The secret to getting good at guitar

Everyone will agree that there is no substitute for practicing. You may have heard about the 10 thousand hour rule to becoming an expert at something, but don’t let this scare you. This lesson will teach you the trick to getting better at guitar fast. We are not breaking any laws of science or anything; we are simply using a little to gain a lot. So let’s jump in and learn the secret to getting better at guitar.


The secret: Don’t freak out on me. It’s not magic. Learn to do one thing very well… Yep, that’s it. Are you disappointed?  Don’t be.


Most people when they practice guitar, they work out of a book, practicing strumming chords to songs they like, learning new chords, learning to play melodies etc. Try breaking this down and work on just learning new chords. Instead of jumping in and learning all 7 modes at one time, try to learn just 1 and use it the best you can.


Focusing on one idea at a time is going to take you much farther than over whelming yourself. So keep it real and keep it focused.

Jazz Blues – Adding Substitutions to the Blues

In this article we are going to cover the blues in more detail, specifically jazz blues. To refresh your memory of the blues click here.

It is possible to find a jazz blues with the same progression as the one mentioned in the previous post, however having it this simplified is relatively rare. There are many ways that jazzers take this form and edit it just a little. The most common change would be to replace the IV and V and a ii-V. This would look like this:

I7   |       |     |    |

IV7 |       | I7|    |

ii-7 | V7 |  I7|    |

Another simple version of the blues is Freddie the freeloader where he replaces the I7 at the end with bVII7.

I7|         |         |       |

IV7|       |I7     |       |

iV7|IV7|bVII7|       |

These variations on the blues can go on forever.  There are tons of substitutions that can be used in jazz blues.  Once the bebop era hit, the blues became a vehicle for reharmonization. Some people (Charlie Parker) took this form so far that it is practically not recognizable.

The first step to adding chords to the blues typically starts with a diminished chord right after the IV7 chord. On top of this it is very common to add an extra ii-7-V7 before the already existing ii-7-V7.

I7           |              |            |                |

IV7         | #IVo7  | I7        |iii-7   VI7|

ii-7         | V7        |  I7       |                |

You will see this on a lot of Charlie Parker tunes such as Now is the Time and Billie’s Bounce.  Next is a common substitution for improvisers and sometimes rhythm section as well. Adding a ii-7-V7 before the IV7 chord.

I7           |              |            |v-7    I7   |

IV7         | #IVo7  | I7        |iii-7   VI7|

ii-7         | V7        |  I7       |                |

So far we have covered the majority of blues you will see in jazz. I want to make a quick mention that this is the major blues. There is also a minor blues form. They are pretty similar and you may see them mixed together sometimes.  Here is an example:

i-7   |       |       |    |

iv-7 |       | i-7  |    |

bVI7 | V7 |  i-7|    |

You can also use a minor 7 flat 5 as the ii chord.

i-7         |              |        |      |

iv-7       |              | i-7   |      |

ii-7(b5) | V7(alt) |  i-7  |      |


Typically when someone says “blues” they mean major unless they specify minor blues. Charlie Parker has taken the blues form to such extremes that it is practically not recognizable.  These are called “Bird Blues”. A Bird Blues is a bit beyond the scope of this lesson.


This concludes our lesson on jazz blues. With this knowledge you will be able to go out and play any kind of common jazz blues progression. We have covered the common chord substitutions and some terminology.  Now go blues out.

Everything starts with the blues form

Are you a blues guitarist? Are you a rock guitarist? Are you a jazz guitarist? Are you a country guitarist? Are you a bluegrass guitarist? Are you a folk guitarist? All of these styles have a form in common. The Blues. The blues form is the most universal changes in music. It is simple and the best place any guitarist could start with. In this lesson you will learn what the blues form is, how to create it and how it works.


You may or may not have heard that the blues was created in the late 1800s from slaves. It was highly influenced by things like spirituals, work songs and chants. The real meaning of the blues, however, comes from the purpose of it. It was intended to sing about serious life topics. Bad relationships, bad work, harsh life styles were common topics of blues. There are some songs that are happier, but of a serious matter. One of the ways slaves were allowed to express themselves was through music. So blues was an important part of society.


Lyrics and Melodies:

Lyrics and melodies of the blues form were often extremely simple.  These were created in an AAB style. What this means is that you sing something like “this is the blues” then you repeated it. Then you sing “The days keep going, they don’t die off”. Here is an example of what a blues melody looks like.


This is the blues

This is the blues

The days keep going, they don’t die off


Here is an example in a song by Albert Collins:

Because of how the lyrics are made, the melody is in the same form. It repeats then changes.


