Guitar FAQ

Guitar FAQ
(clicking a question will page-jump to answer)

Whats the point of the pentatonic scale?

How do I know what chords will sound good together?

Is there a way for me to memorize the scales very easily? (on paper)

How do you learn and/or internalize scales? (on guitar)

Why is playing guitar your passion?

What’s the minimum skill set needed to be able to play in a band?

What was your first guitar?

E minor pentatonic vs E major pentatonic ? The difference in positions?

You can go back to when you first started playing and tell yourself one thing, what do you say?

What piece of gear did you immediately know you had to have?

Can you explain what playing in a key means? From my understanding, say in the key of C. is that the scale and chord progressions for C?

How do you know what key a chord progression is in? I write little rhythm riffs really well but I don’t know what key they are in so I don’t know what scales to play on them. Also how would I do the opposite, take a scale and write a chord progression in that key?

What would you say are the stages of learning to play by ear?

Tips for getting onto an airplane with my guitar?

Am I the only one that can’t learn from Rocksmith?

How to keep your hands healthy?

Is there anyway to practice theory on the go without a guitar?

How do you know where to shift the shape to be in whatever key you want?

When you improvise, do you use licks and put something between licks or you just literally improvise?

How do I train my ears, so I can tell the chords in a progression?

When jamming on the 12 bar blues… why, if it is in the key of A, does the A minor pentatonic always get played over this? is it just the contradiction that gives it a good blues feel or does it actually align on another theoretical level, or am I just wrong about all of it?

What exactly are intervals?

How do you recommend I learn voicings and what they mean? I kind of understand the idea of roots, third, fifths, sevenths etc but I don’t full understand everything else (sus, +, minor, diminished) and I just want to become fluent in chords.

What are your top 5 tips for Guitar Mastery ?

Is there an easy ways to find the chords of a key? (in the circle of 5th’s)

What’s your approach to playing in all twelve keys?


Whats the point of the pentatonic scale?

There are many, many reasons to learn the pentatonic scale. It doesn’t always function the same way as the diatonic.

I will give you one example:

Lets take the key of C major (diatonic).

If you plotted out all the notes all over the fretboard you would notice something buried inside of this diatonic scale:

the C major pentatonic scale

the D minor pentatonic scale

the E minor pentatonic scale

the F major pentatonic scale

the G major pentatonic scale

the A minor pentatonic scale

So there are 6 pentatonic scales inside of the major diatonic scale.

Now you may be asking why this is important.

Lets take the chords of C major: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, B*, C

Lets say I want to solo over the progression C – Dm – G – F – Am – C

Its important because if I am soloing over a chord progression in that key of C major then I think about every chord change as having its own pentatonic scale and if I can see these shapes when I am soloing, it gives me one more way to approach it.

Learning to see these pentatonic shapes as well as focusing on chord tones will bring your soloing completely to the next level. When you listen to the greats, they aren’t just running through the notes of diatonic C major equally, there is much more thought and awareness than that.

The moral of this story: learn pentatonic and learn diatonic. Neglecting either is going to be a big mistake if you want to become a better player.

Also, every major and minor triad is built from the pentatonic scale. (/u/Caedro brings up a good point on this one.Click here for clarification.)

Also, there are tons of other reasons why the pentatonic scale is important, I just chose to focus on one.

edit: wow… this post blew up, here is a video I made about “swapping pentatonics”

How do I know what chords will sound good together?

Chord Harmonization.

Start with the Key of C major.

Learn the equation: WWHWWWH (whole steps and half steps)

From C we get:


Now plug in (musical) roman numerals (uppercase=major; lowercase=minor):







vii* (diminished)

Now add it all together and you have the 7 chords for writing songs in C major.

C major

D minor

E minor

F major

G major

A minor

B diminished.


Watch this crash course. Now you know how to do the same thing in any key.

edit: clarified roman numerals as uppercase major and lowercase minor

Is there a way for me to memorize the scales very easily?

The easiest way to memorize scales (in your head as opposed to on the guitar) is to have an understanding of the circle of 5th’s and to see it in your mind as clearly as you would see the face of a clock. You can write it on a piece of paper and then memorize it in your head going clockwise and counter-clockwise.

So lets imagine the face of a clock.

12’o clock would be the key of C major (relative minor: A minor). This key has no sharps or flats, so you only need to know your alphabet.

  • C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C

Now lets go clockwise to 1 o’clock. Thats G.

Clockwise represents sharps. So G (the first note clockwise from C) has 1 sharp. That sharp is F# (memorizing the order of sharps also begins with brute memorization, but you will see patterns emerge).

So now we have that same musical alphabet as C but now we sharp the F.

Starting on the note of the key: G

  • G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G

Now here is the important part of the pattern:

Lets go clockwise to 2 o’clock, thats D.

