It happens to all musicians, at any level of skill or experience: You hit a point where you’re playing the same things every time you sit down with the guitar—a limited repertoire of songs, progressions, and patterns that are familiar and manageable. Over time you become less attentive and engaged with the music, and you start feeling like you’re on a treadmill—going through the motions while looking at the same wall.
The musicians’ path, for beginners and seasoned players alike, is all about continuing to move forward, learn, and grow. So how do you push yourself and regain the sense of momentum and progress?
I posed that question to a group of accomplished artists/educators, and here they share some of their favorite exercises, strategies, and tricks for helping their students—and themselves!—get beyond the comfort zone and discover new territory on the guitar.
Clean up the Changes
Especially in the early stages of learning guitar, one major challenge is making clean chord changes while staying in time. Playing a song, you might hit trouble spots where you don’t get to the next shape fast enough, so you drop the rhythm for a moment while resetting the fingering.
Janet Feld, a Boston-based performer/teacher and staff instructor for the Passim School of Music, has long seen students hit this hurdle and offers three favorite exercises for getting over it—by forcing them out of their comfortable habit of stopping and starting. “I help them to the other side with exercises that don’t give them time to think about what they’re doing. Before each one, I let them know it will likely feel like I’m making them practice their mistakes in a way that will piss off their inner Hermione,” she says, referencing the high-achieving Harry Potter character.
Feld refers to her first exercise as strum torture, and she adapts it for different levels. For beginners, play a song you’re learning extremely slowly and keep your strumming hand on the beat, even if you screw up the chords with your fretting hand. In her video demo, she uses the chords from “Amazing Grace” in the key of A, as in Example 1, played at the very leisurely tempo of around 30 bpm.
For more advanced guitarists, play through one section of a song several times, much faster than you are comfortable with—again, while maintaining the tempo even if you flub the fingerings. “After three or four rounds,” she says, “play it a bit slower, and it generally feels easier.”
Another exercise she recommends is to practice switching between the chords of a song with your eyes closed. This can help build trust that your fingers do, in fact, know where to go.
Finally, try the exercise she calls lift and drop. Take a short chord progression (in the video, she uses Em–C–D–G from Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”). Fret the first chord; lift your fingers off the strings while retaining the shape; change to the next chord shape without touching the strings; and then drop that new shape onto the strings. If you don’t land the shape exactly right, adjust your fingers only after you drop onto the strings. And so on.
Often, guitarists get comfortable in one zone on the fretboard and want to explore more of the neck. Working with scales is a great way to do that, advises Larry Baione, jazz guitarist and emeritus chair of the guitar department at Berklee College of Music. “Learning scales helps us organize that ambiguous guitar fingerboard,” he says. “Anyone can easily see the C major scale on the piano, but it is a different story on the guitar.”
Baione developed and teaches a Berklee Online course called Scales 101. “I have seen great improvement in my students’ technique, sound, time-feel, and connection to the instrument,” he says. “Learning scales gives us practical fingerings for playing melodies. And playing melodies with less effort and less unnecessary movement gives us more control.”
There are many ways to practice scales on guitar, from staying in one position to moving along a single string. One very beneficial exercise, Baione says, is playing three-octave scales. In his video demo, he plays a G major scale from the G on the sixth string, third fret, all the way up to G on the first string, 15th fret, as shown in Example 2.
As you move up the neck, work on smoothly connecting the notes so you can’t hear the shifts from second to seventh to 12th position, as indicated in the notation. “Playing three-octave scales is a challenge at first,” he says, “but you will become more relaxed moving from one position to the next, and your coordination between your hands will improve.”
Stash Wyslouch, a progressive bluegrass player and teacher of flatpicking styles, suggests another way to work with scales: by focusing on a specific interval.
Take, for instance, a Bb major scale in third position. Instead of ascending and descending the scale in steps, as in Example 3a, play each note and then the note a fifth above (or below, on the way down). So by scale degree, play 1–5, 2–6, 3–7, 4–1, 5–2, 6–3, and 7–4; descending, play 1–4, 7–3, 6–2, etc., as in Example 3b. This exercise, Wyslouch says, helps you get this interval under your fingers and into your ear.
Once you’re oriented with the intervals, try improvising melodies based primarily on them. “Go really slow and try to hear as the notes move,” he advises. “Push yourself not to just play the scale exercise but to move in different places with the new interval being the dominant ingredient.” Example 3c shows an excerpt from Wyslouch’s improvisation in his video demo.
“I always go back to this exercise,” he says, “and the more you develop as a musician, the more this exercise can develop with you.”
Move a Melody Around the Fingerboard
One of my own favorite ways to explore new territory on the fretboard is playing a melody in different positions and keys—without a capo.
