“A lot of times when someone says, ‘They have good technique, but there’s something missing,’ what’s actually missing is part of the technique”: Paul Gilbert on the essentials of great guitar playing

Paul Gilbert
(Image credit: Xavi Torrent/Getty Images)

My experience as an instructor has taught me that lots of the elements of guitar playing I take for granted are missing from the techniques of many of my students. And, I think that a lot of times when someone says, “They have good technique, but there’s something missing,” what’s missing actually is part of the technique. 

Here are three things that beginners and remedial players should watch for when developing their skill sets.

One Great Note

Having good technique involves mastering many elements, including intonation, vibrato, and dynamics, along with an awareness of things like time and key – which provide musical context and allow you to make good note choices. If you ignore these elements, it inevitably leads to disaster. 

As a teacher, it's my job to focus on all of these things over time without overwhelming the student, so that eventually they can play one note that sounds great. If you can get one note to sound great, you can get all of your notes to sound great.

Start with a Slow Shuffle

My students generally want to learn to play fast, and, for me, the most important step in learning to play fast is being able to play a slow shuffle really well. For starters, the bass line in Rocky Mountain Way is just a single repeating note, but the volume and the dynamics vary, and it's that quiet/loud, quiet/loud that creates the sound of the shuffle. 

Many good things come from learning to control note volume with your pick, and that’s impossible to do at quick tempos when starting out. So, while playing a shuffle at a slow tempo, first try using just upstrokes, or just downstrokes. Then, try alternate picking, with the upstroke being a little louder than the downstroke, and vice versa. 

When playing slowly, you can really pay attention to your strokes to make sure they are right, slowly building that technique into a habit. Once a technique becomes habit, it will be a powerful tool at any tempo.

Be the Metronome

Although sometimes people get good results with a metronome, most of the time they don’t, and that’s because the metronome can’t yell, ‘Hey, you’re drifting’ when you go off tempo. So, I always recommend stomping your foot, which makes you the metronome. 

That way, you develop the ability to generate your own rhythm and tempo, and you’ll have to have that inner metronome going if you want to play with a band, or to play anything in a musical context.