Hi, and welcome to my new instructional column. It’s inspired by the most common complaint I hear from intermediate and advanced players: “I feel like I play the same things every time I pick up a guitar.” This series is about getting unstuck.

Guitar isn’t like most other instruments. It’s possible to play for just a couple of weeks and make something that sounds fairly musical. Compare that to, say, most orchestral instruments, where simply producing a listenable tone can take years. But there’s a downside to guitar’s accessibility: Many of us learn to play using the same licks, patterns, and formulas. When muscle memory takes over, you can find yourself trapped in a box like a mediocre mime. Our job here is smashing boxes.

Are Rules for Tools?
Some dopey guitar teachers insist there’s a single “correct” way to play. Nonsense! The history of our instrument proves the opposite. Consider Django, Charlie, Rosetta, Wes, Jimi, and Eddie, and beyond. Our greatest players are often the boldest rule-breakers.

But there’s more to this column than switching off your conscious mind and going apeshit on the fretboard. (Though that’s often a great idea.) We’re not going to ignore the “rules” so much as question them. We’ll turn them backwards, upside down, and inside out. Warning: Some of this will be technically and conceptually challenging.

Where You’re Coming From
This column is aimed at intermediate and advanced players. It will probably appeal most to restless, inquisitive guitarists eager to develop their own personal style, as opposed to those whose goal is to imitate their heroes as accurately as possible. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Music reading skills aren’t required—all examples will appear in both standard notation and tab. It doesn’t matter much which styles you usually play. We’ll steal ideas from everywhere, and most of the skills we’ll discuss are applicable to all genres. If there’s a motto here, it’s “Originality beats regurgitation.” Or maybe, in the words of Sonic Youth, “Kill Yr Idols.”

Where I’m Coming From
A few words about my background and biases to help you decide whether I’m worth listening to: I’ve played for over 45 years. I’ve taught professionally since age 13. I started out as a typical rock folk player, but then studied jazz guitar with the great Ted Greene from age 17. I have degrees in classical music composition from UCLA (BA) and UC Berkeley (MA). An obsession with African music and post-punk made me drop out of a PhD program to play funky/noisy shit in various bands. I’ve been a guitar magazine editor on and off for 30 years. I’ve recorded and performed with Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Tracy Chapman, Flea, Les Claypool, DJ Shadow, John Cale, and many other artists. My favorite musicians are Claude Debussy, Duke Ellington, and Claudio Monteverdi, none of whom played guitar.

Still with me? Let’s go.

The CAGED System—and When to Forget It
A frequent subject here will be playing by ear rather than by eye. That’s harder than it sounds! Most of us learned the fretboard via the same pentatonic and diatonic fingering patterns, with the understanding that as long as we stayed in the box, every note would sound acceptable. That’s not a bad way to learn, but too often it limits our ears and imaginations. It can be like painting by numbers, as opposed to just painting.

I’m not saying we should forget those formulas. In fact, I highly recommend learning the CAGED system. If you’re not familiar with that method of visualizing the fretboard in terms of simple open-position chords shapes, you can consider it homework in advance of upcoming lessons. This Premier Guitar article by Mike Cramer offers a nice, clear introduction. Cramer takes the concepts further in The CAGED System Demystified, an inexpensive e-book available from the PG store.

But for the moment, forget that stuff even exists.

One-String Wonders
The first time you picked up a guitar, you might have plucked out a melody on a single string. Later, you learned to play across the strings. It’s so much more efficient that way! No need to lurch halfway up the fretboard when you can just slide over to an adjacent string.

But for now, let’s return to those single-string roots. We’re going to pick out tunes on a single string, shifting positions as needed. There are big benefits to practicing this way:

  • It liberates you from muscle-memory box patterns.
  • You’ll get better at playing the melodies you hear in your head.
  • You’ll be able to shift positions with greater speed and accuracy.
  • When you play this way, you become more like a vocalist or wind player. This can steer you away from boring guitar clichés.
  • When you doplay in familiar “box” positions, you’ll be confident enough to step outside them.

I’m not just talking about long-term benefits here. If you practice this technique for just a week or so, I pretty much guarantee you’ll play with noticeably more confidence and creativity.

Play Like You’re Singing
Let’s start with a familiar melody: “Happy Birthday to You.” Starting on the open 1st string, try picking out the melody by ear. (Try not to read from Ex. 1 unless you need to.)

Once you’ve located the notes, try playing it as legato as possible. (Legato means letting each note ring until the instant you finger the next note. It’s the opposite of staccato, which means making each note short, with a moment of silence between each one.)

Now try it in another key, starting on the 1st fret of the 2nd string. It’s harder to get consistent legato phrasing in this position because there are no open strings to ring out while you shift positions.

Sure, the first four notes are easy. And if you have large and/or flexible hands, you might be able to reach the 6th-fret note at the end of the first measure without shifting out of position. But you’ll definitely need to shift position to hit the 8th-fret note at the end of measure 3. It gets even hairier between measures 3 and 4, where you must leap from the 1st fret to the 13th.

It’s not terribly hard to hit the notes, but can you play them like a singer? Hum the tune to yourself. There’s probably no gap at all between the first six notes, though chances are you’ll pause for a breath before the next phrase. Can you play it that smoothly? Forget about speed—playing slowly is great practice.