There have been many times during my love/hate relationship with my guitars when I have really struggled to find out how to improve my guitar playing.
Whilst my train was delayed coming home from work the other day, I got to thinking about this and some of the key breakthroughs I had along the way – what worked and what didn’t work so well.
I came to the sudden realisation that others must experience the same feelings from time to time and might benefit from knowing they are not alone, but even better, can learn from my experiences– and that inspired me to write this article for the benefit of all hobby guitarists.
You know, you pick up your guitar one day and realise that you’re playing the same things you’ve been playing for 2 or 3 years, that nothing sounds fresh anymore. There are even times when you don’t touch the guitar for a couple of weeks because you simply don’t feel inspired to do so – is it just me? Because I suspect not.
So, let me tell you about some key moments along the way, what they taught me and perhaps you will be able to overcome these hurdles faster than I did and keep the enjoyment alive and the inspiration flowing!
When I first took up playing the guitar, I seemed to learn pretty fast. Ok, so barre chords stumped me for quite a long time, but it was all new, my enthusiasm high and the glory of becoming a rock star in my own head was alive and kicking.
It was after about 18 months when I realised there was so much I didn’t know, I had pretty much mastered everything I knew at that point and I needed to learn some new skills if I was to be able to expand the sounds I could get from the guitar as well as the songs I could play.
I went to a teacher again for a few months and learnt some new techniques and off I went again, exploring new horizons.
And so it went for the last 25 or 30 years, I’ve reached points where I needed to go learn some new stuff – whether that be specific techniques, chord ideas, scales etc., there were frequent times when I needed new input.
Only trouble with all this, is that the teachers I would go to taught me what they wanted, I didn’t at that stage have a focus to what I actually wanted to achieve; I would just ask them to help me get better on the guitar!
What did this mean? Firstly, it meant that I learnt things I was neither ready nor prepared to learn; secondly, I learnt things relevant to the teacher’s own preference for playing style.
You Can’t, as hobby guitarists, Play Everything
It was a ridiculously long time, before I realised that I didn’t want to learn blues, country, jazz, classical and funk all at the same time, I needed to focus my efforts.
As you’ll see, lots of skills are transferrable between music styles, and you might head off in different directions at different points in your playing hobby (as I did) – but, they should be conscious decisions so that what you learn and practice are directly contributing to what you want to achieve at that particular point in time.
So, I focused on the blues! And that got my mojo flowing for quite some time and I got reasonably good at it.
Later on, I adapted this into classic rock, and later still, blues/jazz and funk – but, these were conscious decisions and built upon the skills I had at that time – I did not try to learn them all at the same time. (Ever heard the phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none”)? That’s what I’m talking about here.
Take Away Point 1 – focus your efforts towards your goals; those goals may change, but always ask “how is this helping me towards my goals”.
I’ll Never Play Like Him!
I am a big fan of many guitarists: Neal Shon, Steve Lukather, John Petrucci, Eric Johnson, Steve Morse and Larry Carlton to name just a few. So what did I do?
I set off in pursuit of being able to play like these guys…ridiculous huh?
After months of frustration, I took a good, long, hard look at myself. I might, just might, be able to get close to playing like one of these guys (but not John Petrrucci!), but I had to be realistic.
What each and every one of the guitarists I have named will tell you, is that they, like everyone else, worked tirelessly for 5, 7 or more hours a day for years on end to play the way they do – and in fact, still practice hard to this day to maintain their edge. So how can I, a humble hobby guitarist, ever hope to play with the same level of skill and accuracy.
So I reset my expectations, learnt a few riffs and absorbed the style of my favourite players and gave up mastering each and every lick they can play – it would be a very rare person indeed that could manage it, even if they didn’t have a fulltime job and a family.
Take Away Point 2 – be realistic with your ambitions, don’t judge yourself against the unobtainable.
Remembering How Hard it was to Start
A few years back, I decided that the next thing I wanted to learn and start incorporating was sweep picking (if you don’t know what that is, don’t worry, I’ll write an article on the subject). Just know for now, it’s a specific picking technique that can sound very impressive and melodic when executed correctly.
