25 Ways To Improve Your Playing
It isn’t fun to get stuck in a rut. Sometimes you can chase the musical muse down the metaphorical rabbit hole and get wedged in there, unable to back out or to go any deeper. It can feel pretty frustrating, and at a certain point a rut can discourage you from playing altogether. Or maybe you’re not in a rut: maybe you just want to get better, and fast. Either way, the trick to technical transcendence is often found in how you approach the guitar from a philosophical rather than physical point of view. We’ve compiled 25 tricks that will help you to up your skill level, whether you’re stuck in a rut or if you just want to bolt a new dimension or two onto your playing.
Try Different Picks
When you’re playing guitar, the plectrum is your first point of call between your gear and your emotional output. And most of us get so used to sticking with a certain pick that we find it hard to use anything else. But picks are cheap, and there are so many designs out there for a very good reason: they all do different things. Think of it like a camera lens: some are great for close-up macro shots, some are designed for zooming in on stuff that’s far away, some are tailored for shooting portraits, some are good all-rounders, and then you have all the ‘special effect’ stuff like fisheye and tilt-shift lenses. Plectrums are no different. Some might be better for strumming, some might help you pick speedy licks more cleanly, and some might make it easier to pull off screaming pinch harmonics. So take advantage of the low cost of picks and buy a whole bunch of different types. If nothing else, it’ll leave you feeling less vulnerable if you’re ever thrown into a playing situation on an unfamiliar guitar with an unfamiliar pick.
Flick The Pick
Many guitarists go their whole playing lives without ever once putting down the pick and playing with their fingers, but they’re missing out on a huge range of expressive potential if they don’t give it a try. When you play with your fingers you open up your music to a whole new world of dynamic control – more like a horn player, really – and the note attack is slightly alien to the ears since we’re so used to hearing the sound of plectrum against string. Just listen to Jeff Beck or the later work of Richie Kotzen to see how otherworldly and yet how human and lyrical it can sound when you go pick-less.
The first thing you did when you got a guitar was to pose with it in the mirror, right? There’s no shame in it. We’ve all done it. But even when you get past the early ‘Oh my god, I totally look cool’ stage of guitardom, you should still jam out in front of the mirror. It helps you to spot flaws in your playing, such as whether you’re holding the guitar at a weird angle, or if your vibrato is uneven. (New to guitar and don’t know what vibrato is yet? It’s when you bend a string rhythmically and repeatedly, mimicking the ‘wobbly’ effect of, say, a vocalist or string player). Because the pitch of your vibrato is directly tied to how far you bend the string each time, a mirror will really help you see if you’re doing so nice and evenly or if you’re drifting a little too far here, not far enough there, and a little bit out of rhythm here.
Steal From Singers
The way a singer phrases their notes can be a totally different approach to music compared to what a guitarist may do. Pick a few singers you really like and see if you can identify what it is that makes their phrasing so unique. A good place to start is Ozzy Osbourne, because his phrasing is quite simple and easy to translate to guitar. But once you’ve got that down, check out singers with a more distinctive technique, like David Bowie, Bjork or Mike Patton. Listen to every little nuance: how they slide into and out of a note, how they vary the volume and intensity, whether they apply vibrato, whether they stay exactly in sync with the beat or if they intentionally come in a little early or late, whether they all little microtonal shifts and bends here and there.
Be A Mimic
Just as it’s fun to steal techniques from singers, it can help your playing to really try to get inside the head of your favourite players. Again, listen to the little unique details about their phrasing. For instance, a good shortcut to sounding like Steve Vai during a guitar solo is to hit a pinch harmonic on a note a few frets away the note you actually mean to play (but still in the same key), then slide super-fast out of that note and into the ‘right’ one. With plenty of trial and error you’ll eventually be able to identify what you need to do to conjure up their spirit in your own playing. But once you do, file that stuff away. Consider it research into learning how to get the string to do whatever your want, so that when it comes time to develop your own style, you’ll have a wider selection of elements to call upon.
Add A String
Seven and eight-string guitars may be mainly associated with styles like extreme metal, progressive metal and djent but that doesn’t mean that’s all they can do. In fact, an eight-string wired for single-coil pickup selections will get you some pretty cool bass-like tones, while the simple fact that you have more notes to play with means that if you can explore wider chord voicings or, for fingerpickers, more expansive walking baselines. A guitar with extra strings also forces you to think more in terms of melody and intervals rather than fretboard patterns, at least during the early stages, and that’s something that you can carry back to your six-string playing.
