Posts Tagged ‘learn guitar’

A Lesson in Chords and Voice Leading

April 5, 2017

By Jim Simmons

guitar instructor at the lesson studio

Many famous artists have used and much good music can be made from strumming simple chords against melodic lines, vocal or otherwise. Nevertheless, during guitar lessons at the studio, I am often asked by those who have moved beyond a cursory acquaintance with simple chords and strum patterns how to choose more interesting chords, or how to differentiate their part from other instruments, especially another guitar prone to strum the same chords.

Possibilities here are myriad, and some comment should be made on how to navigate these choices, but before that, I want to introduce two concepts which may prove helpful in any and all scenarios from here on:

(1) Chord Scales, & (2) Voice Leading.

While both of these are topics unto themselves, much can be gleaned from their use in the present inquiry. Now, for a brief survey of options for the inquiring guitarist, and how those options will inform and interact with these two concepts above:


(1) Using a Capo/choosing a different register/chord shape (CAGED, etc.); (2) Adding or reducing tones;

(3) Doubling tones; (4) Using inversions;

(5) Differentiating strum patterns; (6) Playing a separate part, ostinato; (7) Playing a separate part, melodic; Etc.


Now for the “how-to” part: I. Chord Scales

Regarding chord scales, begin with root position triadic chords (root-3rd-5th), barring

chords if necessary to locate each root in the overriding scale of the song (or portion of song). In a normal major key, this won’t be that hard, since the bass notes up the neck will complete a major scale (“do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do”). If the portion is in minor, or something more exotic (like a mode), you will need to revisit how to walk up the neck to

complete the scale, and in the case of minor, double-check for options that make minor so interesting (such a raised leading tone on a major V chord; use of the melodic ascending scale, or Dorian, etc.).

Establishing a chord scale (or more than one: (1.) Taking the scale up the neck with the root located on the same string; (2.) Exploring the chord scale across the neck, letting the root move across multiple strings) will provide your hands and ears with a lexicon of


options for each chord, each option profiled by its location on the guitar, its register, and its fingering (if it has open strings or not). Doing this is crucial for beginning the search for differentiated guitar parts.

Here I mention the CAGED method for chords and scales, as searching through the neck for other chords will naturally run into the options this technique will present. Simply put, the CAGED method will supply quick landmark options for each chord, which can be accessed either through using a Capo or playing all chords by-hand. I will revisit CAGED shortly, but these two approaches compliment one another very naturally (no pun intended).

One other strong benefit to establishing chord scales becomes important in the next phase: discovering the notes of the melody within accompanimental chord shapes


Part II: Voice Leading

While this topic sprawls across all of music and music history, I want to limit our discussion of it to two main concepts any guitarist will appreciate: smoothness of chord change, and supporting the melody inside chord shapes.

Regarding smoothness of transitions between chords, two ideas become important: how close each chord is to one another; how harmonically smooth the change of each chord is one to another, that is, in terms of tension and resolution and stepwise motion between chord tones. Let’s say your chord progression involves going from an E major to a B major (I to V in the key of E), a certain amount of block-iness may be hard to overcome, but let’s try and see what happens:

Our first two options involve moving up the neck to the V chord either to the 7th fret of the low-E string (a barred E major-shape), or to the 2nd fret of the A string (a barred A major-shape). Let me say neither of these is “bad” necessarily, so no guilt here, but let’s analyze each option in terms of voice leading: by opting for the barred E major at the 7th fret, we here a transposition of every tone up a Perfect 5th; now, we have the open E string “do” resolving to “ti” in an oblique way (“ti” is on the G string here, 8th fret); again, the fact that it’s oblique is neither good or bad, just neutral, but if the music called for this motion to be heard clearly, the guitarist using this 7th fret choice of a B major could

simply strum only out to this note on the G string, and not provide the other two strings.

Now let’s compare this option to the second of these, barring an A-shape at the 2nd fret: a similar choice can be made here, taking the strum all the way out to the B string and leaving out the E string. Which of these is easier or better, I leave to you to decide, and they both have advantages and disadvantages, which we will look to presently.