D would collect that same sharp from 1 o’clock and add 1 more: C#.

So now we have that same musical alphabet as C but now we sharp the F# and the C#.

Starting on the note of the key: D

  • D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D

Understand? So watch

  • 12 o’clock = C = 0 sharps, 0 flats
  • 1 = G = 1 sharp = F#
  • 2 = D = 2 sharps = F#, C#
  • 3 = A = 3 sharps = F#, C#, G#
  • 4 = E = 4 sharps = F#, C#, G#, D#


Now going counter-clockwise is flats, so unlike a standard clockface, this musical clock has a 1 o’clock going counter-clockwise as well as clockwise.

  • 12 o’clock = C = 0 sharps, 0 flats
  • 1 = F = 1 flat = Bb (notes would be F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E)
  • 2 = Bb = 2 flats = Bb, Eb
  • 3 = Eb = 3 flats = Bb, Eb, Ab
  • 4 = Ab = 4 flats = Bb, Eb, Ab, Db


Here is something I recently made. I haven’t posted it anywhere yet so you are actually the first to see it. It could be quite helpful on your journey:
Circle of 5th’s Desktop Wallpaper 1920×1080

How do you learn and/or internalize scales?

I recommend starting with the pentatonic scale is one key and I specifically suggest having that key be C major (which is also A minor). Learning from this key will double your learning by starting your journey into memorizing all natural notes on the fretboard.

I would then focus on learning all 5 shapes in that one key. Not four, not three, all five. In that one key. And I would do it exactly like this. from E bass to E treble, shape by shape, in order. And I would NOT worry about the “open” shape that utilizes the open strings, you can work that out later.

I would literally memorize this blindly at first, just to map every single point. Mapping every single point in that key, should maximum, take 2 weeks of 1 hour practice per day.

  • Now look at your five shapes, and plug in the major root notes (everywhere you see the note C). Now plug in your minor root notes (everywhere you see the note A).
  • Now for each of those, find the 5th. In C major, it would be the note G. In A minor, it would be the note E.
  • Now for the key of C major, find your major 3rd. In C major, it would be the note E.
  • Now for the key of A minor, find your minor 3rd. In A minor, it would be the note C.

Here is that analysis broken down in chart form for one of the 5 shapes.

I personally believe this is the quickest and most effective way to build a solid foundation in scales. All other scales and modes can be properly utilized from a pentatonic framework. I know this for a fact, I even recently made a bunch of charts about it.

Why is playing guitar your passion?

I touched a guitar for the first time at 19. Had never even considered music as a hobby before that day. But that was it, I knew my life as I knew it was finished and now this guitar would be it. No more video games, no more sitting around aimlessly, this was IT.

Maybe it was because I have only been playing as an “adult”, but I immediately knew that choosing this life would be hard. I knew that, like any other hobby, there would be peaks and valleys. I knew that, as with everything else, the better I got, the more time between feeling like I had progressed.

These are all “universal truths” in my mind and have nothing to do with guitar. It would be the same way if I had decided to pursue origami or cooking. Its the same way with love and relationships. Its the same way with going to work in order to feed yourself and your family.

And knowing all this, I have steady (for 14 years now) pushed through all the times that I felt I sucked, or that it was pointless, or that I would never make money doing it, or that I would never be in a famous band, or [enter a billion mind-fucks here]…

And yet I still push through, because when I reach the top of one peak and look back and see how far I have come, I am given a sense of joy and accomplishment that makes me happy to be alive.

I see pain and suffering in the world, and corrupt politics, and pain, and loss, but when I have that guitar in my hands, I feel like I am in touch with something that is beyond all of those things. And I truly believe that one day I will make music that will add a tiny bit of joy to some listener’s life, and that means I am doing my part to bring the light ahead of the darkness. Because that is how other people’s music makes me feel.

At the end of the day, when I look at the vast ocean of guitar and see how wide it is, it can be easy to think “I will never be as good as X band, person, composer”.

But I tell myself the same answer every time: Sean, your only goal should be to be better tomorrow than you were today.

And not just as a guitar player, but a person.

What’s the minimum skill set needed to be able to play in a band?

Being realistic, here are the skills you need to play guitar in a (good) band:

  • Know how to play at least 2 forms of every major and minor chord, one of these must be a barre-chord.
  • Have all 5 pentatonic scale patterns memorized and know which one to play based on the key of the song
  • It would be good to know at least one chord shape to play major 7ths, minor 7ths, and dominant 7ths, if they come up
  • All of these require at least a basic knowledge of where notes are on the guitar. For example, you need to know where a B flat note is on the E bass string. You should at least know where the notes are on the E and A bass strings so you can go to them in time

Also: timing, rhythm, soul, etc…

Being able to play your guitar while it is on fire is also a plus.

What was your first guitar?

