Can 4 Easy Tips Make me a Better Player?
Okay, I don’t mean to brag but I’ve been playing guitar a long time and I was one of those kids who seemed to whizz past the ‘Oh that sounds just awful’ phase pretty quickly. I guess I was destined to be a guitar educator of some sort because even at age ten I was looking around at my fellow students and trying to identify what it was that they were doing differently to me, so I could avoid the same mistakes. I probably drove them and my guitar teacher nuts. Whoops. But here are a few things that stood out to me even back then as impediments to guitar glory, and they’re things I still see in players today.
Rushing to the Next Note
When you’re first learning guitar, you tend to think one note at a time. At that stage it’s natural to try to jump ahead to the next note so you can get to the next note, and so on. But doing so can result in a lot of chopped-off notes, or playing ahead of the beat in an unnatural way, so if you can get this under control early on it will stay with you throughout your guitar-playing life. It’s like speaking: there’s a natural flow that we’re used to hearing when somebody is talking, but if they’re chopping off words, it can feel pretty jarring. Or have you ever noticed on some advertisements and educational videos they’ll chop out the space between sentences and you’ll start to feel kinda claustrophobic because of the pace? Same thing happens with music.
When done in a natural, controlled way, vibrato can be a very expressive tool that gives you are playing a more lyrical, vocal quality. But just like a voice, if your vibrato is shaky and uneven you’ll sound nervous, and this gets sent out to the audience. I’ve found that one of the best ways to practice vibrato is to get a mirror and watch what you’re doing. This will immediately let you know when your vibrato is uneven because you can see exactly how far you’re bending and releasing the string each time. If you can train your muscles to bend more consistently you’ll sound more even and natural, and you’ll develop a higher level of control for those times when you want to go smoothly between a wide vibrato and a shallow one or vice versa.
Not Listening to the Band
When I was 16 I joined a top 40 cover band, made up of a bunch of dudes in their 20s and 30s. I guess I impressed them with my shredsmanship in the audition, but when we got into rehearsals it quickly became apparent that my inexperience in playing with a real band meant that I wasn’t quite synching up with them. What we realized was that I’d fallen into the habit of playing along with the recordings of the songs but I was missing the push-pull of the interaction between each instrument in the rehearsal room. I describe it as ‘playing the song at the same time as the other guys, not with them.’ Once we identified the problem, the other guys worked with me to help me zero in on the kick drum and the hi-hats, and this really helped me to lock in.
Trying to Run Before you Walk
This ties in with ‘rushing to the next note,’ but to the extreme. I’ve seen a lot of players who are so desperate to learn to play fast that they force themselves into playing really sloppily. Listen to some of the really great fast players like Al Di Meola, John Petrucci, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Morse and Eric Johnson: all of those guys can play at mind-melting speeds but each note sounds like it has a beginning, a middle and an end. You can pick up some really bad habits by learning to play fast the wrong way. I think it was Eric Johnson who once said speed should be a byproduct of being good, rather than being the ultimate goal.