Saturday, September 8, 2012

What happens if I don't understand the guitar fretboard?

If you don't understand the fretboard, you will have to live with:

  • Very poor sight-reading skills
  • Having to learn scales & chords by rote, instead of understanding them. This results in choppy, uninteresting improvisation
  • Uninteresting voice leading (choppy chords and harmony)
  • Having to learn pieces only by rote (much slower than through understanding). No steadfast knowledge of what you are playing
  • Poor, uninteresting (not to mention, slow and painful) composition
  • Plus all and any other problems arising from bad musicianship. The list goes on...


    Figuring out the fretboard, step by step...

    If you are to succeed at this, you will need to "disentangle" the guitar fretboard, step by step.

    The first point is that the guitar, like the piano, is based on the standard 12 tone equal-tempered system. This means that we have only 12 tones to choose from. These tones may repeat an octave higher or lower, giving us a different note, but those 12 tones are all we have. The only exception is when we bend a string, or use a tremolo bar.

    On a guitar, if you play two adjacent frets on the same string, you'll hear the interval of a semitone(or minor second). If you skip one fret, the interval is a whole tone (major second).

    Once we know this, we can start exploring our first view of the fretboard —along the each string:

    chromatic scale

    Then, we can start looking at scales and modes, and eventually melody:

    guitar fretboard diagram

    After we have understood the way the fretboard works along the strings, we need to connect them up by looking across the fretboard, at the relationship between the strings:

    minor pentatonic scale

    Connecting this view -across the fretboard- with the way each string is divided into 12 tones -along the fretboard- gives us a full view —the complete guitar fretboard chart!

    guitar fretboard chart

    How are guitar notes organized along the fretboard?

    Notes on the guitar fretboard are preset. The guitar is a tempered instrument, meaning that the notes we have as choices to play are set beforehand. The violin, the trombone, and the human voice are all examples of non-tempered instruments. On these, the player (or singer) has an infinite choice of possible tones and notes to play (or sing).

    The piano and the guitar, however, follow the standard 12 tone equal-tempered system. This means that we have 12 tones to choose from. Those tones may repeat an octave higher, or lower, giving us a different note, but those 12 tones are all we have.

    The only way to play a tone outside of this 12 tone system is by bending a string, using a trem bar, or detuning your guitar.

    On a guitar, each fret is one step in that 12 step system. If you play two contiguous frets on the same string, one after the other, you'll hear the interval of a semitone (or minor second).

    If you skip one fret, the interval is one whole tone (major second).

    guitar fingering

    Guitar Notes Image 1: a Semitone and a Whole Tone

    If you play any 12 tones next to one another —12 consecutive frets— what you get is a chromatic scale.
    We will call the nut "fret 0", as it also counts. This means that if you start on any open string, and go up fret by fret, you'll get all the tones of the chromatic scale by fret 11 . Remember, the open string also counts, so 1 + 11 = 12.

    The cycle starts again beginning at the 12th fret, an octave higher.

    chromatic scale
    Guitar Notes Image 2: the full Chromatic Scale

    What about the guitar's "height", relative to other instruments?

    This is key, whether we play alone or with others. It is especially important whenever we play with other musicians, whether singers or instrumentalists.

    treble clefMost guitar sheet music shows a treble clef. For this reason, guitarists in general think that they have a very high pitched instrument. But a violin is higher pitched than a guitar! And violin music is also written in the treble clef!?!?

    tenor clef
    What most editions of guitar sheet music don't say, is that guitar music is not written in treble clef, but in tenor clef. It looks exactly the same as the treble clef, except that it has a little "8" underneath, meaning that all notes on the guitar fretboard are an octave lower:

    guitar notes
    Guitar Notes Image 3: Piano Notes and Guitar Notes compared

    This means that middle C on the guitar is located on the first fret of the second string, NOT the third fret of the 5th string! This simple fact shocks even professional guitarists who have been playing for years. I've met some stubborn enough to deny it altogether (virtuosos, too!). If in doubt, simply go to a piano and see for yourself!