My first guitar ever was a Hohner acoustic. Thing was 100 bucks brand new. I play a $3000+ Taylor now but that Hohner has a place in my heart that no guitar will ever touch.

I played that thing to death, I carved my artwork into it, I travelled through about 13 countries playing it, it was WELL worn in to my playing and it just suited me perfectly. Anyone who played it complemented it on its playability and I was offered between $300 – $500 bucks for it on more than one occasion. It was beautiful.

Then some assholes in the London airport made me check it even though I had successfully gotten onto 8 or 9 flights without ever needing to.

Then it didn’t arrive on the other end. Maybe because I argued with them. Then it finally did arrive about 3 weeks later. It had a giant hole in the side, where the guitar curves IN. I have no idea how dropping or mis-handling a guitar would create a hole in the inside curve. Fucking assholes.

Nobody could fix it and I took it everywhere.

I was forced to retire it, forever.

I managed to get $250 from the airport so that was funny. But still…

(single tear rolling down face)


edit: This post kinda blew up. I was in a story-telling mood this morning for some reason, so you may enjoy this one too.

E minor pentatonic vs E major pentatonic ? The difference in positions?

The easiest way to think about it is to realize that every major has a twin minor and vice versa. For example

E minor pentatonic = G major pentatonic

So if you know the 12 notes of music:


Look at the keys you are asking about:


That is exactly how the notes on your guitar are:

(E),F,F#,(G) 2 fret between them, representing F and F#

So you are moving that G major (E minor) back three frets to E major.


You can go back to when you first started playing and tell yourself one thing, what do you say?

I asked someone I really respected as a musician this exact question when I had been playing for a week.

He showed me his right hand and said: “This hand is just as important as the other one.”

13 years later, still the best advice I was ever given. And as a brand new guitar player, I took his advice and came up with this little exercise. I have been evolving it for over a decade.

What piece of gear did you immediately know you had to have?

A looper.

I had been playing guitar for maybe a year and I my friend got me interested in his delay pedal. I bought my own, one of these little Boss DD pedals.

It was very cool to use, but I was never really into wanking solos without chords playing, it just didn’t seem focused enough. So I was getting bored with playing with the delay by myself and one day I just started playing with the different switches and I figured out that the little delay pedal actually had a feature where you could loop something for about 4-seconds.

And then I was amazed to learn that I could add as many different layers as I wanted to that 4-second loop. Infinite loops! My jaw hit the floor because I was a pretty new musician and didn’t even know there were pedals that specifically did that. I felt like I had found some kind of secret treasure in the form of a weird glitch. I finally had my own rhythm player: me!!!

I would make the craziest 4-second loops, the only thing that I was limited by was that I could only create that one rhythm and couldn’t make songs with multiple sections. But at the time, being able to make some really crazy, endless, backing track and then being able to solo over it as long as I wanted. That was so epic.

My playing improved so much during this time and quite honestly, a lot of creativity comes from limitation. And being limited to only 4-seconds was actually a great thing for my creativity at the time.

I was telling a musician friend about this one day and he was like “dude, you know they make looper pedals right?”

And I was like “looper…pedal?”

Hahahaha. Had to go out and buy one. Then I started getting into music like Keller Williams which led me to the festival scene, which led me to Grateful Dead, Derek Trucks, Les Claypool, etc…

Ahh yes, college was fun. And I am still a huge advocate of looper pedals to become a better guitar player.

Seriously, every serious player should have one.

Can you explain what playing in a key means? From my understanding, say in the key of C. is that the scale and chord progressions for C?

To ELI5: For every key there are 7 chords that make up its harmony. These follow (musical) roman numerals and it really boils down to memorizing them.

So if I said “Lets play in the Key of C”, then “C” would imply major and I would play a progression using the 7 chords that I knew existed in that key. For example, in the key of C:

I- C major (triad – 3 note chord)

ii – D minor

iii – E minor

IV – F major

V – G major

vi – A minor

vii – B diminished

So I can play any progression using these chords and I will be in key of C major. It is a little more complicated actually but this is the ELI5. And of course all of these rules can be broken.

Here is a little free “guitar theory crash course” I have up on my website. Check it out!

How do you know what key a chord progression is in? I write little rhythm riffs really well but I don’t know what key they are in so I don’t know what scales to play on them. Also how would I do the opposite, take a scale and write a chord progression in that key?

To give you the ELI5 quick version (but then you should look into it more)

Take a note, any note.

Now enter this equation: Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half

  • Whole step example = 1st fret to 3rd fret
  • Half step example = 1st fret to 2nd fret

Knowing how notes interact is also important. For example B+C and E+F are always a half step from each other. While the other letters all have a whole step between them because a “#/b” exists in between them.

Okay, so lets take the note D and enter the equation.

We are left with









Thats how you find the notes of D major (or any key) from scratch. That was ELI5 step one.