The Chord Progression:

In the blues form there are 3 chords used.  All of them are dominant chords. The blues form is 12 bars long. Here is the chord progression.

I7    |        |         |      |

IV7  |        |I7     |      |

V7   |IV7  |I7      |      |


All you need to do is fill in the chord progression above in the key you are in then you will have the blues form in that key. You can listen to the example above and hear this chord progression.



There are always exceptions to everything. Especially in jazz, there are all kinds of alterations to this progression. Jazz treats this form as “goal posts” in a way. They will hit these chords, but add extra chords between them or substitute other chords in their place. To view a whole lesson on this click here.


In other styles like rock or country you may see similar chord progressions that are slightly changed. The most common thing you will see is changing the order of these chords. For example:

I7 |     |IV7    |      |

V7 |    | IV7   |      |

I7   |    |V7     |      |


You may also see chords added to this sometimes. Also in rock you will move more away from the all dominants toward the harmonized scale. So the fourth degree would be a major 7th, not flatted 7th. To learn about harmonizing the major scale click here.


Hope you enjoyed this lesson. Feel free to leave comments and share your opinions or ask your questions.

Learning the musical alphabet

Remember when we were kids back in school. We were very young and they started to teach us the English Alphabet by having us sing it to twinkle twinkle little star? That alphabet is not only for English. The first 7 letters are what makes up the musical alphabet as well. Sing with me! A B C D E F G. Stop there. You now know the main mechanics of the musical alphabet.

The musical Alphabet

The musical alphabet without lowering or raising any notes.

This is not the full story though. Each note can be raised or lowered. When you raise a note it is called sharp, and when you lower a note it is called flat.


Don’t be fooled. There are 2 exceptions which you will need to memorize. Between the E and the F there are note flats or sharps, also between the B and the C there are no flats and sharps.

Full Musical Alphabet

Full Musical Alphabet

A great place to find an example of the 2 exceptions in the musical alphabet is on a piano. You can use a piano to practice finding the musical alphabet. You will also see 2 sections on the piano which do not have a black note between them. In case you don’t know anything about piano, a black note is a sharp or flatted note.


Before we close this lesson I want to talk about the sharps and flats a little bit more. A sharp and flat note can be the same note. It is spelled differently. For example, John and Jack are the same name just a different way of saying it. For a musical example, C # and Db are the same note. F# and Gb are the same note.


There are only 12 notes in the musical alphabet. 7 of them are in the English alphabet, the rest are just lowered or raised. spending time with this will help you learn how music works as well as help you find notes on the guitar. If you know the musical alphabet you can work your way up the string using it to find a note.  Best of luck

The Pareto Principle and Music Practice

Today’s topic is working on what really matters.  Not every practice routine is created equal, nor is every exercise created equal. Some things are created for specialization, or detailed work. Not all causes have an equal effect. In this article I want to discuss the Pareto principle and give you some examples of how it benefits your musical practice.

The Pareto Principle states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This means that for every 10 things that could possibly make you better, 2 of them will cover 80% of your growth. This is very good news. If we focus on the important stuff we will gain much greater improvement in a shorter time frame.  I will give you an example of how the Pareto Principle works.

Consider baking a cake. It starts with mixing all the ingredients together and putting it in the oven. Once it is done cooking, icing is added all over the cake. the baker decides to decorate the cake with a guitar on top, getting every detail the guitar has. Once it is all done, what part took the most time? The details that went into making the icing look good, right? That did not make the cake much bigger though.  80% of the cake was finished with 20% of the time it took to finish the cake. There are many more examples in our world of how the Pareto Principle works.

My point is that you can get a large bulk of the information and skill you need to play music well with less work. If you focus on the important stuff, then it will be easy to gain success. If you start working on the decorative icing without the cake being baked first, you may not see any improvement at all. Making wise choices in the practice room can make great improvement in your skill.

The Pareto Principle is a valuable tool that reminds us to focus on what is important. If you are doing something and don’t see improvement then you may want to consider if it is really part of that 20% that makes the 80%. Time is limited and if you use it wisely you will get more from what time you spend than if you didn’t use it the best way. Best luck and have fun finding that 20%.

The Pareto Principle is like baking a cake with a guitar on it.

The Pareto Principle is like baking a cake with a guitar on it.


Don’t Give Up

This is more of an inspirational post than anything.  Although this is a guitar website you can use this for anything you do in life. The topic today is about staying strong when things seem hard. We all have a tendency to want to back out in the bad times, but is this the best thing to do? Everyone who has ever lived, including those alive and those who will live has come across points in their life where they wanted to quit. There is no way around this. How we handle these hard situations is what defines you.