Take A String Away
Hey, it can work the other way too. Keith Richards and Billy Corgan are both players who have explored five-string guitars, while Limp Bizkit’s Wes Borland and particularly Soulfly’s Max Cavalera have been known to apply their riffsmanship to only four strings. These kinds of self-limiting systems can even be applied to a six-string guitar: simply tell yourself you’re not allowed to play any notes on a particular string for the duration of a solo or song, and see where it takes you.
Reign In The Gain
A lot of us rely on distortion as a crutch, whether we know it or not. It evens out the dynamics between notes, making it easy to sound great. And from a certain point of view, that’s fine. The end goal should be ‘sounding great.’ But too much distortion can also smear your tone and lessen the impact. This is especially noticeable in punk and metal where guitarists might pile on a bunch of gain for the edgy filth factor, but then lose the punch and attack that really gives those styles their oomph. A good rule is to set your gain wherever it feels best when you’re playing at home, then back it off by around about a third when you’re playing on stage. You can feel pretty naked playing with less gain by yourself, but in the context of a band you’ll simultaneously stand out more and fit in better, and the rest of the instruments will help to distract from the ‘argh, where do I go without gain to hide in’ feeling.
Turn Off Your Amp
You can learn a lot about your playing by turning off the amp altogether and practicing unplugged. You’ll instantly hear if you’re causing fret buzz, or if your pick attack is uneven when switching from string to string. It also puts a lot of emphasis on the rhythm of your notes, since the pick attack is so prominent when there’s no amp to help carry on the note sustain after you strike the string.
Trying to learn a song with a complicated rhythm, or a solo that you can’t quite wrap your fingers around? Sing it before you play it. This is a great way to internalise a rhythm before you even lay finger to fretboard, and it’s especially helpful if you’re trying to learn a song in an odd time signature.
Learn A Song You Don’t Like
Music that sucks can still teach you something, even if that lesson is ‘what not to do.’ Sometimes you can pick up new chords, rhythms and melodic ideas by learning songs that are outside your preferred genre, and you can then take those tricks back to your own music and recast them in whatever context you see fit. If you’re into metal, try learning to play a country song. If you’re into blues, try out some hip hop. Or just work up an ironic arrangement of some current pop hit. You never know what you’ll learn, and it never hurts to have an extra song or two in your back pocket.
Jam Along With The TV
TV themes often go way outside of the harmony you might expect to encounter in a rock song. For instance, from a compositional standpoint the Family Guy theme is really out there, at least as far as what you might encounter when trying to learn a rock/pop/blues/metal/indie/country song by ear. At one point it switches between a different scale for almost every bar, and this will really get you thinking about how to get from one note to the next while being led by a melody rather than a fretboard pattern.
Compose Away From The Guitar
If you want to really get away from fretboard patterns, fire up some software like Guitar Pro or even just a MIDI editor in some recording software and see what happens when you compose away from the guitar. You might write a melody or chord that’s difficult to play, but unless it actually hurts your fingers then it’s all fair game.
Just because you learned an E chord in the open position doesn’t mean you have to play it that way. Any combination of notes that includes an E, a G# and a B is an E Major chord. Ditto for any other chord. Hell, you can play an E Major by playing the open B and high E strings and fretting the G# on the low E if you want.
Invent Your Own Scales
Some players love scales. Others hate ’em. But even if you’re a complete scalar nut or you hate them with a passion, you can break outside of what a scale ‘should’ be by inventing your own, simply based on visual patterns on the fretboard. For instance, Dimebag Darrell and Eddie Van Halen both scored huge home runs with a technique called the Symmetrical Scale. This is when you play a pattern (usually a three-note one) on one string, then repeat that pattern across all the other strings, taking you way outside of any known scale but sounding pretty damn cool in the process. But don’t get tied down with rules. If your pattern sounds great on most strings but naff on one, just change a note here and there. Nobody’s going to bag you out for breaking out of your own invented scale for one string, except maybe one jerky YouTube commenter.
Aah, YouTube. It’s a great tool for lessons, gear demos and discovering new music, but commenters will tell you real quick if there’s something wrong with their playing. Or, in a more roundabout way, something wrong with their own. Don’t listen to them. Whether you record a video and whack it up on YouTube, or you record your own riffage on your iPhone in the lounge room (or of course if you’re recording a song in a studio at home or professionally), listening back to your playing will tell you a lot about what your strengths are, and maybe reveal a few hard truths, or a few happy surprises. You’ll instantly see where your timing might be rushed or where your phrasing might be a bit shaky. But don’t let the YouTube trolls get to you. They thrive on pulling others down to make themselves feel better about their own playing problems, instead of just trying to, y’know, fix them.