    Still unclear? The following diagram shows the open strings of the guitar as written in guitar notation, and standard, non-transposing notation:

    guitar notes

    Guitar Notes Image 4:
    The open strings of a guitar, as written in
    guitar sheet music and piano sheet music

    If, say, you're playing with a keyboard player and you want to communicate with him, you'll want to be able to tell him what your open strings are on his instrument. Or if you want to write an arrangement, you'll need to get all your instruments' parts properly distributed by note range.

    Thursday, September 6, 2012

    Building a Practice Schedule




    Building a Practice Schedule

    A question that crops up time and time again is whether I have a daily practice schedule or regimen that I can recommend for classical guitarists.
    I don't have one single, standard practice schedule that I use for everyone, but instead try and work out a plan to suit each individual student at any given stage, and according to the amount of time they have available for practice every day. However, what I always try to do is include these three main components:
    • Repertoire
    • Scales and Arpeggios
    • Sight reading
    Let's look at each of them in more detail.

    This is basically time spent learning new pieces, but just as importantly, it is about keeping on top of the old ones, too.
    One thing I've noticed with many classical guitar students is that left to their own devices they often won't be able to play a single piece of music all the way through at any given time!

    Here's the trap: they start learning a new piece and put all their energy into it for a while, and completely forget about their old pieces. Then one day someone asks them to play a piece to show what they can do on the guitar. But they've not yet got the latest piece together, and they can't quite remember how to play any of the old pieces all the way through!

    I therefore try and encourage students to get a tune up to performance standard, and then make sure they keep it 'topped up' while they work on the next new tune. That way they always have something they know well enough to play all the way through to a reasonable performance standard.
    This useful when it comes to giving impromptu performances to doting friends or relatives. But even more importantly, if you don't spend some time practicing pieces at a performance standard then - guess what? - you'll never be much good at playing anything up to performance standard! You may get quite good at learning how to stumble through bits of new pieces, but playing a complete piece as a coherent whole means spending at least some time practicing doing just this.

    For someone with, say, an hour available every day for work on repertoire I might suggest they spend something like 15-20 mins working on new material, 20-30 mins running through tunes they already know, then another 15-20 mins working on new material.


    Segovia famously said that if he had only 2 hours to practice every day he'd spend all the time on scales. A bit of an extreme view, no doubt, but it hints at how important scales are for musicians.

    Scales and arpeggios are great for warming-up, for giving you fingerboard knowledge and developing general technical ability, but they are also excellent vehicles for practicing almost every other aspect of guitar playing, too.

    For example, a lot of people forget about dynamics in music (playing loud and soft), so everything ends up on the same volume level and loses musicality. Try this as an exercise: Choose a scale you know well - any one will do. Now start by playing quietly, then very gradually increase the loudness so that you are playing as loud as possible when you reach the mid point of the scale. Now as you play the second half of the scale start playing quieter and quieter until you play as quiet as possible at the end.
    You can also change this round - start out loud, play quiet in the middle then finish loud. You can then invent endless numbers of more complex patterns to practice, e.g. getting louder for 3 notes, then getting quieter for 4 notes, then louder for 2 notes... and so on. You can also practice changing abruptly from playing loud to playing quiet, e.g. 4 notes at full volume, then suddenly play a few notes as quiet as a whisper. The trick is to be able to do it all in a very controlled way.

    Other Uses for Scales
    You can use scales to work on all kinds of other things. Here are some examples:

    Scales can be used for building up speed, especially with the help of a metronome to advance the speed by small increments. They can also be used for practicing rest strokes and free strokes, and for working on different right hand finger combinations, e.g. i m or m i or m aor i m a etc.

    You can practice playing scales in quavers - play each scale note twice (e.g. C C D D E E F F etc), or in triplets - play each scale note 3 times (e.g. C C C D D D E E E etc). These exercises are great for increasing speed and for working on right hand fingering.