Now here is the other step.

If we give each of those notes a roman numeral we end up with

I = D

ii = E

iii = F#

IV = G

V = A

vi = B

vii* = C#

back to the I = D


Now here is the equation for the roman numeral:

Big numeral = Major (triad) chord

Little numeral = Minor (triad) chord

_ * = Diminished chord that want to resolve back to the I (play this, it is really cool how your mind wants it to go there).


And thats the ELI5. I think those two equations are the most important things I ever learned.

Now pick another note and work it out for yourself. Keep doing this and eventually you will have this equation down and you will be able to write songs in any key. And learn the intervals on the guitar so you can do it by sight.

And of course, understand these rules so that you can immediately learn to break them!!!

What would you say are the stages of learning to play by ear?

Some ideas in no particular order:

  • Start with simple melodies like “Happy Birthday” and then move onto more complex melodies like “The Star Spangled Banner” (if you are from the US) and then move onto even more complex melodies. Here is a page I made a while ago, with some simple and familiar starter melodies. So one can go through the list from scratch, trying to pick out these melodies without clicking for the answer first, or you can peek first and then get it under your fingers, then try to find it from a different set of notes, or on a different set of strings, etc…
  • Play guitar to the radio, to music videos, to TV show intros, to albums, etc… And don’t stick to one genre, do it to non-guitar genres like hip-hop, techno, orchestra music, everything! First you noodle around and try to find the key of the song, that one note that just fits perfectly, and then build from that note. Or you can try to emulate the melody or hook. Or try to emulate the notes that are being sung. Or try to add to the song, as if you are in the studio and part of the band. This is the best practice in my opinion. Use the following bullet points to find the chord progressions, melody lines, or the key of the song:
  • Learning about chord harmonization from the major scale, so that you know which chords belong in which key. This allows you to know which chords should be in the progression, which works 90% of the time because most songs are written according to this method. So all you need to do is find the key (through trial and error) and then start choosing from the other 6 chords (because I rarely hear the diminished chord being used). Most songs you hear are only going to be 4 or 5 chords in a particular order, per section: verse, bridge, chorus, etc… And they are almost always going to correlate to diatonic theory (I, ii, iii, IV…etc).
  • Knowing your pentatonic and diatonic scales is an essential tool for finding melodies by ear. Once again, there are only so many options to choose from when you are familiar with your keys. So the first thing you would do is try to find a note that resonates with the song you are trying to learn by ear, and then using that note, you begin to try different shapes around it until you find that one that clicks. There are only basic 5 shapes to choose from so this makes it very easy, if you know them inside and out. Its like having a map.
  • Sing the notes you play. Try to play the notes you can sing. Build a connection between your brain and what your fingers are doing or what your ear is hearing.

Playing by ear is a great skill that will only get better with practice, but at the same time, knowing how keys work and knowing your scales will make that practice go much smoother and you will progress faster. Its all connected.

Tips for getting onto an airplane with my guitar?

Some pro-tips from a guy who has successfully brought his guitar (onto the plane) on about 40 flights over the last 5 years. And not as my carry-on either, because I also had a FULL backpack as well as a European carry-all (its not a purse!!!).

Now these are definitely not “official” or “legal” or “airline rules” in any way. Just me basically hacking the system. I started doing this after my prized “first” acoustic got taken “checked” in London and never arrived in the US. Then when it arrived 2 weeks later, it had a hole the size of an orange in the curve of the cutaway. Yes, I also asked myself how the FUCK a hole could end up there.

Anyways here is what I do and it has literally worked 39/40 times. The one time it didn’t work was London. Every time after that, it has worked because of these rules I live by:

