This series has run its course. But its methods can last a lifetime.
Well, that didn’t feel like two years, did it?
When I proposed the Subversive Guitarist column to my Premier Guitar pals in 2018, we figured on 20 or so installments, to be followed by a book version of the series. For once, things went precisely as planned: This is the final column in the series, and PG will issue a book version (with lots of extra material!) later this year. Meanwhile, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll continue to float around the PG universe, and I’ll be part of a cool new ongoing project to be announced soon.
I can’t summarize every Subversive Guitarist column here. But I’ll recap some key concepts, with one goal in mind: creating an ongoing series of mental, technical, and musical challenges to keep your playing moving forward. That’s what I mean by “perpetual subversion.”
As stated upfront in the first column, this series was 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.”
I believe that’s because most of us learn using the same licks, formulas, and box patterns. Those tools help make guitar a relatively easy instrument to learn. The downside is, that stuff can get baked in as muscle memory. Your hands automatically fall into their familiar patterns.
Every exercise in this series aimed to subvert this cycle. But the point isn’t the individual exercises so much as the processes behind them. You can apply these endlessly, perpetually challenging yourself and uncovering new ideas.
Comfortable Techniques in Uncomfortable Places
One useful procedure is to apply a technique systematically to every note or chord in a musical passage. Take position shifts, for example: We tend execute them favoring certain fingers, positions, and strings, especially when improvising using box patterns and scales. But picking out melodies by ear using only a single string (suggested in the July 2018 installment) undermines those habits. With practice, you can get comfortable shifting positions by any interval using any finger, all while honing your ability to play melodies by ear. We used “Happy Birthday” as an example (Ex. 1). Why not just attempt a single-string version of some random melody as part of each practice session?
Going to Extremes
It can be revealing and inspiring to apply techniques in a more extreme fashion than we might during regular playing. We did that when we focused on sliding between notes in the Dec. 2018 column. Ordinarily, we tend to favor particular fingers, positions, and beats when using this technique. But if you apply the technique systematically to every note in a melody, you can break out of your usual habits, cultivating freer and more flexible phrasing. The examples used the cowboy ballad “The Streets of Laredo.” We started by learning the basic melody in Ex. 2.
Next, we replayed the melody, sliding into every downbeat note (Ex. 3). Then sliding into the second beat of each measure (Ex. 4), and then the third beat of each measure (Ex. 5).
And then we did it all again but sliding down into each note. Try this with the first tune that pops into your head.
Another exercise in extremes was when we exploited the guitar’s maximum dynamic range in the June 2019 installment. We tried to play using 10 distinct volume levels ranging from barely audible to the loudest possible attack (Ex. 6).
We all have a general sense of when to play louder and softer. But practice using the instrument’s maximum range and exploiting subtle dynamic changes can bring greater mindfulness, control, and expression to your playing.
We’ve all got favorite phrases we like to play. It’s part of what defines our personal style! But sometimes our lines are nothing more than muscle memory on display. Exercises that force you out of your familiar fingerings are an excellent remedy.
For example, many of us practice scales—a good thing! But you can benefit far more from the exercise if you venture beyond simply running them up and down using only adjacent notes. We did that in the April 2019 lesson, where we tried practicing scales using short melodic “cells,” repeated on successively higher or lower scale steps, as in Ex. 7.
That way, you eventually practice every possible intervallic leap, not just the familiar ones. The benefits are finding new melodies, getting better at playing tunes by ear, and general mindfulness. If you select a different short melody to play sequentially each time you practice scales, you’ll benefit far more from the exercise.
We tried another “scale disrupter” in the July 2019 column: octave leaps. Moving fluidly between octaves can create generate more interesting melodies while honing fretting-hand speed and accuracy. We practiced skipping octaves at shorter and shorter intervals, culminating in Ex. 8. It’s “The Streets of Laredo” again, but with an octave shift occurring between every single note.
We looked at various ways to expand you your rhythmic confidence and creativity, but it all boiled down to two techniques: composite rhythm and rhythmic displacement.
Composite rhythm pertains to hearing the multiple rhythms in a piece of music not as isolated entities, but as parts in a single organized tapestry. That can be as simple as confidently tapping a foot while playing rhythms whose rhythms don’t coincide with the taps, as in Ex. 9.
Then we got trickier, tapping rhythms other than the downbeat while playing syncopated rhythms, as in Ex. 10.
This can be a humbling exercise, especially when you remember that drummers do more difficult things every time they play.
We also talked a lot about cultivating the ability to shift rhythms in time—a technique that’s far easier to describe than execute. One way to tackle it is by studying famous guitar intros that deceive you into perceiving the downbeat as somewhere other than it is, only to surprise you when the full band kicks in. Ex. 11 is one of the examples from the August 2019 column.
We revisited the notion in February 2020 column, where we started with a common folk fingerpicking pattern, only to shift it around to eight possible starting points within the measure, as seen in the video below.
