Cultivate Your Standalone Guitar Skills

Posted by Kelsey Holt on


Posted by Adam Levy

Excerpted from the May 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar

For more great instruction with Sean McGowan, check out his new book The Acoustic Jazz Guitarist!


In this month’s Weekly Workout, you’ll learn a few fundamental solo-guitar concepts that will get you started and leave you with enough tools to continue developing at your own pace. If you don’t already own a metronome (or metronome app), make sure to get one ASAP. Practicing in time is one of the most important steps toward building a strong solo-guitar style.

One final caveat: While lots of solo-guitar music is composed and played in alternate tunings, the examples in this Weekly Workout lesson are all in standard, to ensure that these concepts are accessible to all players. That said, much of what you’ll learn here is transferrable to a variety of tunings.

Week One

As you begin to explore the guitar as a solo instrument, keep in mind that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. Composers have been penning solo-guitar music for centuries, so there’s plenty of literature to draw inspiration from. Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909) and Fernando Sor (1778–1839) are two of the most renowned composers for the instrument—and they were virtuoso guitar players as well.

Though both Tárrega and Sor wrote elaborate works, they also penned simpler etudes, accessible to players at beginning to intermediate levels. Both took full advantage of the guitar’s tuning and fretboard layout to achieve beautiful effects that don’t require knuckle-busting technique. You should get a few such pieces under your belt and learn from these masters.

Example 1 is an excerpt from the Sor study Op. 60, No. 8, in the key of C major. You needn’t strictly follow classical-guitar protocols as you play this. Minding a couple of conventions regarding picking-hand fingers, however, may be helpful: Notes on strings 4–6 are nearly always played with the thumb; notes on strings 1–3 are nearly always played with the ring, middle, and index fingers, respectively. (The last measure illustrates an exception to this, as the open G is to be played with the thumb.) 

Example 2 comes from Tárrega’s lovely “Adelita,” in E minor. As with the previous example, this piece lays nicely on the instrument in its original key—and wouldn’t make nearly as much guitaristic sense in any other key. (Note Tárrega’s employment of the open fifth and sixth strings as bass notes in bars 1 and 2, as well as the open first and second strings in the arpeggio in bar 4). Sustain a full barre at the seventh fret throughout bar 3.

Week Two

Jazz can provide wonderful opportunities for solo-guitar arrangements, because the genre offers so much harmonic leeway. Standards, or old familiar songs, can be completely reimagined using fresh sounds from a player’s chordal vocabulary. Many venerated solo guitarists—including Lenny Breau and Ted Greene—built their reputations largely on inventive voicings. Still, as any serious jazzbo knows, a little goes a long way when it comes to hip five- and six-note voicings—because such grips can be cumbersome to play and tiring on the ears if overused.

Example 3a is based on the first eight bars of the jazz evergreen “All the Things You Are.” The harmonization choices here are on the lush side. Once you’ve played Ex. 3a several times and can smoothly move from chord to chord, try Example 3b—a barebones harmonization of the same melody.

There aren’t even complete seventh-chord voicings here—just a skeletal version of the original melody (the top line from Example 3a) supported by the root note of each chord. Example 3b may look austere on the printed page, but this two-voice melody-over-root approach can be very effectual—and not just for jazz. Try it with one of your favorite melodies, in any style.


Excerpted from a lesson by Adam Levy in the May 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar:

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