Well, party people, we’re about to put another year in the books.
As we wind down 2012 and prepare to get our 2013 on, I’d like to share a dozen things that I’ve learned about playing and teaching guitar this past year.
At least a few of them are things that I’ve re-learned, but I think you get the point:
Below are 12 items for you to check out, comment on, ponder and (hopefully) act on. Each one is guaranteed to add something positive to your guitar experience or your money back. 🙂
Here’s to a peaceful and happy – but totally rockin’ – holiday season!
1 – Success breeds confidence which breeds success.
It’s a virtuous circle. Get good at something and you become more confident. When you’re more confident, you perform better.
This sort of thing happens regularly in the guitar studio, but it’s especially rewarding to see it happen for someone that has worked really hard for it. For my adult student, Sully, the battle was being able to change chords cleanly and in rhythm. He fought with his guitar for months, but finally got to the point where the songs he was playing sounded like songs. To say he was psyched is an understatement!
Perhaps this sounds like your own story. If so, then you’ll be happy to know that if you stick with it long enough – if you have the required determination – then a whole lot of fun is available on the other side. Check out this post for Sully’s whole story.
2 – Where it concerns our guitar practice, we must make time, not find time.
I’m sure you make time for things you really want to do, like hanging out on Facebook, playing video games, taking selfies in the bathroom mirror and watching “Golden Girls” marathons. If you really want to play guitar and become proficient on the instrument, you’ll make the time.
If you’ve been messing around and feel like you haven’t really gotten anywhere, maybe it’s time to set some sort of concrete schedule based realistically on what you can consistently do.
When do you typically have some spare time? Maybe it’s before or after school. Maybe it’s at night before bed or when the little ones are napping. Maybe it’s when the spouse is out shopping or playing poker. Whatever the case, identify your best time for guitar practice and make an appointment with yourself.
In the words of my old friend and former student, Larry: “Quit futzin’ around and dig in!” This post can help you get started.
3 – We all need a gig.
Nothing will give you the musical kick in the pants necessary to improve your skills like having a gig and knowing you’ll be expected to perform. This is why music schools have recitals of course. (Mental note: Start some sort of recital program.)
This happened to me recently when I was asked to perform in a Christmas concert. The most challenging tune was a wicked-fast country number, featuring me on electric guitar. You better believe that I got down to business in the weeks preceding that show! As a result, I now feel a lot more confident in my country guitar skills. Without that gig, who knows if I would’ve really taken the time to improve?
Playing at an open mic, joining the church group, getting the old band back together, or jamming with friends all counts. The key is to find a playing situation that will make you more accountable. So get yourself a gig and watch your skills grow in leaps and bounds.
4 – Experimenting with new techniques is one of the easiest ways to break out of a playing rut.
Over the past few months, I’ve played a lot of slide guitar and committed to learning some open tunings, two things that I had only given modest attention to in the past. It’s been a blast and having a few students who are into these things gives me even more reason to get down to business (see #3 – Get a Gig).
For less experienced players it might be learning new chords, incorporating slurs (hammers, pulls or bends), using a capo, or playing fingerstyle. Intermediates might like adding harmonics, hybrid picking (pick and fingers), whammy bar tricks, or right-hand tapping to their repertoire.
Bottom line: Don’t be content playing the same old stuff – get out there and explore the possibilities!
5 – A lot of my students hate Christmas music.
This simultaneously baffles me and breaks my heart. How can anyone not like Christmas music? I know that they start playing it earlier and earlier every year, but c’mon, people! It’s Christmas! Are folks really that jaded? One teenager told me it was “corny”.
Not to be deterred, I put together a sweet chord-melody arrangement of a holiday tune every December. This year I arranged “White Christmas” (for late beginners) and found a great arrangement of “Deck the Hall” (for intermediates) by David Hodge on Guitar Noise. Half of my students looked physically repulsed. Scrooges and Grinches, the whole lot of ’em!
Thankfully I still had half of my roster to jam with on some Christmas tunes. And we rocked ’em. 🙂
6 – The Internet is a terrible place to find accurate transcriptions of songs.
I’ve been preaching this for years and it is one of my all-time greatest pet peeves. But from time to time, I feel the need to reiterate my feelings on this topic.
First, it’s nice and it’s courageous for guitarists to transcribe a song and post their work online for others to view and learn from. However, maybe folks shouldn’t feel so eager to do this, especially when they often admit that their work is probably not accurate!
One of the worst examples came recently. One of my students wanted to learn “Winter White” by A Fine Frenzy. She said she found a transcription online and that it only required a few chords. I investigated. After listening to the song for just 20 seconds I could tell that the online chord changes were so wrong as to be laughable. Not just a little wrong. 90% wrong. How can someone learn like this?
As I see it, this means two things:
1 – We have to learn to figure out songs by ear for ourselves, if only to test what people post online.
2 – We have to invest in some good professional transcriptions (books like the White Pages or Recorded Versions).
I know everybody wants free stuff nowadays, but as the saying goes, you usually get what you pay for. You want to be a good player? Buy good transcriptions.
