Even if you’re locked away in a basement for eight hours a day with a metronome and a torturous practice book that is equal parts Mel Bay/Guantanomo Bay, you’re still not assured of transcendent 6-string skills. Sure, you may get stenographer-like dexterity and harmonic book-smarts up the f-hole, but playing soul-shaking music often requires a more diverse skill set. But this doesn’t mean that attaining the level of expression produced by someone like Jeff Beck necessitates a life of guitar monk-dom. First, don’t worry about the transcendent and unattainable talent of Jeff Beck. That’s just silly. What you need to do is ensure that whatever you play makes the hair on your arms stand up and quiver with bliss and excitement.
Here at Guitar Player, we figure that if you’re going to expand and maximize your talents, you may as well learn from the best. So we offer these 25 tips from cats who know their stuff—from rock royalty to jazz patriarchs to any-and-all top-of-their-game bad-asses. Hopefully, you’ll find something in these cosmic, practical, and musical nuggets of wisdom that will kick that rut-raddled mind of yours into higher gears of inspiration.
1. Joe Satriani says...
Renew!“Moving into uncharted territory is a key ingredient to making your practice sessions a success. Playing the same stuff over and over will only take you so far. Introduce a new set of chord voicings, tunings, or scale patterns to your routine every week. It’s not necessary to know how to implement the stuff right away, just make your fingers go to new places, and let the musicality follow naturally.”
2. Carlos Santana says...
Find You“A good way to crave your individuality is to get a tape recorder and get into a room that’s kind of dark—where you don’t have interruptions—and then just play with a rhythm machine. After a while, it’s like a deck of cards on the table, and you can begin to see the riffs that came from this guy, the riffs that came from that guy, and then the two or three riffs that are yours. Then you start concentrating on your riffs until you develop an individual sound.”
3. Steve Lukather says...
Relax“The most important thing to remember when you’re attempting to increase your speed is to relax. Don’t push your muscles beyond what they can give. Practice for about a half hour, and then take a break. You can always resume after a few minutes. This is especially important when you’re trying to get seriously twisted patterns under your fingers. I used to sit in from of the TV when I was a kid, and alternate-pick scales very lightly. I wasn’t really paying attention, and it actually helped that I wasn’t concentrating so much, because I stayed relaxed, and yet I was able to build up my technique and stamina. But never keep playing if you start to feel pain. Ever. Tendonitis is no joke.”
4. Jerry Garcia says... Dynamics
“To work on picking dynamics, plug into a practice amp and turn your guitar all the way up. Then play arpeggios—very quietly at the beginning, and then gradually louder by adjusting your touch. The goal is to vary your dynamics, but not change the position of your hands. Many guitarists change the way they hold their hands when changing dynamics. As a result, they end up with a ‘light-touch’ group of licks—the very fast stuff—but they don’t develop any power. What you want to achieve is continually making those conversions back and forth from quiet to loud picking.”
5. Rusty Cooley says... Get High
“Wherever your guitar is when you’re sitting and practicing is where it should be when you’re standing. I discovered this the hard way. Years ago, I’d practice my solos sitting down—and I’d nail them—only to go to rehearsal and blow it because my right- and left-hand positioning was completely different when I stood up. Now, most players think it looks uncool to wear your guitar up high, but I think it’s cooler to sound kick ass than it is to look cool and suck! Zakk Wylde slings his Les Paul really low, but as soon as a solo comes up, he’ll put his foot on a stage monitor to raise his guitar up. Hell, Tom Morello wears his guitar so high that he says it sometimes hits him in the chin. So, for the sake of killer guitar playing, raise ’em up!”
6. Barney Kessel says... Stay Hot
“Keep your guitar out of the case and handy. Practice short periods—anywhere from five to 45 minutes—many times throughout the day, rather than for one prolonged period. Often times, five minutes is enough time to work on a technique or musical passage. The whole idea of practice is to get your reflexes working like a gunfighter’s, so you can pull out that gun and be instantly hot.”
7. Nels Cline says...
“Don’t listen to unimaginative naysayers when it comes to personal creative expression. At some point, there will no doubt emerge a conflict between the rules of instrumental mastery, and the need to follow one’s own intuition. Be strong! The only so-called advancements in art—forget about commerce—have come about when someone has either boldly modified or completely disregarded the norm. Those who deviate must stay true to themselves.”
8. Dave Wronski says...
“To balance your pickups, plug your guitar into something with level meters, such as a 4-track recorder. Play each string individually, and adjust the pickup height until the level of each string hits the same point on the meters. Typically, you’ll have to lower the bass side of the pickup. If your guitar’s overall output is quieter than what you had, simply turn up your amp to compensate. The benefit here is string-to-string clarity.”
9. Jimmy Page says...
“There’s a very old recording maxim that goes, ‘Distance makes depth.’ I’ve used that a hell of a lot—whether it’s tracking guitars or the whole band. People are used to close-miking amps, but I’d have a mic out around the back, as well, and then balance the two. Also, you shouldn’t have to use EQ in the studio if the instruments sound right. You should be able to get the right tones simply with the science of microphone placement.”
10. James Hetfield says...
“For heavy rhythm, it has to be downpicking. It’s absolutely key. It’s tighter sounding, and a lot chunkier.”
