Moving to a new server and URL

•January 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I’ve moved this blog to a new server where I can do better and more exciting things with it.  Please update your bookmarks and RSS feeds at

Right Hand – To Anchor or Not?

•January 13, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Every guitarist has their own style.  And a lot of that has to do with what goes on in the right hand.

If you’re playing with a pick, one question always has to do with anchoring.  Anchoring is when you place your pinkie (or 3rd and 4th fingers) on the pick guard or top string.  This would be the position when you’re playing on the lower strings.  The top strings can also be played with the anchor on the pickguard.

You can also anchor with your palm on the lower strings when playing on the higher.

I use these techniques myself.  Benefits?  You stay in constant contact with the instrument so you’ll always know where you are.  It also makes it a bit easier to not get lost in the strings when doing string-skipping licks.  Also, the palm anchoring on the lower strings keep those strings from ringing sympathetically.  Particularly useful on electric guitar, but it also helps to clean up acoustic playing.

It’s not the only way though.  Some players don’t touch the strings at all with their right hand.  The other guitarist in my band works that way.  And he plays just as clean and fast as anyone.  And certainly, if you’re finger picking, that’s a whole different set of guidelines.

The key is consistency.  Your own style can develop and it will work for you even if not for anyone else.  If you discover a problem with what you’re doing, change just that small bit until it’s worked in and feels natural.

Do you anchor your right hand?  Leave a comment below and tell me about your technique.

Why Minor Is Finer

•January 6, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Besides just the cool darkness of using minor keys, they open up a ton of possibilities that we don’t have in a  major key.

You see, a major is scale is just a major scale with seven chords and that’s all.

Those would be I ii iii IV V vi vii(dim)

But we have a variety of minor scales to choose from to make life exciting.  First off is the natural minor.  This is derived by taking the major scale and starting from the 6th scale degree, ie. playing A to A instead of C to C with all natural notes results in A natural minor.

The resulting chords, if we stack notes in 3rds on each scale degree would be:  i ii(dim) III iv v VI VII .

However when all this stuff was being invented, they decided they didn’t like that minor v chord in there.  They felt it didn’t have as strong a tension-release pull like the major scale has.

They decided to make the chord major.  But just like algebra, what you do to one side you have to do to the other.  So if we change the chord, we have to change the scale.  In Am, the V chord is E.  To make it E major we need a G#, which is then added to the scale.  So we get A B C D E F G# A – That is called harmonic minor.

And changing one note actually changes 3 chords because that note can be a root, 3rd, or 5th.  More changes come if we extend to 7ths and further.

This gives us i ii(dim) III+ iv V VI vii (dim) – Two diminished chords and an augmented!  Juicy!

But there was a problem with the scale too and we’ll discuss the rest of the minor scales next time…

Phil Johnson

Aim High To Break Out Of Your Guitar Box

•December 22, 2009 • Leave a Comment

This is a great little tip I picked up from The Advancing Guitarist by Mick Goodrick when I was using his book in college.

We often get stuck on our little scale boxes and yearn to break free.  Take any of your scales and start working them up and down a single string in two octaves.  Do it on every string and in different keys.

Now work on improvising solos on each of those strings, one at a time.  You’ll start to find new patterns that you didn’t know about.  You’ll also run across interesting drone movements by mixing your single string notes with open strings.

This same idea can be done with intervals to improve your double stop playing.  Work from 2nds through 7ths up and down each pair of strings.

Both of these can be a little tedious.  Especially if you’re working through all 12 keys.  I tended to use it as a mental warmup for a few minutes.  I also work on them when I’m stuck during the writing process and need to unstick my brain.

Think outside the box

•December 11, 2009 • Leave a Comment

As guitarists we often get trapped into our “box patterns”.  They’re familiar and we’ve gotten used to them.  But we also start playing the same licks over and over.

There’s two ways you can break out of the box.

This first tip is one that I learned in college while studying The Advancing Guitarist byMick Goodrick.  Great book to have around when you need some inspiration.

Take those scales that you know and practice playing them on just one string.  Go for two octaves.  Now do it on each string.  For me, this showed me some great transition licks to get from one box pattern to the next, and really cover some fretboard real estate.

The second tip is to learn 3 note per string patterns.  Yeah, the speed demons like to use these, but they’re good for all sorts of playing.  In it’s most basic form… Play the first two notes of your scale on your bottom string.  Then instead of going to the 5th string, stay on the 6th for the next note.  Then move to the 5th string for the 4th note of the scale and do the same 3 note idea there.  You’ll find you’re moving around the next a lot more.  And again, you’ll find lots of cool transition licks.

Try those two ideas out and you’ll be blazing around the neck in no time.

What kinds of things do you do to break out of a playing rut?

Memorizing Doesn’t Work

•December 9, 2009 • Leave a Comment

This is a tip that works with just about anything you’re studying.  Our brains weren’t built to memorize and they don’t do it very well.  Our brains were built to work through systems.  And once you’ve worked through a system a few hundred or thousand times, your brain does it so quickly that it appears to be memorized.

Let’s say you’re struggling with reading traditional music notation.  You can’t possibly memorize all the notes and their placements on the staff.  On a guitar you’re talking about up to 3 octaves of notes.  That’s 24 notes.  When it comes to sequences, there’s the law of 7 + or – 2.  That’s the amount of things in sequence we can remember.  Which is why phone numbers are 7 digits.

So if 24 is out of the question, how do you do it?  You need a system.  One or two small points to memorize and the rest is worked out from there.

With our music notation, your baseline should be FACE.  That’s the space notes from bottom to top on the staff.  Once you know that, then it’s easy to figure out the line notes in between because it’s just alphabetical order.  Once you get off the staff into ledger lines, you’ll want to start working with intervals.  Something I’ll discuss in another post.

The other part of making memorization easier is grouping.  Think again about how you memorize a phone number.  you don’t actually memorize 7 digits.  You say to yourself “da-da-da…da-da-da-da”.  Two groupings of digits.  When you learn small groupings and then stack the groups together, it’s easier to remember large amounts of material.

The alphabet is a good example.  I’m sure we all learned it by learning the Alphabet Song as kids.  Great example of grouping: ABCD   EFG  HIJKLMNOP   QRS    TUV   WX   YZ

Learned as phonetic groups, the order of letters is easy to remember.  And how many of us thought that LMNO was all one letter for a couple months there?  Just me?  But you can see how each group is rather short, except the third one.

So, with whatever music concept you’re working on, apply this technique of grouping and systematizing to make it easier.  Memorizing is the long hard way.  This works great for reading, learning chord spellings, scale patterns, learning songs, and everything else.  Feel free to leave a comment below and let me know how you’re using it.


Get my free report on how to be a blazing hot electric guitarist at

Sure, You Play Guitar But…

•December 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

It’s a weird way to start a discussion about electric guitar techniques. But one of the best things you can do it listen to other instrumentalists for ideas.

Guitarists have been nicking licks from horn players for decades. Why not try transcribing a piano piece for guitar? You’ll run across some crazy chord voicings that way.