• Learn how to transform otherwise
boring exercises into
• Understand how to apply
chords in unique combinations
across the neck.
• Slide linear scales across the
fretboard to open up the neck.
Click here to download the sound clips from this lesson.
What do you think of when you hear
the word “practice?” When I think
of practice, I think of the following things:
boring, repetitive, disciplined, structured,
drills, metronomic, and scale patterns. I’ve
been playing for the better part of 17 years
now, and I have something to confess: I
hate practicing. I really don’t enjoy it and
every attempt at being structured or disciplined
has always failed to motivate me in
any way. I love getting better and improving
my skills, but I hate what most of the
world thinks of as practice. In this lesson, I
want to talk about how I think about practicing
and ways to keep it fun and creative,
no matter what your level is.
I absolutely love playing the guitar. I really
do cherish any time I can get with the
guitar in my hands. My love for the guitar
is what has allowed me to progress year
after year. So, how do you get better without
locking yourself in your room with a
metronome, vowing not to come out until
you’re a better guitarist?
Well, for one thing, you need to step
back and think about how you’ve improved
at other skills in your life. Carpenters don’t
lock themselves in workshops working
on saw technique. They get out and start
building things. Sure, their first attempts
are a little rough, but you get better by
doing. If you want to get better at the guitar,
you’d better play the guitar a lot. If you
want to get better at something specific,
you’re going to need to do it a lot. What
I will push back on is the idea that you
need to divorce technique and music from
practice. It is possible to have fun, make
music, and still improve. I just could never
see how sitting in my room playing scale
patterns with a metronome was going to
help me get better when I’d never play scale
patterns on stage like that. There has to be
a better way, I thought.
Play Along. Play Often.
For whatever reason, I found playing guitar
by myself very lonely and boring. So
much so, that for the first four years of my
musical life, I only played along to CDs or
played with my band. Since the band only
practiced once a week, I spent the majority
of my musical life playing along to CDs. I
was ambitious, too. I played along to Steve
Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Eric Johnson
CDs (and just about anything else I could
get my hands on). I really couldn’t play
most of their riffs, but what I was able to
do was play along in the same key. As I
was learning about scales and arpeggios, I
was able to apply them to real music right
away. I’m sure that if I listened back now,
I’d cringe at the epic noodling I was doing
back then, but at the time, it was a complete
blast. I was having fun.
I was also reinforcing my scales and
arpeggios at the same time. I was tricking
myself into practicing. And it worked. As
time went on, I got more comfortable with
the neck, I got more comfortable with my
scales, I got more comfortable with arpeggios,
and I was able to start figuring out
the riffs, too. Because it was so much fun
to play, I spent lots of hours doing it. Each
hour that passed just continued to reinforce
concepts that I needed. It was a wonderful
cycle, and I can’t recommend it enough to
anyone who wants to try something different,
if traditional practice isn’t working for
you. And, I had a better metronome than
I could ever have wished for: a world-class
drummer on each CD.
Enough philosophy, how about some
When I play, I try to make it as fun and
creative as possible, but I’m often thinking
about something specific as a goal.
For example, when I wanted to learn my
arpeggios across the neck, I didn’t try to be
a disciplined, responsible student and start
small, learning arpeggio shapes in each
position to combine them later. Nope. I
wanted to sound like Yngwie or EJ right
away. I set out to create some example riffs
that took me across the fretboard, almost as
if I were composing a riff for a guitar solo.
Check out Fig. 1 for an example of what
I’m talking about.
Since the example only consists of E,
A, and B major triad arpeggios (I–IV–V
in the key of E), I was able to play the
example whenever I was playing in the
key of E, and it always sounded good to
me. In time, I moved the shapes around
the neck and was able to learn more about
arpeggios when the tracks I was playing
along to changed keys.
Recently, I was thinking about different
ways to play scales. After 17 years, even
soloing with scale shapes can get a bit stale,
so I looked at the neck and tried to come
up with something different. I’ve played
scales in positions, and in string groupings,
but I’d never played them like in Fig.
2, sliding like a snake down the fretboard.
This led me to think about composing riffs
down the fretboard, rather than just sticking
in vertical shapes all the time.
Finding examples like Fig. 2 was reinvigorating.
What else could I do differently?
I’ve always loved arpeggios and chords, but
finding creative ways to play them is often
difficult. Going back to my roots led me to
Fig. 3, an Eric Johnson-style grouping of
arpeggios that skip a string.
All I’m doing is playing major triads
with a string skip immediately followed
by the same arpeggio in the first inversion
down the neck a few frets. Once the second
shape is concluded, I start over one fret
higher and keep going up the neck, dropping
down 12 frets when I run out of room
on my Tele. Now, you might be thinking,
“That looks a whole lot like disciplined
practice to me.” And you’d be right.
Once I played the exercise a few times
to get the shapes down, I got bored because
it keeps looping and changing keys in the
cycle of fourths. It’s not that musical on its
own, so I set out to make it more musical.
Fig. 4 takes the same idea, locks it into a
single key, and makes a riff out of it.
Fig. 4 takes the shapes of Fig. 3, adds
the minor shape, and moves the patterns
down one string a few times. It
reminds me a little bit of Neil Zaza’s “I’m
Alright,” which is another combination
of spread arpeggios across the neck. By
taking the example in Fig. 4 and playing
it in a bunch of different keys, I’m getting
the same benefit that Fig. 3 has, but
I’m having more fun doing it, and it’s
more creative. Heck, it even led to a song
idea. That’s what practice is supposed to
be about: inspiring your creativity and
improving your skills.
As I’ve gotten older and my life has
changed, it’s become even more important
to use my time wisely when I play.
Between family, writing, work, and making
music, I don’t get as much time to
play as I used to. When I do play, I make
sure that I’m reinforcing the building
blocks that enable me to make music, but
I always focus on creativity. I hope this
helps you think about practicing a bit differently,
and helps you take an otherwise
boring concept and make it work for
you—especially if you don’t have a lot of
time to play the guitar.
graduated magna cum laude
from the Crane School of Music in New York.
He is an active educator, writer, and performer
in the San Francisco area, and has an eclectic
performing background that includes classical
concertos, jazz trios, and rock bands. An
active lecturer, Schonbrun frequently tours the
country explaining music technology to players
and teachers. Visit marcschonbrun.com
for more info.