Undoing the belief that mastery is the goal can enable you to truly unleash your creative potential.
The great Zen master Shunryū Suzuki once said, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.” Reflect for a moment on how we spend the majority of our lives constantly accumulating, winnowing, and refining, with the majority of our efforts geared towards attaining greater and greater efficiency through massive repetition, which in turn deeply ingrains habits. This is considered to be the path towards mastery. But it is also the path towards fewer and fewer choices, an unconscious reliance on those ingrained habits (the good and the bad), and diminishing creativity.
Over the last several years, I’ve written about a wide variety of topics related to audio, gear, and vintage and modern recording techniques. This time I’d like to shift focus and talk about the real drive for everything—creativity—as well as share some thoughts on words like “mastery” and “expertise.” Tighten up your belts, the Dojo is now open.
Having music-making gear and the knowledge of how to use it is always valuable and continually needed, but it will all lie dormant unless you have that creative “spark” and are feeling inspired to make art. How do we stay creative? And moreover, how can we make progress on our journey towards becoming an expert, and possibly a master?
“Expert” and “master”: Let me parse out the meaning of those two words. In my humble estimation, their concepts are galaxies apart. One is attainable; the other, not. Both are something you should never call yourself. If others use those terms when describing you, you should be curious as to whom they are talking about!
For me, the word “expert” describes someone who has attained a tremendous amount of experience (and hopefully wisdom) in a particular field of activity. The word “master” is problematic for me. Mostly because it carries with it significant cultural baggage and an implied perspective that no further effort is necessary—everything possible has been grasped, judged, and assimilated—end of story.
“In my humble estimation, their concepts are galaxies apart. One is attainable; the other, not.”
If there is one thing I’ve learned so far in my musical journey, it’s that I’m a perpetual student and I must always be aware of and be willing to break those deeply ingrained habits I’ve developed along the way towards becoming an “expert.” There is a term in Zen Buddhism called “shoshin” (meaning “beginner’s mind”), and it is something that I always strive to maintain (even though I catch myself slipping back into old habits all the time). The beginner’s mind is open to any possibility, free of habits and self-judgment, flexible, activated, and simultaneously innocent and wise. Here are some creative strategies that can shake things up and help you stay in touch with your beginner’s mind.
Embrace curiosity. Remember the feeling of wonderment and awe when you first started playing and didn’t know your scales, modes, and chords? Recall how you were always curious and trying new things because there were no rules to follow? Play like a total beginner.
Think divergently. Allow yourself the freedom to brainstorm as many ideas as possible without judgment or other forms of editorializing. Give yourself permission to really imagine.
Forget about results. Let yourself go and enjoy the process. Remember that the point of a journey is not the arrival!
Embrace failure. Give yourself the permission to fail. Breakthroughs come from taking risks and stepping outside your comfort zone. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying new things.
It’s not a competition. Stop comparing yourself to others and create from a pure place of joy and expression rather than trying to compete with your heroes.
Relieve pressure. This is a big one that I unconsciously fall into. Treat each work as a snapshot of your musical journey and evolution rather than assuming it’s your magnum opus that will define you for all eternity. Think of your baby pictures and yearbook photos, and then look at yourself now.
Record the process. Be sure to record everything as you try these techniques. I’ll be willing to bet that you’ll inevitably play something in the heat of the moment that will surprise and delight you. Knowing that those moments are already being recorded takes any pressure off of you to remember exactly what you did. Besides, those moments become invaluable as they can lead you to greater exploration and discovery afterwards.
These are just some ideas for you to experiment with and build upon to help supercharge your creativity and keep the red light glowing!
Until next time, namaste.
Open-string licks, hand-wrenching bends, blazing double-stops, and much more.
- Learn how to incorporate outside notes to a Mixolydian scale.
- Understand how to phrase in both traditional and modern country settings.
- Create a deeper vocabulary over dominant chords.
How many times are you paralyzed by the sheer number of options you can play over a dominant chord? It’s probably one of the only chords where nearly anything works if you land correctly. One of the most common sounds to use is the Mixolydian scale, which is simply a major scale with a lowered 7. But let’s add on to this sound by expanding our musical Mixolydian palette with a few blue notes and some chromatic embellishments.
The first four examples will be played over a “train” beat. Think more old-school and traditional country. We will look at a few modern applications later on. In Ex. 1 we are thinking C Mixolydian (C–D–E–F–G–A–Bb) over a C major chord. It’s very common to treat major chords as dominants. Other than the hammer-on to the 3 on beat 3 the entire lick falls nicely within the scale.
Ex. 2 is a nice way to incorporate open-string ideas over a major I chord (in this case, C). The back half of the lick has a nice chromatic passing tone that leads nicely into the next chord (F). Make sure to let each note ring out as long as possible.
Connecting chord tones is a crucial element of country guitar. In Ex. 3 I start with a double-stop that directly outlines the essential notes of an F7 chord (Eb and A) before I slip into another double-strop phrase that hints around that same sound. In measure 2 I approach the chord tones of a G major triad (G–B–D) chromatically before winding things up with a trademark country bend.
