Father's Day

My Dad bought me an electric guitar for Christmas in 1989. A 'Marlin Slammer'. It was a Strat copy and it was black, just like Eric Clapton's 'Blackie'.

Dad bought me lots of Eric Clapton VHSs and recorded as much as he could from the TV. I would watch these videos and try to learn how to play. It was a magical time in my life. I'd often just look at my guitar and wonder if one day I'd be able to play it properly - like Eric did.

In 1992 Dad took me to see Clapton at the Albert Hall - my first gig. It was the blues night :) I got a real education. Clapton, Robert Cray, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy (he made his entrance from the ladies toilets). I loved the sound of electric blues guitar and I'll never forget that night.

Dad and I would listen to Clapton in the car, around the house and he'd take me to see him whenever he could.

My Dad died this last Boxing Day and we played Eric Clapton at his funeral. I wondered at the time how I would feel on days like Father's Day, my Dad's birthday, Christmas (the anniversary of my Marlin Slammer) or Boxing Day (the anniversary of my dear Dad's death) and I've decided that with as much happiness as I can I'm going to play some Clapton for him. So here is an appropriate albeit short rendition for my Dad and for those of you who have also lost your Dads and will be thinking of them today. Jxx

Ears vs Eyes. Sound vs Information. How you should be learning guitar.

In this post I'm going to talk about the crucial importance of sound and of listening vs information and using ones eyes when learning to play the guitar.

This may sound utterly redundant and akin to discussing the importance of looking when painting a picture, but I constantly come across students who put more stock in information than they do in sound (or listening).

What I'm talking about here are students who've misinterpreted or been given some bad info either online, or by a friend who is a 'better' guitarist, and who pledge blind allegiance to this information without ever checking what it sounds like.

I've had this happen with 4 students this week alone and it's only Wednesday. In each instance the student swore that I was wrong and that they were right.

Let me give an example. On Monday a student played an A on the G string (fret 2) instead of an E on the D string (fret 2) misinterpreting what was written in the guitar TAB. The note in question was being played over an E major chord and as such the note E would sound perfectly consonant had it been played. The student was playing the A note however which is a terrible note to play over an E chord and as a result it sounded awful. When I stopped him mid song and told him that he was playing the wrong note he looked at me as if I was mad, told me that he wasn't and pointed triumphantly at the written music in an attempt to prove it. When I illustrated that in fact the note that he was pointing at (in an attempt to prove that he was playing the correct note) was actually on a different string to the one that he was playing he replied 'Well I got half of it right'. He'd got none of it right. He was making a terrible sound, but because it said '2' and he played '2' that was good enough for him.

Now in and of itself a student getting a note or a chord wrong is no big deal but this is illustrative of a fundamentally poor approach to music. In music sound is the currency in which we're dealing yet these students and this approach to music is using only our eyes.

Now you might say 'well James you just have some bad students, get rid of them immediately' and you might be right but this is a phenomenon that I hear about regularly from all of my musician friends who teach and one that I've encountered time and time again myself.

Scott Henderson, the great guitarist and educator once said that 'students are far too concerned with whats happening on here (the neck) and very rarely concerned with what's happening over there (the amp)'. What he meant is that students are using their eyes to determine what to play and not listening to the sound that they are making.
Let's consider that for a minute. It's mental isn't it? It's like listening to our food to decide if we like it or smelling our clothes to decide what to wear.

Now it's fine for you to get your information regarding where/how to play the songs that you're learning from books, from videos, from friends etc (it would be better to work it out yourself but this isn't always possible). What you absolutely must not do however is take this information as gospel without using your ears to verify it. Think of yourself as a musical journalist in this instance, not one of those turds from NME who's more concerned with haircuts and trousers than with music, but in that you must use reliable sources and confirm the sonic information that you're about to use.

We absolutely must, as musicians, learn to use our ears to determine whether what we are playing sounds good. Sure you can look at your favourite players play as a means to try and copy their technique or to establish where on the neck they might be playing a phrase to get a commensurate tone but your ears must be the judge.

This can be hard for people with bad ears. If this is you then you need to do more critical analysis of your playing and more work on your ears.

  • Use a programme such as transcribe - www.seventhstring.com to help isolate and slow down problematic areas of a song you are learning.
  • Use something like EarMaster to help bring your ears up to scratch - www.earmaster.com. 
  • Record yourself playing and listen back to it analytically. Do you sound like the song you are trying to play? Are you in time? Do you have the appropriate feel for the song in question? Are you swinging when you shouldn't be or vice versa? Do any of your chords sound suspicious?

Trust me, if you don't use your ears and you only use your eyes then you will never be a good musician. If you don't believe me seek out interviews by luminary guitarists and listen to how they all talk about how they learned to play by listening and copying their influences.

Leave any comments in the comments section and I will get back to you.


What is Guitar Practice?

This blog addresses the issue of what guitar practice actually is and how I believe you should approach it.

The question 'What is Guitar Practice?' might seem like one that doesn't need to be asked but in my private teaching I am constantly coming across students whose practice habits are prohibiting them from really making any significant improvement.