    You can play a scale very staccato (short, abrupt notes), then play it again legato (smooth and sustained notes) to help you develop these different ways of articulating notes. You can also try changing the tone as you play the scale, e.g. start by plucking close to the bridge for a hard, metallic sound (referred to as playing 'sul ponticello' or 'metallico'). Then gradually move your right hand nearer to the fingerboard to produce a warmer, softer sound (called playing 'sul tasto').

    By incorporating elements such as these into your scale practice you'll develop a broad palette of sounds that will greatly enhance your musicality when you play a piece.

    Which Scales to Practice?
    A lot of this depends on which ones you already know, and which new ones you're trying to learn. The Trinity College of Music Guitar Scales and Arpeggios are an excellent free resource that I can recommend, even if you have no intention of ever taking an exam on the guitar.

    One good thing about following a syllabus such as Trinity's is that you can learn the scales and arpeggios in a progressive and systematic way, and watch yourself advance through the grades over a period of time.

    Cycle of 4ths
    One thing I do myself and would recommend to others as a tip is to practice scales going through the cycle of 4ths. I'll explain what I mean.
    Imagine you know five different major scales: C, D, F, G and A major Instead of playing the scales in alphabetical order practice them in this order: A, D, G, C and F major This way the keys are moving through the cycle of 4ths (A to D is 4; D to G is 4; G to C is 4; C to F is 4)

    This can help reinforce your knowledge of music theory. For example: A major has 3 sharps in its key signature, D has 2 sharps, G has one sharp, C has none, F has one flat. The next key in the cycle of 4ths will have 2 flats (key Bb)...and so on.

    Here's the complete cycle of 4ths. It is also called the circle of 4ths, because it can be arranged in a circle, as the notes return to their starting point.
    Circle of 4ths
    It is also known as the cycle (or circle) of 5ths. This is simply down to which direction you go through the cycle. If you read it left to right (or clockwise for the circle) then it is going in 4ths. Read it right to left (or anticlockwise through the circle) and it is going in 5ths.

    Minor Scales
    I like to practice minor scales by linking them to related major scales, again because it can help to consolidate knowledge of music theory, and it ties in better with key relationships as they occur in real music.

    Every major key has a relative minor key that shares the same key signature. The relative minor key of C major is A minor - they both have no sharps or flats in the key signature. The relative minor of G major is E minor - they both have one sharp in the key signature.

    For my major and minor scale practice schedule I do this sequence consisting of a major scale followed by its relative minor:

    C major then A minor

    F major then D minor
    Bbmajor then G minor
    Ebmajor then C minor
    Abmajor then F minor
    Dbmajor then Bbminor
    Gbmajor then Ebminor (= F#major then D#minor)
    Cbmajor then Abminor (= B major then G#minor)
    E major then C#minor
    A major then F#minor
    D major then B minor
    G major then E minor
    C major then A minor...and we're back to the beginning.

    Notice how the minor keys are also moving through the cycle of 4ths, only starting in a different place from the major keys.

    For minor scales the commonest forms are the harmonic minor and the melodic minor. One idea is to practice the harmonic minors one day and the melodic minors the next.

    You can practice the major and minor arpeggios following the same sequence for the scales above. But if you know some dominant 7th arpeggios here's a nice practice sequence I use for combining them with major arpeggios:
    C major then C7
    F major then F7
    Bbmajor then Bb7
    Ebmajor then Eb7
    ...and so on following the cycle of 4ths
    It also works nicely with minor instead of major arpeggios
    C minor then C7
    F minor then F7
    Bbminor then Bb7
    Ebminor then Eb7
    ...and so on following the cycle of 4ths

    As well as the basic major and minor scales and arpeggios plus dominant 7th arpeggios, there are lots of others you can add to a practice sequence. There are chromatic scales, major and minor scales in 3rds, 6ths, octaves or 10ths, diminished 7th arpeggios and whole tone scales to name the most common.

