There are many ways to improve guitar playing fast – just using what you already know – oh yes there are…
I’m going to show you lots of ways you can improve your expressiveness and musicality on the guitar under 7 basic headings and you’ll be amazed what a difference it can make.
This is not about the quest for speed guys – it’s about being more expressive and dynamic with what you already know!
- Chords – changing them up;
- Picking – getting different sounds;
- Legato, slurs and slides – playing without a pick and sliding into and away from notes;
- “Milking” the string and muting – vibrato, string bends and muting;
- Rhythm – change it up, make it dynamic;
- Different patterns of notes – don’t just play up and down scales, try something different;
- Other techniques – whammy bar, string noise and squealies!
No new scales here, no theory, no alternate picking lectures – just good ol’ feel and expression.
I have made a video demo-ing each of these sections and will link relevant portions of it along the way and I’ll include a link at the end to the entire video.
Chords – Changing Them Up
Even if you only know a few chords, there are ways you can make them work for you by plucking strings individually, in different sequences and even 2 or 3 notes at a time.
You can also experiment by lifting fingers or moving fingers within the basic chord shape.
There is no right a wrong here – the ear is king – if it sounds good, go with it.
This topic is potentially huge, but I’ll keep it simple here and use a simple example of a chord most will know or will know soon! But, you can obviously take this idea on to use with any chords you know now or learn in the future.
A couple of things to think about:
- You don’t need to use all the strings – in fact, some jazz players will use 3 or even 2 note chords;
- you can also skip over strings – there are many chords that require you to “miss out” strings or “mute” strings, this is just something to bare in mind at this stage and for you to explore when you are ready.
I’ll show you some ideas in this video snippet:
Picking – Getting Different Sounds
Whether you use a pick or fingers or even both, the way you address or attack the string can produce different sounds and generate dynamics in your playing.
- How hard or soft you play effects volume just use less muscle with finger picking and use less of the pick to contact the string (use the very tip of the pick so it’s just brushing the string);
- Whether hard or soft, the speed of your finger or pick changes the attack (or aggressiveness of the sound). Driving a pick through the string fast produces a very different sound to caressing it;
- For finger players, whether you stroke or pluck the string changes the sound (plucking tends to produce more of a twangy/slappy sound). Brushing the string with your thumb or really grabbing it with a finger and almost pulling it up a little really does produce massively different sounds;
- For pick players, changing the angle of the pick can also produce different sounds (laid-back or aggressive, percussive or smooth). When I say angle, there are actually two; 1) rotate the pick so that it doesn’t hit the string flat; 2) tilt the pick so it glides over the string more than picking at it.
Actually, even the pick itself can make a difference to the sound as well, I’ve written an article on that here.
There is also a technique known as tremolo picking (not to be confused with whammy bars) where the pick is constantly picking at a fast rate so you get multiple picks per note and a sort of staccato effect.
Bottom line, you can significantly affect the sound by using your fingers or the pick in different ways.
I demo these ideas in this video snippet:
Legato, Slurs and slides – Playing Without a Pick and Sliding Into and Away from Notes
Legato means playing notes without a gap (kind of!), but in terms of the guitar, it generally refers to playing almost exclusively with the left hand.
If you’ve ever heard much Joe Satriani, you will have heard these kinds of long streams of notes that sound like they flow – that is legato and Joe is a master of it.
What this really means is use lots of hammer ons and pull offs plus a bit of sliding around to get that flowing effect (don’t worry, I will demo in the video).
You might use the odd pick of a string during these sequences of notes but the idea is to get the sound flowing and to sound smooth.
I’ll demo this in a while – but it’s one of my weaknesses, so feel free to laugh!
Slurs and Slides?
Let’s start with slides. This is the idea of sliding your fretting finger up to or away from the note you are targeting.
For example, you want to play the A note – 7th fret on the D string. Sliding into that note might start with your finger on the 5th fret and as you pick the string, sliding your finger up to the 7th fret gives a really expressive edge to the note.
You can also slide down into notes as well as slide away once they are played.
Slurs are where you are sliding a single fret really quickly (at least that’s my definition) – you hear this kind of thing in blues, jazz and funk a lot.
I know all that doesn’t mean very much without sound, so here’s the video snippet showing you what I mean:
“Milking” the String and Muting – Vibrato, String Bends and Muting
By “milking” the string – I’m trying to get over the concept of getting more out of it than just placing a finger behind a fret and playing the string – which gives you a single note- and you need that, right?
Of course, but you can add so much expressiveness by “milking” that string!
This is a big topic in its own right, but let’s just keep it simple. Vibrato is “wobbling the string about”
There are many ways of doing this, but what you’re aiming for is to move or shake the string side to side (along the fret) just a little which raises and lowers the pitch of the note – you’ve heard those singers who “wobble” their voice? It’s the same idea.