Ex. 4 is an alternate way of approaching the same two chords (F and G). This would be more how a pedal-steel player might phrase the line. The string of sixths gives the pre-bends a connecting theme. Make sure to hold the last bend, hit the G on the 1st string twice, then release. This creates cool tension that resolves nicely back into the C chord.
You now have several ideas that work well over a 1–4–5 progression on a train beat that’s common to more traditional country. Let’s move to a different groove and vibe that might be considered more modern.
Ex. 5 is played over a E7 chord. This one gets to the heart of using chromatic connecting notes or passing tones. You can really hear the tension the extra possibilities add to this slippery lick.
This lick (Ex. 6) reminds me of how Larry Carlton might approach playing over a E7 chord. Once again, using notes not found in the Mixolydian scale offers a different texture to the musical line, especially the slides in the first measure and the chromatic approaches to the root and 3 in the second measure.
Same groove, different chords. In this case (Ex. 7), one measure of G and one of A. I approach the 3 of the G chord by a half-step right at the top and then repeat it an octave up in the next beat before immediate descending back down to the open 3rd string. The double-stops in the second measure offer a hint of tension before resolving on beat 3.
Ex. 8 is a “no frills” approach and sticks entirely within the A Mixolydian scale (A–B–C#–D–E–F#–G). The entire second measure reminds me of the main lick to Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane.”
So, there you have it. More note options will lead to more possibilities to choose from. Some examples just add one extra note, others much more than that. The most important thing is finding what works for you. Until next time!
With a few minor fingering adjustments another world of musical expression can be unlocked.
- Look at the pentatonic scale in a new light.
- Understand how to navigate diagonally across the fretboard.
- Use this newfound knowledge to create more musical phrases.
How do you play a pentatonic scale?
One of the first shapes that guitarists learn when starting to explore the pentatonic scale is the ubiquitous box in Ex. 1. And why not? It’s a simple pattern to memorize, it’s easy to play, and you can get musical sounding results almost immediately. In fact, if you play these notes in just about any order, play in time, and exercise some logical phrasing, you can’t really mess it up.
There is a wealth of guitar vocabulary in this simple device. Eric Johnson, Eric Clapton, Eric Gales, and other legendary guitarists not named Eric have demonstrated this for decades. However, the two-note-per-string nature of the pattern can limit your phrasing. Let’s dive into a few simple things we can do to inject some articulations into an otherwise choppy march across the fretboard.
This isn’t a “Stop doing this and start doing that” proposition but rather a supplement to your bag of badassery that you’ve accumulated. Let’s remap some of the notes found in Ex. 1 to other strings to elongate the scale along the neck rather than simply march across it (Ex. 2).
Notice that we alternate between two notes on a string and three notes on a string. Add some strategic slides into the mix and our little fretboard square dance gets a welcome dose of swagger. Naturally, we will need to practice this descending pattern (Ex. 3) as well. These fingerings have a certain hipness that the box lacks.
Ex. 4 features a nice blues gesture that exemplifies the articulations that this fingering invites. Judicious use of bends, slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs make the magic happen.
Double-Stop the Presses
The slippery fourths found on adjacent strings combined with an eighth-note delay summon an early ’80s funk/pop feeling. Play Ex. 5 with long legato notes and have a glass of chardonnay on hand for a funky smooth-jazz vibe.
Two often-used tricks are the sliding fourths/hammer-on double-stop phrases in Ex. 6. Once again, it’s the strategic use of slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs that make the slinky goodness happen. These tasty double-stop licks are useful chordal accents in your solos or R&B-style rhythm parts. Even though Ex. 6 is a bucket of pentatonic scale phrases over a I–VIm–IIm–V chord progression, the double-stops provide a harmonically informed sound. Think Mateus Asato, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Jimi Hendrix.
Get Louder … Without Turning Up
Did you know that two notes are louder than one? How ’bout that? Next time you’re playing at your local blues jam and the well-intentioned but way-too-loud rhythm player tempts you to turn up your amp, don’t do it. You’ll just add to the problem. Instead try some double-stops (Ex. 7). It transforms otherwise basic melodies into majestic, purposeful, and yes, louder statements without adding to a never-ending volume war.
Peace, Love, and Understanding
Play some nice rhythm guitar without banging out all those barre chords. Yes, barre chords are useful but sometimes it’s just way too much. Guitarists already have to deal with the stigma of being eye-rolling loud. Why is that? The bottom portion of the chord (the power chord part) is an essential sound if you’re in a rock band. But in a blues, R&B, jazz, or country setting, it can sound muddy (and kinda stupid). The low-register notes are getting in your bass player’s way and the keyboard player, by default, is already annoyed at you. Let’s be friends with these folks and sound better in the process.
Reimagining the pentatonic box will add depth and vibe to your playing. And using smaller double-stops versus banging out giant fists-full of notes not only tends to make the band sound better but they’re easier to play too. As a bonus you just may find that your solos sound fuller and more interesting. Don’t forget to acknowledge the perceptive audience that applauds your tasty masterpiece.