Blog Post

News from Dan
18 April 2024

“Learning To Shred, But I Ain’t Got Wings” (guitar lesson)

Hopefully, Tom Petty is playing in your head (though you’ll have to sub-in “fly” for “shred”). It helps to have background music as you take a deeper dive into the world of improvisation. This is for those who clicked a video titled something like, “How To Shred,” and couldn’t follow the tutorial; or for those who bought a “1001 Licks” book, only to find you couldn’t play them; or worse, for those who took lessons and were given handouts of exercises, scales or arpeggios. Is it really this hard to shred? 

Yes, scales are useful (and books littered with scales), but that’s like reading Macbeth without a class in Shakespeare. You need to learn how to apply them (over what chord changes, etc), and to use them melodically. Yes, exercises are useful – in the same way it is to stretch before running, but you still have to learn how to run. In the same way, learning arpeggios are necessary to spell out chord progressions and develop fretboard knowledge, but you could sound robotic. Assuming you have worked on your pentatonic scales (even one or two “boxes”), and maybe a couple Major/Minor scales, here are some tried and true methods:

Sing a Phrase: Ok, this seems elementary, but what is being a musician unless we can hear an idea in our heads, hum it, and try to play it? We’re talking even four or five notes. Put on a loop/backing track (you can stay pentatonic), sing or hum a simple phrase, and then try playing what you sang. This will draw a deeper connection between your ear, hands and musical instinct. The phrase can be as simple as the first 4-bars of Clapton’s solo in “Cocaine.” Or, if this is new for you, try playing the melody to a Chorus of a popular song – by ear. A Chorus usually contains an easy-to-find melody. Learning to create short melodies by hearing, singing and playing is key to learning to improvise. In music school, I had a jazz professor who sang everything he played, and you could hear him across the room: composing live with his voice and hands at the same time. This is a common blues/jazz trait. (George Benson is a master of it! Check out “This Masquerade”)

Break Down Your Licks: At this point, you’ve likely learned some licks – or even parts of famous guitar solos. Let’s say you’ve taken the time to really learn a solo note-for-note. The next step would be to break it down: take out licks and move them around the fingerboard into different positions (keys). Let’s say you took a Jimmy Page lick from his “Stairway to Heaven” solo, which is in Am, and moved it up a whole step; now you’re playing it in Bm. Then, if you took the same lick (say, his first lick of the solo), and played it slower, cleaner and over a blues track; you could totally change the vibe of the lick. By taking a lick and changing keys, tempo or even articulation, you’ll actually get inside of the lick. (If you want a slow, blues tune full of licks, try B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone!”) 

Learn The ‘Art Of Listening:’ Our ears are amazing. With practice, we can learn to improvise by ear – without an instrument in our hands! By listening to the genre you want to learn, you can start instinctively hearing common phrases and repeated ideas. Are you struggling to play with emotion in the blues? Immerse yourself in blues artists. Let their music be the backdrop to your day; when you’re working out or relaxing. Vinyl is great for this. I remember when I needed to develop my jazz chops, but found it hard to “swing” naturally. It was frustrating, ‘cause I was learning the right scales and some great licks. Then it occurred to me: I wasn’t immersed in these genres, I didn’t know jazz like I knew rock music. I needed to make jazz players a part of my day-to-day life. I needed more Wes Montgomery. When I opened myself up to the genre, I started hearing things I hadn’t before. It wasn’t just chromatic, be-bop sounding lines that didn’t make sense. There were common phrases, themes and repetitive lines. By listening, I found myself naturally creating better lines. (As an aside, it was a Lenny Breau solo – “Beautiful Love,” that taught me to swing).

Try these methods for a season, and see how they help your musical instincts in improvisation. Keep learning scales, exercises, arpeggios – and play them up and down; but allow yourself to connect with your instrument in a more intuitive way.  Learn to fly, and you’ll get wings.

Turning the Page // Dan Gillies
  1. Turning the Page // Dan Gillies
  2. Horse Chase // Dan Gillies
  3. In the Mood For Modal // Dan Gillies
  4. The Voyage // Dan Gillies
  5. How Deep the Father’s Love For Us // Dan Gillies
  6. Heather’s Song // Dan Gillies
  7. Turning the Page (Reprise) // Dan Gillies