hike a mountain (ok, that’s my thing), play with your kids.

SEE and EXPERIENCE the world you live in!

It is from there where your true music will come from and will simply make you a better player. Otherwise you are no different than a robot, you’re just playing the notes with no meaning behind them.

Find Your Artist Within

It’s something I try to instill in my students and even fellow musicians.

I am still sometimes guilty of overplaying and getting out of the feel of the music.

But, at least I am aware of that shortcoming and continue to find ways to play better. Live and experience the world around you.

The riffs will come.

In fact, they will at times be better than you ever thought possible.

Until the next time, rock on!

One More Thing…

Oh and hey, can you do me a favor? I’m starting a mission to grow my You Tube Subscriibers to more than 15 (Ha!). No, seriously, if you can quickly hop over there and “Subscribe”, it would be so very awesome!

I promise that the videos (most of them at least) will be entertaining and informative!

Here is the path to arrive there:

Six String Corner


Dealing with Creative Artistic Blocks

See if this scenario sounds familiar:

You pick up your guitar (or really ANY musical instrument) to either play something or practice something

And then it hits: nothing interesting comes up. Or, maybe more accurate: nothing comes up at all

You have been playing and/or practicing the same songs, scales, riffs for some time and things have become less interesting.

Or less inspirational.

So you either “go through the motions” of playing the same familiar stuff

Or, you just put it down and walk away…

Been there?

Are you there now?

I think every artist hits this wall at some point in their artistic life. In fact, if you are like me, it happens many times over the course of one’s life.

So what do you do?

I think that the answer might surprise you because it is so counterintuitive.


Too Much Can Be a Bad, Bad Thing

If you play a musical instrument, you are an artist.

I don’t care if you are just starting out trying to learn how to put your finger on the fretboard or you are the greatest in the world at your craft. You are playing and creating music.

As a songwriter you create music

As a lead guitar player you often have to come up with some cool solo for someone’s music

Even while jamming, you can come up with some neat stuff (and then forget what you did later. More on that in another post!)

You create music even while playing other people’s songs because, believe it or not, you are giving YOUR interpretation of how that song goes.

But here is the interesting thing about being creative: there are no limits.

And THAT is both good news and bad news: There are no limits but oftentimes because of that, we freeze up and come up with nothing.

Or, we resort to the same old, same old stuff we have always been playing and/or practicing.

I have been there many times.

Most of the time, having “No Limits” to your options really can be more of a hinderance than a benefit.


Push Boundaries by Creating Boundaries

I recently read a blog article by successful entrepreneur, Derek Halpern that spoke of this issue to all people who create stuff (it’s not just us artists that deal with this “blockage and stagnation”); and it really got me thinking about how it specifically applies to us guitar players and musicians in general.

In his post he referred to a study by the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts where they tested how constraints affect creativity.

Here is what Derek said about the study:

In the experiment, people had to come up with two-line rhymes for special occasions. For example, a birthday card or a “feel better” card. The twist was that they had to do it once WITH and once WITHOUT any constraints.

What was the constraint?

Participants had to use a given word in their rhyme. For example, they had to use the word “mouse.”

The results show how the right constraint unlocks creative power. Just compare a typical “feel better”-rhyme WITHOUT constraints…

I will write you a letter
To help you feel better.

…to a rhyme WITH the constraint:

I hope that you soon feel better
Than a mouse with 1,000 lbs. of cheddar.

Do you see what happened there? The second rhyme with the constraint had a much more creative answer!

You can read his post about more examples and studies but what I want to talk about here is what it means for you the guitarist and musician. What can YOU do?


5 Ways to Boost Your Creativity 

Here are some ideas for you to try to help break that logjam of creative block and loss of inspiration:

#1 – Chord Constraint: Mix ’em Up!

I do this sometimes just to break the monotony of what I have been playing: making unique chord combinations to see what happens.

Take the ever-popular I-IV-V-vi chords. (for those not knowing what that means: in short, it is the 1st, 4th, 5th, and 6th chord in any song key).

The vast majority of popular music uses some combination of these type chords. So, I’m not talking about changing the order of them. But rather, how often and where I play them.

Let’s use the I-IV-V-vi chords in the key of G major for example. They are: G major, C major, D major, and E minor.

The constraint is this: play the chords this way: G (1 beat), C (4 beats), D (5 beats), E minor (6 beats). Repeat.

You could actually record that on Garage Band or Audacity or something and try to play a melody, using the G major scale, with it.

Then create another constraint by mixing up the beats to each chord. For example, change those chords to be this way: G (3 beat), C (1 beats), D (6 beats), E minor (5 beats). Repeat.

I think you can see the vast number of possibilities here.


#2 – Solo Constraint: “The B.B. King Zone”

Here is one I like to give to my “busy” guitar students (like yours truly – sometimes!) that like to play all over the neck!

It’s called the B.B. King Zone (sometimes called the “BB King Box”) because this was a place in the scale that he hung out in so often in his solos. He was known for it. And he could literally make that guitar sing with only these notes!