Being a reasonable guitarist, I assumed that I could just start sweep picking, and I’d have it down pat within a few days – wrong!
Every new technique, chord, scale will be just as hard to learn as the first chord you were taught when you started playing. Ok, so there are degrees here, but the principle is, just because you can play a bit, don’t forget that learning something new is hard work, takes time, and takes focused practice.
Take Away Point 3 – don’t forget it takes time to learn new things, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
I have an in-depth article devoted to the Best way to practice the guitar – what I’m talking about here is practice to a goal.
For a very long time, I’d pick up the guitar and just “play”. I’d stick the same old jam tracks on and noodle away – which is a lot of fun of course.
But that isn’t practice, you play the same way, it will sound the same – mistakes and all.
Set aside an achievable amount of time to practice, decide what you are going to practice and do that and only that for the time you have set aside. It’s a good idea to write down what you are practicing and how you are going to measure progress.
Take one thing at a time, I would strongly advise not practicing too much and not really mastering any of it – I wasted years doing that!
Take Away Point 4 – Set realistic practice objectives and time that you can stick to and try to measure your improvement.
Vertical, Horizontal and Diagonal
Huh – “Al what are you talking about”
Most guitarists, including myself, get stuck playing up and down the strings of the guitar within a limited number of frets. The classic example of this is the first position pentatonic scale.
It was after very many years of playing vertically, that I attended a guitar clinic by the god-like John Petrucci – and he said something so simple, so mind blowing that I truly wondered why on earth I hadn’t caught on to it myself.
You can play horizontally as well, i.e., up and down the strings (ok so most of us do this a little, but do you have licks/runs that go from the 3rd fret of the D string and end on, say, the 17th fret of the G string?) Imagine the possibilities.
More than that, diagonals, weaving your way vertically whilst moving horizontally as well. Just watch some of John’s live performances and you’ll see what possibilities this opens up.
Take Away Point 5 – remember to explore scales and shapes up and down the neck as well as up and down the strings and then combine them musically.
Learn Some Jazz
Quite late in my guitar playing, I came to the sudden realisation that I needed to learn a little jazz guitar. Not that I like jazz all that much, but you only have to hear some of the melodic things George Benson does to wonder “how is he doing that”.
So off I went to jazz guitar lessons for a month or two, but I had learnt my lesson. I gave clear direction that I wanted to learn some jazz guitar but only so I could incorporate some of the melodic tricks in blues, rock and funk.
In fact, I decided to take myself off to a “One Week Intensive” at the fantastic
Players School of Music In Clearwater, Florida – oh boy, what an awesome learning experience, at an awesome school with awesome people!
And, dear reader, it totally changed my playing – I don’t exaggerate here. I started to follow the chords, I started to use little arpeggios and actually made much better musical sense and stopped just noodling in scales. The pleasure when you hit “just the right note” on a specific chord is incredible!
This 1 week session turned me from a lick player, able to hold down a major/minor blues, able to play over pop songs into an enlightened musician with ambition to learn more.
I can almost guarantee that at some stage, maybe even now, you will start to get curious about jazz, and I strongly encourage you to follow that curiosity – you’ll be amazed at the riches you will find there.
Take Away Point 6 – Open yourself to jazz playing when you are ready.
I Haven’t Finished My Journey Yet!
I’m still learning and stretching myself, but I now control when I’m ready to move on because guitar playing is fun – and I for one, want it to stay that way.
As you can see above, I’ve wasted a deal of time and effort, so I really hope you can learn from my mistakes and really keep your own improvement and enjoyment properly balanced and get the most from the wonderful instrument that the guitar is!
Bottom line, I’ve come a long way, but I’m still finding out how to improve my guitar playing and what I’ve given you here is my experience to date in the very real hope that it helps you out.
I absolutely welcome questions and comments, so please let me know in the comments section and I’ll respond as soon as I can.
All the best and keep on rockin’