The first of these is that both of these shapes reduplicates the exact same chord tones, except that the 7th fret adds one last tone, the reduplication of the B on the 7th fret of the E string; otherwise, the notes produced (assuming one strums the second option from the A string) are exactly the same (notes given by string, low-to-high):

Option 1:

B – F# – B – D# – F# – (B) Option 2:


(F#) – B – F# – B – D# – F#

So, while there is some difference in the timbre of each of these choices (notice the thicker strings resonate a darker quality than the thinner, higher ones), these two options do little to provide any profile between the guitarists. Thus, we may consider another “voicing” of the chord, or even chord shape. Beginning with chord shapes, we might decide to place the Capo on the 4th fret, and use a C-shape chord for our E major (I) and a G-shape for our B major (V). Some very nice changes occur in this scenario: we now

here the 3rd on top of the I chord, and, while we may have a reduplication of the high B on the E string (if Guitarist 1 is using the 7th fret bar for the B chord), we still have some new tones resulting from the G-shaped B major chord.

Guitar 1 (Open)                                                   Guitar 2  (Capo 4, or 4th pos.)

E-shape                                                                       C-shape

E (I):  E – B – E – G# – B – E                                   (G#) – E – G# – B – E – G#

E-shape, barred, 7th                                                                              G-shape

B (V): B – F# – B – D# – F# – (B)                              B – D# – F# – B – D# –  B

As you can see, now we have more harmonic variety, which may be what you’re going for. If it isn’t, then we need to look at our last few options, but at least we see how many more choices are possible with only exploring one other position on the neck.

In terms of the voice leading, we also see that our “do”/”ti” motion is accomplished with much greater ease in the Guitar 2 part (the 5th fret resolves to the 4th fret). Let’s assume one further possibility: the “do”/”ti” motion is actually part of the melody. In this case, the notes of the melody could be synced with Guitar 2’s voicing with much less effort than Guitar 1.

The final layer of considering voice leading in your guitar parts is considering how you can support, or directly represent the bass and melody of your particular piece. In terms of support alone, when choosing a chord voicing, you may want to lean towards voicings which contain the melody note(s) somewhere in the chord. I often try to keep the melody going continuously on the High E and B strings while providing the rest of the chord in the middle strings, and also providing a bass line in the Low E and A strings.

That may be a bit much to bite off right now, but it gives you an idea of what the guitar is capable of, as well as how different guitars can complement one another in musically practical ways, such as one guitar strumming simple chords, while the other supports or provides melodic elements.

Let’s look at a few other considerations to conclude this brief exploration in creating guitar parts.


Part III. Other Options: ostinato, counter-melody, inversions, strum patterns


An ostinato is a musical idea that obstinately stays part of a musical texture (ostinato is Italian for “obstinate”). Several musical examples come to mind: think of Ravel’s Bolero, or the high electric guitar from Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” the main riff to “Kashmir” from Led Zeppelin, or any Ratatat song, for that matter. A great deal of popular music, whether classical, rock, or EDM thrives on repetition (and often transformation) of small musical ideas. Depending on the context, an ostinato may be created that doesn’t conflict with the melody, or even supports it. One favorite of mine is the melodic ostinato  (or riff) that accompanies the song “Release” from Pearl Jam’s Ten record. Another beautiful, but radically different (much “heavier”) version can be heard in “Tempting Time” by Animals as Leaders, at 2:51”.


Somewhat similar to an ostinato is a counter-melody, a melody that wouldn’t be considered the primary melody, but that weaves about more independently than a simple harmonization.  In the chorus of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” we here a counter-melody in Slash’s guitar part against Axl’s vocals. Another well-known counter-melody occurs half- way through J.P. Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” in the high piccolo/flute part, against the main theme. Melodic descants are yet another type of counter-melody, When constructing a counter-melody, take care not to step on the main melody too much. Inversions

As you become acquainted with all of the methods above, you’ll find chord inversions lend themselves readily to voice leading, most especially for bass motion. For instance, an E/G# (in the key of E, a I6 ) goes to an A (IV) smoothly, since the bass note only has to ascend a half step (G# to A). Once you’ve mastered your chord scales, experiment with trying them again in first and second inversion (first inversion puts the

3rd in the bass; second inversion puts the 5th in the bass).

Strumming Different Patterns

Quite a lot can be gained simply by strumming similar or even the same chords in an entirely different way. For instance, consider letting one guitar strum eighth-notes in a palm-muted fashion, while another guitar fingerpicks, or strums only on strong beats (like the downbeat of each measure). This method is especially effective when one guitar is acoustic and another is electric, but is useful in almost any situation to create a new texture.