You can achieve different effects by shaking the wrist or even pressing the strings hard down into the fretboard and releasing – but the idea is the same, “vibrate” the pitch of the note.
I’ll show you in a while…
Another massive topic, but at a basic level you’re looking to increase the tension on the string by sliding it along the fret and raising the pitch of the note (note that you often need to “support” the fretting finger with other fingers to get the control over the bend – I discuss this in the video).
Bending strings is heard a great deal in blues, country and more melodic rock as it provides great potential for expressiveness (there’s that word again). You can bend and release, bend release and bend again – the possibilities are endless.
“bend a half step” – push/pull the string far enough so it sounds as if you are playing one fret higher; “whole step” or “two fret bend” – make it sound like you are playing two frets higher. Even 3 fret bends are heard frequently.
For a classic example of string bending at its most expressive, re-visit “Shine on you crazy diamond” by Pink Floyd on the “Wish you were here” album – David Gilmore is a master of control at the art of string bending.
String bending demo coming up – bare with me…
I’ll show you in a short while…
Muting is usually achieved by having part of your picking hand resting on the strings, very near the bridge of the guitar or by lifting the fretting fingers temporarily.
It goes from restricting the “ring” of the string to a percussive sound (often heard in funk). Really, it’s just another way of changing the dynamic of what you are playing.
I’ll show you in a very short while…well, about now actually!
All of these techniques are demo-ed in this video snippet:
Rhythm – Change it Up, Make it Dynamic
So, if you get a metronome going, try playing 1 note per beat, 2 notes per beat, 3, 4, 5, 6 and so on.
Try missing out notes – get more complex rhythms going – use your ears and let it flow!
Honestly, too many guitarists become obsessed with alternate picking at crazy speeds – and that’s cool – if you can do it. But that “wow factor” only lasts so long, sooner or later you’ll need to play some actual music!
Rhythm and how it interacts with the melody or lick you are playing is a great way of expressing yourself.
This is best explained by example, so check out this video snippet:
Different Patterns of Notes – Don’t Just Play Up and Down Scales, Try Something Different
If you’ve done much watching of YouTube videos on guitar playing, you’ve probably seen countless videos showing you different scales and patterns and encouraging you to play up and down, up and down over and over again. Which is great – to get the shape under your fingers.
But, music/melody whatever you want to call it doesn’t often require you to play scales – it requires you to play melody or certain notes within a chord.
These will be notes within a scale, but not played as a sequence of notes in that scale.
The other trap guitarists fall into (and I’m very guilty of this), is to play nice patterns that land under the fingers naturally rather than notes that really “tell a story”.
So, this is all about getting out of the guitarist comfort zone and playing notes that “work” musically rather than notes that work because your fingers want to go there.
It may even mean skipping strings! Playing a note on the D string followed by a note on the B string, for example – doesn’t fall naturally under the fingers but may sound “just right”.
Do not be trapped by playing up and down scales or what your fingers “want” to do – because you’ve trained them to do that, it’s now time to train your ears instead!
Have a look at these examples and try it for yourself:
Other Techniques – Whammy Bar, String Noise and Squealies!
If you have one, a metal arm sticking out of the bridge of your guitar that moves! Then you can use it to great effect.
From the melodic way Jeff Beck uses it to imply and land on different notes, to the extreme antics that Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani demonstrate and all points in between – the whammy can add massive amounts of expression.
I’ll show you in a minute…
Scraping the strings with your pick like Eddie Van Halen, letting the strings ring between licks like Gary Moore or messing around with every part of the string like Steve Vai, there is scope for expression in what some might call “untidy” playing.
I’ll show you in a, bit less than, a minute…
Squealies are just that, a squeal sound accompanying a note. You’ll know what I mean when I show you.
You will have heard these from many guitarists like Billy Gibbons (ZZ-Top), John Petrucci, Satriani/Vai and many, many others.
Also called – pinched harmonics, you achieve them by touching the string with your thumb or finger a fraction of a second after you have picked the string.
(Tip – these are easier with distortion/overdrive although Eric Johnson uses them a lot with a clean sound – show off!)
I’ll show you in a, lot less than a minute – or as long as it takes you to start the video snippet!
As you’ve seen, there is massive potential for improving your guitar playing with these ideas and it really is all about expression and dynamic which Is at the core of music.
Too many guitarists get obsessed by technique, which of course you need, but expression is the key to sounding musical.
If you want to see the entire video in one hit, here you go:-
Hope you found that useful, but as always, I’d be happy to answer any questions just drop a comment or use the contact details..
If there is a lot of interest in any specific part of ways to improve guitar playing fast, I’ll do a more in depth video – just ask!
All the best and keep on rockin’