11. Oz Noy says...
Moving In Stereo
using two amps and some stereo effects to get a bigger sound onstage. A
ping-pong delay sounds huge when you stand between both amps, and any
type of stereo chorus, flanger, phaser, or, in my case, a Leslie
simulator, creates the illusion of an even wider sound. Panning your
signal from side-to-side is a cool effect. I do it using a stereo Ernie
Ball volume pedal. I like the amps to be almost identical, while
others—including Stevie Ray Vaughan—prefer two amps that have different
sounds that compensate for each other. Finally, it’s important to
understand that unless both of your amps are miked, and panned left and
right in the house, nobody except you will hear the stereo effect.”
12. Jeff Beck says...
in anything is wrong—whether it’s practicing 50 hours a day, or eating
too much food. There’s a balance with me, as there should be with
everything and everybody. I’ve tried to keep it so that I’m able to
execute the ideas that come out, but practicing too much depresses me. I
get good speed, but then I start playing nonsense because I’m not
thinking. A good layoff makes me think a lot. It helps me get both
things together—the creativity and the speed.”
13. Al Di Meola says...
good way to work on alternate picking is to choose three or four notes,
and work on those. Too often, players who are trying to improve their
right hand dexterity get hung up by trying to play too many notes with
the left hand. I hear a lot of players running whole scales from the
sixth string to the first, and playing them really sloppy. Keeping it
very basic—using only a few notes—and playing slowly with perfect rhythm
is a task in itself.”
14. Marty Stuart says...
greatest musicians are knowledgeable about music’s roots. Experience
provides authenticity for the music we create. Eric Clapton and Keith
Richards can teach you a mess of blues, but it’s good to find out about
the original artists whose tunes they covered, such as Robert Johnson.
It’s like the old saying: ‘How can you know where you are going, if you
don’t understand where you’ve been?’”
15. Deke Dickerson says...
your pinky! When I first started playing, an older country musician
told me to keep practicing with my left-hand pinky—even though it felt
awkward—until it was second nature. That was the best advice I ever got.
You were born with five fingers—don’t forget to use ’em all!”
16. Stevie Ray Vaughan says...
big strings. I like a set with a .013 E string, but I’ve gone as high
as a .018-.074 set. They’ll eat your hands, your tuning pegs, and your
amp, but they sound great.”
17. Wes Montgomery says...
takes time to develop every aspect of your technique. A lot of people
don’t realize the crises you’ve got to go through. I used to get
headaches when I started doing the octave thing, but, over time, I was
fine. All it takes is to hear a little improvement in your playing, and
that little bit of inspiration is often enough to push you even
18. Eric Johnson says...
“Remind yourself that you’re free to feel great
instead of reserved or insecure. When you’re feeling good, you’re more
apt to take chances onstage, and if you make a bunch of mistakes, it
won’t matter. It’s almost like you’re the instrument, and the music is
flowing through you like electricity. Like John Coltrane said—the
paramount aspect of being a musician is to try to get more in touch and
in tune with yourself. When you do that, its like returning to the
center and everything emanates from there. You automatically become a
better musician in becoming a more aware individual.”
19. Dickey Betts says...
to damp notes to control feedback and noise when playing slide at high
volumes. Many people play slide with a pick, and then use the heel of
the hand or something to control the sound. The style I got from Duane
Allman is to use the thumb and the first two fingers without a pick. If
you have glass or steel on your left hand, and a plastic pick in your
right, you are completely isolated from your instrument. What you have
to learn to do is to strike a note, then stop the note with the fingers
before you strike another one, so only one note sounds at a time. It
works kind of like a damper pedal on a piano.”
20. Joe Pass says...
eighth-note lines with a triplet feel is very helpful for improving
one’s rhythmic feel for jazz. Of course, the best way to get a jazz feel
is to play with records or with a group. It’s something you’ve got to
inherently feel. A lot of rock players have such a straight-eight feel
that they can’t play jazz. They’re too stiff.”
21. Steve Vai says...
“Try to separate yourself from what your fingers are doing and listen to the amp.”
22. Allan Holdsworth says...
playing legato, try to make all of the notes come out at a consistent
volume. To achieve even more control, practice accenting the notes that
23. Pete Townshend says...
an electric guitarist to solo effectively on an acoustic guitar you
need to develop tricks to avoid the expectation of sustain that comes
from playing electrics. Try cascades, for example. Drop arpeggios over
open strings, and let the open strings sing as you pick with your
fingers. It’s kind of a country style of playing, but it works very well
in-between heavily strummed parts and fingered lead lines.”
24. David Gilmour says...
bit of delay can smooth out the unpleasant, raw frequencies you get
from a fuzz box. I have two units, and I have different echo settings on
both. There are times when I have both running at the same time for
certain effects. During solos, I usually try to set the delays to have
some rhythmic time signature in common with the tune. I usually set them
to a triplet—the notes all intertwine, so it doesn’t really matter
anyway, but I find that a triplet delay is very melodic.”
25. Eric Clapton says...
play every lick you know before the end of the set, because then you’re
screwed. You’ll just end up repeating yourself. But it’s a very
youthful thing to jam—it’s like sowing wild oats. But as grow older, you
become interested in doing something more lasting. You have to settle
down and make everything count—make sure what you do is worthy of being
heard again. I’ve become more devoted to the song, and I feel that
jamming, unless it has a goal at the end of it, is pretty much a waste