I'm not talking here about students who just don't practice (that's their problem, they're ticking time bombs) I'm talking about students who do practice but whose guitar practice methodology is flawed.

So what is guitar practice?

I believe guitar practice to be the act of converting conscious thought into subconscious execution via repetition.

A good analogy for this process would be tying your shoelaces, or any other such action that you had to learn but now perform without any regard for the processes inherent in doing so.

When you were younger someone had to teach you how to tie your shoelaces. You would have got it wrong a number of times and had to accept those mistakes, adjust to them and keep adjusting and thinking until you could successfully tie your shoelaces. You persevered. Then every time you tied your shoelaces you would have been thinking less and less about what you were doing until the act of tying your shoelaces became a process you were so familiar with that you could carry it out without having to think about any of the individual steps involved. Guitar practice is really no different.

Ironically, most students who are having difficulty with their guitar practice have actually had success with it in the past. They're just not applying the same methodology to how they are currently practicing.

A good example of this is learning to play open chords. A new guitarist will not be able to play open chords on the guitar. They will learn these chords slowly, learn to change between them (using a lot of conscious thought) and repeat this process until changing from G to C (which used to take 3 to 4 seconds and require a varied selection of ridiculous faces) is an instantaneous action which requires no conscious thought and is left to muscle memory and one's unconscious to take care of. This frees the conscious mind to concentrate on task management issues such as form and dynamics.

Every guitarist goes through this process but often forgets this very successful practicing experience when learning to do almost everything else.

The amount of times students have asked me 'how do you know so many chords?', 'how did you learn where all the notes are?', 'how do you know all of your scales?' etc  and the way that I learned them is the same way that they learned all of the chords, notes or scales that they know, and is the same way we all learned the open chords when we first started learning.

A big issue at play here is coping with being bad at something and working hard at it until you are no longer bad at it. I have a fair few students who will not practice things that they are bad at. Suffice to say these students don't make much progress.

But the question/topic that I really want to address is one that I get asked a lot which is 'What are you thinking when you're improvising?'.

What someone who is improvising well is thinking whilst they improvise is not what you should be thinking whilst you are practicing using the devices you will use when improvising.

Let's take blues as an example. Let's say that you want to be able to improvise better over the V chord in a traditional 12 bar blues. You need to first identify what it is that you feel is lacking in your playing. Is it a lack of melodic devices available to you (licks, scales, chord tones etc) or is it a lack of strong rhythmic ideas? Whatever it is, the best way to remedy it is to find examples of players whose playing you like, playing over the V chord in a blues and copy what they are doing. Learn 5 or 10 of their licks using a programme such as 'Transcribe' and then play these licks over the V chord in a blues over and over again, hundreds, thousands of times consciously inserting them (no matter how contrived they may sound) over the V chord. This is practicing.

However, what you must also do is improvise freely without consciously inserting your favourite licks, just allowing yourself to improvise ideas. What you will find over time is that these licks that previously you were consciously having to insert over the V chord will seep into your playing unconsciously as a result of thousands of receptions, and what's more they will be malleable and less rigid when they do. So when someone asks you 'What were you just thinking when you were playing over the V chord' you will say 'Nothing. I was just playing'.

So to summarise, when you are practicing you should be thinking a lot. You should be consciously trying to apply scales, licks, rhythmic devices, techniques, theories and ideas and cataloguing the results and diligently, repetitively practicing what you liked and what you felt worked and sounded cool. This is guitar practice, this is where you think, where you practice slowly and methodically.

When you are playing you should not be thinking like this. You should be playing freely, allowing the work that you did whilst practicing to subconsciously bleed into your playing.

Please check back regularly or subscribe to my blog for more lessons.

Please also leave any questions in the comments section and I will answer them.

How to Play John Mayer 'Crossroads' Solo - Part 1

This is the first part of a 2 part lesson on how to play John Mayer's 'Crossroads' solo from his 2009 album 'Battle Studies'..

I've included video, a backing track at full tempo, a slower backing track, TAB and notation, and audio files of each phrase including versions at 70% speed to help you learn them. I've also given a brief analysis of each phrase.

John Mayer is a seminal, contemporary blues guitarist. So his playing is well worth checking out and learning some of the nuances he uses to get his characteristic sound.

Let's watch the video to see what we'll be learning.

Here are the backing tracks for you to practice to. I've done my best to recreate the sound and feel of the original song.

Let's now get on with learning the solo. We'll start at the beginning:

PHRASE 1 & 2

The phrase in the first bar uses the A minor Pentatonic scale. It ends with a quarter tone bend otherwise known as a blues curl. This is really the only bend in which your destination note isn’t of much importance. This is due to more emphasis being placed on the note you are bending from than the note you are bending to.

The next phrase starting in bar 2 and ending in bar 3 is in response to the first phrase. It also uses the A minor pentatonic scale and ends with a blues curl.


