Episode 9 of the Bite-Size Guitar Podcast sets a challenge to test out your creativity, note articulation, and expressiveness on guitar.
Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced guitarist, give the 2-note challenge a try for a week and see how it changes the way you see the fretboard.
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Podcast Episode 9 Transcript
Hi, I’m Aaron from guitargearfinder.com and this is episode 9 of the Bite-Size Guitar podcast.
In this episode, I’ll share with you a challenge I regularly use with my students to help them break out of ruts and refresh their perspective on guitar.
This challenge is useful for any time you feel overwhelmed on guitar or you feel stuck. It gives you a quick way of resetting and realizing guitar isn’t as tough as it sometimes feels.
Too Many Notes
Before I go through what the challenge is, it’s important I talk about a problem with guitar that doesn’t seem like a problem at first.
With a typical guitar, you have six strings and up to 24 frets. That means you have up to around 150 note positions to choose from when writing songs, improvising, or learning scales.
In many ways, having such a wide range of note choices is great. It means you can play an idea in many different positions and find the perfect position for any lick or riff.
But there’s a downside to all of this choice. Having too many notes to choose from can be overwhelming. Psychologists call this the paradox of choice and it’s a really strange thing that impacts many aspects of our lives without us realizing it.
When it comes to guitar, having so many notes to choose from can cause issues.
Have you ever heard somebody shred on guitar and when you look at what they’re playing, you noticed all they were doing was moving up and down scales in a straight line? They may throw in some sweep picked arpeggios or some licks they memorized, but then they go straight back to boring scale runs.
Why is it that some guitarists sound like they’re only playing scale exercises when they try to improvise?
The paradox of choice is one of the reasons some guitarists can become trapped into playing scale runs like this. Because they know the scale all over the fretboard, they subconsciously feel the need to play all of those notes.
The paradox of choice impacts every guitarist at some point, so even if you don’t relate to the shredder playing nothing but scale runs and arpeggios, it’s important to understand this.
This is why some guitarists sound like they play the same things over and over. It’s why their chord progressions, solos, or songs all sound the same. If you jam with them, they’ll quickly run out of memorized licks or scale runs to play and feel stuck.
Some people will blame this on not having musical genes, whatever that means, while others will blame it on being tone-deaf or lacking creativity.
The real answer, the strange reason why this type of thing happens, is due to the paradox of choice. Because we have so many notes to choose from on the fretboard, we subconsciously feel overwhelmed. So we revert to playing memorized licks or scale runs instead of trying to come up with something new.
This can impact even advanced guitarists who feel confident with the fretboard, but for those guitarists, the effects are less obvious.
The most obvious example of how more choices can lead to worse results is when a beginner first tries to improvise.
At some point when somebody first learns a scale, they might try to use it to improvise over a backing track. So they find a backing track that matches the scale they’ve learned, then hit play.
At this point, some guitarists will freeze up. They don’t know what to do, so they don’t play anything. They’ll hit stop and go back to practicing scale exercises because they think they’re not ready to improvise yet.
Other guitarists will play over the backing track by running up and down the scale positions as if it were an exercise.
Others may play some licks they’ve memorized, then once they exhaust their supply of memorized licks, they’ll feel stuck.
It’s no surprise that everybody struggles to come up with ideas the first time they try to improvise, but something strange happens if you slightly change the rules.
Instead of having an entire fretboard’s worth of note positions they could use, what do you think happens if the guitarist is restricted to only playing three or four note positions?
Being only able to play three or four notes is surely worse than being able to play anywhere on the fretboard, but that’s not what happens.
When students first try this, they can’t rely on any scale exercises or memorized licks. Instead, they have to put those three or four notes to use.
So they start randomly playing those notes back and forth. Then once they start to feel comfortable with those notes, they mix up the order and try to come up with an order that sounds good.
Then once they start coming up with some basic melodies, they’ll mix up the rhythm or throw in some techniques to make the notes sound more interesting.
The point here is that you would think that having fewer notes to choose from makes things harder, but it actually frees the mind up to be creative.
Every time I do this with my students, they seem to instantly break out of any rut they were in. By limiting the number of notes you have to choose from, you give your creativity space to come up with more ideas.
