Stuck In A Rut

In my day job as a teacher, I am often approached by experienced players who have hit plateaus. Plateaus occur when development has ceased and inertia sets in. Inertia causes frustration and has a debilitating effect on creativity.

Almost every instance of this malaise I have come across is characterized by a lack of basic Finger Independence and an ignorance of the rudiments of Music Theory. The former restricts technical advancement, the latter breeds confusion and together, they act like a leash.

Part 1: The Independence

Let's do a quick check to see how your independence shapes up. Performing Trills (repetitive hammeron/pulloffs) between every finger combination will reveal any weaknesses, and in the long term will improve control and strengthen fingers.

Have a look at the exercise below.

  • Use the same fingers as the frets
  • Only the 2 fingers involved in the trill should be on the string at any one time
  • Try to achieve a steady rhythm and even volume
  • To make it even more challenging put an extra fret between the fingers, move to other positions on the fretboard and/or move the exercise onto other strings


Did you notice that once your 1st finger is left out, the rest of your fingers begin to take strain? Consider how this might be aiding and abetting your technical slump.

Improving your independence is a long haul journey. Sharing the load across all fingers is essential to development, so in addition to exercises such as the one above, try playing patterns that frequently require all 4 fingers. Scales are a perfect vehicle for this and as you will see later in the article, they also provide the route to theoretical enlightenment.

Below is the F Whole Tone scale (root = fret 1 on 6E string). Use your 1st, 3rd & 4th fingers ascending, but switch to your 1st, 2nd & 4th fingers descending. Play the 4 note section at the top with all 4 fingers.


This Harmonic Minor scale (root = fret 1 on 6E string) is an opportunity to use all 4 fingers on each string.


Don't just play scales up & down. Check out this approach to the F Chromatic scale (root = fret 1 on 6E string).


Independence should be developed in both hands. If you are a fingerstyle player, be sure to check the usability of the small finger on your picking hand. Most players I have encountered relegate their 4th finger to an anchor role. This is a waste of a perfectly capable finger. Martin Taylor, the legendary jazz guitarist made this very point in his 'Fingerstyle Jazz Guitar' instructional video.

Try developing string picking patterns such as the ones below to introduce the small finger. Use the thumb for all the 6E and 5A notes, the 1st for the 3D, the 2nd for the 4G, the 3rd for the 2B and the 4th finger handles the 1E notes. While you are doing this, why not dust off that old chord book and give your other hand and ears something to do.


Working the Independence requires determination and patience but is does the trick. It gets the technique tuned up and revitalized. If your independence is a problem then you need only check out instructional videos by players like Danny Gatton, Eric Johnson, Steve Morse and Robben Ford to find avenues to get you out of that rut.

Part 2: The Theory

Music theory is it like a huge interconnected web bogged down with jargon. However, a little quality knowledge goes a long way. Get to grips with the rudiments and the more advanced stuff will follow. Bear in mind though, that I can only scrape the surface in an article this size. Think of it as a crash course designed to get you started and encourage further study.
First things first, if you are ever going to be able to turn theory into practice, you will need to learn what the notes are called on your board. This is no simple task. One approach is to start with a single note in all positions. If you know where all the E notes are for example, by default you also know where D#/Eb and F are (they are just below and above the E). With this task underway we can start mining for knowledge.

The gap (or interval) between any 2 notes has a name based on their relationship to the notes of a major scale. Check out the collection of notes below.


The intervals between E and every other note in the pattern are named as follows:

E to F= flat 2nd E to E= flat 9th
E to F#=2 E to F#=9
E to G= flat 3rd E to G= flat 10th
E to G#=3 E to G#=10
E to A=4 E to A=11
E to A#= flat 5th E to A#= flat 12th
E to B=5 E to B=12
E to C= flat 6th E to C= flat 13th
E to C#=6 E to C#=13
E to D= flat 7th E to D= flat 14th
E to D#=7 E to D#=14
E to E=8 E to E=15

Now I need to take a brief detour into the realm of scales to explain the reason for the interval names...

