Has your playing reached the dreaded plateau? Are you practicing religiously but don’t seem to be improving?
Chances are there are a few reasons for this, but fortunately, it’s not difficult to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it.
Here we present a checklist of 20 things—suggestions, wisdom and exercises—that can help you break through your barriers and take your playing to the next level.
1. PRACTICE EFFICIENTLY
It’s possible to practice too much. We’ve all read about guitar players who spend 10 or more hours a day woodshedding, but not all of us have that much time to give it. For that matter, you may be overdoing it and putting too much strain on your hands and brain. Give it a rest. By focusing on specific tasks and areas that need improvement, you can accomplish what you need to in short, intense sessions and still make substantial gains. Aim for two to three hours a day, and take a look at this lesson for help on organizing your practice schedule.
2. WARM UP PROPERLY
As you begin your practice session, take a few minutes to warm up. Start with some basic stretches to loosen up your wrists. Hold your hands extended in front of you as if to signal “stop,” then grasp the top of your fingers with the opposite hand and gently pull back until you feel a slight tension in the wrist. Do the same with the other wrist.
Next, flex your wrist so that your fingers are pointed down toward the floor. With your opposite hand, grasp the back of your hand and gently pull back until you feel a slight stretch in the back of your wrist. Hold it for 20 seconds and gently release. Do the same with your other wrist.
Now, pick up your guitar and play through your favorite finger exercises for a couple of minutes. FIGURE 1 contains an interesting nonlinear pattern that serves as a good warm-up. Try to come up with similar patterns of your own.
3. IMPROVE YOUR POSTURE
An often-overlooked aspect of practicing is the position in which you practice. As in sports and exercise, you should train specifically for the goal that you’re trying to achieve. If your goal is to be a rock-star guitarist, then at the very least you should practice while standing if not jumping around. If you plan to play while seated, like a folk singer, then get a bar stool and practice while sitting on it.
This brings up another important point: guitar strap position. Although it is considered cool to have your Les Paul hanging down around your ankles, it’s far more practical to wear your guitar high and proud, especially if you’re performing more than power chords.
4. LEARN TO SIGHT READ
If you have not already done so, learn to sight read. It will improve your chops (and make you more marketable). There are plenty of books on the market, but there’s no need to limit yourself to guitar books. Head to your local music store and pick up some violin or flute concertos (these are “C” instruments, so their sheet music is in the same key as guitar). You can also use the lessons and songs in magazines like Guitar Player and Guitar World—just ignore the tablature and focus on the notes.
5. GET RHYTHM
The difference between a good guitarist and a great one often lies in rhythm. That “smooth” quality in phrasing single-note lines is due to accurate rhythmic production. Guitarists who play steady even eighth notes, 16th notes and triplets, consistent in time and on the beat, have that magical fluid quality in their lines. So pull out that metronome and march to that beat!
6. TRAIN YOUR EARS
As musicians, the most important pieces of gear we have are out ears, so it should be obvious that we need to train them. Start by trying to discern the intervals between two sequentially sounded pitches. Then, try to name the intervals between two simultaneously sounded pitches.
Next, give major and minor triads a shot. From there, move on to major, minor and dominant 7th chords. FIGURE 2 contains examples of each.
Remember, perfect pitch isn’t the goal; relative pitch is. Just being able to hear the difference between a major and minor chord will go a long way.
7. SING A MELODY, THEN LEARN IT ON GUITAR
This tip mostly falls under the “ear training” umbrella, but it will also help you build the bridge between what you hear in your head and what comes out of your guitar. Too many guitarists rely on finger patterns to make their statements. The ability to play on your guitar what you hear and feel in your head will broaden your choices for improvisation and provide you with a unique voice.
8. TRANSCRIBE SONGS AND SOLOS
Taking the previous entry a step further, transcribing prerecorded material not only trains your ear but also forces you to see the music from another point of view. Although transcribing guitar parts and solos is an obvious starting point, you should also try your hand at other instruments, such as saxophone, trumpet or violin.
9. PLAYING IN POSITION
Did you know that it’s possible to play in all 12 keys within a six-fret range?
FIGURE 3 contains fingering patterns for the major scale in all 12 keys in 1st position. In the world of fast-moving jazz changes, having these patterns at hand will preclude you from having to search the neck for the next scale pattern, resulting in more seamless phrasing through the changes.
The same goes for playing chord changes. For fast-moving changes, it’s helpful to be failiar with enough chord inversions and voicings to plain in one position.
FIGURE 4 contains standard jazz changes with common substitutions. As you can see, the progression is played entirely between the second and fifth frets. This saves a lot of time with respect to the physical movements required. Instead of searching for root voicings, you can play this set of inversions.
10. KNOW THY FRETBOARD
Inasmuch as it’s important to be able to play anything in position, it’s equally vital to be comfortable traversing the fretboard. Once you know how to play all 12 keys in one position, you should play those patterns in each position on the fretboard.
A good exercise for this is to play a single scale in every position from the 1st fret through the 12th. FIGURE 5 will get your started in the key of G major.
