Planning your path

Hey, look: starting with an off-the-shelf plan is great sometimes, but how often does such a path fit you perfectly? Not everyone wants to do the same thing, after all—or even arrive at the same place—and all of us have come to be where we are now by different means. That seems like something to take advantage of, and something we can take advantage of. Whatsay let’s collaborate first to figure out what your plan is, and then modify it as necessary?

Give the following some thought, and let’s see where it takes us.

First of all:  a good plan is a living thing.

Just to be clear on this, let’s agree at the most basic level to:

  1. Construct a plan. This is putting a dart in the board.
  2. Work on it together. This is why we’re here in the first place.
  3. Assess it. How are things going? What could be better?
  4. Change it, if needed. Sun Tzu famously said, “In any battle the first casualty is the battle plan”; a great reminder that success usually leans heavily on our willingness to adapt.

Why, how, what/when.

First, focus on the why question, to construct a working path using elements of the how and what/when questions. When we meet initially, we’ll discuss the following:

WHY play?

What do you want to do? Strum cowboy chords? Work on improvisation? Build a chord library? Play melodies? Compose? Figure out what the heck a “symmetric rhythm” is in Turkish folk music? Get started with basic mechanics? Get better at altering chords spontaneously for color? Maybe you don’t even know.

We should talk it out a bit. Where you want to go suggests a whole lot about how to get there. For me, it helps to suggest plan elements from the how and what/when questions.

HOW to play

These are the broad categories of things we might work on, that go to the problem of how to play what you want to play. Within each category there is a spectrum of individual ideas to explore, concepts to introduce, exercises to master, and repertoire to go with or demonstrate it.

So, based on where you want to go, you might want to work on one or more of:

Building blocks – mechanics. This would include things such as:

  • Introduction to the instrument: terminology, layout, function, basic history, etc.
  • Ergonomics of the instrument: playing posture and ergonomic principles, etc.
  • Functions of the individual hands: basics of fretting, picking, clear sound, etc.
  • Physics: the harmonic series, vibration of the instrument, etc.

Training the fingers – principles. This would include things such as:

  • Fretting hand assignment of fingers and controlling their motion
  • Picking hand use of alternate picking and accent picking, with plectrum
  • Picking hand use of basic finger assignment on strings, for fingerstyle
  • Picking hand use of wrist to break note and elbow to select string, with plectrum

Training the hands – calisthenics. Extend basic principles with targeted challenges; e.g.,

  • Training the fretting hand to move across and up/down fingerboard
  • Training the picking hand to skip strings and operate smoothly in odd meters
  • Training for extended techniques like hammer-ons, pull-offs, harmonics, tapping
  • Training to build rhythmic command, shifting meters, moving between notes and chords
  • Training to build speed in both hands

Training the ear – listening. Train the ear to recognize and hear:

  • Intervals (octaves, fifths, thirds, seconds)
  • Scales and common melodic movement
  • Harmonic movement like cadences, key shifts, etc.
  • Melodies created collaboratively (e.g., circulations)

Training the mind – division of attention. Get the ears and hands working together:

  • Listening to what others are playing
  • Speaking what you play
  • Playing exercises against different rhythms
  • Cooperation and separation of the hands
  • Playing polyrhythms with the right hand (fingerstyle)

WHAT / WHEN to play

Here, the focus isn’t so much on how to make the sound, as it is which sound(s) to make, and when to make them. That is: melody, harmony, and rhythm.


  • Basics of songs defined with chords and melody
  • Basic chords in common keys
  • Keys and their important functional chords
  • Transposing for singers

Melody and scales.

  • Playing simple melodies from notation, tablature, or demonstration
  • Western major scale, in any key
  • Modes of the major scale
  • The composite minor scale, in any key
  • Non-Western and other arbitrary scales
  • Visualizing your fingerboard’s available notes
  • Chromaticism

Harmony and chords.

  • Introduction to tertian chords
  • Thirds, and constructing chords from thirds
  • Triads
  • Sevenths
  • Extended chords: ninths, elevenths, thirteenths
  • Leaving notes out, and rearranging inner tones
  • Constructing complex chords from simple ones
  • Tertian arithmetic


  • Rhythm basics – melody and harmony
  • Basic time signatures
  • Unusual time signatures
  • Polyrhythms
  • Ideas for expression


  • What notes can/should I play?
  • Generating interest in your improv
  • Improvising with others
  • Improvising harmony

Putting the plan together

Okay, so now you’ve chewed a bit, intentionally, on the above items, and at our initial meeting, we’ve even discussed them together.  Hopefully this has either clarified or confirmed for you where you want to go, and we can settle on a set of initial topics to work on, and hammer out a schedule.

We have a dart in the board.

If we need to change it, great. It may be that some things get much clearer after a working meeting or two, and refinement is always welcome.

Thanks again for working with me!