Soeren H Olesen

Learning and teaching music

My approach to learning and teaching music

Playing the guitar. Improvising:

If you give a naturally talented improviser a few important notes of a scale and ask him to improvise, only using these few key notes, he will, most likely, without even giving it a thought at all, draw on a whole bunch of techniques in his solo: He will probably start playing these few key notes in different succession, hereby creating some brand new licks..Then he will most likely change his phrasings and in this way keep the same old key notes sounding surprisingly fresh and new. He will without doubt create interesting and surprising variation in dynamics, sometimes playing really loud and then, hardly audible, and being an experienced guitarist he might very well also make subtle changes in speed and time as well. Throughout his solo our talented soloist would most likely change between interesting hammer ons and pull offs, and if you listen carefully you hear him create sudden changes between playing soft legato lines and the more brutal staccato style as well. Last but not least he will be spicing his solo with loads of interesting bends and vibratos.


It obviously doesn´t make any sense at all if our improviser should concentrate on all theese issues while soloing. That would definitely not sound as real improvising. It would not sound naturally at all.. But when he is back at his home and practices music, he might take out the single subjects, then concentrate on these - one by one, and hereby slowly learn about the musical language. This is in a nutshell how most musicians work and grow: They change between working in detail with all the fragments of the musical language at home, and then, when in a live playing performance they simply throw themselves into deep water and let go. Most musicians need to work with these two sides. However very few real talents seem to absorb everything through the playing itself, and without working with the theoretical issues at all. But they are a minority.


There is definitely a certain mystical and magical aura confining improvisation. But try to think about it this way: When you are together with your best friend ,and you tell him a great story, you don´t incessantly think about what exact words and what succession of words that you use. You just talk, you are in a nice flow, and you basically just tell your interesting story from one end to the other without to much thinking. That is how both storytelling and improvised music works!

As a start improvising can be really hard to learn, much like a foreign language. But by practicing again and again, both on the details, and on the flow,, most developing musicians can actually improve a lot. If they furthermore are lucky enough to have the talent, music can end almost as natural as a native language.


A guitarist might know all the scales of the world, but if he can´t improvise on a few key notes, he will fail the test as an improviser. A really good lesson for the developing guitarist is therefore to keep things simple. Don´t be scared of simplicity and space in the music. Choose four (or five) key notes in a pentatonic scale and start improvising on these four or five notes. This is a very important stepping stone to understand what improvising is all about.




especially young and unexperienced guitar students are often deeply fascinated by both speed and all the technical aspects of playing. Without doubt there is certainly a sort of hip gunslinger aura about often young and smart musicians, who can play lines fast as hell. Be it Stevie Ray Vaughan blowing a blues lick at ridiculous speed, or Mike Sern playing impossible fast jazz rock lines, or finally the unbelievable shredding of a young funky player as Guthrie Govan. Such guitarists often end up being mythical heroes and almost gods to some young guitar students, who would in fact give almost their one leg, if they could ever just come close to playing what they hear these half gods play!

While training technical skills certainly is an important issue, especially for many up coming guitarists, many students seem to forget the fact that not everyone has a talent for 100 meter sprint! Many probably remember that from sports in school. As I remember it, some were apt to make a 100 meter sprint at incredible speed, some were better at marathons, and some had no talent for running fast at all. The same is true for guitarists.

That said, most guitarists, who practice concentrated at least 2 hours every single day eventually will develop both considerable speed and technical skills. Guitarists with professional aspirations however need to practice a lot more.

While practicing speed is a good way to develop certain technical skills many students seem to forget that speed itself is just a very small part of developing skills as a musician.

An exaggerated focus on speed might even set back your over all development as a musician. To give you an example: A few years ago I had a young really cool and sympathetic student from Texas, who happened to be a death metal player. At our first meeting I was at first stunned by his virtuoso lines. But very soon I realized that he virtually never seemed to play any chords, and that he had a certain very loose timing, to say it mildly. Because of that I asked him to establish a groove on his guitar. But he just looked at me in a manner as if he was thinking: establishing a groove? what the hell is this guy talking about? Then I asked him to play a standard 12 bar blues, and again, he didn´t know the simple blues chords, about the blues form and how to comp a standard 3 chord blues. I know, that he afterwards went to a known music academy in London, so I am quite confident that he eventually learned about rhythm, groove, chords, chord scale relationship, comping, composing, finding his own voice on the guitar. All the things that are so important to develop as a guitarist and musician.