A simple melody works well for this purpose. In my video, I try it out with Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna.” First, play the melody in as many octaves and locations as you can. In the key of C, the melody starts on the root (C), which can be found on the sixth string, eighth fret; fifth string, third fret; fourth string, tenth fret; third string, fifth fret; second string, first fret or 13th fret; and first string, eighth fret. In all these locations, work on creating fluid, vocal-like phrasing with hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides, and add some bass notes and other supporting chord tones if you like.
Now transpose the melody into other keys. First go to the other most common guitar keys, G, A, E, and D, and again find the melody in different positions on the neck. For extra challenge, give keys like F and Bb a shot too.
Working with a melody like this is hugely helpful for developing the ability to play what you hear, and it’s bound to lead you to new fingerings.
Follow the Form
Studying the melody and harmony of a great song can yield many fresh ideas (see Here’s How on creative covers, on page 38, for more). So, too, can mapping out the lyrics and form, points out guitarist/songwriter Adam Levy, creator of Guitar Tips Pro video lessons and contributor to the recent AG book Play Guitar Like the Great Singer-Songwriters.
“I often recommend a transcribing exercise for my songwriting students, but not the way we often think of it—i.e., writing down notes that someone else has played on a recording,” he says. “Instead, transcribe the lyrics to a song you’re intrigued by. Lyrics to many songs can easily be found online, of course, but doing the work yourself requires active listening and can help you get a better sense of the song’s architecture—wordplay, rhymes, meter, song form, and so on.”
With this transcription in hand, try writing an entirely new song using the same structure. “This helps you break out of writing in the same sorts of forms—a rut that rookie writers often fall into,” he says. “This exercise can also keep you from getting too hung up on finer details, like a particular word or melody note. Focusing on form gets you to zoom out a bit.”
Recast a Familiar Song
Fingerstyle guitarist Al Petteway, author of many instruction books and videos, and Guitar Week coordinator at North Carolina’s Swannanoa Gathering, offers an interesting idea for playing around with a song: take a familiar major-key song and change it to a minor key.
In his video, he runs through the process with the traditional song “The Water Is Wide,” creating off-the-cuff versions in multiple keys and tunings. Initially tuned to DADGAD, he works out the melody in G major, adds bass notes, and fills out the sound with additional chord tones. Play his opening phrase in Example 4a, then check out the minor version in Example 4b—quite a dramatic change, and full of potential for development.
From there, Petteway continues to check out other possibilities for the song: playing in D major (Example 4c) and D minor (Example 4d) in DADGAD, and finally in standard tuning in several keys and positions.
You’re bound to make mistakes figuring out all these variations, and that is really the point. “My number one goal is to have fun playing the guitar,” he says. “Don’t worry about being perfect—just worry about stretching your imagination a little bit.”
Transcribe from Another Instrument
One surefire way to get out of the box on guitar is to take ideas and inspiration from different instruments. Play fiddle tunes, upright bass lines, piano chords, horn charts… whatever catches your ear. The beauty is that these parts are not defined by the mechanics of the guitar, so adapting them to guitar automatically pushes you into new territory.
Blues fingerpicker David Hamburger, author of The Acoustic Guitar Method and creator of the online learning site Fretboard Confidential, says he’s been finding all sorts of guitar inspiration from his latest musical endeavor: learning to play the drums.
“Taking up the drums feels a little ridiculous, but that’s what makes it exciting and fun, too,” he says. “It gives me a chance to be a beginner again, where every little discovery or achievement is a thrill. Most surprisingly, learning the drums has given me new insight into what’s going on when I play fingerstyle blues. The interdependence it takes to play a basic groove with the kick drum, hi-hat, and snare is nothing but a metaphor for driving the bass with your thumb while coordinating licks and chords on top with your fingers.”
As a sample of the kind of fingerstyle idea he’s discovering thanks to drums, he shares Example 5. Rather than playing an alternating or steady bass, pick pairs of eighth notes on beats 1 (open fifth string) and 3 (open sixth string) with your thumb—the kind of pattern a drummer might do on the kick. On the backbeats (2 and 4), play chordal riffs up in fifth position—that’s your snare. The result is a fresh, funky sound quite different from standard fingerpicking.
In addition to discoveries like this, Hamburger says, “I’m now listening to even old familiar recordings with completely different priorities and hearing groove in a whole new way, which is giving me countless ideas for new things to try on the guitar.”
If your goal is to break out of familiar patterns, what better way than to follow no pattern at all?
Jazz guitar master Frank Vignola, prolific author of video courses on jazz technique and repertoire, suggest an exercise where you set a metronome and play random eighth notes—moving all over the fingerboard, crossing strings, and playing whatever pops up, without regard to scales or keys or any other logic. Just focus on the clarity of the notes, and be sure to stay in time. Check out his video for a sample of how this might sound.
