Music Inspiration Journal: #21 Tips From Ryan

Original Entry: Tips from Ryan

  • Right and Left Hand Interaction – Sometimes my right hand technique is too monotone and unvaried, perhaps explore variations with legato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, as well as feeling right hand variations.
  • “Take something you like and push it beyond your imagination’s limit.” Take something comfortable and mix it with something not so; make it comfortable.
  • I am trying to fill all empty space with notes and rhythm; let time uncover new ideas and sounds. Don’t just compulsively fill space, allow time for ideas to develop.
  • Scale exercise as 3 notes/string arpeggios.

Current Reflections: Gratitude

First off, I’ve gotta send a special and continual thanks to my dude, Ryan Murray who’s out there hustling and working the music scene in LA right now. This dude has been a continual force of inspiration in my life in general, encouraging me to push boundaries, to continue growing, and to keep cultivating my practice. His music is bangin’ so visit his Instagram here or check out the embed below.

This feedback came from Ryan sometime in 2014, definitely after a musical jam/hang, either at school or in one of our practice spaces. It’s interesting to reflect on his advice now from a point further down stream – there are still some juicy nuggets worth exploring inside of this now.

Left and Right Hand Interactions on The Guitar

“Right and Left Hand Interaction – Sometimes my right hand technique is too monotone and unvaried, perhaps explore variations with legato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, as well as feeling right hand variations.”

To contextualize this remark a bit, I think it’s important to know some of the history/background about my approach to playing guitar.

I began my life as a guitarist YEARS ago, in the late 2000’s during high school (2008-09ish), where I was completely taken with metal, alternative rock, punk rock, and the indie scene. Some favorites of the time included Avenged Sevenfold, Blink 182, Sum 41, Shinedown, Linkin Park, Killswitch Engage, Modest Mouse… (Just to name a few) Below you can find a snapshot of my headspace from high school in this little Spotify playlist, for anyone interested.

God, the more I think about this, the more tunes there are

Like many guitar players, I first started playing with a pick. Playing with fingers seemed IMPOSSIBLE to me at the time as I tried to piece songs together using tabs from the internet and hundreds of old issues of Guitar World Magazine. Once or twice I tried using my fingers instead of a pick and immediately thought “fuck this,” deciding that fingerstyle playing was too hard.

This is not to say that I was a stellar player. At all. I’m not ashamed to admit it now. I sucked then. I suck much less now, but I still have some work to do.

As I moved through my late teens into my early twenties and began to take myself a little more seriously as a musician, my relationship to my pick and my right hand began to radically change. In fact, I remember the exact moment that my stance on fingerstyle playing changed. It was early autumn and I was a freshman guitar student at the University of Toledo. My family had taken a trip out of town to visit my grandma for a weekend. She lived a few hours away and so I brought my guitar because I REALLY needed to practice. I had gathered all of my music, my guitar, a little amp, and even a portable metal music stand; but as I unpacked in the early morning on the first day, I realized that I had forgotten something crucial.

I forgot my pick.


In that moment I realized that I was sick of feeling tethered to that stupid little piece of plastic. I felt impaired in the absence of picks and resolved to break out of my unreasonable reliance on them. That day, I awkwardly stumbled through my studies, then, proceeded to stumble through the next year and a half of my life as a college musician, trying to break free of my pickles (Shackles + Pick? No? Okay, understandable.) It hurt, but after thousands upon thousands of continual micro decisions to persevere (and possibly a little stubbornness), I FINALLY got to a place where I felt comfortable playing with my fingers – more comfortable, in fact, than I ever had with a pick.

I’m not here to try and convert you to the church of fingerstyle guitar, but I will say, I absolutely support flexibility in your approach to playing. Picks are useful. Fingerstyle is useful. Hybrid picking is useful (combing both fingers and pick). I recommend checking out these different approaches and getting comfortable with each.

This has been, a long and ambling way to say this: at the time of this writing, Ryan did me the great service of noticing the flat and uninteresting tone that I was producing when playing with my fingers. At the time, I think I was a little irritated; I mean, it took me SO MUCH FUCKING WORK to get my fingers working. Period. And now my sound is BORING?

Well, sorry son, yes.

He was right. I was in the habit of playing things at the same volume, with the same articulation, with the same awkward time feel. After you get the basic mechanics of fingerstyle playing together, how do you continue to evolve your ear and approach?

Articulations bro.

Can you get nice and clean hammer-on’s and pull-off’s? Can you play short and staccato? How about long, flowing, legato? Can you accent only the off-beats? Can you surf the beat and adjust how you hang on the metronome’s pulse – anticipating the beat, nailing it straight down the middle, laying back and swingin’?

These are the kinds of questions that I began asking myself after this entry – questions that I continued asking myself for years; in fact, I still ask myself these questions to this day.

I think that the continued interest, for me, comes out of the dynamic interactions that begin to occur between my right, picking hand and my left, fretting hand. How can we shape the sound?