I hope you found this Blog lesson useful! Good luck fishing for guitar parts, and have fun while you’re at it!

Essentials for Guitarists

October 24, 2010

By Mike Furry, Guitar and Bass Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Mike Furry, Guitar and Bass Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Mike Furry

As a guitar instructor in Boulder, one of the most common questions I’m asked during a music lesson is “how do I learn this song?” As I answer my students’ question, I find that the most essential elements needed, in order to learn any composition, are often overlooked by students.

When a student comes to me wanting to learn The Beatles, I always ask them “what does it mean to truly learn the song?” The most common answer I get is “to know the chords.” Knowing the harmony is one of the essential elements to memorizing any composition but there are several other fundamental techniques that will help a student on their journey to committing the song to memory.

Rhythm is the name of the game. Without rhythm there can be no music (in the traditional sense). Rhythm is usually the first obstacle I encounter when teaching students a new song. Students often want to learn the notes before they learn the rhythm and I believe it should be the other way. If someone can sing the rhythm to a melody then they are more than half way to learning how to play it on guitar.

Listen to the recording! This seems like an obvious statement but time and again students are not spending enough time listening to the recording. The more you hear the song, the more the song is committed to your long-term memory. The key is to listen to the song so many times that the student can:

  1. Play along with the recording
  2. Perform the song in its entirety.

Practice every day! It makes sense to think practicing for two hours once a week is better than 10 minutes everyday but it is not. It is more efficient to practice for five minutes everyday than two hours once a week because there has to be consistency. The more consistent the practice routine, the more advanced the student.

“Nothing in life is hard, it’s just unfamiliar.”

– Rodney Booth

Working With Others – Some “Do”s and “Don’t”s about making music in a group

May 23, 2010

By Daniel Ondaro, Guitar Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Daniel Ondaro, Guitar Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Daniel Ondaro

Lately I’ve been wondering how great bands work and why so many bands at all levels break up, get in fights, or in many ways are dysfunctional and unhealthy. There are typical problems that many bands go through despite their level of fame and success. Even the Beatles for example, one of the biggest bands in history, couldn’t keep it together. In fact one could probably say that the bigger a band gets the more there is at stake and that the stress level and tension between members can elevate much more easily. Many of the problems within groups may fundamentally be because of personality differences between members. Aside though from the personal issues between each member of the band, it is misunderstandings about each player’s role within the group and miscommunications about each players intention for the music that contribute to the demise of a band.

Behind each band is a shared idea and goal for which each player is contributing in order to create an interesting and effective group sound. If it’s a corporate wedding band, then each member will focus his or her energy on playing corporate wedding music. If it’s a Mariachi band then each member will play Mariachi music. As a band develops and its style becomes more refined, each member of the band begins to play a more specialized and specific role. That’s why, depending on the significance of the role, certain players become more and more valuable within the group. However, unlike a product or parts on a machine where if a simple or valuable part goes you can replace it with another exactly like it, if any member of the band leaves the whole chemistry of the band is affected and needs to be reworked even after that member is replaced. Bands therefore always have to be flexible and open to whatever changes may occur without losing sight of the fundamental element of the band, which should always be centered on the music and each players emotional and technical contribution to it. Even for bands that stay together, if either of those elements, the emotional and technical, are lacking from any member of the group then the band is in danger of creating a poor performance or possibly facing conflict because of dissatisfaction between members. It is therefore essential for every member to have an understanding about the overall intention of the band, and what each player is expected to contribute with his or her unique technical and emotional capabilities.

From my experience it is essential in working with groups to stay humble and cooperative while also being clear about your intentions and needs as an artist and player. If your needs and the overall needs of the group and music are not being meet then the band will suffer. Working in bands as a guitar player, percussionist and vocalist I have found myself in many diverse situations trying to work cooperatively with others. In all of these situations, beyond personal issues, it was miscommunications about the bands intention and the intention of the players that lead to their failure. The successful ones were the groups where we all found a common ground and were satisfied with the group and ourselves. I find it therefore essential to be honest and open with your band mates, instructor, and all of those with whom you try to make music with, about the needs of yourself as an artist and musician and the shared needs of your group in order to create great music with others.

Bass Player Needed!