You really should have a knowledge of the blues/pentatonic scales and/or mixolydian mode to make it work. But it is a great challenge for those of us that like to play a lot on the strings!

What you do is isolate the part of the blues/mixolydian mode where you would put your pointer finger on the root note located on the B string. So playing a blues style riff in A (root note is an A note), it could go like this:


Or, play it, similar to the “B.B. King Zone”, by using the minor pentatonic scale with your ring finger on the root note on the B string. Like this:


The constraint is this: ONLY play those notes when jamming to chords that fit that particular scale! You cannot leave the zone!

For example, you can play a 12 Bar Blues in A where the root note is A on either of those “Zones“.

It is amazing the creative melodies and riffs that result from this one method! If you know this scale, try it and see what you come up with!


#3 Scale Constraint: Creative Scales

Sometimes it can get monotonous going over your scales, especially if you are just learning them.

Here is a simple constraint: instead of going back and forth on the notes, in a linear order, mix up the order! It is probably the best way to come up with cool riffs!

Let’s try an example by playing in one position of the C scale. You could go easy and play it up and down just like this:


Instead of doing that, try playing every third note. It makes for a great exercise.

The possibilities then become numerous as you play your scale in different combinations: try it in fourths, skipping strings, play it different backwards, etc.


#4 Song Constraint: Only Learn Songs “Out of Your Box”

Here is a good one: learn some songs that you never would play under “normal” circumstances. And do it for a specified amount of time.

For example, I’m not really a country player. So, I would spend a few weeks learning only country tunes that I would not normally want to play.

I have recently done this after having a couple students express an interest in learning country songs.

Now, country still isn’t my #1 choice in music. But, the discoveries I made in how to approach playing the guitar were priceless.

So you rockers: learn some 70’s disco! Jazzers: maybe try some Metallica?

I think you get the idea – play a different style. It keeps things fresh. But the key is to stay on that style for a specified amount of time (say a week or two).

And when you are done, you just might find you have a new “normal” way of playing! Even to the songs you have always been playing.

#5 Be Creative With Your Constraints

Other constraints can be stuff like:

  • write a song in 7/4
  • Play heavy rock songs only with a totally clean sound
  • Play a jazz style song with heavy distortion. Sounds weird, I know. But try it
  • If you only play electric, just play acoustic for a while
  • Same for acoustic players, grab an electric and play the same songs ONLY on electric

The cool part of creative constraints is that you can be creative with your creative constraints!

That actually made sense…

I actually hope all of this made sense!

So do you now you see how you can get out of those creative doldrums? At the very least, you should be able to get started on your own ideas for invigorating your guitar playing.

Let me know if you have other ideas on how to deal with your own creativity challenges! I would love to hear them. Just leave a comment here!

Struggling to Play Songs on the Guitar? Read this for a solution…

When we grab our guitars what is it that most of us want to do? Play songs!

When it comes down to it, that is what all of us guitar players really want to do. Even when we want to just jam or “noodle around”, we are still playing (or attempting to) some kind of constructed form of music.

It seems simple, doesn’t it? Not really, because for many, it isn’t easy.

And here is what the problem usually is: the chords don’t sound right. In fact, they suck.

I see it so often that I decided to make it my mission to help people correct it.

I even have a name for it: The Chronic Chord Condition. It’s a condition of the fingers not doing what you want them to do.

And as with any chronic condition, we need to have a cure.

In this case, there are a number of them. Here are my top 4 cures that have worked best for my guitar students:

Glued Finger Technique

Sometimes the simplest solution is to “do nothing”. In this case, one or two of the fingers on the left hand just stay where they are.

They don’t really move. It’s as if they are “glued” to the fretboard.

This cure is the most common solution to changing those chords around.

I explain it here in this video:


Slide Finger Technique

Sometimes the best method is to simply slide a finger or two along the string to get to the next chord.

You can do it in a way where you hear the slide. But most of the time you don’t.

It becomes a simple matter of releasing pressure on the fretboard, but still staying on the string. Then, you move along to another note that is part of the next chord, but on the same string.

This video clip explains it best:


Common Pattern

This cure is one that is used a lot. And it means just that: many chords have common patterns to each other. Many look identical like the barre chords we play. Some have similarities with just one or two fingers.

In this video I explain the less obvious patterns, where only a couple fingers are the same for each chord:

Pilot Finger

This one is a little different, and maybe more difficult to do. When you go from one chord to the next, a finger on the first chord stays at its place on the fretboard while the rest go to the next chord. However, that finger then leaves the fretboard before that next chord is played.

That particular finger acts as the pilot (or anchor) to help guide the others to the next chord.

This is good for beginners to learn how to transition between certain chords. Eventually, once muscle memory kicks in, you might actually find yourself not doing it any more. Or you might like it and keep it. Here is a demonstration on how it works:

Hopefully this helps with some of the struggles you might have in your playing. Hit me up with any comments about wanting to know more!