  • When you “check-in” at the flight desk, to show your passport and weigh your luggage. Do your best to keep your guitar out of sight. These people, in my experience, don’t need to be involved in the process unless you let them. If you ask them or mention your guitar, they may very well tell you right there to check it and then you are screwed. If you are flying with someone else, have them hold your guitar (outside of the line) and then give it to you after your check in, then they go check in. Or they check in first while you hold it outside of the line, then give it to them, and go check-in without it. Moral of the story: LEAVE THE CHECK-IN DESK PEOPLE OUT OF IT.
  • While you are at said check-in desk, grab one of those luggage tag things with the airline logo printed on it. They are usually just sitting in a cup of something. You are supposed to take them actually. So take an extra one. Afterwards, put that on your guitar case in a very visible place. From here on out, everytime you are asked by anyone about your guitar, tell them that the check-in people said it was okay and show them the tag. This has actually worked for me dozens of times when asked by security or others.
  • When you reach security, lie your ass off if anyone asks you about it. “The lady at check-in said the guitar was fine” etc… They have a lot to do anyways and know there are more levels past them where you could be asked about it.
  • Once you pass security and get to your gate, you now have to deal with the people who will check your ticket and let you on the plane. Once again, any questions get the response “the person at check-in said it was fine” and show them the tag. You would be surprised, these people do not care as much as you think. They know that you have one more level to get through, so they will pass the buck.
  • Your final level is the “greeting” staff actually on the plane. The ones standing at the airplane opening. This was the level I got to in London. I had made it all the way through until then. Once again, there is nothing wrong with holding your guitar case in a way that keeps it out of sight. I usually hug it against my right side and kind of turn my body to the left, and in tight lines, this can get you past them. And the really nice ones who notice will offer you one of the closets. The funny thing is that I think these people assume you got that far with the guitar because you were allowed. And 90% of the time, these people are actually the nicest, smartest, and most-reasonable of the bunch.
  • Now that you are walking down the aisles with your guitar, it is almost a guarantee that it won’t fit in the overhead, but sometimes it will. Which is why I never bring it up to the airline staff when I pass them. The name of the game is to delay everything to the last possible point. Especially as the airline fills up and the staff get busier, they will be less likely to go through the process of having it taken off the plane and checked. Use this to your advantage. Delay. Delay. Delay!!!
  • So now you cannot get your guitar case in the overhead and you are politely and awkwardly sitting with it. Eventually a steward or stewardess will see you and come over. Then you put on the puppy dogs eyes and shrug, and very kindly ask what you can do. Most times, if the plane isn’t full, they will put it in a seat somewhere else (usually next to someone else’s instrument). Or if it is full, they will put it in the 1st class closet where the big-wigs have their suits and wardrobes hanging. Or they will put it in a personnel closet. Trust me, there is plenty of room on the plane, there are lots of closets and random storage spots.
  • Through every part of this process, have your lies ready. I especially like “My grandfather gave me this guitar before he died, it is priceless to me.” Etc… Say it naturally and with emotion. Because honestly, most of them are only going to make you check-it once you get them on their power-trip. Which is why you should do whatever you can to get on the plane where you are dealing with people whose job is to be polite instead of power-tripping people at the various check-points.

I know this list is crazy and some people maybe even will call parts of it “sketchy”. Thats fine. But as a musician who travels A LOT, this has worked for me 100% of the time, since the one time it didn’t work and my guitar came back destroyed. It was totally ruined and now it is basically a shrine. It was my first guitar ever and maybe my most prized possession. The only reason it “got checked” in London is because I was talking with my buddy and happened to be swearing and an airport personnel literally told me to “stop swearing like such an American” and I said “what, it that illegal here?” and then he decided to power-trip, pointed at my guitar, and forced me to “check it”. Yeah, I shouldn’t have been a smart-ass, but that is no reason to smash someone’s guitar over a pole (if that is what happened).

So yeah. If you love your guitar, don’t check it. Hard-cases won’t stop it from being destroyed.

Mandatory link: “United Breaks Guitars”

Am I the only one that can’t learn from Rocksmith?

I am a guitar teacher who has been playing guitar for 14 years, I just got Rocksmith this last year because many of my students talked about it.

What I have found, personally, is that while Rocksmith is a great practice tool, to actually learn songs from it takes a dedicated “middle step”.

In other words:

1) Play Rocksmith and make mental notes about what you need to remember for step 2.

2) Turn off Rocksmith and in the immediate 30 min – 1 hour, go over everything you can remember.

3) Wake up the next day and go over it again before you turn Rocksmith back on.

The middle step is necessary. As opposed to tabs, videos, sheet music where there is no middle step.

But Rocksmith is great because it gives you one MORE thing to do that gets the guitar in your hand, so even if one just played it, as a game, and never tried to remember the songs, you will undoubtedly build muscle memory, calluses, your ear, and many other necessary skills needed to become a better guitar player.

If they sorted out their “session mode” and made it into a customizable backing track mode where the bandactually played consistent changes, then Rocksmith would become a must-have for any guitar player.

How to keep your hands healthy?

Hand exercises from a music conservatory.

Also, I used to take Aikido for many years and they have a ton of wrist exercise since the discipline is so wrist intensive. I do them a lot and it helps. Look them up.

Is there anyway to practice theory on the go without a guitar?

Yes, memorize your major and minor triad chord notes.

For major triads do it like this: C

C – E – G

Now do the G:

G – B – D

Now do the D:

D – F# – A

Now do the A, etc…

If you do it this way, then you are also going along the Circle of 5th’s and doubling your knowledge.

You should also memorize relative keys.

C major – A minor

G major – E minor

D major – B minor


Another thing you can do is write out scales on a piece of paper. Draw the neck of the guitar and then plot out the pentatonic or diatonic points for the key. Look for patterns. Etc…

You can also do W W H W W W H (whole steps and half steps) and write out keys like that. All you need to remember is that B+C are a half step and E+F are a half step, all others letters are whole steps.

