Break Free of “Position” Playing – Part 1

One night in college during a jazz improv class, I had a mini-breakdown in front of my teacher and some fellow students.  I was discouraged and frustrated that despite all my practicing, I was still struggling to get the music I heard in my head down to my fingers and onto the fretboard.

I kept getting lost on my guitar, jumping from position to position trying to find the right notes.  Positions and scale patterns became a crutch for me.  It was my default, and it was hindering my progress as a guitarist.  I wanted to play more expressively, but I didn’t know how to get there.

Though it was probably the lack of sleep and over-caffeination that caused my overreaction that night, I recognize it now as a turning point in my thinking.  I started realizing that I needed to do something different if I wanted different results.  I just didn’t know what that was yet.

It would take me many years before I felt like I had somewhat overcome that trapped feeling. For me, the “something different” ended up being the complete opposite of my normal approach.  Normally, I would have focused on practicing more scales and more patterns and just hope it helped.  Instead, I started experimenting with ignoring positions and patterns altogether (at least temporarily).

I almost immediately started seeing improvements.  I could feel myself caring less and less about what position, scale pattern, or fingering I was using.  Jackpot!

Here’s part 1 of the process that helped me start breaking the position habit.  I’ve also included a video demonstrating some of the below.  (go easy on me… it’s my first attempt speaking on camera ;)) Part 2 (coming next week) will cover how to reincorporate patterns/positions into your playing in a way that is actually helpful.  Let’s dig in.

 How to Break Free: 6 Steps

  1. Completely ignore positions and patterns (for now).  Practicing scale patterns organized by positions leads to position-based playing.  So get rid of them for now.  The purpose is to orient yourself to play what you hear and not what you see.  Don’t worry about fingerings, patterns, or positions.  We’ll add them back into the mix later.
  2. Learn “sounds,” not scales.  I find to helpful to think more about the sound represented by a scale than the scale itself.  Learning how to be expressive in G Maj, for example, is a better goal than being able to play a G Maj scale.
  3. One sound at a time.  Here is how I used to practice scales: choose a scale pattern, play it slowly up and down the neck in every position/key, increase speed, repeat.  A good start, but why was I trying to learn all 12 keys at once!  I immediately stopped caring about the actual notes because the patterns are moveable.  Not good.  Instead, focus on one key at a time across the whole fretboard.  For example, “my goal this week is to be able to play and improvise using a G Maj sound all over my guitar.”
  4. Dive deep.  Learn the anatomy of whichever sound/key you choose.  A good starting point is to make sure you have a good handle on all the note names, intervals, and triads found in that particular sound.  For example, G Maj =
    • g a b c d e f# g
    • whole step/half step pattern: W W H W W W H
    • Root, maj2, maj3, P4, P5, maj6, maj7
    • G Am Bm C D Em F#dim
  5. Go vertical – 1 and 2 string limits.  Start exploring those notes and intervals 1 string at time.  This instantly forces to you play more vertically and makes it impossible to play “in position” or with predetermined fingerings.  That’s exactly what we want.  Start with simple exercises, playing up and down the scale, arpeggios, or any of your other favorite sequences (e.g. 123 234 345 or 1324 3546, etc.).  Do this on each string by itself.  Then repeat using exercises limited to using 2 strings at a time.
  6. Experiment and play.  This is basically a reminder of step 1.  Remember, the whole point of this is to break free of position playing, so feel free to improvise, experiment and explore.  Familiar exercises are a good starting point, but try to quickly move to improvising.  Record a simple backing track to play to, or look on YouTube for “jam tracks” and see how musical you can be using only 1 or 2 strings.  You’ll notice playing vertically uncovers new musical ideas that you may not have discovered otherwise!

[youtube id=”DL7A73lfwCk”]

Wrap Up For me, this framework is the major shortcut to play almost instantly more expressively and cohesively across the whole neck of the guitar.  By limiting yourself to 1 string and 2 strings, you have to play across the whole neck of the guitar.  In Part 2 next week we’ll look at reintroducing patterns and positions so they actually work for you and not against you. I’ll leave you with a few final thoughts when trying out this process.

  • Start slow.
  • Spend a lot of time on one key/sound.
  • Play by ear.  Start trying to play what you hear and let your fingers follow (even if you hit some wrong notes).
  • When using 2 strings, try using adjacent string pairs (like strings 2 and 3) as well as non-adjacent ones (like 2 and 4).
  • Create your own patterns (e.g. 3 ascending notes on “b” string then up a 4th on the “e” string)
  • Experiment with slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and bends to add expressiveness to your practicing

Let me know how this works for you.  Do you have any methods or tips for breaking free of position playing on guitar?  Share below!

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  1. Thanks for this, Gary! I definitely need to ignore positions and patterns for right now. Also, the suggestion to simply grow familiar with one key at a time, even over the course of a whole week, is encouraging! It’s good to know other players have and are taking these approaches with success.

    Looking forward to part two!

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