The 2-Note Challenge
Once I started seeing this pattern with my students, it eventually lead me to the 2-note challenge.
The goal of the 2-note challenge is to give your creativity a workout. By limiting your note choices down to only two note positions, you’re forced to squeeze as much as you can out of each note.
So here’s the 2-note challenge. Find a backing track in the key of E minor or record yourself strumming an E minor chord progression using a looper pedal.
When you go to improvise over the top of the backing track, the only notes you can play are the seventh and ninth frets on the G string. Those two notes are the only notes you can play. The seventh and ninth frets on the G string. You can’t play anything else.
You can use any techniques you like such as vibrato, slides, hammer-ons, palm-muting, or anything else. But you can only play those two notes.
For example, the only time you can play a bend is if you play a full bend from the seventh fret so it bends up to the ninth fret pitch. Don’t bend to any other pitch or slide to any other note.
Now, here’s what will probably happen the first time you try this. In the first ten seconds, you’ll play back and forth between the notes, throwing in random techniques along the way.
At some point, you’ll feel as if you have run out of ideas and there’s nothing else you can do with those two notes.
At this point, you’ll feel the urge to add in a third note. Don’t.
This is one of the key lessons of this challenge. We think that adding in another note will solve our problems, but it just pushes the problem ahead of us. If you were to add in a third note, it won’t take long before you feel stuck again and feel the urge to add another note. In other words, you’ll end up at the same dead end.
So stick to only using two notes. Resist that urge to add in more notes.
If you give this challenge a serious try, you’ll see how hard it is at first. Some people only last 10 seconds on their first try, while others might make it past one minute. But if you keep working on this challenge, you’ll eventually be able to play along with an entire 5-minute backing track without feeling stuck.
That might seem impossible with only two notes, but eventually, it will feel easy.
This challenge forces you to consider small details in each note such as where you pick the string, how hard you pick the string, and the angle of your pick and how it changes the sound.
Just looking at how you pick the string can give you enough ideas to play through an entire backing track.
Then you can turn your attention to something like your vibrato. You’ll try wide vibrato, shallow vibrato, slow vibrato, fast, smooth, irregular, and so on.
If at any point you feel that two notes are too limiting, don’t give up. If you give in and add in more notes, you’ll miss out on the massive benefits this challenge can give you.
I’ve heard Steve Vai mention several times over the years that sometimes he would work on a single note for over an hour.
If you ever feel stuck after a few minutes of jamming with two notes, just imagine Steve Vai working on one note for an hour on end. So two notes are plenty.
So how long do you need to work on this challenge before you start seeing the benefits?
If you try this once, you’ll probably dismiss it after a minute or two and won’t get anything out of it.
But if you work on this challenge for five to ten minutes a day every day for the next week, it will have a big impact on your playing.
After a week of seriously working on this challenge, if you switch back to a full scale and try improvising, you will immediately see a big change in how you think about the scale.
Not only will you feel far more comfortable in coming up with unique ideas instead of repeating things you’ve memorized, but you’ll feel confident that you won’t ever run out of ideas.
You know you can make two notes work, so you won’t feel the urge to blindly play up and down the scale positions.
If you want to improve your sense of melody, improve your note articulation, or you want to be more creative, I strongly recommend this challenge.
Commit to at least a full week of working on it before you decide to keep going or not. If you only try it once, you will likely say “nah this is stupid” and forget about it.
The first time you try this challenge, it’s painful. You’ll have a strong desire to give up and add in more notes. Part of your brain will be urging you to quit and you’ll be telling yourself that it’s a waste of time. But after the 50th or 100th time you try this challenge, it’s a piece of cake. If you can stick it out, it won’t feel like a challenge anymore and you’ll be far better off.
If you do give this challenge a try for a full week, I’d love to hear your thoughts or struggles you had along the way. Record me a message at the top of this page if you want to share your experiences with this challenge.
Or if you have any questions or suggestions on topics to cover in future episodes, record me a message.
I strongly encourage everybody who has got this far in the episode to give this challenge a go for a solid week.
It’ll feel tough at first, but if you stick with it, you’ll get a lot out of it. Good luck with the challenge and I’ll talk to you next time.