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Lesson: Experimenting with Three-String Chords

If you play accompaniment guitar, it is likely that you sometimes seek new ways to throw in an interesting fill, play a bit of chord melody or create a tasty break. The easiest way to do this is to make use of three string chords. Even newcomers to the instrument can do this: it is mechanically easier than five or six-string chords and it facilitates free movement on the fretboard.

If you are new to the concept, it will be easy to start with a chord played on the first three strings. Use a simple “D” chord, played in the first position. If you move the chord up a fret and play only the first three strings, you have an Eb; on the 2nd fret it becomes an “E”, the 3rd fret is an “F” and so forth. Move the shape up and down the fretboard, creating your own rhythms and melodies.

Next, try the Dm shape and move it around, combining it with the major shape you already investigated. Although you are limiting yourself to the first three strings, you will find places that you can use an open 4th, 5th or 6th string effectively to create a simple bass line or a drone effect. You can also add a finger here or release one there to make new sounds. Once you get the idea, you can use other shapes that are familiar to you as the high strings of common chords. You already know the chords; you only need to think of them from a tighter perspective. As you progress, you can make chords on other combinations of strings and even use altered or extended chords!

Lesson: Three-String Chords, continued

Take a simple “D” chord in the first position. Think of it as a three-string chord on the first three strings. From the bottom up, the chord is spelled A, D, F#  (5th, root, 3rd).

Now find the same chord, with the same voicing, on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings. You have to move up to the 7th fret, right? Notice that the difference in the shape of the chord is that the middle note is moved back one fret. Try different chords on the first three strings, then move them to the next three strings and notice that you will always move up 5 frets and move the note on the third string back one fret to get the same chord. Experiment with different inversions and with combinations of notes other than major and minor triads. You can even make up shapes to create sounds that you like and transfer them to different positions on the guitar this way.

I’m going to leave you to play with this awhile, until you start to feel a real understanding of the relationship between the strings. When you get it, take it to the next set of strings (3rd, 4th and 5th). Just remember that you will always move the note on the third string back one fret, due to the way the guitar is tuned.

You don’t even have to have your guitar in hand to work with this. In fact, if you do it in your head, you will be increasing your fretboard visualization skills, which is very helpful in all you do. Have fun!

Lesson: Keys and the Capo

If you’ve played guitar for very long, you’ve probably made use of the capo. Most people get a little confused about what key they are actually playing in when they begin using a capo, and particularly when they are playing with other musicians. A few thoughtful experiences will clear up any questions, but the confusion returns when they launch into playing lead while keeping the capo in place. My intention is to remove this frustration from your life forever!

Let’s begin with becoming clear about the key you are actually playing in, capo or not. To determine the key, look for common chord progressions. The most common progression is I, IV, V. For example, if a song has G, C and D chords, it is in the key of G, G being the I chord, C being the IV and D being the V. Another really easy way to determine the key name is that most songs will end on the chord that is the key name. (If you don’t already know the major scales or have them written down, I recommend you do so. They are on p.14 of the Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training Manual and are on the inserts to Woman to Woman Guitar.)

Once you are sure of the key, simply go up the order of notes ½ step for each fret you move the capo up the guitar neck. This is the same way barre chords work. For instance, if you are playing a shape that you normally use for G and you put the capo on the 1st fret, you will be playing a G# or Ab. When you move the capo to the 2nd fret, the chord becomes an A. Likewise, if the song is played with the chord shapes of G’s, C’s and D’s, but you have the capo on the second fret, you are actually playing in the key of A. Put the capo on the 3rd fret and you will be playing in the key of Bb (even though the chords may not look like that to you!).

Now for the part that sometimes throws people: soloing.

Forget that the capo is on! The 8th fret on the 1st string is a C, whether there is a capo behind it or not. Your scale patterns will still work, provided you stick to the ones that you can play high enough on the neck to be in front of the capo. So, know what key you’re in, forget that the capo is there, and use your scale patterns to solo the way you normally would. It’s that easy!