Also key signatures along the Circle of 5ths (sharps to the right and flats to the left)

C maj + A min = no sharps or flats

G maj + E min = 1 sharp = F#

D maj + B min = 2 sharps = F#, C#

A maj + F# min = 3 sharps = F#, C#, G#

etc… (see how the sharps add up like that? its the same with flats too)

Another thing you can do is build major 7th’s, minor 7th’s, and dominant 7th’s from the triads.

Major 7th = Major triad + Major 7th (major 7th is a half step behind the root note)

Minor 7th = Minor triad + Minor 7th (minor 7th is a whole step behind the root note)

Dominant 7th = Major triad + Minor 7th

How do you know where to shift the shape to be in whatever key you want?

Well, in the beginning, a lot of people memorize at least the notes on the E bass string. So if you understand where, for example, your C note is on that top string, then you can match that note with the shape that “starts” on that note.

ELI5: how to find notes on the top E string.

But remember that you have keys in both major and minor! So before I go any further, it is important to wrap your head around the idea that no shapes are major or minor, all shapes are BOTH major and minor.

Each shape contains both minor “root” notes and a major “root” notes. Your “root” note is your key.

So if you wanted to play in the key of C major, and you needed to use the E-bass as your guide, you would simply find the note C, and then play this shape that “starts” with the major root = see the “R” (capital R) on the diagram to the bottom left of the shape.

ELI5: how to read basic scale diagrams

And if you can find one shape, you can find the rest. Because the order of how the shapes connect never changes.

Now lets just say you wanted to play in A major, you would simply play that same exact shape that I linked for the C major example, but putting your note “A” where the capital R is.

Now if you look at that same diagram I linked, you can see to the bottom right of the shape, another little chart that has “r” (lower-case).

Those represent your minor root notes. But you see how there is no “r” on the top string (your E bass string) for that particular shape.

Well take a look at this shape. When you look at the diagram on the bottom right of the shape, you will see a shape that “starts” on the E-bass string with an “r”. That means you can line up that “r” with any note and now you are playing in the minor key. Line it up with a C = C minor. E = E minor. G# = G# minor. You see the pattern.

And if you practice your scale shapes, in one key, over and over again for a little while, JUST LIKE THIS you will start to memorize how the shapes connect to make that one long shape. And then you simply have to find one shape to know where the rest are.

Moving forward from just “blindly memorizing shapes” which is NOT going to teach you music, its only meant as a way to plant your foot in the ground for the following:

  • Knowing intervals, like octaves, 5ths, major 3rds and minor 3rds, etc…

Because if you start learning how to find your other notes from your root note, then you will eventually not even rely the shapes anymore, you will “transcend” them.

  • Knowing chord tones, very much the same as knowing intervals, buts it more like knowing which specific intervals to target and when, and how to do it over specific changes

Here is a page full of the charts I linked, it shows you a way to start thinking about locating intervals and chord tones from the basic shapes in the video.

  • Along with these things, never stop trying to emulate your favorite solos. That will teach you things like timing, phrasing, and many other things that learning scales and shapes will never teach you.

But knowing the scales and shapes is a great way to build yourself a little road map that you can then use as the context to analyze everything else with.

Remember, this process takes years and the guitar legends you loved didn’t learn this stuff overnight.

But at the same time, I memorized the Key of C major and A minor in my first month of playing guitar and was instantly able to play in a number of local jam sessions. I wasn’t playing at some amazing level, but I was able to improvise in the moment, in the correct key, and I continued to be invited back. And since I knew how to find at least the one shape to play in major and the one shape to play in minor, I could play something in any key that was called out.

I just needed to know 2 shapes and how to find the right note on the E-bass string.

When you improvise, do you use licks and put something between licks or you just literally improvise?

People usually do both. I learned a bunch of licks the first year or two I was playing. But since then, for at least a decade I have been literally improvising every single lick. I always felt the way you felt. I wanted to be good at “speaking music” as opposed to copying it, so I have built my musical career around learning the building blocks of the language. I have a youtube channel where I essentially teach this style of learning.

But licks have a place as well. Sometimes I study them in the context of what I already know, just to deconstruct them and see what the person was thinking when it was originally conceived. That is super helpful.

How do I train my ears, so I can tell the chords in a progression?

Did you ever see this video I made? Once I started learning about the different chords that were “commonly” used in a key, it became easier to start recognizing where the player was probably going to go.

Also, watching videos of guitar players live, and watching when they switched. And then rewinding the video and just listening for the switch.

And of course, the more I played, the more I began to “know” the sounds of things.

Lastly, listening to 12 bar blues (even backing tracks) is very helpful for this. Because it pretty much just goes between the I, IV, and V chords. Like these tracks, give them a listen and you will start hearing when the chords change.