    Beyond this there are countless others. There are the major scale modes (Aeolian, Locrian, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian) for each key, and the corresponding modes for the melodic minor (ascending) and harmonic minor scales. There are diminished scales, synthetic scales, multi-octave scales, hundreds of pentatonic sales (and many rock guitarists think there is just one pentatonic scale!)...the list goes on and on.

    So if ever you get bored with your scale practice schedule then why not learn an exotic new scale? Here are some suggestions for you to track down and learn: the Enigmatic, 8 Note Spanish, Overtone Dominant, Hungarian Minor, Super Locrian or Altered Hindu Ma-Grama


    There's an old joke in electric guitar circles: How do you make the lead guitarist play quieter?Answer: put some sheet music in front of them!
    Let's face it - most guitar players are not great at reading music! Classical guitarists are generally a bit better at reading than those playing other guitar styles - but often not much.

    Perhaps this is because classical guitarists are quite self-contained. They don't have to play in ensembles to make satisfying music, unlike bowed string, reed and brass players, who generally have a far higher standard of reading ability as a result. Some argue that the guitar is notoriously awkward for reading music because exactly the same note can be played in a number of different places, unlike say the piano where each individual note can be found in one place only. But violinists and cellists face a similar problem to guitarists, yet they tend to be good readers.

    I think the main reason is the culture associated with the guitar. Many (most?) guitarists play other styles such as rock, blues or folk before turning to classical guitar, and bring with them a culture of playing by ear and jamming rather than one of reading music.

    The Value of Sight Reading
    As a teacher I'm always very keen to develop sight reading skills in classical guitar students. I don't just do this so they will do well on the sight reading part in grade exams, although this is one benefit.

    So why do I consider developing music reading skills to be so important? Well, for pretty much the same reasons that we're taught to read words at school - because there's a vast amount of written material available, and being a fluent reader allows us to assimilate a lot of this information quickly and easily.

    The entire classical guitar repertoire is available in music notation. It therefore makes sense to develop our music reading skills so that we don't have to labour over a piece for hours and hours just to lift the notes off the page and onto the guitar. That time and energy is better spent on overcoming technical and musical difficulties.

    Sight Reading Tips
    First of all, try and read new music regularly - do a little bit every day if you can, and you'll be impressed by your progress after even a week or two.

    Secondly, try and find music at an appropriate standard for your reading ability. We wouldn't give an average 6 year old a novel by Charles Dickens or Dostoevsky to practice their reading skills. Similarly it's important to read music at the right level: if it's far too easy it won't be interesting, and if it's far too difficult it will be dispiriting.

    Thirdly, even if you are reading at the right kind of level, sight reading is hard work and demands a lot of mental energy. Don't set yourself too demanding a schedule of regular sight reading, otherwise you'll find that the lawn urgently needs mowing or the washing up simply must be done just when you planned to sit down with the guitar and begin your 2 hour session of fiendishly difficult sight reading exercises.

    Bear in mind that you don't need to buy lots of expensive books and do specially written sight reading exercises - any old music will do if it's at the right standard. In fact, don't just read guitar music: look at music for the violin, clarinet, flute and other instruments as well.

    Track down free music: there are public libraries (remember them?) that generally have at least a few shelves of music, and of course there's a wealth of material available on the Internet. Maybe you even have friends with whom you can share music.

    You can also recycle music. If you use something for sight reading then there's a good chance that you won't remember much about it a month later, so it's OK to use it a second or even a third time.

    In a nutshell, the practice schedule I'd recommend is based around the three components of repertoire, scales and arpeggios and sight reading. How much time you spend on each of these and the specific ground you cover depends very much on your level of playing ability.

    I hope this article has given you some ideas that will help you work more fruitfully on improving your playing.

    Best of luck!

    Tony Oreshko

    This article was written by Tony Oreshko at
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    and the author name and URL remain intact.


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