Category Archives: Musician

Chording Exercise

This is a good rhythm guitar exercise – it’s focused on getting you really smooth at changing between different chords. It can also help train your ear – you learn how different chords sound together.

First, create a bunch of flash cards with different chords on them. The more the merrier. Bonus points for not just naming the chords, but for putting the fingering on it – that way you can have the same chord several times, but with different fingerings.

(Click on any of the images to see them much bigger in a new window)

Here’s a pile of these flashcards that I made on the backs of blank matchbooks:
Don't play with matches, kids

Next, dump all the flashcards in a bag or a hat or something:
It's a trilby, not a fedora

Start pulling flashcards out. The first one you pull out goes on the top row, then the rest of them in the row below:
This exercise is not about sounding good

The exercise is to play through these, going from the chord on the top row to the first one in the second row, then back to the top row, then to the second one in the second row, then back to the top row, etc. So, using the layout pictured above, the chord pattern I would play would be:
Cadd9 – E11 – Cadd9 – B7 – Cadd9 – G13#9 – Cadd9 – D7sus4/A – Cadd 9

This may not sound all that fabulous, but after you finish, you will never have trouble going from that Cadd9 chord to any of those other chords.  Eventually, you should be fluid enough that you can flow from any chord to any chord.

As far as the rhythm goes, I’d suggest starting with a very simple pattern – downstrokes quarter notes in 4/4, changing each new measure. Then make your strumming patterns more complex, but never lose the groove. Keep the following in mind as you do this:

  • Timing is everything – use a metronome or a drum machine, and learn to be rocksteady as you go through the changes
  • Focus on making the transitions as smooth as possible
  • Make sure that each note in each chord is clear
  • Don’t speed up until you can do all of the above
  • If you discover some cool chord progression while doing this, write it down and use it in a song!

Bonus points if you record some of these random progressions, and then practice soloing over them. This can help you learn to play over crazy changes, and can also help you find interesting melodic ideas that you might not have found otherwise.  If it sounds terrible, well, do the exercise, then move on with your life.

Alternate Picking Exercise

This is a cool finger exercise for guitarists that helps with alternate picking. Here’s the first part of the pattern in tab:
Remember that slow is smooth

Now, here’s part two, which includes a little bit of string-skipping:
And smooth is fast

A couple of notes to keep in mind:

  • Start the first pattern with an upstroke. As you play each four note sequence, keep the pick between the two strings you’re hitting.
  • Start the second pattern with a downstroke.
  • It’s way way way more important to be smooth, clean, and perfectly timed than it is to go fast. You will get fast eventually, but only go as fast as you can still do it perfectly.
  • The synchronization between your right hand and your left hand is crucial – if they aren’t together as you’re doing this, you’re reinforcing the wrong things. Go slow and get it right.
  • If you have a metronome or a drum machine, use that as you do this exercise. You want to do this as rock steady as possible.
  • Run through this a couple of times a day. Be patient – you’ll get super-fast sooner with patience than with impatience.
  • Finally, please remember that this is an exercise that uses geometric patterns on the fretboard – it is not particularly musical. Do practice this. Don’t put it in your song or your guitar solo – that would sound dumb.

If you have any thoughts about this, please leave a comment – I’d love to know whether this was helpful (or a waste of time). I’m hoping to post more guitar exercises over time.

By the way, the tabs are drawn on the back of giraffe-pattern napkins. I’ll leave you with a shot of the front of the napkin:
Yes indeed.

Non-guitar for guitarists

Rock guitarists can be a pretty insular lot. Ask one about their top ten favorite musicians, and you’ll probably get a list of ten rock guitarists. (If they’re adventurous you may get a jazz or fusion guitarist on the list.) Ask the same guitarist to talk about one of their favorite songs, and they’ll most likely talk about the guitar parts.  This makes sense – they love this instrument enough to want to play it. Then, as they’re learning, it’s one of the main things they think about, and one of the main things they’ll hear in a song.