Hearing the changes is a very good tool for your toolbox and something you can work on even without a guitar in your hand.

Also, my first guitar tutor was a jazz guy. He always used to tell me “Sean, you gotta hear the bass and the drummer in your head when you play”. When he told me that, I didn’t fully understand what he meant, but I am starting to get it now. Just takes time.

When jamming on the 12 bar blues… I was wondering why, if it is in the key of A, does the A minor pentatonic always get played over this? is it just the contradiction that gives it a good blues feel or does it actually align on another theoretical level, or am I just wrong about all of it?

Hey Muser, while jamming on the 12 bar, you are actually jamming over Dominant 7th chords a good portion of the time. These chords are different than Minor 7ths or Major 7ths. You can think of Dominant 7th’s as “in-between” the two.

Check this out:

  • A7 = Dominant 7th = a root, major third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh.
  • AM7th or A triangle shape 7 = Major 7th = a root, major third, perfect fifth, and major seventh.
  • A-7th = Minor 7th = a root, minor third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh.

See, the Dominant has the third of a major and the seventh of a minor. What a wacky little fucker that guy is.

Dominant 7th chords are probably my favorite chord right now. I love these bad boys. A minor pentatonic works over it but you can try outlining Dominant 7th chord tones over the I IV V and listen to how cool it sounds. You can also play A major pentatonic but it takes some skill to pull it off. Or you can think of the mode A Dorian and play that over the blues too.

And yes, the interesting nature of the dominant 7th chord (in theory and in sound) lends itself to a lot of cool soloing that blends major/minor and also celebrates guys who likely also learned to play by ear and interval and are just kind of “playing what sounds good” to them.

Long story short, the blues is awesome and I personally believe it should be a huge part of any guitar players development.

What exactly are intervals?

An interval is basically the “distance” between two notes. So if you start on the note C and go to the note D, that would be an interval.

To make it more simple, if you look at your guitar, when a play a note on the E bass string and then play the note directly beneath that note on the A string, that is the interval of a 4th, aka “Perfect 4th”.

And if you played a note on the A string and then played the note directly beneath that, you would be playing a 4th again.

So the guitar is full of these little repeating interval patterns. But its not all easy, the patterns are the same sometime between some strings but then they mix up between other strings.

When I gave you those 5 Pentatonic shapes to memorize, all of those patterns could be looked at as different intervals. The beautiful thing about music is how many different ways there are to think about what you are playing.

So I have all of those shapes memorized and can “see them” visually, but I can also think about them in terms of “the intervals”. Two different ways to reach the same goal.

I personally believe the first way is the best way to start, kind of like how learning to read tab is easier than learning to read sheet music. But once again, knowing both is going to help you advance as a player.

The best interval to start with is the octave. Here is a little page with the many ways to find them.

An octave is playing from one C to the next C. So its essentially finding the same note in a different place on your guitar by using the first note as a reference.

How do you recommend I learn voicings and what they mean? I kind of understand the idea of roots, third, fifths, sevenths etc but I don’t full understand everything else (sus, +, minor, diminished) and I just want to become fluent in chords.

Here is what I have learned.

The first chords you should learn are major triads, minor triads, and then dominant 7th chords. Learn as many of these as you can. All the moveable shapes and as many inversions as you can stomach.

As far as understanding chords, that is where music theory comes in. That is when you learn the difference between a major and minor triad is simply a flat 3rd.

And a little music theory will unlock the difference between major 7ths, minor 7ths, and dominant 7ths.

One of the most important exercises I ever forced myself to do was memorizing triads. Just go through each one like C maj – CEG; G maj – GBD; D maj – DF#A, etc…

Its like memorizing time tables. It is a skill you will fall back on the rest of your music making life!!!

Augmented and diminished chords are just the two most basic variations on a triad chord. For example:

C major triad is C E G

C minor triad is C Eb G

C diminished triad is C Eb Gb

C augmented triad is C E G#

The diminished chord is a really cool chord and I recommend learning it in context. Going through chord harmonization will be the best way to do this. The roman numerals of music.

So in C major:

I – C maj

ii – D min

iii – E min

IV – F maj

V – G maj

vi – A min (the relative minor)

vii* – B* (the diminished chord that wants to resolve to the I)

I – C maj

So for that diminished chord, play through all of those chords and then listen to how the diminished chord wants to resolve to C major. Try playing D major instead of the C major and see how it stays unfinished. It wants to go to the C. Your ears and your very brain want it to go to the C. Music is very interesting in that way. Its very cerebral.

You can also resolve to the relative minor, so play the B* back to the A minor and listen to how that sounds too.

Augmented chords honestly do not come up very often. I see them popping up in jazz a lot though. So if you are interested in seeing how that chord works in context, look up a tune like “All the Things You Are”. The C+7 in the 6th measure down.

