If you are a guitarist who has trouble with the following:
- Memorizing scales or theory
- Applying scales or theory creatively
- Getting yourself to practice/study fundamental things like scales and theory
- Playing expressively
- Understanding how scales and theory concepts connect with one another
Then, I would bet that a couple of things could be said about the way you are practicing the guitar:
- You aren’t applying your scales or theory concepts in a creative and musical way.
- You’re being too systematic and logical in the way you are practicing, and instead need to become more playful in the way you work on things.
While logical, systematic drills do have their place in the process of improving on the guitar, taking a new concept and toying with it creatively can often deliver better results in less time. And, as a bonus it’s more fun, which makes you want to do it more!
This article will outline how you can approach your guitar practice in a more creative and playful way. It’ll especially focus on how to work on two things that are often mistakenly thought of as boring: scales and theory.
What is Playful, Creative Practice?
Creative and playful practice can take on a lot of different forms depending on what your are wanting to accomplish. But, some basic characteristics of it are:
- Putting yourself in the mindset of someone who is writing or improvising actual music, instead of doing a technical drill
- Working on a concept using your guitar (this seems like it should be obvious, but for a logically minded person studying theory, it often isn’t)
- Paying attention to the sounds that you’re creating and how they make you feel
- Experimenting with variations on a concept
- Purposefully trying to break the ‘rules’ of what you are learning, and noting the result
There are so many ways you could apply this to your guitar practice. There isn’t a right or wrong way to go about it. Just make sure you’re trying to make music with the thing you are working on, and you’ll likely be doing it.
Let me go through a couple of examples on how I would suggest practicing in this way.
Example: Learning a new set of scale patterns
Let’s say your diligent guitar teacher has given you some patterns of the C Major Scale to learn.
So, you take the necessary first step of memorizing the patterns, and practice playing them in sequence from the lowest note to the highest note. After a few sessions, you’re starting to get kind of fast at playing through those scales, which is satisfying. You’re making progress.
But, when circumstances call upon you to try and solo using that scale, you find yourself having trouble. You’re stumbling more than you were when you were practicing, and you keep losing the pattern and playing wrong notes. And, you just don’t feel like what you’re playing sounds very good.
When you go back to practicing the scale to remedy the situation, you could be more musical and playful with your practicing by doing things like:
- Play over a backing track, and focus on the difference of how each note in the scale sounds over the track
- Play a riff into a loop pedal, and then solo over it
- Or, better yet, use the scale to create a riff. Play it into your loop pedal, and then solo over the riff with the scale. Or, use the scale to make more layers over the original riff. This is tons of fun.
- Experiment with all the different ways you can make just one note sound different using different ways of picking, vibrato, slides, use of different effects, etc.
- Try playing multiple scale notes at the same time, creating chords (and maybe play some of those chords into that loop pedal, and then solo over it)
- Move the scale patterns to another area on the neck, and notice how the scale now sounds different, yet the same
- Make big jumps within the scale, playing the notes as out of sequence as possible, and try not to lose your place in the pattern
There are plenty of other things you could do as well. While there is nothing really systematic or methodical going on here, I’d bet that after a week of doing this type of practice, your ability to solo with the scale will be a lot better.
Example: Learning how to create chord progressions in a minor key
For the next example, let’s take a more theory oriented topic.
Imagine that your assiduous guitar teacher recently covered the theory behind how chord progressions are put together in a minor key.
You took the new concept home, studied and memorized it, and you feel like you understand it pretty well. But, you wonder how you could use this information in your own playing. And, your ability to think about it and work with it is still slow and cumbersome.
Here are some ways you could take up a more playful, musical approach to working on this concept:
- Pick a key, and create four different chord progressions that are in that key. Don’t just write the chords out! Actually play them on your guitar. Experiment with different rhythms. Notice how different the same progression could sound just by altering the rhythm.
- Take those same chord progressions, but figure out what they would be in at least two different keys. Play the progressions on your guitar. Notice how they sound different, yet the same.
- Take one of those progressions and play it into your loop pedal. Experiment with layering other notes on top of it. If you know the corresponding scale for that key, solo over it.
- Create a chord progression, but include one chord that doesn’t belong there from a theory standpoint. Notice how that chord stands out from the others, for better or worse.
- Try altering some of the chords a little. Move a note or two around, and see if you stumble across something interesting.
- Experiment with different tones and combinations of effects: clean vs. distorted, dry vs. lots of reverb, and so on.
After working on your new theory concept like this, I can virtually guarantee that you’ll come away with a better sense for how to use the concept, and an ability to think through the concept faster.