That’s all probably fine if your goal is to be a guitarist.

But if your goal is to be a musician, there’s a lot you can learn from other instruments. (I should point out here that I consider voice to be an instrument.)  One of the reasons I specified “rock guitarists” instead of just “guitarists” here is that I’ve noticed that jazz and classical guitarists tend to be much more open to influences from other instruments. I think that’s pretty awesome, and us rockers can learn from that.

So here’s a couple of cross-training exercises for rock guitarists:

  • Learn to play the bass part from some of your favorite songs, turning it into a guitar part.
  • Do the same thing for the vocal melody. Don’t worry about this turning the song into elevator music – the goal here is just to learn how to make those vocal parts into guitar parts as a learning exercise.
  • Figure out how to do a percussion pattern based on a drum groove you like – slapping the strings, the body, etc. Make it funky, son.
  • Just listen to a great album that has no guitar parts. (You have to listen – it can’t just be background music.) I recommend Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, a fantastic jazz album. Since this advice is for rockers, guitar-less might be a little bit harder to find. (Of course, I also think it’s essential for rockers to listen to non-rock, but I can understand wanting to deal with one problem at a time. Baby steps!) Apocalyptica does metal with cellos and no guitars. If you enjoy electronic music, Crystal Method’s album Vegas has lots of food for thought for guitarists. Dig around, you’ll find something (and maybe discover some great music that you will be surprised and delighted to hear).


It starts with a sound like steel shattering. Then the low roar of an earthquake, the kind where the ground rises up to slap you in the face.

The next thing you know, you’re engulfed in the chaotic center of Armageddon. Nothing about this is random or undisciplined – this ultimate fury is expressed with military precision. This is fury, yes, but fury practiced, directed, controlled, perfected.

When the screaming, long awaited, finally begins, the anticipation realized does not release your tension, it reignites it. Dreams, fears, expectations, nightmares: reformed, rebuilt, redirected. Remember what it means to fear darkness, beasts, strangers.

Remember your infant fear of loud noises, loud voices – turn, and the fear is gone – but the loud noises, loud voices remain.

These speak to you – the words may not matter, the way words in a dream may not matter. It’s the tone, the texture, the intention interacting with parts of your brain that don’t have language. The broadest emotions – love, hope, joy – all people know them, they can be expressed in any language.

But fear and hunger – all living things know what these are, with or without language.

So this moment touches a generality within you – beyond individual, tribe, nation, people, species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, domain – it touches life.

Definition of Music

My definition of music tends to be very broad. Very broad:

Music is art where sound is the primary medium.

So, music:

  • A symphony
  • A raging guitar solo
  • A drum circle
  • A rhythmic loop of found sounds
  • Gregorian chant

Not music:

  • A painting
  • A mime performance
  • John Cage’s 4’33” (I’m not saying it’s not art – but it’s not music)

Where do I fit unaccompanied spoken word? It depends – I think a lot of it is musical, where the sound of the voice is an important part of the work, and I think a lot of it isn’t, where the poem is primarily about the words and ideas.

I very carefully do not reference rhythm, or melody, or harmony, or any other technical elements in my definition. Doing so makes the definition far too narrow. I recall a professor in one of my community college music classes two decades ago stating that drumming wasn’t music, since the drums had beat and rhythm, but no melody or harmony. The problem wasn’t with the drums, it was with his uselessly narrow idea of what constituted music.

On the other hand, I have come across variations of an even broader definition than mine:

Music is the organized interruption of silence.

That is too broad to be useful, in my opinion. Accepting this would require us to consider the following things to be music:

  • A conversation about budget spreadsheets
  • A jackhammer tearing up some concrete
  • A cow mooing

Each of those is organized, and each of those interrupts silence. And each of those can be incorporated into music, but I think that calling them music in and of themselves is not reasonable, and more importantly, is not useful.