Don’t Learn Shapes

There are many ways to play this on the guitar, at least 50, probably more. On the piano, there’s only one place where each of those notes exist. It’s the thing that makes the guitar (and other similarly cursed instruments) a bit tricky, especially if you go about learning the guitar using shapes. It would be a mammoth task to learn all those 50 shapes for the A-7 arpeggio, and then all the other arpeggios, and then all the other keys, and then scales, and so on. It’s impossible to do that.

But, I can do it.

I can do it because I know the fretboard really well, and I know the sound and the name of the note I’m after. So I don’t have to learn patterns and shapes. I use these three bits of knowledge – the sound, the name, the fretboard location – to be able to fluidly move the material anywhere I want it.

The advantage of this approach is that it frees you up to be able to concentrate on how you want to phrase something, how you want it to sound. You’re not limited to the shape you’ve learned, and therefore the limited phrasing possibilities (on the guitar) within a shape. It makes you think in this order: ‘how do I want this to sound?’ and then, ‘so how am I going to play it?’. Rather than a clash between your intention and your reliance on a shape.

A Taster

One note

I want you to try this out just using the top 4 strings (D, G, B, and E strings)

First play the open E on the ist string. Then find the same pitches on each string:

  • 1st string – open
  • 2nd string – 5th fret
  • 3rd string – 9th fret
  • 4th string – 14th fret

Two notes

Next you’ll play two notes: E followed by G (a minor 3rd higher)

So there are two basic ways to do this:

  1. On one string
  2. On two adjacent strings

On One String

  • 1st string – E open, G on the 3rd fret
  • 2nd string – E on the 5th fret, G on the 8th fret
  • 3rd string – E on the 9th fret, G on the 12th fret
  • 4th string – E on the 14th fret, G on the 17th fret

On Two Adjacent Strings

  • Strings 1 & 2 – E on the 5th fret/2nd string, G on the 3rd fret/1st string
  • Strings 2 & 3 – E on the 9th fret/3rd string, G on the 8th fret/2nd string
  • Strings 3 & 4 – E on the 14th fret/4th string, G on the 12th fret/3rd string

What Can You Do Now?

So now you can play those two notes, but think about all the musical things that are now at your disposal:

  • The tone of the notes change depending on what string you play them on
  • Things you can do with the notes on the same string
    • Trills
    • Slides
    • Bends
    • Hammer Ons
    • Pull Offs
  • Things you can do when the notes are on different strings
    • Play them together
    • Play them separately but let them ring into each other
    • Strum them
    • Sustain one string, play shorter notes on the other
    • Play both notes, then stop one, sustain the other
  • Things you can do by thinking about doing what you can do in one way but another. i.e., try to do the stuff you can do with two strings but on just one; and vice-versa. E.g
    • Trills
      • Think about how George Benson gets a trill kind of thing across strings using his right hand
      • Use both hand on the fretboard like a piano keyboard
        • You can do cool rhythmic stuff with this approach

So, I hope this goes a little way to convincing you that by knowing the fretboard you can really open up what’s possible for your music. In the membership, I have a course where I guide you through exactly how to learn the fretboard, and another course where I show you how to expand ways you can phrase melodies.

Let me know if you have any questions on any of this stuff in the comments below.


Comments on Don’t Learn Shapes

  1. Mike Outram says:

    Try it. Take that arpeggio and go nuts on it. Really figure out 50 ways to play it.

    Do that, then report back :)

  2. James says:

    I’m guessing you’d have to know a lot of shapes before an approach like this could be useable?

  3. Johan says:

    Yes I guess so, just that you make it sound so easy! Grrrr!

    Some ideas:

    Take the A-7 arpeggio above as an example: Play the A, sing the C, play the C, sing the E, play the E, sing the G, play the G. Do that in all places on the neck. Then variations on that, start from top going down, skip notes etc. etc., but fundamental idea being singing first then playing.

    Can also do other way round, play first then sing, but I guess following on to what this post was about originally this approach might be less productive. Or?

    Another approach (from The Advancing Guitarist): Record some “tapes” with random notes with a bit of time in between. Listen to the note (sing it?), and then find it on the neck. Do a lot of that.
    (Could also record a different instrument (but do the exercise on the guitar) to get a different timbre of the sounds. To expand it can also be done with intervals (2nds, 3rds, 4ths etc) as well as with chords.

    Other ideas?

  4. Mike Outram says:

    Will do something soon on learning the fretboard. The theory side I’ve covered already with the practice pages. Ear training and transcribing for the aural side. That’s it really. Then I guess you could take a few arpeggios and play them in all the ways that you can find. After you do that a few times you’ll be able to do it with any arpeggio/scale/line etc.
    That what you mean?

  5. Johan says:

    It sure does make sense Mike! I guess this is one of the “secrets” to unlocking real creativity and fluency on the guitar.

    Now please, please, please share some examples of how you would practice this! That would be very muchly appreciated.


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