When you’re a beginner on the guitar you spend most of your practice time learning new skills.
You start from knowing nothing and you have to figure out how to place your fingers, hold the pick, strum, read guitar tabs and play your first chords and songs, among many other things.
As you reach an intermediate level of guitar playing you should spend part of your practice time learning new skills but equally important is mastering and integrating what you have already learned.
Let’s discuss what these two terms mean for you:
- Mastery: Even a beginner can bend a guitar string. What no beginner can do is bend the note in tune every time, without any unwanted strings buzzing. If he could, he would not be a beginner but an intermediate guitarist.
An even more advanced player will not only bend strings in tune but also experiment with different types of bends, with the speed of the bends, as well as apply vibrato to the bent note.
Thus, part of your practice time should be dedicated to improving and eventually mastering techniques you already know on a more superficial level.
- Integration: If you can bend a note correctly, even if not perfectly (since mastery takes time) you should also integrate it with your other guitar skills.
This intermediate guitar lesson will be focused on this often neglected aspect of guitar practicing: Skill integration.
In this lesson, I show you what skills you should be improving on and mastering at this stage of your guitar learning process.
For today’s lesson, I will be choosing 6 skills or areas of knowledge that seem to have little to do with each other.
We’ll first discuss each skill separately, and then integrate the skills, the result of which would be the ability to improvise simple guitar licks.
Intermediate guitar skills
The following are the skills I’ve chosen to integrate for this lesson. Let’s look at each one of them separately first.
The minor pentatonic scale.
The minor pentatonic scale is very easy to use, thus it serves our purpose perfectly.
In this intermediate guitar lesson, we’ll be using only the minor pentatonic in the first position. Keep in mind there are 4 other positions you should be learning to be able to play the minor pentatonic scale all over the guitar fretboard.
Guitar fretboard knowledge
The above scale is the A minor pentatonic.
Now, how do we know that it’s A minor pentatonic, not B, C, or F# minor pentatonic?
Simple – the first note, the root note, is the note A.
If I wanted to play the F# minor pentatonic, I would start from the note F# and play the same pattern, as in the example below:
To be able to find where to play the scales, you need to memorize the names of the notes on the guitar fretboard.
Knowing one pattern of the minor pentatonic and knowing where the notes on the low E string are, gives you the ability to improvise or compose music in all minor keys.
In this particular case, the root notes of the scale are on the low E string. However, since you’re an intermediate guitar player, I strongly suggest that you memorize the name of all the notes on the guitar.
You will find this very useful each time you apply a music theory concept (interval, scale, arpeggio, chord, etc) to the guitar.
After you learn a scale pattern, you should learn how to play that scale in sequences.
Sequences make a good exercise, help you learn the scale thoroughly, and give you a lot of ideas you can use in your licks, riffs, and solos.
In the next example, the minor pentatonic is sequenced in groups of three notes: 1,2,3 – 2,3,4 – 3,4,5 etc.
And in this one, the notes move in groups of four: 1,2,3,4 – 2,3,4,5 – 3,4,5,6 etc.
You can create your own sequences such as by playing the notes in thirds: 1,3 – 2,4 – 3,5 – 4,6 etc; or moving in groups of two descending, starting from the second note in the scale – 2,1 – 3,2 – 4,3 – 5,4 etc.
Get creative when coming up with scale sequences. Always keep in mind that creativity is not an ability we are either born with or without. Rather like a muscle, it is something that can be developed through use.
Thus at this stage of intermediate guitar playing, the more you train yourself to be creative, the more you’ll be able to express yourself with your music later on.
We’ll touch more on this topic later on in this lesson.
String bending is one of the most expressive electric guitar techniques.
At this stage, your bends may not be perfect yet, which is why you should study string bending technique both in isolation and in a musical context.
For now, I’m going to give you three full upward bends to practice. Later on in this lesson, we’ll be using them to create music.
All the notes in these bends (both the notes you pick and the target notes you reach with the bend) are derived from the A minor pentatonic scale.
Vibrato is another technique you can’t do without if you want to play guitar riffs, licks and solos.
You execute vibrato by making consecutive rapid bends to the note you want the technique applied to.
What makes vibrato different from string bending is that you don’t get to hear the target note.