It’s important to have a good understanding of the basic mechanics of whatever technique you are focusing on, and this can be a PROJECT. But once you get your “sea legs,” so to speak (or fretboard legs, maybe), how can you continue to shape your sound? I think that, at our best and at some level, we all want to keep developing our capacity, whether artistically or otherwise. For me at this time, Ryan helped me notice that I could benefit from exploring some of the nuances of my fingerstyle approach. Thanks bro.

Pushing Limits on the Guitar

“Take something you like and push it beyond your imagination’s limit. Take something comfortable and mix it with something not so; make it comfortable.”

This idea is pretty straight forward. Ryan and I have always enjoyed helping each other push ourselves beyond our perceived limits, always in the spirit of personal development.

There are at least two different ways of practicing present inside of this feedback from my friend. The first that comes to mind is related to a modality of divergent thinking – considering the many possibilities available to us, brainstorming many different ways to think about a single practice or idea, and creatively thinking about new ways to see familiar information.

With this divergent approach, it’s possible to examine, in our case on the guitar, many familiar shapes and sounds, and to consider the many different ways that we could see them.

“Can you think about this shape as notes?”

“What are the scale degrees?”

“What do the sounds feel like in your body?”

“What intervals exist within this shape?”

“Can you play the same shape, but start on a different string?”

“Can you play it forwards AND backwards?”

“Could you permutate the form and run different patterns through notes?”

These are just some of the types of questions you might be able to use when creatively considering how to deepen your understanding of a familiar form.

The second that comes to mind is an approach that I still employ within my own practice, as well as within my process of teaching. I enjoy taking practices that are familiar and easy for me to see and feel, then mixing them with “new” and more difficult practices.

This idea rose quite naturally for me in the process of learning how to juggle. I realized I could start with a simpler and easier pattern to warm up and get my body flowing. Then, I would scour the internet for new ideas for more complex patterns.

“What would it be like to have THAT super complex pattern comfortable in my body?” “What if it felt as comfortable to me as this FIRST pattern?” “What if it was as easy and comfortable as tying my shoes?”

I found myself frequently asking that last question.

“What if it was as easy and comfortable as tying my shoes?”

Then, I encountered the basic premise again and again and music school.

“Start with what you understand and build off of that into what you don’t”

“Take the uncomfortable and work with it until it becomes the intimate.”

By mixing what is comfortable with the cutting edge of our ability, we are enabling ourselves to lean into a space of growth.

What can you do well and easily? What’s something that lies just outside of the edge of your ability? Can you work with your edge in a way that enables you to develop familiarity with the difficult?

Empty Space

“I am trying to fill all empty space with notes and rhythm; let time uncover new ideas and sounds. Don’t just compulsively fill space, allow time for ideas to develop.”

This is something that I think everybody who embarks upon the journey of improvising encounters at some point in time within their process. After we get a degree of facility and understanding of our instrument and begin improvising, often there is a tendency to cram in as many notes as possible. It’s like we think “The more I can shred, the better I am,” or something weird like this. Lots of notes can sound cool and create neat textures, but I personally think that the most interesting solos and the most meaningful pieces in general have a sense of space within them.

I have a lot of people to thank for bringing my awareness to this tendency to “cram notes” into my solos and compositions. Ryan, in this entry, Dr. Heritage, my composition teacher at UT, Jay Weik and Tad Weed, my guitar teacher and piano teachers throughout college.

You might be able to compare this idea of “cramming notes” to the literary goof of writing run-on sentences. There may be loads of great ideas in that giant sprawling sentences in that Facebook post, but the punctuation and delivery changes everything.

Where do you pause? When do you breathe? What is the point of your idea? Where do you want to put the emphasis? Can you step back and let the listener have their own experience? We all have imaginations, you know – maybe less detail and more empty space will allow your audience to engage more deeply.

It’s really the empty space in our lives that helps bring meaning to the activity.

Sometimes, you need to let the teabag steep.

Can you allow space within your improvisation, whether it be a conversation at the grocery store, jamming with some buddies, or while wailing on stage?

Can you give your ideas room to grow on their own, give your ears a chance to digest what you have shared, allow the band and the room to respond?

Scales and Arpeggios

“Scale exercise as 3 notes/string arpeggios.”

This last point was a technical point for me at the time. I was frequently working with a form of major scales that used three notes on each string.

Here’s a nice video of my teacher talking about this approach to scales, illustrating the various modes of C!

At the time, I often held firm and rigid boundaries between the various forms on the guitar. There were Diagonal Triads and 7th chords, Drop 2 and Drop 3 chord voicings, 2-1-2 7th arpeggios and so on… and each of these different forms were distinct and completely different from each other.

As I’ve continued to learn and grow, I’m glad to report that these rigid boundaries are slowly melting away. It’s becoming easier to see how all of these different forms relate and to gaze from a larger and wider vantage point.

At the time of my original writing back in 2014, I realized that I could play my arpeggios, but limit myself to the form of 3 notes/string scales.

Here’s a little video to demonstrate!

Love and Bows



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