Both augmented and diminished chords usually appear in 7th form. On guitar, I almost have never found a reason to play them as triads.

I think it is super important to hear chords in context, in a vacuum, they can be really hard to “get”.

Sus2 and Sus4 chords are really fun and I definitely recommend learning them. They add a little spice to your chords. They are like ornaments. They can stand alone sometimes but they are mostly used as a way to ornament the chord. Like a C major – Csus2 and back to the C major.

I always really wanted to have a huge chord vocabulary. So I would try to learn a few new ones every week. Sometimes I forget them to be honest though. I find that unless I am actually using them or writing little songs where I throw them in, they start to fade out of my playing. But I keep at it anyways and I have definitely learned a lot, despite forgetting many of them over time. Its like, go 3 steps forward, 2 back, kind of thing. If you keep with it, you will still make progress.

If you bought yourself a “Jazz Real Book” and just flipped through the pages every once in a while you will expose yourself to a ton of new chords.

Every time I learn a new chord, I learn it in a set of three, root on E string, root on A, and root on D.

Writing down chords on a piece of paper is a good thing to do when you are bored or stick somewhere and still want to learn.

And thanks for the kind words, you got me blushing over here.

What are your top 5 tips for Guitar Mastery?

Although the other comments make a great point (ie: Practice, Have fun, Play with others) I am going to add something different just to add more advice and from a new angle.

In no particular order:

1) Practice right. There are better and more effective ways to practice than others. Your routine should evolve and it should always be pushing you to the limits of your talent.

2) Have the guitar in your hand as often as possible. If you only have 5 minutes between getting home from work and dinner, then thats 5 minutes to play something. If you only have another 5 minutes between after dinner and crashing to bed, then play again.

3) Learn to play by shapes, patterns, scales, intervals, ear, and in a cerebral way. Don’t dismiss any of these. There is no wrong way except refusing to reinforce your knowledge in as many ways as possible.

4) Use homemade licks/styles AND famous licks/styles. Strive to make up your own style and your own music but don’t neglect emulating the music of others. The best writers are the ones who also read a lot.

5) Practice in context as often as possible. Use backing tracks. Use loopstations. Play along to records. Play along to the radio. Play with other people.

Also, these are not necessarily my “top” 5, just five that I happened to come up with this morning off the top of my head.

Is there an easy ways to find the chords of a key? (in the circle of 5th’s)

“How to Write Chord Progressions in Every Key: The Quick and Easy Equation”

  1. Take a look at this chart, it represents the circle of 5ths (open in new window). The outside letters represent the major keys and the inside letters represent their relative minors. If you don’t understand what that means, thats okay for now, keep reading.
  2. Okay, pick a letter on the outside of the circle, any letter. That will be your (major) key.
  3. Now draw a circle around that letter that also captures the letter to the left and the letter of the right. So for C your circle would include the F and G. Your circle also includes the minors on the inside.
  4. Now look at what you have. For C, for example, we have C major, F major, G major, also A minor, D minor, and E minor. And guess what, thats your answer. Grab a guitar and try it out. Mix them up. They will all sound “right” together.
  5. Finished. You can make this circle around any letter and now you know the 6/7 chords to make a song in that key. The missing chord is the diminished chord that is rarely used anyways (but look into it if you want to).

Also, to play chord progressions in the “Minor Key”, just treat the minor chord as your home. Example: end or begin on the A minor instead of C major, you can use the same 6 chords.

So yeah, grab a pen and paper and write down the Circle of 5th’s as I have it linked. Put it into your guitar case or music folder. Now you have the answer at your fingertips.

Boom. Songs in every key.

What’s your approach to playing in all twelve keys?

Knowing the diatonic and pentatonic scales upside down and backwards. Which is a never-ending journey in and of itself.

I regularly play in keys that I know I don’t know as well as others. Like Eb or Ab, etc…

I regularly outline chord tones and recognize the pentatonic scale “shell” built around each individual chord and how I can add notes to that shell or alter it to specifically suit that chord.

I constantly transpose the songs I play into other keys.

I am always trying to find new ways to play the same diatonic scale. Rearranging it to fit into 3 notes per string, then 2 notes, then 3…etc… Refitting those scales to patterns like that opens up endless new “roads” for soloing and builds that necessary muscle memory to quickly react and go down them.

I regularly open up my real book and flip to a song I have never played and then pretend I am in an “open jazz session” and I try my best to play the chords in time, in that moment without any preparation. Then I try to improvise over those chords. Or arpeggiate each one. Etc…

I also force myself to learn inversions from scratch. Particularly of dominant, major, and minor 7ths

And I memorized all the notes that make up every major/minor triad chord.

And I play Guitar Simon as often as possible.

Hmmm, more stuff too. But thats a good start I think.

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