May 13, 2010
Adam Buer, Bass Guitar Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Adam Buer

By Adam Buer, Bass Guitar Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Bass player needed:  the three most common words on music store bulletin board postings.  Very often people are under the assumption that playing bass is much easier than playing guitar.  Afterall, bass players only have to worry about playing one note at a time while guitarist are playing 3-6 note chords.   Just about every band has a bass player so it’s important to address the importance of the instrument.  In larger bands, if one instrument gets lost and stops playing often, no one notices.  If the drummer or the bass player get lost EVERYONE notices.  One professional bass player understood his role perfectly when he told me “Musically speaking, I am the earth…and everything is built on top of what I play.”  Sure, he was a little odd, but I understood what he was saying. It’s easier to sing, play, or dance when the lowest sounding notes are confidently played.  Furthermore, this bass pro was the kind of player who played the same 1 or 2 lines over and over throughout a song.  One of the difficult things about doing these kinds of bass lines is that it has to be perfect every time or listeners will notice a mistake instantly..

Beginning rock and roll guitarists sometimes start by playing simple chord progressions with the root note only and call this the “bass line.”  Once that is mastered, we add the 5th and octave notes to form a power chord.  Therefore, the beginning guitarist is under the impression that bass is easier than guitar because their only playing 1 note instead of 3.  Then, I point out to them that good bass players “connect the dots.”  What I mean by “connecting the dots” is that bass players need to learn how to add notes in between the basic roots of the chords.   For example, if a guitar is playing from a G chord to a C chord, the bass player can see the G and C on the neck as dots that can be connected with an A and a B.  Once their bass teacher helps them with an appropriate rhythm, they can figure out their own bass line with the pattern G, A, B, C.  Rhythm is a very important aspect of writing bass lines because the C must almost always be played at the exact moment the guitar switches to that chord.  Listening to bass lines and learning basic scales and arpeggios with your instructor is the first step in being able to create your own unique bass lines.

Sure bass players aren’t usually as successful as guitarists playing solo, but they are usually more successful than guitarists finding people to play with.  Again, every band needs a bass player and they are  rare in number compared to guitarists.  You don’t necessarily need to choose between bass and guitar either.   Many great bass players I’ve known also dabble with guitar chords.   If you are interested in playing bass I encourage to give it a try.  It has it’s unique challenges, but is well worth the effort.  Bass players are the earth…musically speaking.

Tab vs. Music and Sight Reading for Guitarists

March 4, 2010

By Adam Bauer, Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Adam Bauer

Adam Bauer

How do you make an electric guitarist turn his volume down? … You put sheet music in front of them.  Ha! I remember hearing this joke a while back and wondering why guitarists are notorious for being bad sight readers.  Most instrumentalists are expected to be proficient readers of the standard system of music notation.  Why would the expectation be different for guitarist?  Is it our attachment to reading tab?  Is it the mechanics of the instrument?  Is it our training?  Our ability to read rhythms?  Or are we spending too much time in front of the mirror practicing our bend-the-high-notes facial expressions?  In my opinion, it is all of the above.

Some guitarist do begin their studies by reading music and this can be very advantages.  They establish a sense of precise rhythm and the confidence of playing a song exactly like it’s written on the page.  The songs they begin learning are very simple.  Great sight readers can play the the correct fingerings, pitches, rhythms, and style instantly.  Because some notes (ex. our middle C) can be found in as many as 5 to 6 places on the neck we can find ourselves with too many options to choose from. With sight reading you need to make quick decisions.  Fortunately, most notation for guitar contains left hand finger markings which tell you exactly which fingers to use and where.

On the other, tab ONLY tells you where to place your fingers and never which fingers to use.  Tab is easy to learn and a great way to learn the pitches contained in songs.  However, rhythm and style must be learned by listening to a recording of the song.  Proper fingering will also need to be decided from the tab.  This can be very difficult for students without guitar teachers.  Furthermore, for some people working on correct fingerings, pitches, rhythms, and style through tab could take just as long as learning to read music when all is said and done.  Guitarists and guitar-like instruments have read tab for centuries and there have always been a lot of successful beginning level players who use it.  For more serious musicians, I believe having some notation reading skills is essential.