The phrase starting in bar 4 and ending in bar 5 is fairly tricky. It is the first phrase so far to have started on one of the off beat sixteenth notes (the ‘a’ of beat 2). This song has swung sixteenths which means that the off beat sixteenth notes ( ‘e’ and ‘a’ ) are swung and not straight. Keeping this in mind it becomes very important for you to make sure that you are playing the same feel as the track. If in doubt use a programme like ‘Transcribe’ found at www.seventhstring.com to help you loop the phrase and slow it down. Really listen to what you’re playing and compare it to what is being played in the original.

 The phrase starts on the ‘a’ of beat 2 and uses the A minor Pentatonic scale again, also making use of hammer ons to make ascending the scale easier to play at speed and which sound smoother. Then on the ‘e’ of beat 4  John plays the major 3rd (F#) of the IV chord (D5) which anticipates the chord that we hear in the next bar. The next part of the phrase  is very typical of John Mayer. It is a technique that he uses very often to get fast flurries of notes. The specific delineation of pull offs and slides are very important when trying to achieve this. Be sure to apply more pressure to the string when sliding backwards. This will strengthen the note rather than allowing it to die out which in turn makes the phrase more punchy. Again this phrase is using A minor Pentatonic or you could chose to see it as a D9 arpeggio starting from the 3rd.

PHRASE 4 & 5

The next phrase in bars 6 and the beginning of 7 makes a strong feature of F# in addition to the A minor Pentatonic scale which implies D7 (D,F#,A,C). This gives the effect of playing the changes.

The phrase starts with a half step pre bend from F# to G (meaning you would bend up a half step before striking the note) before releasing that bend back to F#. Again be careful at the end of the phrase and throughout this transcription to pay specific attention to hammer ons, pull offs, slides and also rests. Ending your notes at the correct time will make your playing sound much tighter and your phrases more punchy a la John Mayer.

The phrase spanning bars 7 & 8 starts with a muted note on the ‘e’ of beat 3 and ends with a blues curl. Again using A minor Pentatonic.


The phrase starting at the end of bar 8 and finishing at the beginning of bar 11 uses a lot of techniques that it is important to get right if you want to sound like John Mayer when playing this solo or using these licks. Pay attention to the blues curl on the double stop, the full tone bend at the beginning of bar 10 (this means that you need to bend the G on the B string up to the pitch of A) making sure to reach the desired pitch not going too sharp or falling too flat and also the grace note slides in bar 10. You should slide back from Eb to D immediately after striking the note.

My harmonic take on this phrase is that John is thinking A minor pentatonic throughout adding in the F# (6) and the Eb (b5) for bluesy effect.

This concludes the first part of the solo. Next week's analysis will deal almost exclusively with string bending.

It’s worth noting at this point that this tune is harmonically quite open due to the lack of 3rds being used in the majority of chords. This means that you can play either A major Pentatonic or A minor Pentatonic and their equivalent blues scales over the A5 chord, you can play A minor pentatonic over the D5 chord or you can imply D7 with arpeggios or the D mixolydian should you so choose. It sounds especially good in my opinion to play A minor Pentatonic until the F#m11 chord at which point you can change to A major pentatonic (F# minor Pentatonic). This is what John does in the next half of this solo.


Please leave any questions in the comment section and we will get back to you.

Check back next week for part 2 of this great solo or subscribe to our blog by clicking on the 'Feedly' button.

Walking Guitar - James Stelling

Harmonising Common Bass Lines

If you're anything like me, when you have played with (or have listened to) pianists you might have noticed that they play a lot of 'extra' chords aside from the basic changes of the tune you're both playing. These 'extra' chords will often be harmonising the bass line (especially in a jazz or blues setting).

For some reason us guitarists are never taught what these chords are. Or at least I was never taught during my studies and neither were other guitarists that I know. 

If we look at the first two bars of a 'quick change' 12 bar blues progression in the key of G, the first bar is G7, the second bar is C7 and the third bar is back to G7 again. So I would play G7 (or maybe G9 or G13) for a bar, then C7 and back to G7. Meanwhile the bassist would play the notes (one per quarter note) G, A, Bb, B - C, Bb, A, Ab - G whilst the pianist played all these fancy chords that sounded excellent, I didn't know what they were and the pianists never seemed to have a system that they were using that they could teach me so I could go away and learn this shit for myself.

Well now Daniel and I have worked out what these chords are and have developed our own system and rules for how these chords work and how to use them. We call this 'Walking Guitar'.

So this weeks blog entry shows you how to harmonise a walking bass line that is frequently played over the first 2 bars of a quick change 12 bar blues (as discussed above).

These examples use some of 3 note voicings from our lesson on '3 Note Voicings ' that are excellent for smooth voice leading and that mimic what pianists are often playing.

If you have bought our lesson on '3 Note Voicings' try playing the examples below starting on the 5th and also the 4th strings.

G7 (I7) - C7 (IV7)

C7 (IV7) TO G7 (I7)

Check back next week for more 'Walking Guitar' tricks and tips.

Please leave any questions in the comments section and we will answer them.