Tag Archives: guitar lessons

Guitar Mastery Tips: The Power of Simplicity

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

Learning to play an instrument well is a long term endeavor. There is no short cut to overnight success, but there are longer and shorter paths. For intermediate level guitarists one of the most common areas of weakness is the tendency to want to throw everything, and at super-sonic speeds, at every solo. While there may be some level of personal gratification in noodling around with flying fingers, and this is indeed a useful tool in the process of developing an overall skill set, bear in mind that speed apart from other elements of musical fluency typically does not lead to smooth, flowing phrases but rather sounds like what it really is … scale practice.

When you get to that point in your playing when you have moderate speed but your phrasing feels unsatisfying, that is a good clue that you need to look more closely at the details of your phrasing. There is more to good phrasing than simply placing your finger on a note in a scale and getting it plucked at the right moment. Consider these elements of good phrasing …

1. Appropriate speed – many aspiring guitarists tend to play phrasing at speeds that are beyond their capabilities. Remember, you are going to play what you practice. Sloppy practice = sloppy playing. Sometimes it is needful to focus specifically on speed during practice, and at those times it is useful to attempt speeds beyond your current skills. At all other times, practice within a tempo that allows for accuracy and clarity. Practice slowly and with good note articulation, two-hand coordination, and mental focus. Speed up only as increased mastery permits you to play accurately and intelligently at higher speeds.

2. Note development – when you first learn scales the challenge is just to get through them, playing the right notes in the right order. Once you can do this predictably then the next logical step is to work on increasing your speed. However, this is where things can begin to fall apart. Before moving on to increasing speed, consider examine these elements:

Legato – not to be confused with the term as used in the limited sense of describing the physical technique guitarists use to create a legato feel – hammers and pull-offs. Here we are talking instead about the musical ideal of smooth flow between notes. Be sure to connect each scale note smoothly, holding each note until it is time to pluck the next note, then carefully timing the placement of the fret hand finger with the pick attack on the new note, such that there is no unintended dead time between the notes.

Dynamics – this refers to changes in volume in the most basic sense, but with guitar we alter volume from note to note with changes in the strength of the pick attack, and this in turn makes subtle changes to the overall quality of sound coming from the guitar/amp. Generally, for cleaner tones we need a more aggressive pick attack, and for distortion tones the distortion does a lot of the work so that we do not need to be as aggressive with the pick. Given those generalities, play to the song. We will not need to be as aggressive with Jazz as we would with Rock. Also, create a flow of dynamics within a phrase, such as picking easier at the beginning of the phrase with increasing aggressiveness toward the peak tension just before the resolution. Experiment with dynamics and see for yourself how it assists the sense of tension and release within a phrase.

Duration – when first learning scales practice them with a metronome until it becomes habitual to play in straight time – every note gets the same allotment of time. This habit then spills over into playing, so that your phrases are all rhythmically identical. Make it a point when practicing phrasing to vary the timing within phrases between half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and triplet timings, using bends and vibrato to embellish the longer notes.

3. Space – resist the temptation to fill every perception of space with extra notes. There will be points in the song where it makes sense to linger on a resolving note, such as at prominent chord changes. Good phrasing follows the pattern of speaking – a burst of words followed by the emphasis created with space. Then another burst, then another space. Experiment with imagining vocal phrases that would fit well over a track, then try to match the vocal phrase with your guitar. It does not have to be a perfect match. The idea is to develop a capacity to create a flow of vocal-like phrases that match the flow of tension and release in the song you are playing over.

4. Vibrato – holding a note at the end of a phrase will indeed make your phrase sound like it has died unless you apply a robust vibrato. Vibrato is a powerful tool for maximizing the impact of resolving notes at the end of your phrases. Work on developing and refining your vibrato. Then you will enjoy the sound and feel of your resolving notes and this will alleviate the pressure to rush off prematurely to the next phrase.

5. Motive variation – this is a very effective way to cultivate a habit of getting the most musical value from few notes. Select an appropriate resolving note, such as the root note of the key. Then make up a phrase of four or five notes from the appropriate scale revolving around this resolving note. This reference phrase is your motive (theme). Then experiment with variations on note choice, note sequence, timing, and embellishments. These types of experiments will enable you to see the many possibilities for squeezing the most musical value out of few notes, rather than always running in a panic all over the fret board and hoping a good phrase will come out.