Reading music in an ensemble or band is a great way to improve sight reading abilities.  Unfortunately, guitarist don’t always have this opportunity.  Besides, we can play a lot of fun things as solo guitarists.  One thing that has helped me greatly is reading by myself from methods, anthologies, fake books, and real books with a metronome. It’s fun!  Seriously.  Find something that you can read easily, at a slow and steady tempo, with the metronome. Your instructor can help you find things to look for in the music before you attempt to play it.  Play it 2 or 3 times without stopping until you reach the end.  This is sight reading.  If it is still too difficult, start with a beginning guitar method (without any tab!).  The many great method books used by the lesson studio guitar teachers are listed with the instructor bios.

Guitarists who can read are in demand for school jazz bands, chamber music groups, Musical pit orchestras, jam sessions, and solo guitar gigs.  Learning to read music on guitar is hard work, but is certainly worth the effort.  Get some sheet music, get a metronome and turn up your volume!

Get Your Groove On! The Importance of Practicing Rhythm Guitar

January 14, 2010

by Daniel Ondaro, Guitar Instructor at The Lesson Studio

The Lesson Studio Guitar Instructor Daniel Ondaro

Daniel Ondaro, Guitar Instructor

The craft of rhythm guitar, although not nearly practiced enough or given as much credit as its soloing counterpart, is one that plays a huge roll in the development of a guitarist’s overall musical skills. Practiced wisely, learning rhythm guitar can enhance a player’s sense of time, soloing skills and stylistic adaptability. Both the unaccustomed listener and master player can appreciate a player’s skillful time because of its inherent biological qualities and relation to the many physiological rhythms of our bodies such as the heartbeat. By adding the elements of rhythm to your musical practice you will not only be becoming a solid rhythm guitar player but will learn how to get your groove on in any situation.

There are many things you can do to fine tune your rhythm skills while practicing. Try to learn all the popular rhythmic styles and techniques used by rhythm guitarists. This includes the many strum and fingerpicking patterns used to create grooves found in folk, rock, bluegrass, reggae, blues, jazz, latin and others. Once you’ve learned the appropriate technique to create the groove in a particular style then focus your practicing on starting and maintaining the groove. Practicing with a metronome is essential in this process. Remember to always start your practice of different grooves with the metronome set to a slow tempo. As you become more comfortable with the groove, try setting the metronome to an appropriate tempo for the style. Then, once you feel comfortable playing the groove along with the metronome at this tempo, try turning it off and keeping the beat with your foot by tapping along.
A lot of practice can be done away from the guitar as well. Simply learning to count out and read music can be a great advantage for the rhythmic player. This gives you a practical and theoretical way of looking at rhythm and time and will deepen your understanding of the rhythm guitar. Experimenting with different percussion instruments is also a great way to enhance a player’s time. You could learn to play the drumkit or a host of other hand percussion instruments. Learning percussion will help you better relate to the groove in your guitar playing and will help you gain an understanding of your roll and others within it.
Much of the guitar’s good and tasteful soloing is not simply the notes or speed of the passage played but its overall rhythmic presentation. Think about some of your favorite guitar solos for a moment. How is that you could predict it and sing along to every part? It must be, in addition to the elements of melody and harmony, the way it is shaped and presented rhythmically against the overall groove of the music that has helped you retain and recite it. You can then say that is the players understanding of the groove and how to contrast or compliment it that creates a good solo. The best way to begin incorporating rhythmic ideas into your solos is to try practicing your favorite passages along with the groove. Simply try playing along with a recording of the groove or imagine it in your head as you play with or without the metronome. It’s also helpful to take segments from your favorite solos and cycle them while the groove is playing. This gets the solo under your fingers, into your memory and will give you a sense of how the solo fits with the groove.
The more you learn about rhythm guitar and the more grooves you learn the better equipped you will be to handle many diverse situations as a rhythm or lead guitar player. Take it from somebody who has learned to play a variety of different guitar grooves and percussion parts. I don’t think I could have had the variety of musical experiences I have had if it not been for my willingness to incorporate the craft of rhythm guitar into my guitar playing and musicality. In addition to practicing alone, playing in the groove with others is essential to your understanding of rhythm and its relation to the guitar. I feel lucky to have played with many different players in many different styles. Playing with friends or a trusted teacher can enhance and speed up your ability to feel and incorporate the groove into your playing.

For more information about Daniel Ondaro, please contact The Lesson Studio or call 303-543-3777.