Lesson: Time Signatures and Counting

Even if you don’t read music, it’s important to understand time signatures, as they determine the feel of the piece. I’ll start with a basic explanation of the time signature, and then I’ll give you some ways to think when playing in the most common ones, as well as some exercises to improve your sense of the pulse.

The top number of the time signature is the most important number to understand if you’re reading a chart or just communicating verbally about a song, as it determines the time feel. I always say that this number tells you how you dance. (Is it a “4” feel?

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4; or a”3” feel, like a waltz? 1 – 2 – 3 – 1 2 – 3; or a “2”, like a         march? 1 – 2 – 1 – 2)

Before you begin playing the piece, it’s wise to begin counting to that top number to determine the tempo and establish the pulse. Your counting should be steady and even and should continue at exactly the same tempo when you begin to play. (A metronome is most useful here!) If you are unable to maintain the same tempo throughout the piece, slow the tempo until you are able to do so. With practice, you can gradually build up to the tempo that is your goal.

The bottom number of the time signature stands for the kind of note that gets one beat. For example, a “2” would stand for a half note, a “4” would stand for a quarter note, and an “8” would stand for an eighth note. So, if 4 is the bottom number, you know that the quarter note gets 1 beat, and you can use arithmetic to determine that a half note gets 2 beats (half is twice the size of a quarter) and a whole note gets 4 beats (a whole is twice the size of a half).

The time signatures you encounter will be classified as either duple meter and triple meter.         As you might guess, 4/4 and 2/2, are duple meter, whereas 3/4 is triple meter. What might be surprising to you is that 6/8 time is duple meter, but if you think about how it feels, it will make perfect sense. The emphasis is on the first and fourth beats:

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6, making it feel like two triplets. In other words, the measure is divided into two parts.

Playing With Time

Play scales or finger exercises with a metronome to practice thinking in different time signatures. Choose an exercise that is easy for you to play and set the metronome at a moderate tempo. Play with an emphasis on the first beat of each measure. Just get in a groove and play steady quarter notes or eighth notes in 4, for example, until you’re consistently playing right with the metronome and really feeling the beat. Then shift to 3, then 2, then back to 4. Nothing will change on the metronome (the amount of time between notes); all the time changes will be in your head and hands!

When you listen to music, try determining the time signature. Then practice starting the song in the middle and telling where “1” is. You can do this by listening for where the strong beat occurs. Another good exercise to build not only a rhythmic awareness, but also a familiarity with form is to determine what measure number you are on at any given time. You can check your “guesses” either by counting the measures, if you are using written music, or by going back to the beginning of the song and counting measures, if you are listening.

If you don’t read music, but are interested in learning rhythmic notation, you can do so painlessly by studying the exercises in A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training, and using the accompanying CD. (

Lesson: Right and Left Hand Exercises

I have always been a fan of exercises on the guitar. If I don’t feel particularly creative, inspired, or motivated, I can work on technical exercises, sight-reading or theory, knowing that I’m making an investment that I can draw upon when inspiration returns. It’s so simple and satisfying to set aside ten minutes, five minutes, or even two minutes a day, with the knowledge that results will follow. In addition, I often find that by the time I’ve settled and centered by warming up with exercises, I feel more motivated and inspired!

A word of caution: Remember to breathe and relax during your warm-up routine. Stay in touch with your body while you play and discontinue any activity that causes pain. If you are conscious of the sensations you experience, you will learn to tell the difference between the mild fatigue that comes with strengthening and the injury that comes from strain or muscle imbalance. (For assistance with this, review the advice on the pain-free page of the site and consider participating a pain-free conference call in November.)

Speaking of balance, remember to balance your technical work with playing! Some people become so engaged in a quest for technical expertise that they don’t get around to making music. To state the obvious – the exercises are there to serve the music!

That being said, I want to give you two simple exercises that you can do for a few minutes a day, and experience enormous improvement in your guitar playing.

You may already be using the exercise that I recommend to help you get your head into playing and warm up your fingers gently. (If you don’t remember this exercise, you can find it on “The Basics” page of the site.) Let’s add some right hand work. Since using a pick can be awkward, it’s good to get past that by practicing a short daily exercise.