Some of the most widely acclaimed guitar solos are also technically simple. Listen to B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, and similar Blues masters for abundant examples of phrasing that is technically simple, yet loaded with powerful emotional expression. While developing solo phrasing do not strive for maximum speed at first. Instead, strive for maximum impact of every note. Practice technically simple phrases with good timing relative to the song rhythm, deliberate note development, appropriate planned spaces, and a carefully controlled vibrato. Experiment with motive variation in order to cultivate a habit of achieving maximum impact from few notes. When you can do these things without being distracted by them then you will be ready to move on to more complex and faster phrasings. Until then … keep it simple!

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

Nature Vs. Nurture: The Secret to Overcoming Fatal Guitar Technique Flaws

After a decade of teaching guitar and interacting with other teachers and many clients, I can make a number of predictions on what any aspiring guitarist will struggle with and how the various responses to these stumbling blocks will either help or hinder progress.  The guitar is a challenging instrument, and there are any number of areas where one might encounter a temporary roadblock. Of these typical areas, there is one I have enumerated in my previous “Top Ten” article that stands out above all others as the number one barrier to progress: not following the instructions.

Allow me to clarify this concept since the phrase alone may seem too broad and actually contrary to your experience. I doubt you have ever openly refused to learn a particular chord, for example, or a basic scale pattern. This is not the sort of thing I mean when I suggest that a significant percentage of guitar students often stumble in implementing course recommendations. It is not a matter of people intentionally side-stepping the instructions. Rather it is that certain aspects of optimum physical technique run contrary to our instincts. Most students tackling a challenge in physical technique tend to unconsciously default back to instincts rather than consistently apply good technique recommendations. For the record, I am guilty of this as much as anyone, although I have improved significantly over the years in applying what the guitarist community has found to be the most effective technique development methods.

Now let me narrow this down to the specifics items that I see over and over. If any of these seem to apply to you, keep in mind that I am not writing about any specific person or experience, but rather my collective experience as a guitar student and teacher. I assure you that although some of these may apply to you, they are universal themes in the guitar community, so don’t feel like I’m singling you out to give you a hard time!

  1. Tickle the strings rather than tackle them.
  2. For playing open or bar chord rhythms, use a wide, fast, and light-contact pick stroke.
  3. For playing individual notes or two-string intervals (fifth chords, double stops) keep the pick hand palm turned into the guitar so that the pick moves parallel to the plane of the strings with a mere flick of the wrist.
  4. Apply no more pressure to the strings/frets than necessary to sound out a clear note.
  5. Avoid grasping the guitar neck with the palm and thumb as if it were a baseball bat.
  6. Use your elbow to change the working range of your pick – not your wrist or your shoulder.
  7. When changing to an upcoming chord, avoid chopping off the last beat of the previous chord by releasing pressure too early.
  8. Unless you are practicing certain exercises specifically intended to develop speed, do not practice at a tempo faster than you can play with good note articulation and two-hand synchronization.
  9. When learning a new rhythm pattern, go slow and consciously count the beats and divisions of the beats, rather than trying to play the rhythm by “feel”. Once you have conscious mastery of the pattern only then should you work on keeping time by feel.

If you have taken lessons with me for any length of time, you will know that I teach these things routinely, so you may wonder why I am taking up a Newsletter column with this routine lesson fare. There is a reason I am emphasizing these things for you: between knowing good technique and doing good technique, there is a subconscious barrier that we all struggle with: instinct. As your teacher, one of the most significant challenges I face in helping you develop your skills is your own instincts. Your basic instincts tend toward moving the fingers as a unit, favoring the index finger, using much more strength than is necessary, and handling the pick as if it is a plow. Your secondary instinct is to do just the opposite of this. For example, when attempting to play scales for the first time, you will note that your fingers want to stay together and mute the string you are trying to pick, so you will then pull your other fingers way back from the fretboard. Then you have to slam the next finger down like a dive bomber in order to stay in time on the next note. This causes subtle delays that cap your top speed at limits far below your potential.

The first step in conquering this barrier is to be aware of these instinctive actions and over-reactions, so that you can be ready to spot them and counter with deliberate focused repetition of a balanced, optimum technique method that cooperates as far as possible with your natural physiology. Then, apply focused attention to repetitions of good technique. Repetition of good technique results in habits, such that good technique becomes increasingly automatic, enabling to you to move between chords and notes accurately with little conscious effort.

Here is where the process breaks down: the focused repetition of good technique, and namely, the focus part. Your hands will constantly try to resort back to instinctive positions and motions, even though your conscious mind is well aware of these issues. You must pay close attention to these details of technique when you practice. This can be tedious at times, but the pay off is more than worth the effort!