Another great way to explore the entire fretboard is to use four-notes-per-string scales. FIGURES 6–7 are F major and F minor scales, respectively, in a four-notes-per-string arrangement.
Another overlooked soloing tool is phrasing along a single string. To do this effectively, you must first be comfortable playing any scale on a single string. FIGURE 8 shows the E, G and A major scales (all starting on the note E) played on just the high E string. Try playing all 12 keys on each string.
When you’re comfortable playing scales along a single string, you may wish to mix in some open-string notes as drones (FIGURE 9) or pedals (FIGURE 10) to construct interesting phrases.
11. CHORD INVERSIONS
Want to create active moving rhythm parts with simple chord progressions? Learn the inversions of all your favorite chords. FIGURE 11 provides basic voicings of major and minor triads in the key of F.
The same applies to extended chords. This is paramount to becoming a jazz guitarist but has equal value for the rock, country or R&B guitarists too. FIGURE 12 shows the most common broken-set 7th chord voicings in F.
FIGURE 13 shows the most common adjacent-set 7th chord voicings in F.
When it comes time to solo, do you find yourself playing nothing but phrases built from scales? If so, it’s time to start practicing your arpeggios. Considering that arpeggios are simply chords played one note at a time, you should be able to use the chord inversions you learned earlier as a good starting point.
But before you explore those chords, here is a new exercise: The arpeggios in FIGURE 14 are based on the chord shapes of the open C, A, G, E and D chords (the CAGED system). This example is in D major, but as usual, you should practice it in all 12 keys.
13. HYBRID PICKING
Whether you’re a flatpicker or a fingerstylist, adding hybrid picking to your bag of tricks can only improve your skills. A combination of flatpicking and fingerstyle guitar, hybrid picking essentially give you the best of both worlds. Once you master it, you’ll find yourself using it without even realizing it.
FIGURE 15 offers a passage ripe for picking—hybrid picking that is. You should use a pick only on the 4th string. Use your middle finger on the third string and your ring finger on the 2nd.
14. STOP IT
Got your hybrid chops in order? Good, because they will come in handy as you tackle double-stops.
Defined as two notes played simultaneously, double stops can occur in any musical interval, though minor 3rds, major 3rds, perfect 4ths and major 6ths are the most popular. FIGURE 16 is an example of how a minimalist double-stop approach can maximize a guitar break over the basic vi-V-IV-I rock progression.
15. BACK TO BASS-ICS
Whether you’re an aspiring jazz guitarist or simply want to add some cool voice leading to your acoustic strumming parts, knowing how to play bass lines is a valuable asset. Among the benefits are a greater appreciation of chord tones and passing tones and where they fit in a given measure of music. Plus, it opens new avenues of songwriting. For instance, you could make the bass the melody instrument and the guitar the rhythm instrument, as in FIGURE 17.
16. GET EXOTIC
You may find writing or improv occasions that call for something out of the ordinary. A solid grasp of a few exotic scales can save the day. The trick is knowing when to use them.
FIGURE 18 contains the Byzantine (1 b2 3 4 5 b6 7) and Jewish (1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7) scales. Remembers, a b3rd denotes a minor scale, a natural 3rd denotes a major scale and a b7th offers a dominant quality, so you might choose to toss a Byzantine phrase over a C–Db7 progression, as all of those chord tones appear in the scale.
These scales (and other exotics) are also great for writing unique riffs (FIGURE 19).
17. TAKE CONTROL
Some guitarist plug in and turn their amps to 10. They don’t know what they’re missing. Those controls are there for a reason.
Way back before there were two-channel amps, distortion was created by overdriving the tubes. The only way to switch from clean to distortion without a second amp was to use your guitar’s volume knob. It’s a lost art, but the dynamic possibilities are endless.
As for that pesky tone control, whether you prefer the rolled-off clean tone of Pat Metheny the full-on brightness of funk or the ever-changing tones of Jeff Beck, there’s something in there for you.
18. PHYSICAL FITNESS
It’s well documented that physical fitness is not only good for the body but also for the brain. Running, cycling, swimming, weight training, yoga and meditation all lead to reduced stress levels, a lower heart rate and increased metabolism, which translates to a greater state of relaxation and improved focus during everyday tasks, including your practice sessions. Before beginning any fitness program, please consult your physician to make sure you don’t over do it and to determine if you have any medical issues that preclude certain activites.
19. LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN
You probably play the style you most like to listen to. But it would behoove you to check out styles that normally make you change the radio station. If you’re into players like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani for their technical execution, look into jazzers like Joe Pass and Pat Martino or country giants like Brent Mason and Ricky Skaggs, Remember, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger—and no matter how much you think it might, listening to music that you normally don’t like certainly won’t kill you.
20. PLAY NICE WITH OTHERS
This is probably the best and most fun way to improve as a musician. Sure, you can play along with your favorite tracks, and that’s good practice, but nothing beats playing with living, breathing musicians.
Ideally, the environment will not only develop your sense of time, dynamics and cohesion but will also inspire you to try things you haven’t tried before, as well as provide a clear picture of your current limits and what you’d like to achieve.
Best of luck!