I like to give this example to my students when they say something is not as easy as they want it to be. I ask them what their favorite athlete is, and depending on the person I get different responses. Let’s just use “athlete” as his name. Do you think Athlete would be athlete if everyone had the ability to do what he does without work? Hard work is the thing that separates the good from the great. Athlete did not get that good sitting on the couch playing video games. No way, he spent many hours practicing his sport and working out. I can guarantee athlete felt like quitting sometimes. Maybe he couldn’t do a certain technique right. The fact is he stuck with it and overcame his difficulties.

I was pinteresting earlier (yes, I like pinterest) and I came across this inspirational photo. It said “The greater the difficulty, the greater the victory” This is very correct. If you have trouble learning something, but stick it out and work through it you will have a much greater victory. It is also a great feeling to finally learn to do something that you’ve been working at for a long time and could not do.

I hope this encourages you to stick it out.  Times will get rough, but that is part of life. Remember the old saying “when life throws you lemons, make lemonade”? Stick through it and you will make the best of the situation. You will come out stronger and more prepared for the next difficult thing. Keep on Keeping on!

Use Motive Development to Set Your Playing Apart From Others

You may be wondering what a motif is, and if you are keep reading. A motive, also known as motif, is simply a connected melody. The best way to explain this is by comparing music to language. When you are playing a melody or solo you are in essence telling a story. A motive is building the story and keeping the same theme. Take this story for example:  I bought bubble gum. Clouds are very dark. Then They danced.” This type of story is not connected and leaves people with nothing to hang on to. A good story has a theme. A good solo has a motif.

Giving listeners something to grab onto is something that can set the average garage guitarist apart from the experienced pro. Take for example the song “You are so beautiful”, The words are “you are so beautiful to me” over and over except for a small amount. These lyrics are simple, but the listener can hold on to it and sing with it. The most catchy melodies are repetitive.  Applying this concept in your playing can bring clarity and coherence to your playing to make you sound much better than you really are. All you need to do is find a simple melody you like and expand upon it.

What makes a good motif?  A motif can be any very simple lick. You can pick a nursery rhyme or make your own 3 or 4 note riff. Once you have this as your basis and you introduced it at the beginning of your solo, you can expand upon it. Adding more notes, sequencing, rhythmic variation are all things you can use to expand upon your motif.  I should clarify that the motif should not be long. It should be short and used as a guideline for building your melodies. Also I should make it clear that you can deviate from your motif whenever you want and however you want. The motif is just a great tool to connect your solo and make it sound logical and easy to grasp to the audience.

When should you use motif development? Is this for certain styles? Motif development can be used anytime and any style. If you are playing a style such as country where you may have a 4 – 8 measure solo motive development is great. Many great solos in country are based off of a theme.  An example of this is “kiss a girl” by Keith Urban. If you are playing more of the instrumental style such as jazz or progressive rock this technique is great because it can expand your ideas much further. We guitarist only have a limited amount of licks and we need a way to keep them fresh. Motif development is great for this. An example in jazz of motif development is Sonny Rollins “St. Thomas” on the record “Sonny Rollins”.

This is a fun technique you can use and it will be your best friend if you work with it. It is the easiest way to make your solo sound logical and make it interesting to listen to.  Have fun experimenting with motif development and have fun becoming a story-teller. Feel free to share your opinions below.

Listening to music a different way can improve your appreciation and knowledge of music

The typical person puts music on while they drive, work out, do homework and any other daily activity. This is fun and you can still get something from music doing this, however you are not going to get the full benefit and enjoyment out of music this way. If you are more conscious about what you are listening to you will notice new stuff about music, and you will enjoy it more. Every musician would benefit from active listening to music.

What is active listening? Active listening is the act of giving undivided attention to music. You are listening for specific details.  This is a style of listening to most people do not naturally do.  Active listening can be approached like you are in a class room. You can take notes, ask questions, and look for specific details. If you have questions about the music you can write them down and try to find an answer. Active listening is a mental exercise like doing push ups.

How do you approach listening to music? Listening to music like this may require you to re-listen to a song a couple of times, but as you become more familiar with this style of listening it will be easier and faster.  First you need to listen to each instrument separately. Try picking a tune and listen once through for the drummer. Hear what he is playing and try to explain his playing in your words. You can write this description down on paper. Next re-listen to the song for the bass player and describe his playing. Do this with every instrument. Practice doing this for 5 – 10 songs. You will start to better hear the specific instruments. Then you can continue to listen to more tunes, this time you can listen to multiple instruments at a time. You can listen for bass and drums together.