Anyway, if speed is what you want, the very best way to speed up your playing is by practicing for some hours every day, meaning seven days a week. You also at first have to practice your lines or licks very precise at slow speed, and then slowly play them faster and faster. Most students increase their speed much to fast. But if you can´t play very precisely at slow speed, you will certainly never sound good at high speed either!

In general, many guitarists probably find it a lot easier to play fast legato lines, meaning lines where the notes are bound together for instance by using hammer on´s and pull off´s instead of striking every single note. Jazz giant John Scofield plays this way, while his old music colleague, John Mc Laughlin is able to play incredible fast lines the old fashioned way: through picking every note with up and down strokes.

Australian fusion guitarist Frank Gambale introduced about 30 years ago a style where all scales are played with 3 notes on every string. If you have a good stretch this is a technique that can generate considerable speed, mainly because the right hand always play the same pattern.


How should I practice in order to become a great blues, folk or rock guitarist?


It is difficult to answer this question 100 % because there are so many ways to learn. My personal experience is, that almost all music students learn differently. Some, especially women, seem to be most interested in just learning to comp or play chords or finger playing, as they often see themselves more as singers than as guitar players. Men, on the other hand, often have their entire focus on scales, speed, bends and technical challenges on the guitar and they are normally deep into all technical aspects of improvising. If the talent and will is there both ways can lead to great music or even deep art. You can for instance take a fantastic singer song writer as Joni Mitchell, and then on the other hand guitar virtuosos like Jimi Hendrix or Pat Metheny. All are just amazing, and it is really impossible to say, who is the better.

Anyway, if you are a man, and coming blues or rock guitarist you will have to learn a few scales: As a start You should learn to play the minor scale in all 5 forms, with the right fingering and with the right pick technique. You should also learn to play the blues scale that despite its name is extremely useful in almost any musical genre. And you should learn the major pentatonic scale, which for instance in a major blues is a beautiful supplement to just using the minor pentatonic scale and the blues scale. The major pentatonic scale sounds more melodic, but for some reason many guitarist really don´t seem to have a clue how to use this scale.

It is obvious that if you are serious, you as a start have to learn these scales. But if you want to play music with your scales, you will as well have to learn the language of your favorite genre. That is where the real musical work starts. If you want to play blues music, you will have to study the masters of this genre. If you want to be a melodic and versatile blues guitarist, you have to listen to melodic and versatile players. It is with music as with any language. You learn by listening and by imitation and you will eventually build up a vocabulary. The end goal if you are a real musician and artist, is of course to find your own voice. It doesn´t matter that you can hear an influence in your playing from some famous guitarists, but you gotta find your own voice. Trying to sound like somebody else is ridiculous. Imagine if someone put a life long effort in talking with a voice exactly like yours. Ridiculous! Every single individual on the planet has his own unique voice. If you in fact devoted your life to one long study in someone else´s voice you would probably end being locked up in a mental hospital!

That said, the imitation of the famous and real skilled players is an important aspect of building up your own vocabulary. There will be some classic licks that you are supposed to know as a mature blues man. You would for instance have a hard time finding a mature blues man, who could not imitate BB King. It is part of the vocabulary of the blues language, and it really make sense to learn these classical blues licks and lines.

Many, especially young and immature men, however have a main focus on the technical aspects of playing. To them playing ultra fast licks and lines seem to be the main criteria for being a “world class player”. But if they continue out of that road, they can be very sure that their their main audience when giving concerts will be young immature guys as themselves. there would for instance also be very few, if any, females at their concerts. And most mature musicians would probably stay away as well. Let me try with a small metaphor. If I am out at a bar in the night life and I meet someone who incessantly speaks loud fast , I would very soon move to another location in the bar. I simply can´t stand it. It is not natural and it is simply a pain in the ass!

To me, the real thrill of music is the sound , and through listening to the sound I can almost always hear who is playing when I hear my favorite guitar or sax players. The sound on an instrument has nothing to do with gymnastic exercises on the fingerboard. The sound is much deeper, and has rather something to do with the soul and personality of the player. Real music is real talking, and no gymnastic exercises.

That said, I personally also practices speed and fast lines all the times, but I never allow it to be the main focus in my musical language.








how to find your own voice

bla blaaaaaa

About practicing on the guitar