7 – Once we get past the beginning stages of chord playing, everything is impacted by our knowledge of the fretboard.
From power chord positions to melodies to barre shapes to lead guitar improv, the answer is the same: learn the notes of the fretboard or be prepared to fumble around.
It seems a little painful and a lot overwhelming at first, but like anything else worth having, you gotta work for it. The alternative is what happens to lots of students who never commit to learning the fretboard; they are a few years into their studies and still pondering what the note is called at string 2/fret 7.* Don’t be that guy or girl. Learn the fretboard. ‘Nuff said.
Note: Luckily, I’m going to have a kick-ass lesson on fretboard strategies as installment #1 of the New Year, so stay tuned!
8 – Consistent, short practice sessions will trump sporadic, marathon practice sessions every time.
This is one of my favorite tips, and it never fails to work. You need to “grease the groove” by performing the movement enough that you are virtually working on auto pilot.
This type of muscle memory takes lots of reps, but just as important, it requires consistent ones. The synapses in our brains need to learn to fire efficiently when given a command, and consistent repetition is the quickest path to success. Yes, there is science behind this. Check out Guitar Zero if you don’t believe me (an especially good read for adult guitar students).
All this practice has to be, of course, correct practice. Bad reps will simply ingrain the wrong movements, which quickly become bad habits rather than good ones.
As my Facebook friend, Alan, says, “Practice makes permanent.” I like that.
9 – Ukelele and bass are two instruments that guitarists should learn.
If you want to branch out into other instruments, ukelele and bass are the way to go. Both are tuned like a guitar, so the learning curve is minimal. Ukelele is just plain fun and bass is plain funky.
Mandolin, banjo and dobro are great and certainly worth your time, but there is a greater learning curve due to tuning systems that are different from guitar. My recommendation is to start with ukelele. They’re relatively cheap and the chord shapes look like guitar chords.
10 – Guitar players need to take a cue from athletes.
Play a sport? Like sports? Well, three of the main principles of sports training also apply to guitar practice. Check it:
THE LAW OF OVERLOAD is the fundamental principle of fitness. When you gradually increase the workload and demand on the body, the body will learn to adapt to that workload.
In guitar, we must keep giving ourselves more challenging material to handle. Staying with the same old chord shapes and scales will not force us to grow; our body has no need to adapt to something it can already do. If one diminished chord voicing is more challenging than another, then take that as a cue to adapt to the more difficult voicing.
THE LAW OF REVERSABILITY is the old standby, “Use it or lose it.” Again, if we’re not actually using a particular skill or set of muscles to accomplish a task, the body has no reason to “remember” how to perform that task.
Guitar skills are wide-ranging and many, and it’s easy to completely abandon chord work, for example, when we are working diligently on our lead guitar skills. It’s important that we never go too long without reviewing material and skills that we learned in the past but aren’t currently focused on, if only to keep ourselves sharp. Otherwise, we just have to re-teach ourselves how to bend strings, how to play a B7 chord or how to improvise with the Mixolydian mode.
THE LAW OF SPECIFICITY states that the body will adapt specifically to the stress put upon it. So if you spend a lot more time doing lunges than squats, your legs will be much stronger in the lunge than the squat, even though both are leg exercises.
For guitar, it’s the same: If you want to be good at a particular skill, then you have to invest some time on that skill in particular. If Root-5 barre chords are your weakness, for example, then you should plan to spend more time on that specific type of chord. One idea might be to change all the chords of a song to Root-5 types to get in your reps, instead of waiting for that one Root-5 to show up in measure 17.
11 – Owning gear does not equal playing guitar.
Gear Acquisition Syndrome (or GAS) is common to guitar players. More guitars, more amps, and for me personally, more pedals. I’m an admitted pedal junkie. I’ve currently got eight different types of overdrive/distortion/fuzz pedals, two delays, three choruses, etc. It’s a problem.
We must always keep in mind, though, that owning gear is not the same as practicing your instrument. It’s easy to buy a new guitar and, for some folks, owning a dozen shiny axes makes them feel more like a guitarist. It’s difficult to master the instrument you have. And if you spend the requisite amount of time on those guitars, they won’t be shiny.
Another point: New gear is cool (if you can afford it), but the sound comes from your fingers. Eddie Van Halen could play your guitar but he would just sound like himself. You could play through his rig but you wouldn’t sound like him; you would sound like you. The gear just enhances the experience. And sometimes it makes cool swooshing sounds. 🙂
12 – “90% perfect and published always changes more lives than 100% perfect and stuck in your head.”
This quote by John Acuff is the motto I’ve adopted since I started writing for the website in 2011.
I’ve managed to publish 50+ articles and lessons this past year, and even though they haven’t all turned out perfectly, I hope that my passion for spreading the gospel of great guitar music was clear. I hope you’ve learned a few things and had a few laughs with me.
And I hope that our website has, in some small way, changed your musical life for the better. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
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Thanks for hanging with me and see you in 2013!