Make an “E” chord in the first position. (Any six-string chord will do, if you want to change the sound.) Strike the 6th string, using a down stroke ( / ), the 5th string, using an up ( V ) stroke, the 4th with a down…you get the idea. After you play the 1st string, which will be an up stroke, strike it again with a down stroke and reverse. Make it your goal to play this ten times in succession without looking at your right hand.

Go very slowly and feel free to watch your hand when you first begin. You want to take your time in reaching this goal, so that you don’t practice mistakes!

When you feel comfortable with the alternating picking across the strings, you can begin skipping strings, Maintaining the alternate /, V stroke of the pick. The order of strings will be: 6, 4, 5, 3, 4, 2, 3, 1, 1, 3, 2, 4, 3, 5, 4, 6 and repeat.

Remember to go however slowly you have to go to play accurately. Try to relax and let your body learn the spatial relationships. You will be amazed at how much your playing will improve from just a few minutes of concentrated work each day.

Lesson: Guilt-Free, Anxiety-Free and Moving Forward!

Guitar lessons (at least the way I teach them) are not always or completely about imparting information. There is no doubt that we need to know about chords and chord progressions, accompaniment styles, scales, exercises, ear training, note reading, and theory. In addition to gathering information about those elements, however, we need to learn how to learn that information. We also need to learn how to enjoy applying the knowledge we acquire to our guitar playing.

Of course, the key is found in our practice. Practice makes perfect…or does it? I think it depends on the quality of your practice.

For starters, I always like to remind people that practice does not make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect. In other words, if you practice mistakes, you will get very good at making mistakes. The more correctly you practice, the more correct your playing will be. That being said (as a reminder to practice consciously and intelligently), you may need to determine if you are actually limiting your progress by being too hard on yourself. (Caution: If you tend to skim the surface in your practice or have to fight being sloppy, this next section is not meant to encourage slacking!)

If you are of the belief that it is important to perfect a piece or segment before moving on (or if you are taking lessons from someone who ascribes to this philosophy), you may have noticed that although you may attain a level that is generally correct, regarding timing, notes and tempo, it often seems impossible to advance to the point where you can repeatedly play the piece in a way that you consider perfect. (It might, in fact, be helpful at this point to stop and consider what “perfect” means to you in a musical performance. That’s another topic altogether!) It may seem that the more you practice, the more you become stuck and the more frustrated you feel.

If the above scenario seems familiar, consider approaching your practice a slightly different way. The next time you experience this problem, put down the piece and choose something new that you feel excited about playing. You don’t have to abandon the old, problematic piece, just stop fixating on it. You might need to move on to several other pieces or technique practices before you turn your focus back to the original piece, but chances are, when you do you will find that you are fresher in your approach, and that you have new skills to bring to your practice. Isn’t that more productive – and more fun? You can continue in this way indefinitely, adding on the new and building a repertoire as you go, and always returning to the old work with consciousness and a commitment not only to clean playing, but also to self-expression. (I can’t resist a plug here – the chapter on Learning Tactics in the comprehensive DVD is worth the price of the video, in my humble opinion. If you don’t already have the DVD, consider getting it. If you do have it, watch that chapter again! You can also find an entire chapter on efficient learning in Learning to Play Lead Guitar.)

You can use the same approach if you find yourself in the miserable cycle of resisting practice and then feeling guilty about caving in to your resistance. You know you want to play guitar, you just…don’t feel like playing guitar! The solution is to bring to mind what initially inspired you to play and return to the mental and emotional place that you were in at that time. Find new songs to play, or better yet, revisit an old song, with a commitment to add some cool new licks or riffs. Try new ideas with the time feel or the tempo or add an intro. Record yourself. Find other people to play with. Sign up for a workshop (okay, another plug, but they’re fun!) or teach someone else something you want to know more about on the guitar. Be creative!

In short, start each session by detaching emotionally and making a commitment to non-judgment. Find and practice the correct notes, use your metronome, monitor your technique and then let go and express yourself! Resist being so focused on perfection that you forget to make music.


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