What's Stopping You From Playing Bossa Nova?

bossa nova guitar Jul 14, 2022
How to Play Bossa Nova on Guitar


Have you ever questioned if what’s keeping you from playing Bossa Nova has nothing to do with your knack for this style? And what if your lack of talent was nothing but a symptom of neglected areas of your playing? Can you relate that to your poor Bossa Nova performance on the guitar? From my experience, that is a matter worth to be considered. 


What I thought was blocking me

I was about 18 when I became more interested in different styles of music beyond rock and blues. So I told my guitar teacher at the time about my intention to change course. He thought playing Bossa Nova would be a good change for me, and I enjoyed the idea. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for freshening the air didn't last longer than the first four bars of The Girl From Ipanema, which was all I managed to play. Since my first attempts at playing it were pretty disappointing, my reaction was to blame for that style of music. I believed I wasn’t fit, so I rejected it and retreated to the same stuff I knew I could do on the guitar without too much struggle. 

A couple of years later, I enrolled in the Brazilian Music & Jazz course from the conservatory where I graduated, and I had to face the Bossa Nova repertoire again. This time, I was a better-prepared musician, so instead of relying on natural gifts, I started to ask: what is the best technique to do that? What skill am I missing that is making it so hard to play? And the story had a different outcome.


What was holding me back, actually

My search for answers showed me that what blocked my playing wasn’t related to my talent for that specific kind of music. The truth is that I had mistreated some areas of my playing that ended up holding me back as a guitarist in general. And, as I started fixing that, the Bossa Nova playing started to solve itself too.

For example, Bossa Nova borrows much of its harmony from jazz. And since I came from a rock and blues background, I needed to broaden my vocabulary and learn the so-called jazz chords. However, my limited knowledge of the fretboard massively delayed me from achieving that. And, by the time I had to play Wave, for instance, it took me hours on chord diagrams and trying to navigate around the neck of the guitar just to play the chord progressions. That’s pretty discouraging work.

Another problem was my poor grips. I realized that because I wasn’t very confident with the chord changes, It affected my rhythm playing. And the opposite was also true! Because I wasn't much assertive with my timing, my chords sounded wobbly too. 

And let’s not forget about the fingerstyle technique! When you play Brazilian music, your picking hand plays an important role, with different sets of fingers playing distinct rhythms simultaneously. And I was a strummer, only used to play open chords with my plectrum. How could I expect to nail down that tricky João Gilberto comping style right off the bat? Did you know that he spent quite a few years honing his playing before he came out with his famous style? I would have to build some essential fingerpicking chops before I could play like him.


Your hands will follow your mind and your ears

Finally, and maybe one of the main reasons that my first experience playing Bossa Nova wasn’t successful was my listening habits (or the lack of it). Music is like a language,  the best way to become fluent is by listening to its speakers. I was trying to learn it in a vacuum. The more I focused on what was happening on the guitar, the less attention I gave to what happened in my ears.  I had no criteria on what elements of this music I should concentrate on to incorporate into my playing. Without the listening mileage, I didn’t have a mental model of the sounds I wanted to reproduce on the guitar. And, if you can’t relate what you are playing to what it should sound like, how can you tell you are doing it right? And how can you correct it without the proper reference? Your hands will follow what gets into your mind through your ears!


Foundations, a matter worth to be considered

Now, let’s assume that you are currently struggling to get your Bossa Nova playing to the next level. Can you tell how much of that struggle comes from the style of music itself? Are you fluent in its chord vocabulary? Do you navigate around the guitar fretboard without getting lost in the weeds? Can you play the changes connecting the chords with good sound and confidence? Is your rhythmic playing accurate, especially when you play the chord changes fingerstyle? And last but not least, how often do you listen to Bossa Nova? 

I know it sounds like I'm stating the obvious here. But what if the solution to your frustration hides in plain sight? I’ll give you my example: the first step to becoming a well-rounded player was to solve ordinary matters because they represent the foundations of my playing. It is funny that some of my friends outside Brazil believe that my fluency in Brazilian music is because of where I was born and raised. Little did they know how many ordinary and universal guitar-playing issues I had to solve to get there. 

So, all things considered, let me ask you again:

What is really stopping you from playing Bossa Nova guitar? 

Are you sure your clumsiness with this style isn't just a reflection of the problems I just mentioned? 

If you can't answer it right now, here is how to find out:


Spotting the limited chord vocabulary, poor grips, and bad timing issues

Forget about the rhythms for now. Can you just play the chords on the following progressions without having to check for diagrams?


 Progression #1

Progression #2


If you can't play them from memory, then you've found one of the pillar elements you should work on is your chord vocabulary. You can't expect to play Bossa Nova fluently if you stumble over chord shapes constantly. When you're unconfident on how to position your fingers on the fretboard, your picking hand - which is responsible for rhythmic execution - will also be insecure.


 Ok, assuming you know these chords by heart, now take the following steps:

  • Set the metronome to 60 bpm
  • Play the entire progression #1 exclusively fingerstyle. Don’t try any Bossa comping patterns yet. Just hit the chords on every beat. Try to play every note of each chord simultaneously, and with the same volume.

You can record yourself with your smartphone if you want. It will give you more precise feedback.


After doing that, check for the recording. Can you smoothly transition from one chord to another with a clear sound and a steady tempo? Were you comfortable playing it fingerstyle? Do you feel like your right-hand gets in the way of your left hand and vice-versa? Did you manage to keep track of the meter, playing the right chord on each bar?

One of the key features of the Brazilian guitar is the polyrhythms, and to perform it confidently on the guitar, the coordination between both hands has to be solid. Good chord grips, a strong sense of pulse, and awareness of musical meter in addition to smooth chord transitions are the essential elements to fine-tune this coordination. You must master these skills to dive deep into rhythms like Samba and Bossa Nova.

Again, I know it sounds obvious. But in my experience teaching guitar for about 14 years, I noticed that most of my students who struggle with their playing worry so much about not being fit for a specific style of music, that they ignore the flaws in their foundations. And it is precisely these faults that are blocking their playing.

If you took the previous steps and it showed you that’s the case for you, don't worry, and stay tuned for the upcoming articles. It will help you hone the essential skills you need to nail down Bossa Nova on the guitar. I’ll address in depth some of the most common issues that might be getting in your way and give you tools to fix them and boost your Brazilian guitar playing! See you soon!