35 Ways to Sound and Play Better Now—Tips from Guitar Giants

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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 99 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.

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/Guantanamo 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.

Joe Satriani
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.”

Jerry Garcia
Use 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.”

Jimmy Page
Try Room Miking
“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.”

Steve Lukather
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 front 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.”

Ritchie Blackmore
Do for Others
“Recording your own music is one thing, but having to deliver something for somebody else is entirely different. Session work makes you more critical about your playing. You can’t hit notes all over the place, you’ve got to make each note count, and if you can’t play really clean, it all sounds like a mess. You may think you sound fabulous onstage, but when you hear yourself played back in the studio, it’s just disastrous most of the time. But if you can play well in the studio, you can play well onstage.”

John Lee Hooker
Get Funky
“Forget about the fancy chords, and just concentrate on a funky beat.”

Keith Richards
Lighten Up the FX
“It’s best if people don’t notice effects that much. If you overdo it, and everybody realizes you’re using a phaser, then you’re on the wrong track already. You’ve got to use those things with a certain degree of subtlety.”

Jeff Beck
Try Moderation
“Over-indulgence 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.”

Bill Frisell
Play, Don’t Worry
“Don’t spend more time worrying about what it is you’re supposed to be doing, rather than just doing the work. Once I was stuck while trying to write some new music, and I asked my friend Wayne Horvitz how he did it. He gave me a pencil sharpener. The moral? There are no short cuts, so stop whining and get on with it!”

Al Di Meola
Alternate Pick
“A 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.”

[BREAK]

Peter Frampton
Use Stage Smarts
“A good band is not all about playing your instruments. You have to work on your stage sound, too, so that you sound good out front. For the guitarist, that means not being so loud. Now, I love loud, but I soon realized that if I turned down, there would be more separation between the instruments, and people would actually hear me better.”

James Hetfield
Get Down
“For heavy rhythm, it has to be downpicking. It’s absolutely key. It’s tighter sounding, and a lot chunkier.”

Dickey Betts
Damp Those Strings
“Learn 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.”

Marty Stuart
Embrace History
“The 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?’”

Roy Buchanan
Use Circle Picking
“Use circle picking to play faster. It’s an old jazz technique. Start by playing with your pick at an angle. Hit the string with one edge of the pick, and you’ll find that you’re in position to come back on the upstroke with the opposite edge. Then, alternate pick with a rotating motion in either a clockwise or counterclockwise circle. The pick, while not changing its angle in relation to the string, is circling that area of the string. It’s not done with the wrist, but with the fingers holding the pick. When first learning, start with a large circle, just to get the feeling. After a while, you should be able to get two or three notes going so fast that it’s like a quiver. The reason it’s faster is because your picking motion is not interrupted for a change in direction. The circle also gives the notes a flowing quality.”

Adrian Belew
Try a Little Compression
“Using compression is one of the best ways to get a consistently good tone. It makes the guitar feel electric and alive in your hands, because the notes sustain, rather than die on the vine as soon as you play them. Any stompbox compressor will do. I always place the compressor at the beginning of the signal chain, before going into the amp. Setting all the dials at 12 o’clock is a good starting point because it should give you a lot of extra sustain and a little bit of breathiness without affecting your basic tone much.”

Rory Gallagher
Get Out
“You must perform for an audience, because the real crunch happens when you get in front of people. You may discover that some things you played in rehearsal don’t make any sense, because you fooled around too much with the frilly stuff and forgot the basic drive of the song. Playing live also teaches you deal with situations like dropping your pick or breaking a string, as well as forcing you to project. You have to direct your playing somewhere—unless you want to sit in a room like a painter who won’t show his paintings to anybody.”

Roy Clark
Fiddle Around
“Learn to play fiddle tunes note-for-note. Don’t cheat, or play little slurs and things that you have a tendency to do when you’re playing fast. Play the songs slowly at first, until you get the notes even, and keep increasing the speed until you can play them as fast as you want. There are so many notes in fiddle music that you’ll really get your technique and coordination down. And the exercises aren’t boring, because you are actually playing something.”