Scales are constructed by formulae (there are list of them scattered around the web). Check out the E Major scale for example. It is created by the following formulae:

Choose your start point E. Jump a 2nd and play the F#. Then jump a 2nd to the G#. Now do b2nd to the A, a 2nd to the B and a 2nd to the C#. Follow this with a 2nd to the D# and finally a b2nd onto the E, one octave higher than you started. (a 2nd is often called a Tone or step, and a b2nd, a Semi-tone or half-step). See below:


Using the same set of jumps above, you can create a major scale from any note.

Now take a look at the interval between E and F. It's called a b2 (flat 2nd). Check the interval between the E and F# in the major scale above. F# is the 2nd, so by comparison, F is the flat 2nd. The same goes for all the flat intervals.

There are other ways of describing these intervals:

The b2, b3, b6, b7, b9, b10, b13 and b14th are known as 'minor' intervals i.e. you could describe them as a 'minor 2nd', 'minor 3rd', etc.

The 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 13 and 14th are 'major' intervals i.e. major 2nd, major 3rd, etc.

The 4 and 5 are called 'perfect' intervals i.e. perfect 4th and perfect 5th.

The b5 is known as 'a diminished 5th'. This one is often called a tritone (a 3 tone gap). This interval is the same as a #4 or 'augmented 4th'.

The b6 is a minor flat 6th or an 'augmented 5th' (or #5).

8ths are known as octaves or unison.

Many authors describe intervals inaccurately e.g. they will refer to a b10 as a b3 or a 6th as a 13th. Although they are the same note, these intervals are actually an octave apart. Just be aware of this when you analyze chords and ideas.

Let's take a turn...

The guitar's open strings are tuned E A D G B E in standard tuning (there are no reliable explanations for why we are stuck with this as standard but Robert Fripp once said he thought it's probably to do with the fact if you tighten each string to the max without sacrificing stability then you will end up with this arbitrary standard we all learn. The intervals between the strings are as follows:

E to A is a 4th. E to D is a minor 7th. E to G is a minor 10th. E to B is a 12th. E to E is a two octave interval. The sum total of the strings in standard tuning implies an E minor 11th (no 9th) chord. To my ear, not a particularly inspiring voice (you can change the voice of a chord by experimenting with the order of the notes within it).

Why not tune the strings to a different chord? Its quite straight forward retuning to say for example D A D F # A D. What better way to break out of a rut?

By the way, chords can have more than one name e.g. C major = Am7 / C. These are known as synonyms.

The Am7 / C chord is called an inversion or slash chord. An inverted chord is one which has a root note other than its name. The letter after the slash is the note you play in the bass position i.e. the Am7 has got a C root.

Taking you back into scale territory...

In addition to being the source of theory, scales bring order to the fretboard, broaden your palette, imbue technical discipline and inform advanced improvisation. These benefits only become apparent in the long term. What's required is a leap of faith and months of hard practice.

The notes of the major scale are also named as follows (using our trusty E major scale as an example):

E (the 1st)= the 'root' or 'tonic'
F# (the 2nd) = 'supertonic'
G# (the 3rd) = 'mediant'
A (the 4th)= 'sub-dominant'
B (the 5th) = 'dominant'
C# (the 6th) = 'sub-mediant'
D# (the 7th) = 'leading note'

You will find references to these terms in theory books, articles and in the general banter of musos so it will help being able to relate them back to the major scale you have been so diligently practicing.

Combining scale notes produces chords e.g. if you take the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the E major scale you have the notes required for the common E major chord. These 3 notes are collectively called the tonic triad. Triads form from each note of the scale and each triad creates a major, minor or diminished chord. Here is a list of these triads and the resulting chords:

1 3 5 = E G#B = tonic triad =E Major chord
2 4 6 = F# A C# = supertonic triad = F# minor
3 5 7 = G# B D# = mediant triad = G# minor
4 6 8 = A C# E = sub-dominant triad = A Major
5 7 9 = B D# F# = dominant triad = B Major
6 8 10 = C# E G# = mediant triad = C# minor
7 9 11 = D# F# A = leading note triad = D# minor b5 or diminished

Notice the intervals that produce each triad. A major triads e.g. the tonic triad above, are composed of a 3rd (E to B) followed by a b3rd (G# to B). The minor triads e.g. the C# minor chord, are made up of a b3rd (C# to E) and a 3rd (E to G#). The diminished triad is created by a b3rd and a b3rd. More simply, you could just see them as 3 note groups which are created when you skip over alternate notes of the scale. The set of chords that form in this way are called a chord scale. Experiment with combining these chords. If you don't know a shape, build it from its notes or study the CAGED chord system (there are plenty of sites on the web covering it).

