As a guitarist for the past thirty-odd years I’ve spent my share of hours working on techniques. From the extremely tedious, mechanical, madness-inducing, spouse-annoying picking drills with a metronome, to the more musically fulfilling – and ultimately more useful – endeavours, such as working out songs, learning chords or melodies, and so on. No matter how entertaining/boring you find these activities, they all share a common trait: they will (hopefully) give results in a not-too-far future. As such, they are of no use to you right now, and that’s the focus of this post.
The paradox of practicing is that if you use all your time preparing for a musical situation that is set to happen in the future, you’ll have no time left for being musical right now. At the same time, if you hadn’t done the preparation you did earlier, you wouldn’t have the ability to play music now that you now have. Quite a few threads on my favourite forum, The Gear Page, started out with someone losing motivation and the joy of playing, and the reason for this is often that they spend too much time practicing (skill acquisition), and not enough time playing (skill application). How do we solve this dilemma?
Work Out Lines
In a lead guitar context, instead of working on techniques in isolation, work out lines. This has the benefit of building a vocabulary and a repertoire of musical phrases that can be used in a musical situation. In addition to whipping your fingers into shape, there’s actual musical mileage to be had from the time spent. It will sharpen your ear, and as you start building this database of lines, you’ll probably stumble over some lines that are yours and yours alone. This means that you’re on your way to developing a style.
What about techniques, picking, and hand coordination, I hear you ask. Well, I’d take a pragmatic position and just solve it! Use whatever technique you already possess and make it work for you. There are no moral bonus points for playing things in a difficult way, so find the absolute easiest way of getting the musical point across, and use that.
In my experience the most effective and emotional music is almost always simpler than you’d think. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy, but it means that nailing a guitar part often is more about musical considerations like rhythm, accents and inflections, and less about flapping your fingers really fast.
Let’s say that you’re in a band, or maybe you’re recording some stuff at home. You need a rhythm part to go with the bass, drums, and keyboard parts. What to do? Well, instead of thinking that this is the chance for you to flaunt all those spectacularly cool chord voicings you’ve practiced, try listening to what’s already there. What is missing, from a musical standpoint? Is there a gap in the tonality of the band? Maybe the drums and bass are anchoring the low end, and the keys are doing something in a high register – could there be an opening in the middle register that you could fit into? What’s the rhythmic makeup of the song like? Is there a lot of rhythmic details in the drums, or is it more of four-on-the-floor kind of thing? Is it possible for you to contrast what the rest of the band is doing by either playing a less or more rhythmically advanced part? Juxtapositions can be very musical.
Nine times out of ten, my tip would be to play less – not more – and to try to fit into whatever empty, musical space is left. This could mean playing just a single note. It could also mean to play no notes at all.
Repeat What You Just Played
You know what you’re playing (hopefully) – your listeners do not. Repeat stuff – in rhythm parts, in fills, and in solos. A simple way to get started is to think of the form principle AABA. Play something – A. Play it again – A. Change it a bit – B. Play the original – A. What you’ve done is to take the listener with you, including her or him in your thought process. This enables the listener to make sense of what you’re doing, and draws them in. It adds a sense of form and order to what you’re doing, and that helps making it musically meaningful.
Generally speaking, people have a much easier task of deciphering rhythm than melody or harmony. Making a rhythmic signature helps anchor what you’re playing in the listener’s mind and makes it meaningful instead of chaotic. Beethoven’s Fifth is a good example of this, and the late, great, Frank Zappa said (can’t find the quote now, so you’ll just have to trust my paraphrasing) that he often used to have a very definite, easily digestible beat going under the advanced melodies and polyrhythms. The point was for the listener to have a clear, rhythmic reference point that all the other stuff related to.
Strong rhythmic signatures are musically useful. Just try tapping out the rhythm to Jingle Bells on a table, and people will recognise the song – even without any melodic information. Try learning the notes of the melody and playing it in free time. You’ll probably find that some can guess which song it is, but I’d wager it would take more time than with the rhythmic example.
Avoid Bar Chords
There’s nothing wrong with bar chords, but don’t use them on auto pilot. That means that muscle memory is what defines the music, and not your ears. In a band context bar chords are often too much. Pare down, reduce the number of notes in the chords to three, or maybe two? Maybe just one? See the section “Simplify” above.
Lose 25% of Your Playing Skill
Think of your skill as a guitar player as a percentage. 0% represents things that are so easy for you that you could play them in your sleep. 100% represents things that you can successfully manage – just – maybe one in every five times you attempt them. To be a musical guitar player I’d suggest that you disregard the top 25% of your technical repertoire. This doesn’t apply when you practice, of course, but it applies when you’re playing. The top 25% represents techniques that you don’t have the necessary margins to execute in a musical fashion. If you were to try to insert one of these techniques into a playing – not practicing – situation, you’d run the risk of rushing or lagging, pulling strings out of tune, have a weak or muddled attack, or just look and sound like you were trying too hard.
I’m going to try to tie it all together by saying that being a musical guitarist basically means to do the best with whatever skill you have right now. The important part here is “right now”. If you focus solely on practicing, you’re constantly preparing for a musical reality that doesn’t exist yet – and maybe never will. As you practice and get more proficient with a larger repertoire of techniques, you also move the reference point for what you consider good playing. That means that as soon as you’ve mastered a technique, you end up changing your definition of what is considered good playing. From here it’s easy to climb the next hurdle on your path to becoming a good guitar player. If you’re not careful you end up just working on the next thing instead of using what you already have. It’s a vicious cycle, and in my experience (I’m not the only one, judging from the threads at TGP, as I mentioned earlier) it ends up taking the fun out of playing.
Home assignment: Make the most music you can, either by writing, playing with a band, recording, improvising etc. but DO IT NOW! Don’t delay the musical rewards. You can always find time for practicing, but make sure that you play music most of the time. I mean, if you’re not going to be playing music, then what’s the point of all that practicing?
I’ve spent far too much time practicing technique for its own sake. I didn’t really start to develop as a musician until I started recording and could hear first hand what kind of noises I was actually making. After that initial epiphany, I’ve spent a minimal amount of time practicing, and a lot of time writing, playing, and recording. It has made me a better, more fulfilled, and happier musician, and I’ve actually managed to write som OK tunes in the process (at least I think they’re OK).
Practice what you must, but no more. Play as much as you can!