The ability to shift parts in time on the fly can resolve countless arrangement problems and help you craft groovier, more interesting parts. It’s all about making the familiar unfamiliar. Hey, that’s worth saying twice!
Making the Familiar Unfamiliar
Want to generate new ideas and cultivate new skills every time you practice? Then always be sure to practice a few strange and uncomfortable things. It can be as simple as playing a familiar scale using new melodic sequences. Or always substituting new chords each time you practice a fingerpicking pattern. Or shifting a part in time by a 16th note. Or flipping an exercise backward and playing it start to finish. The possibilities are almost practically endless.
With an attitude like this, you’ll never cross the finish line—and that’s great! Guitar becomes a lifelong challenge, always fresh, always fascinating. And you’ll never again have to say, “I feel like I play the same things every time I pick up a guitar.”
You don’t need a fretboard to expand your fingerings.
This month’s lesson presents a series of hand and finger exercises that you can practice without an instrument. These have the potential to improve finger strength, coordination, and independence. They can also sharpen your rhythmic precision and your ability to play polyrhythms.
Many of these aren’t original ideas. If you’ve studied drums or piano, some of this may feel familiar. If not, these moves can be shockingly difficult. Don’t get discouraged, though. When you attempt mentally and physically challenging techniques—even unsuccessfully—you literally create new chemical connections in your brain. That’s essential in liberating yourself from repetitious muscle-memory playing.
Learning to Walk
These routines are fun but hard! Your hand “walks” across a flat surface using varying finger combinations, some quite challenging (Video 1).
Here are the moves from the video:
- Two-legged walk. Here you “walk” your fingers like an upright primate, using your middle and ring fingers as “legs” while your arms (index finger and pinky) hang beside your legs.
- Devil walk. Just make your basic heavy-metal horns and let your index finger and pinky be your legs.
- Crutch walk. Use your index finger and pinky as “crutches,” dragging your “legs” (middle and ring finger).
- Penguin walk. Start by making Mr. Spock’s salute, forming a gap between your middle and ring finger. Then waddle across your surface using your paired index and middle fingers as one leg and your paired ring finger and pinky as the other.
- Spider walk. Here you must move your index and ring fingers as one unit and your middle finger and pinky as another. Fun fact: Dave Mustaine of Megadeth claims credit for inventing this “spider fingering.” Fretted instrument players have used it since at least the 16th century.
- Bear walk. When bears walk, they move both right legs simultaneously, and then both left legs. Do the same here, with your thumb and index finger as one pair of legs and your ring finger and pinky as the other. Your middle finger represents the head.
- Dog walk. Unlike bears, dogs move their right front leg and left rear leg simultaneously while walking, and then their left front leg and right rear leg. Again, your middle finger is the head. This one is especially challenging, at least for me.
I used my left hand in these videos. Whichever hand you start with, continue with your other hand.
The Isolation Ward
If you’ve ever studied a keyboard instrument, the moves in Video 2 may seem easy. If not, brace for a challenge.
Place both hands on a flat surface, thumbs toward each other, and try these moves:
- Mirror image. Lift both thumbs while leaving all other fingers still. Then both index fingers, both middles, both rings, and both pinkies, always keeping any digits not in motion as still as possible. Then work backward from the pinky to the thumb.
- Left to right. Start with your hands flat. Lift your left-hand pinky and right-hand thumb in isolation, and then lift each successive pair of fingers working from left to right. Then return from right to left.
- Right to left. It’s the previous exercise in reverse. Start with your right-hand pinky and left-hand thumb, and then lift your fingers in pairs, working from right to left. Return to the starting point by moving from left to right.
Isolating individual fingers on both hands is difficult. Mentally flipping the orientation of your hands makes it even trickier.
Let’s Play Patty Cake
This final exercise is a cross between the previous one and the foot-and-hand tapping exercises from this lesson a few months back.
Video 3 features three fairly simple polyrhythms: 2 against 1, 3 against 1, 4 against 1, and 3 against 2. But accurately tapping the rhythms is only the first step. You must also exchange the rhythms between hands in tempo. The challenge is both physical and mental.
Once you find it comfortable to perform these exercises, make them uncomfortable again! For example, you might expand on the Video 1 exercises by walking your hands backward, or working both hands at the same time.
You can vary the finger isolation exercises in Video 2 via two-finger, three-finger, and four-finger combinations. And you can intensify the Video 3 exercises with more complex rhythmic combinations, such as 3 against 4 and 4 against 5.
In the Moment
I confess to some misgivings about these techniques. As an aspiring meditation practitioner, I increasingly value the ability to be focused and aware in the moment. Exercises like these can become twitchy, compulsive behavior that detaches you from your environment. Sometimes not thinking about guitar is one of the best things you can do for your playing.
One suggestion: Perhaps a few minutes of focused practice, followed by a session of free-form guitar playing? Chances are you’ll find yourself more strongly focused on your hand movements, more melodically adventurous, and a bit less likely to mindlessly finger your habitual patterns.
Try this technically challenging workout that liberates you from muscle-memory habits.