Frank Zappa
Go Big
“If you’re going to go out of the norm, go all the way. Don’t just go out a little bit. If you’re scared to go out there, then stay in the norm—just learn to play really well in 4/4. But if you want to go beyond that, you must in a totally different direction. If you want to count odd meters, they’re all broken down into groups of twos and threes. And I’m not just talking about tinier subdivisions. What it amounts to is ritardos [slowing down] and accelerandos [speeding up] inside of a bar, mathematically worked out so that instead of bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp—four beats in a bar—you get other kinds of action, where the time inside of the bar goes faster, goes slower, and goes faster again. But it all comes out on the downbeat of the next bar so you can still tap your foot to it.”

Ry Cooder
Try Something New
“Play a new thing every day. Learning one new passing chord or a note combination will get you moving towards something that will serve you later on. Someday, a song will come along that all of those things will relate to.”

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Steve Vai
Separate
“Try to separate yourself from what your fingers are doing and listen to the amp.”

Randy Rhoads
Commit
“Don’t be lazy. You have to want to play, and, most importantly, you have to love the guitar.”

Tom Morello
Build Up
“Never forget that dynamics are a big part of the heavy factor in music. The quiet parts that build tension are what trigger a huge release that makes 100,000 kids jump up and down.”

Hubert Sumlin
Adapt
“Take a note from me, put it with your own notes, and make it you.”

Steve Howe
Avoid the Obvious
“Try to avoid ordinary licks. If I’m watching somebody for the chords, I think about the relative minor and the relative minor 7th, and I’ll do away with the root note. I find it interesting changing from minor to major, and, anyway, I always like to steer away from the obvious.”

Bonnie Raitt
Absorb
“Incorporate the feel of what someone plays into your style, rather than the actual notes. Then, you’re not judging whether you can play a song as well as the recording, because you’re not trying to duplicate it. You just want to nail the emotion of how an artist’s singing and playing is making you feel, and how those feelings transform your own playing.”

Robert Fripp
Craft
“In commerce, the musician makes music. In craft, the music makes the musician. The musician of craft acts on principle and moves from intention. In this way, nothing is wasted, and our playing is not accidental. There are ten important principles for the practice of craft: (1) Act from principle; (2) Begin where you are; (3) Define your aim simply, clearly, and briefly; (4) Establish the possible, and move gradually towards the impossible; (5) Honor necessity; (6) Honor sufficiency; (7) Offer no violence; (8) Suffer cheerfully; (9) Work, but not solemnly; (10) Without commitment, all the rules change.”

Jack White
Set Limits
“If you want to keep things raw, try limiting yourself to only two guitars on a track. Once you get into three guitars—or three of any instrument—you might as well put 60 on there.”

Brian May
Set Solos Free
“I enjoy solo lines that reflect the melody, but subtlely change it in a way that opens up another little window in the song. And these lines should have some freedom—some spontaneity. They shouldn’t be totally planned out.”

Eric Clapton
Exercise Restraint
“Don’t 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 of time.”

[BREAK]

Dave Davies
Move On
“When you’re recording, if you haven’t got the take in three or four tries, then there’s something wrong with the arrangement. It’s madness to worry yourself to death listening to 15 takes of the same song.”

Les Paul
Think in Colors
“Paint pictures with sound. First, find your white—the deepest, roundest sound you can play on the guitar. Then, find your black—which is the most extreme tonal difference from white you can play. Now, just pick the note where you’ve got white, pick it where you’ve got black, and then find all those colors in between. Get those colors down, and you’ll be able to express almost any emotion on the guitar.”

David Gilmour
Use Melodic Delays
“A 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.”

Pete Townshend
Mach Schau!
“All music is theatre. All music is expression. So never let the music get in the way of your stage act.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan
Trust Your Hands
“Your sound is in your hands as much as anything. It’s the way you pick, and the way you hold the guitar, more than it is the amp or the guitar you use.”

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