Get Out There
Once you’re confident with your playing on a bedroom level, get out there onto a stage somehow if you can. Or at least play with other musicians in the garage. You’ll probably find that whatever your skill level is when you’re playing by yourself, it’ll decrease a few notches when you’re playing with others, because you’ll have all sorts of other variables to account for: a whole bands’ worth of other people who each have their own perception of time; different acoustics to what you’re used to; nerves; stage lights; flop sweat. All of these things are pretty much impossible to simulate and you can only experience them when playing with other musicians. And since the goal for most of us is to make music with other people for other people, the stage or jam room will be where you’ll do some of your most profound learning. I reflect on this stuff a bit in this blog post about the time I got to jam with – gasp! – Joe Satriani.
Become A Time Lord
Yeah, yeah, metronomes are boring. But so’s listening to a player who has no command over time. So many players try to rush forward and become speed demons straight away but unless you can play in time, you’re just playing fast with bad time. Make the effort to learn to play with and against the tempo, and your playing will come to life.
Reharmonize A Song
Check out Mike Keneally’s “Day Of The Cow 2” to hear a familiar Metallica riff transposed into a major key instead of a minor one. It sounds jarring at first because you’re mentally comparing it to the riff as you know it, but once you step outside of that you can learn some very interesting things about harmony. If you don’t know your theory well enough to do this, that’s okay: just pick a familiar song or riff and shift one particular note backward or forward one fret for the entire song. See what happens. Catalog it away as another trick you can do.
Multitrack A String Quartet
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s a great way to see how different instruments fit together, and a fun project for extracting a wide range of tones out of your gear. You may need to know how to read music or you might need a really good ear in order to do it, but nothing worth doing was ever easy, right? As a guitarist you have a fine tradition of working your ass off to uphold.
Mute With Both Hands
It’s amazing how much cleaner your sound can become when you pay attention to muting. If you’re playing a note on the low E string, use the underside of a few of your fretting hand fingers to mute every other string. If you’re playing a note on the high E string, use the edge of your palm or the side of your thumb to mute all the other strings. If you’re playing a note on any of the other strings, combine these two techniques. Once you’ve practiced it enough it’ll become habit, and you’ll be able to play any note completely cleanly.
Learn A Melody On One String
This is a really great way to understand the relationship between notes. What you’re doing is effectively turning music into a linear experience which you can see playing out on a single length of string. If you’ve never worked on the skill of identifying intervals – the distance between one note and another – this will really help you to zero in on it. Before long you’ll be able to hear any two notes and just ‘feel’ how many frets apart they’d be. If you’ve worked on learning your way around the fretboard you’ll then be able to translate that to multiple strings instead of just zipping around a single string.
Get Your Mind Off Music
Steve Vai is fond of saying that when he’s playing a solo, he likes to completely take his mind off the technical and theoretical aspects of what he’s doing. Instead he’ll tell himself a little story or something, just to make sure that the music that’s flowing forth from his amp is an abstract recreation of an emotion or concept, rather than just being music that’s about music. Give it a try!
Play With PRIDE
Play your song with PRIDE (Phrasing, Rhythm, Introduction, Dynamics and Endings). This is a lesson your humble narrator’s Aunty Barbi, a music teacher, instills in all her students and it’s great advice whether you play guitar, violin, piano or whatever. Each of these elements is kind of obvious, and yet it’s easy to forget one or even all of them in the heat of the moment. Catch the audience’s attention and imagination with the introduction, leave them with a clear sense of finality at the end, and make sure you do everything to keep them there in between.
Sir? Step Away From The Guitar
Sometimes it helps to just stop playing for a while. This ties in with the bit about getting your mind off music: go out and enjoy life, experience life, and foster a relationship with your guitar whereby you miss it when you’re not playing it. Steven Wilson recently put it best when we asked him about playing with Guthrie Govan: “He’s one of the most naturally intuitive musicians I’ve ever seen. It’s like he doesn’t even have to try. Now, I’ve been on tour in the past with guitar players like Robert Fripp, John Petrucci from Dream Theater, and when they’re on the road these guys practice six, seven hours a day. Guthrie doesn’t even touch his guitar! It’s just amazing! I said to him ‘Why don’t you practice?’ And he says ‘When I walk on stage I like it to be like I’m being reintroduced to an old friend, and it’s a pleasure to see an old friend again.’ But to anyone else that idea of not needing even to warm up is just mind-blowing. But he really doesn’t. He doesn’t touch the guitar until he walks on stage. And that to me is a sign of a truly natural, intuitive, creative musician.”