If you want to go even deeper in your descriptions of the performer’s playing you can analyze what he is doing with different parts of his instrument. For example, you can analyze a drummers, snare, high hat, bass drum, or ride. Another example would be the pianist. You can analyze what he is doing with his different hands. Another way you can describe the music more in-depth would be to analyze the range (high or low pitch) and thickness (big or small chords) of what the pianist is playing.  The more music you listen to, the easier listening will become and the more you will enjoy it. Listening like this is a great way to learn to appreciate a new style of music and is a great educational tool as well.

Listening to music can be passive or active and if we give our undivided attention to music we are actively listening. Concentrating on each instrument can give us a new insight into music, teach us, and help our appreciation for music. The more music you listen to the more you will get out of it. Music is fun and enjoyable, so sit back and listen to the musicians jam out.

Using mental imagery to help you practice guitar efficiently

Mental imagery is a powerful tool which can be used to help you practice guitar. Some people claim that it is about the same benefit as actual practice, some say it is better. I am not claiming that it is a magic pill, but it is a tool you can use to add to your practice routine. You can use this while you are sitting at work unable to touch a guitar, while you are lying in bed, or just to give your hands a rest during practice. So how do you do visualization?

First I recommend being in a quiet room. Turning out the lights or putting something over your eyes may help. If you’ve never used visualization before you may want to first start simple and work your way up. Close your eyes for 10 – 30 seconds, and then try to visualize something simple like a banana. If you have used mental imagery before you can skip this part. Just get comfortable looking at the banana. Enlarge it, and spin it around. You can do anything you want with this image. Once you are comfortable with that, try to visualize a guitar. Mess around with the picture of the guitar as well. Enlarging it and moving it around.

Next is when the learning begins. This is a very personal experience so you can do what feels best to you. You can visualize the guitar neck from the front of the top, however you feel best. Once you do this try to visualize the scale or chord you are working on. If you want to see yourself playing it, that is fine, or if you want to watch someone else play it doesn’t matter. Spend about 10 minutes with your eyes closed concentrated the whole time on that 1 thing. It can be kind of fun too. Try adding this to your practice routine, it’s not a magic pill, but it can help.

This can also be a valuable tool for other things in life other than making music. Stage fright or if you are scared about an interview coming up, whatever your fears may be this can settle your nerves. Let’s use stages fright for example, you are freaking out because there are 10 people watching you play marry had a little lamb. How can you prevent this? It is easy. You spend a little time visualizing yourself actually performing it before you do it. Studies show that people who visualize have the same effect as actually doing it. So if you visualize yourself being a success, then you will be more confident the next time.

This is another handy tool to use in your practice and preparation. It is not a magic pill, but it is something that is easily used in times when you cannot use your guitar. Mental imagery can be used to settle your stage fright or anything other fears, because it is the same as actually doing it. Take this knowledge and use it to the best benefit you can find.

What are altered chords?

In your Jazz career you will hear people talking about altered chords and on your jazz charts you may see G alt. What does this mean? Altered chords are not that hard to grasp, and are an important concept to know about. Any Chord can be altered, but the most common is the dominant chord. For this article we will use dominant 7 chords as the example. In this article you will learn what an altered chord is and how it is made.

The simplest definition of an altered chord is any chord that has chord tones altered. Another way to think of an altered chord is a note in the chord that has been raised or lowered in the scale that correlates to that chord. The notes in a dominant 13 chord are 1, 3, 5, b7, 9, 11, 13. This chord is not altered. When you change one of the chord tones you now have an altered chord. If you take the term “altered” and change it to “changed” or “edited” you will get the idea. This chord is changed or edited to be different from its original form.  The changed version of that chord is known as the altered chord.

The more theoretical definition of an altered dominant chord is a chord with a lowered or raised fifth or a lowered or raised 9th. These alterations can be written in different ways. You may see a #11, but this is a b5. You can see a b13, but this is a raised 5th. The 9th and the 5ths are responsible for creating the tensions. Typically tensions are creating on the upper structures of chords. Very rarely do you see anything written or played b2. The difference between a 9th and a 2nd is not the note, but how the note correlates to the root. If there is an octave between the 2 notes it is called a 9th. If it is a whole or half step away from the root it is a second. The octave between the root and the alterations will make the altered note sound better and clash less.

Altered chords which are used a lot in jazz, primarily over the dominant chord are really fun chords. Altered chords are chords that the tones have been changed. The notes that are typically changed in an altered chord are the 5ths and 9ths. You may see these written differently but they 5ths and 9ths are the notes responsible for alterations. Alterations typically appear in the upper structures of chords and are primarily put in dominant chords.  Most chords can be altered; however the most common is dominant chords. This makes the dominant chord one of the most interesting chords in music.