“No preconceived thing,” he says. “Just keep playing! Try to make combinations you never do.”
Another fan of getting into the random zone is fingerstyle guitar soloist Vicki Genfan, creator of video lessons on acoustic guitar rhythm, tapping, open tunings, and more.
“My college classical guitar instructor gave some wonderful advice,” she says. “He told us to spend the first five minutes of any practice session playing things we’d never played before. It’s not as easy as it might sound. I’ve taken that suggestion and expanded on it over the past 30 years and have been sharing it with my students ever since. I call it rut-busting. Rut-busting helps us develop the ability to move away from the familiar and into uncharted places. It’s a great aid in coming up with new ideas or riffs for songs or arrangements.”
The rule of rut-busting is that there are no rules. “Pick up your instrument and allow yourself to explore it like you’ve never seen or touched it before, like you’re a child with a new toy,” Genfan says. “Any time you go back to a familiar pattern, chord, or riff—try finding a new way to move your hands. There are no wrong notes, no wrong sounds. Pure exploration, pure fun. This gets easier the more you do it. Start with a minute and extend the time as you are able. It’s really liberating!”
Using a less familiar alternate tuning is a great way to get into that exploratory space, she adds. That’s what she does in her video demo in open-G tuning, playing two minutes of free-form tapping, slapping, single-note lines, arpeggios, and driving grooves, by turns dissonant and softly melodic—and never predictable.
One last piece of advice from Genfan: “Have a recording device on. I promise you’ll be glad you did.”
Believe That You Can
Most of the above tips focus on physical obstacles on the instrument—breaking up patterns and finding new ways to traverse the fingerboard. Remember, too, that the learning process has many psychological aspects as well.
“A lot of what holds people back has nothing to do with music, but with self-talk,” notes Karen Hogg, a Connecticut-based teacher and author of method books for guitar and ukulele. “It’s hard to manage your own self-talk. I’ve seen so many times where people talk themselves out of stuff. They will say, ‘Oh, I can’t do this’ or ‘I can’t write songs’ or ‘I can’t improvise,’ and you know damn well that they can.”
Hogg has faced this kind of self-doubt herself as a vocalist. “I’ve been playing guitar since I was ten, so that’s so much a part of me, but the singing was definitely out of my comfort zone,” she says. “No matter how other people might perceive it, in my head I’m still like, I’m not a singer. But I’m learning to shift that.”
The key to getting past this barrier is just believing that you can, she says. “A lot of times, getting out of the comfort zone is more about dealing with your internal dialogue.”
Play for People
Many guitarists are hesitant or resistant to performing, but playing in public is, no doubt, a powerful motivator for learning at any age or stage.
“If you’re up in front of people, it forces you to practice, because you don’t want to mess up,” Hogg says. “I try to put people in supportive environments. There are so many community-oriented events now for people at all levels—Make Music Day is a big one. In the past couple years I’ve had both adults and kids performing out in front of the music store where I teach. That’s something where you don’t have to feel, ‘Oh, I’m not a professional musician.’ It pushes people beyond their comfort level, and they see that they survive afterwards. Life goes on though even if there are mistakes.”
From open mics to song circles to guitar clubs, opportunities to play a few songs in a low-key environment can be found just about anywhere. These events give you not only the impetus to practice, but feedback that can help guide your learning agenda.
Play With Someone New
Performing may also connect you with fellow musicians to play with—which is one of the most important and often underutilized things you can do to jump-start your learning, says Molly Miller, guitarist for Jason Mraz (and many others) and chair of the guitar department at Los Angeles College of Music.
“So often we only stay in our comfort zone—playing styles we know, with people we know (or only ourselves), in a space we’ve been before, etc.,” she says. “I have found the thing that pushes me the most is playing with new musicians. I always get a little nervous. I practice. I think about what could I do with this person that is new. I always learn something from playing with someone else—
whether that be a new song, a new groove, a new lick—or it just helps me get over my fears and insecurities.
“Call up a friend,” she advises. “Post something online. Find someone new to jam with—especially if it makes you a little nervous. That means you’re doing the right thing!”
All of us want to be good at whatever we do on guitar—we want to play cleanly and confidently and expressively.
Continuing to get better on the instrument, though, depends on accepting and even embracing that when we challenge ourselves, we won’t necessarily hit the mark right away. We’ll make mistakes, stumble over a phrase or change, get a little frustrated. But from those awkward attempts will come new skills and new ideas that eventually, if we keep working at them, will fall within the comfort zone. Which means that it’s time to stretch and explore again.
See you out there on the trail.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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