Instead, you hear the original note with an embellished sweeter sound.
Like all other techniques, it takes time to master vibrato.
When practicing vibrato in isolation focus on these things:
- That you are bending each string the same width, and that you’re bending back to the original point of departure each time. Failure to do this will make your vibrato sound ugly.
- Let your ears be the judge. Are you happy with the sound coming out of the note? If the answer is no, it means there are some elements of this technique you need to adjust. Are you bending the strings too much for your present abilities, thus making sloppy movements? Are the bends inconsistent?
- Experiment. Once you get your vibrato right you should take it to the next level by experimenting with different types of vibrato. There are two main things you can vary: Width (how far you bend the string) and speed (how fast you bend the string).
By experimenting with these different vibrato sounds you will be able to use the kind of vibrato that’s most appropriate to the musical context you are playing.
Vibrato is indicated with a small wiggly line over the notes it should be applied to on guitar tabs.
In the next example, vibrato is applied to every note of the A minor pentatonic scale.
Note: You should not just practice the next exercise the way it is given but also by spending time on individual notes.
Also, in a musical context vibrato is used much more sparingly and is most commonly applied to the notes that you want emphasized.
In all the examples above I have limited myself to half notes, quarter notes and eight notes.
Writing a good lick or solo and restricting yourself to these rhythmic elements is surely possible, however, a good soloist knows all the rhythmic options there are and picks and chooses according to his musical needs.
If you don’t know how to play these rhythmic patterns on the guitar I suggest you go through the linked lessons in the last paragraph before proceeding with the rest of this intermediate guitar lesson.
The following are some rhythmic patterns using the above-mentioned elements for you to practice on just one note. Later on, we’ll be using these and similar rhythms in a musical context.
Practice each bar in the next example as an exercise on its own and lock in with the rhythm.
In the example, each bar is played twice. Use a metronome if you want to practice a rhythmic pattern for a longer duration.
Integrating guitar skills
What we’ll do next is integrate these skills by creating a variety of guitar licks.
The first thing we need to decide on is the key. To keep things simple we’re going to improvise in the A minor key as in the examples above.
Your guitar fretboard knowledge should tell you that the note A on the low E string is found on the 5th fret, so you’ll play the A minor pentatonic scale pattern from there.
Scale sequences give us ideas for content we can use in our solos.
In the next example, we have two snippets from scale sequences which we will then embellish with techniques to create music.
Now it’s time to start getting creative yourself.
Find 10 distinct scale sequence snippets in the minor pentatonic, using the sequences we have used above or others you come up with.
The snippets you come up with can be shorter than one bar, or longer. There are no rules when it comes to length.
However, for our exercise, the last note of each snippet should be one of the three notes I gave you in the “Bending strings” section of this lesson.
The next thing we’ll do is apply a full bend to the last note of each snippet.
Not all notes sound good when bent on the minor pentatonic scale (unless you can use 1 ½ bends which may be hard at this stage), which is why I suggest that your snippets end with notes that are easy to bend.
This is how I would apply bends to my scale snippets.
The result is that now they’re not exercises or snippets anymore, but guitar licks.
Apply a full upward bend to the last note of each of the 10 snippets and you have created 10 guitar licks!
Next, I will use rhythmic variety to make my licks more interesting.
Note: I also apply repetition or small alterations to the scale sequence snippets. While you should stick to playing the exact notes of the sequence while practicing it as an exercise, you can modify it in whatever way you want when using it in guitar licks, riffs, or solos.
Go back to your 10 guitar licks and choose the ones you don’t like. Keep modifying them by altering the rhythm and/or the order of the notes until you’re happy with all 10.
The last thing we’ll do is apply vibrato to the long notes.
The following are the same licks as above with vibrato applied to the quarter notes.
Conclusion: Keep integrating
Needless to say, you cannot integrate all your skills in one single lesson, exercise, or guitar practice session.
What you should do is to keep integrating the different skills, techniques, and areas of knowledge you have acquired by repeating this process.
In many cases, the result will be a piece of music such as a lick, a riff, or a guitar solo.
If you don’t know where to start, try integrating your skills by creating guitar riffs using these techniques or areas of knowledge:
- Triads and/or scales
- General fretboard knowledge
- Power chords
- Palm muting
- Rhythmic variety
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