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Home > Advice > Noodling

Making the Most of Noodling on Guitar

Mention the word noodling to most guitarists and their face will likely be painted with a "WTF?!" expression.

I'd therefore ought to start by explaining what it is... or at least my interpretation of it.

In short, noodling on guitar is freestyle, in the moment playing - where you explore seemingly random notes and rely more on trial and error and intuition than rigid musical systems and rules.

It's about poising your finger over a fret and wondering "will this work?" rather than knowing"this will work" and just going for it (don't worry, nobody can hear it except you!). Investigating rather than reaffirming. Making a huge number of mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Or maybe even recontextualising them so their no longer "mistakes".

An example might be randomly placing your fingers on the fretboard in an attempt to find an interesting new chord. Or maybe less random, using a familiar chord shape as the base for experimental modification. Another would be finding a cool sounding harmony/lick across a couple of strings, without being tied to a particular scale pattern.

So there's even more emphasis on your ears being the judge.

An even more succinct way to put it would be: exploration of the fretboard without restraint.

There's more a sense of "treading off the beaten path", the beaten path being scales, arpeggios and familiar chord shapes - the roadmaps we use to keep us from wandering into unpleasant dissonance.

Without these roadmaps, the fretboard can seem a musical no man's land.

But often the real magic can lie just outside the safe refuge of a scale pattern or chord shape burned into your memory (both mental and muscle).

Exploring new musical paths and locations can spark ideas you would have never thought of. It can stimulate your enquiring mind and exercise parts of the brain that would have otherwise been left dormant. We don't just want to repeat what we've heard or seen in a book or online, over and over again.

This spontaneous kind of experimentation can lead to entire songs, maybe your proudest creations, being spawned or seeded in a single afternoon.

It can even save you on stage. Sometimes we draw a blank or lose our way and the fretboard roadmap dissolves before our eyes. By noodling on a regular basis, this will be less of a problem because you'll have "practiced randomness" enough to avoid that feeling of paralyzing dread! You'll be able to salvage your solos more confidently.

The problem is, many guitarists lack the ability to extract anything meaningful from randomness.

It's all very well tearing down preconceived musical structures and rules in the name of experimentation, but I assume you still want to create music and not cacophony. There still needs to be some meaning behind what you play.

So here I've put together some tips on practicing what can best be described as "focused randomness", so you get all the benefits of spontaneous, free flowing exploration and actually get something usable out of it. Ideally, you want this randomness to become solid ideas with a place in your repetoire.

Noodling with a focused randomness 

Take it nice and steady  Move your fingers slowly so you can easily back track and repeat the actions that yeilded something good. Don't let your mind and fingers run away with themsleves because you risk skipping over the juicy stuff and finding yourself back in no man's land. Don't do too much at once. The more you noodle the more confident and quicker you'll get.

Be aware of every move you make  You'll want to internalise the sound each movement on the neck creates to get the most out of your trial and error time. If something sounds bad, and you can identify the rebellious note, it may just need moving up or down a fret to complete the phrase or chord in the desired way.

Develop ideas based on your current neck position  Think more in terms of building on and modifying where you already are on the fretboard, or at least in close proximity, rather than moving between random note units in sparse positions. Not only will this encourage good finger economics, it will allow you to see exactly what you have changed and where you came from much easier.

Support your randomness with what you already know  The aim of noodling is not to completely forget everything you know, and even if you tried to clear your mind, preformed ideas will still creep in from your subconscious mind. That's fine... welcome them through and use them to support fresh ideas. An example of this could be playing minor pentatonic and then exploring "outside" notes for a few measures, still using the scale as the melodic base. The convergence of tried and tested ideas and fresh ideas is a good ideal to aim for.

Include open strings  A more specific tip. Open strings can give chords and lead lines more depth and vibrancy. My Uncommon Chords sheet shows you a number of vibrant chords that make use of open strings (and not just the same old E, A, D, C, G forms!). For example, I could be playing the following two-string sequence...

noodling a two string phrase

And embellish it by including the open E, B and high E strings.

Build lead phrases around chord shapes  Use the strings/notes in the chord shapes you play to build a melody in the same position, adding in a few extra notes, either based on trial and error or a scale if you can recognise which scale they are part of. It doesn't matter if your lead is simple or a bit linear sounding, the idea is to embellish and develop it into something greater. Use the chord shapes as the scaffolding and the starting point for your lead.

Use noodling for increasing finger strength  Sometimes I deliberately find a movement that feels awkward for my fingers to execute, whether moving between chord shapes or single notes. I'll then repeat this until it becomes comfortable. Being able to negotiate these awkward movements will give you more freedom to move across the neck how you want, without physical constraints. It'll also help with changing chords quicker.

Write down what works!  Transfer the good stuff to your regular practice regime, integrating it with stuff you already know. If you build a nice sounding chord, progression or lick/melody, get it down on paper while it's fresh in your mind. Turn that randomness into utility - ideas in the bank.

I hope this article will encourage you to, not only spend more time noodling, but also to think more about what you're playing when you do. Keep it free and open, as it's meant to be, but try to develop some method to the madness to extract as much juice as you can from it.

You'll find that, as your awareness of what you're playing grows, new ideas will come quicker and easier every time you pick up the guitar.

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