The chords are numbered I to VII using Roman numerals. In this way we can talk about a chord progression in terms of a formulae e.g. a II, V, I progression would be the same as saying F# minor, B major and E.

Adding notes to triads produces chord extensions e.g. if you combine 1, 3, 5 and 7 you get a major 7th chord. 2, 4, 6 and 8 will give you a minor 7th. 5, 7, 9 and 11 a Dominant 7th. 1, 3, 5 and 9 will give you a major add9. If you add in more of the same intervals a chord name remains unchanged. I recommend a thorough study of the chords you already use in terms of their intervals. This will help you better understand their names. The web is rife with chord knowledge.

If you replace the 3rd or 5th of a triad you are performing a suspension e.g. E sus2 has E F# B instead of E G# B where the 2nd (F#) has suspended the 3rd (G#).

Now for the ubiquitous power chord... by combining the root E and fifth B you get a 5th chord E5, or what Pete Townsend called a power chord.

If you play chords in single note patterns you are playing arpeggios or 'broken chords'.

If you play a scale over its chord scale you are said to playing in key.

The term 'key' is literal i.e. the key to a song is the scale which provides its notes, so knowing the scale 'unlocks' the tune. When people say 'this song is in the key of E' what they are actually saying is that the song relies on the Emajor scale.

If you combine chords from the same key or chord scale, this is known as a diatonic chord progression.

If you use a chord in a progression that isn't diatonic e.g. using an Eb7 in an Emajor progression, it is called a passing chord.

If you replace an existing chord in a progression with another it's a chord substitution e.g. playing a F# dim7 instead of the F# minor.

Polytonal chords are those which are made up of two triads which could be played as independent chords e.g. C E G B D F spells a C major 11 chord but look at the C E G and the B D F separately , they form C major and B mb5 respectively.

If you sharpen or flatten the 5th or 9th of a dominant chord it's called an altered dominant.

Now, if you play the E major scale slightly differently i.e. F# G# A B C# D# E F# (same notes, different order) you produce an inversion or mode of the scale. As a mode this pattern is called G Dorian. Dorian is just a label for the major scale played from its 2nd note (or degree) - after all, the Dorians were an ancient Greek tribe.


G# A B C# D# E F# G# (G# Phrygian from the 3rd)
A B C# D# E F# G# A (A Lydian from the 4th)
B C# D# E F# G# A B (B Mixolydian from the 5th)
C# D# E F# G# A B C# (C# Aeolian from the 6th
D# E F# G# A B C# D# (D# Locrian from the 7th

Now try building and playing the remaining modes i.e.

The original scale pattern (E F# G# A B C# D#) now becomes known as E Ionian (from the root or tonic). Develop your own shapes for these modes all over the neck (using your new found knowledge of the note names) as this will open up your entire board for melodic exploration.

By the way, did you notice the E major scale has 4 sharps? This is its key signature. Why signature you ask? No other major scale has 4 sharps.

I could go on but that's your job. Hit Amazon armed with your credit card and invest in these invaluable tomes:

Chord Chemistry by Ted Greene

The Advancing Guitarist by Mick Goodrick

Studio City by Carl Verheyen

Open Ears by Steve Morse

Music Notation by Gardner Read

Guitar Secrets by Joe Satriani


I hope this article has at least got you questioning your 'comfort zone'. The buzz from fresh progress, from learning new patterns and from being exposed to new ideas provides vital creative nourishment, which in turn gives the imagination a clearer channel through which to express itself.

And finally...

1. Isolate and concentrate on your weaknesses because acknowledging flaws is the first step towards regaining momentum.

2. Track down a progressive teacher.

3. If all else fails, add an extra string.

Good luck.

Guy Pople is a music, education and multimedia specialist based in the UK`s North-West. He plays guitars, studies theory and runs St Annes Music in Lytham St. Annes, a one-stop shop for musicians on the Fylde coast of Lancashire. St Annes Music offers professional instruments, recording, tuition and accessories.

His live band Nomad is currently building up their original music. You can catch him
on Virtual Strangers.

Guy Pople

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