There’s nothing wrong with practicing scales by simply running them up and down. But this column is about a more musically gratifying way to practice that simultaneously improves your ear and your manual dexterity. It’s all about sequences.
In genetics, sequencing is the process of determining the order of nucleotides within DNA. In music, a sequence is a short melodic pattern that gets repeated but starting on a higher or lower note. Just as sequencing DNA reveals simple chemicals as the building blocks of all life forms, musical sequencing transforms a lifeless abstraction—a scale—into a font of musical ideas.
Breaking the Box
When you learn a new scale, chances are you work from a diagram—a bunch of dots on a grid. We rely on graphics like these to find and memorize the needed notes, but it’s a visual process, not a musical one. But as soon as you start finding melodies within a scale, you advance from theory to music.
In fact, I recommend practicing with sequences as soon as possible after learning a scale. This cultivates a subconscious connection between your brain and your fingers. You get better at playing the tunes in your head without pausing to think where your hand should go. And when you practice scales using melodies, you eventually grapple with every awkward fingering. It’s a more technically challenging workout that helps liberate you from muscle-memory playing.
God Save the Sequence
This month’s exercises borrow sequences from familiar tunes and repurpose them for scale practice. Let’s start with a very simple pattern from “God Save the Queen” (aka “My Country ’Tis of Thee”). Ex. 1 captures the tune in notation and tablature.
Check out the six-note pattern in measures 7 and 8: A single note (G) is played four times, followed by the scale step below, and then the one below that. This pattern repeats in measures 9 and 10, but beginning on F. The exact intervals between notes change: In the first phrase (let’s call it a “cell”), the first note, G, is a whole-step (two frets) above the next note. In the second cell, the note that follows F is only a half-step (one fret) below the first note. Still, we maintain the same basic pattern: Play the first note four times, then the note one scale step down, and then the one below that.
Now, what happens if we keep repeating the sequence, working down through the scale? (Ex. 2.)
We can keep descending this way till we run out of notes and strings. And that’s the premise for the remaining exercises.
Fun fact: Did you notice how the rhythm of measures 1 and 2 gets echoed in measures 3 and 4? It’s not a strict melodic sequence—the two cells veer apart in their second measures. But this sort of repeated rhythm is sometimes called a rhythmic sequence.
Let’s look at another familiar tune, the Christmas carol “Angels We Have Heard on High.” (Ex. 3.)
The “Gloria” section beginning in measure 5 and repeated in the next two measures is a textbook example of a melodic sequence. In Ex. 4 the pattern continues beyond the original three statements.
Again, notice the rhythmic sequence between measures 1 and 2 and measures 3 and 4—that is, different notes, but the same rhythm. There’s a lesson here about how repeated rhythmic patterns help make a tune memorable.
Even though this song was written in the 19th century, it sounds like Baroque music, probably on purpose. Melodic sequences are one of the most common composition techniques in 18th-century music. Sounds like a good excuse to hack on some Bach!
Ex. 5 shows one of Bach’s most familiar melodies: the G major minuet from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.
Despite the tune’s simplicity, there’s a lot going on here. Measures 5 and 6 are a melodic sequence. In fact, it’s the same sequence of notes as in Ex. 4, except the first note is a quarter-note rather than a half-note.
But let’s pursue a different angle. Notice how measures 3 and 4 are a rhythmic sequence of measures 1 and 2. The measure 1 melody starts to repeat sequentially in measure 3, but veers away in measure 4. But let’s spin out a melodic sequence based on measures 1 and 2 (Ex. 6), even though that sequence doesn’t appear in the piece. Unlike before, this is an ascending sequence, with each statement starting one scale step above the previous one.
Ex. 6 is a bit trickier than the previous sequences. In Ex. 2 and Ex. 4, every note was followed by an adjacent note. Here, though, the melodic cell has two leaps of a fifth. It’s easier to bluff your way through the earlier exercises. Here, you must know and hear your target note.
Ex. 7 takes another approach to the same melodies. This time, instead of sequencing only the first two bars, we sequence the entire four-bar phrase. The longer the phrase, the more mentally challenging the sequence. This one lasts a whopping 16 notes.
Going for Baroque
Our last pair of exercises comes from Vivaldi’s D major lute concerto. Ex. 8 shows Vivaldi’s original melody.
Ex. 9 spins Vivaldi’s melody into a sequence. Like the Bach tune, it’s a mix of melodic steps and leaps. But not just any leaps—the phrase is packed with fourths, which are notoriously tricky because they usually require you to play two consecutive notes on two strings at the same fret using the same finger. (We discussed this problem in last month’s lesson.)
Practicing scales straight up and down teaches you the notes. Practicing with sequences teaches you the spaces between them. Why not try this practicing experiment? Each time you run a scale, slot in a short melodic cell instead of flying straight up and down. The tune doesn’t matter. The first phrase of “Over the Rainbow?” “The Streets of Laredo?” “The Itsy Bitsy Spider?” “Rolling in the Deep?” All of the above, and thousands more!