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Combine and Conquer

Because I can’t afford to waste my valuable practice time, I always try to make sure that whatever routines I am practicing incorporate three important things: technique, theory, and musicality. Experienced guitarists need to integrate more and more topics into each part of their work. After all there are only so many hours in the day. In order to advance as a musician beyond a certain point, efficiency becomes imperative.

Until recently, I had been in the habit of dividing up my practice time into separate sections that focused on technique, theory and musicality separately. My practice worked like high school: You go to history class. The bell rings. You stop learning history and start learning math. I would work on exercises that focused only on technique (like chromatic scales or picking drills). Then I would spend time practicing in a way that was purely theoretical (like scales and arpeggios). Then I would work on phrasing, improvisation or learn songs, all of which sharpened my sense of musicality. This is the segmented approach I was taught, and it worked great for me for many years.

However, I gradually started to find (or in some cases invent) exercises that allowed me to combine technique, theory, and musicality. I found that these multidisciplinary exercises reinforced multiple skills simultaneously and lead to more practical improvements in my playing.

Once I started examining exercises to see each one faired at incorporating those 3 important topics, it wasn’t too difficult see what was lacking and how I could improve the exercise to be more balanced. Most often I found the exercises I was doing to be lacking in musicality. This is no big surprise as I’ve always found exercises to be inherently non-musical. That is the best and the worst thing about them. Exercises are easier to play than music, but nobody wants to listen to exercises.

I began to reevaluate all my technical exercises and made changes to incorporate more musicality. I found that the changes I was making always required the application of music theory. So that’s how I figured out how to incorporate all three disciplines. If your practice consists of technical exercises which are guided by theoretical principles toward a musical goal, you are making the best use of your time.

Let me give you one example of an exercise that I came up which I hope can illustrate what I am trying to say. I created this technical exercise starting backward from the musical idea of cadences. I was thinking about how often authentic cadences (V-V7-I) occur in actual music and I wondered if I could use theory to help me design and exercise drill that would cover all the possible cadence voicings on the guitar fretboard. I narrowed the scope from all the possbile V-V7-I combinations to all the V-V7-I combinations within a single position. The answer I came up with was exactly 5 cadence voicings:

1. *E-E7-A
2. A-A7-D
3. D-D7-G
4. G-G7-C
5. C-C7-F*

*The ‘F’ voicing is identical to the ‘E’ voicing on guitar: 6th string root, followed by a 5th, octave, 3rd, 5th, and double octave on the 1st string.

Having found a satisfactory theoretical answer to this musical question, all I needed was to incorporate it all into a technical drill. In this case the technical drill practically presented itself. As you can see above the 5 cadences all sort of chain together: E-E7-A, A-A7-D, D-D7-G etc. The cadence that starts on C does not circle back around to E, but brings us to F which is an E voicing transposed up one semitone. So you can start the cycle over again from F and use exactly the same left hand voicings just each cadence will be moved up 1 fret. This creates a perfect cadential drill that slowly snakes its way up the fretboard.

You can also make a lot of highly musical variations on this exercise. I started off by playing these voicings as full block chords. Then as minimal triads in various inversions. I then went on to practice this cycle as arpeggios. I found that each technical variation strengthens a different side of the exercises inherent musicality. One final variation I am trying now is to improvise melodic motifs which adhere to the underlying cadences and then transpose the phrases up the neck through the 5 prescribed voicings. As a result I have seen improvement to my choices on the fretboard and my ear for hearing cadential material in all keys.

Last thing I want to mention is that all these came from ONE part of ONE musical idea. We didn’t even cover all types of cadences. I have tried the same exercise with ii-V7-I cadences, secondary dominants and minor cadences. I am sure that IV-I cadences would be equally illuminating and beneficial to practice since they would go in the opposite direction on the fretboard. Well, there is always something else to try tomorrow I suppose!