Even 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/Guantanomo Bay, you’re still not assured of transcendent six-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.
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 25 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.
1. Joe Satriani
“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.”
2. Carlos Santana
“A good way to crave your individuality is to get a tape recorder and get into a room that’s kind of dark—where you don’t have interruptions—and then just play with a rhythm machine. After a while, it’s like a deck of cards on the table, and you can begin to see the riffs that came from this guy, the riffs that came from that guy, and then the two or three riffs that are yours. Then you start concentrating on your riffs until you develop an individual sound.”
3. Steve Lukather
“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 from 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.”
4. Jerry Garcia
“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.”
5. Rusty Cooley
“Wherever your guitar is when you’re sitting and practicing is where it should be when you’re standing. I discovered this the hard way. Years ago, I’d practice my solos sitting down—and I’d nail them—only to go to rehearsal and blow it because my right- and left-hand positioning was completely different when I stood up. Now, most players think it looks uncool to wear your guitar up high, but I think it’s cooler to sound kick ass than it is to look cool and suck! Zakk Wylde slings his Les Paul really low, but as soon as a solo comes up, he’ll put his foot on a stage monitor to raise his guitar up. Hell, Tom Morello wears his guitar so high that he says it sometimes hits him in the chin. So, for the sake of killer guitar playing, raise ’em up!”
6. Barney Kessel
“Keep your guitar out of the case and handy. Practice short periods—anywhere from five to 45 minutes—many times throughout the day, rather than for one prolonged period. Often times, five minutes is enough time to work on a technique or musical passage. The whole idea of practice is to get your reflexes working like a gunfighter’s, so you can pull out that gun and be instantly hot.”
7. Nels Cline
“Don’t listen to unimaginative naysayers when it comes to personal creative expression. At some point, there will no doubt emerge a conflict between the rules of instrumental mastery, and the need to follow one’s own intuition. Be strong! The only so-called advancements in art—forget about commerce—have come about when someone has either boldly modified or completely disregarded the norm. Those who deviate must stay true to themselves.”
8. Dave Wronski
“To balance your pickups, plug your guitar into something with level meters, such as a 4-track recorder. Play each string individually, and adjust the pickup height until the level of each string hits the same point on the meters. Typically, you’ll have to lower the bass side of the pickup. If your guitar’s overall output is quieter than what you had, simply turn up your amp to compensate. The benefit here is string-to-string clarity.”
9. Jimmy Page
“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.”
10. James Hetfield
“For heavy rhythm, it has to be downpicking. It’s absolutely key. It’s tighter sounding, and a lot chunkier.”
11. Oz Noy
Moving In Stereo
“Try using two amps and some stereo effects to get a bigger sound onstage. A ping-pong delay sounds huge when you stand between both amps, and any type of stereo chorus, flanger, phaser, or, in my case, a Leslie simulator, creates the illusion of an even wider sound. Panning your signal from side-to-side is a cool effect. I do it using a stereo Ernie Ball volume pedal. I like the amps to be almost identical, while others—including Stevie Ray Vaughan—prefer two amps that have different sounds that compensate for each other. Finally, it’s important to understand that unless both of your amps are miked, and panned left and right in the house, nobody except you will hear the stereo effect.”
12. Jeff Beck
“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.”
13. Al Di Meola
“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.”
14. Marty Stuart
“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?’”
15. Deke Dickerson
“Use your pinkie! When I first started playing, an older country musician told me to keep practicing with my left-hand pinkie—even though it felt awkward—until it was second nature. That was the best advice I ever got. You were born with five fingers—don’t forget to use ’em all!”
16. Stevie Ray Vaughan
“Use big strings. I like a set with a .013 E string, but I’ve gone as high as a .018-.074 set. They’ll eat your hands, your tuning pegs, and your amp, but they sound great.”
17. Wes Montgomery
Hang in There
“It takes time to develop every aspect of your technique. A lot of people don’t realize the crises you’ve got to go through. I used to get headaches when I started doing the octave thing, but, over time, I was fine. All it takes is to hear a little improvement in your playing, and that little bit of inspiration is often enough to push you even further.”
18. Eric Johnson
“Remind yourself that you’re free to feel great instead of reserved or insecure. When you’re feeling good, you’re more apt to take chances onstage, and if you make a bunch of mistakes, it won’t matter. It’s almost like you’re the instrument, and the music is flowing through you like electricity. Like John Coltrane said—the paramount aspect of being a musician is to try to get more in touch and in tune with yourself. When you do that, its like returning to the center and everything emanates from there. You automatically become a better musician in becoming a more aware individual.”
19. Dickey Betts
“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.”
20. Joe Pass
“Practicing eighth-note lines with a triplet feel is very helpful for improving one’s rhythmic feel for jazz. Of course, the best way to get a jazz feel is to play with records or with a group. It’s something you’ve got to inherently feel. A lot of rock players have such a straight-eight feel that they can’t play jazz. They’re too stiff.”
21. Steve Vai
“Try to separate yourself from what your fingers are doing and listen to the amp.”
22. Allan Holdsworth
“When playing legato, try to make all of the notes come out at a consistent volume. To achieve even more control, practice accenting the notes that aren’t picked.”
23. Pete Townshend
“For an electric guitarist to solo effectively on an acoustic guitar you need to develop tricks to avoid the expectation of sustain that comes from playing electrics. Try cascades, for example. Drop arpeggios over open strings, and let the open strings sing as you pick with your fingers. It’s kind of a country style of playing, but it works very well in-between heavily strummed parts and fingered lead lines.”
24. David Gilmour
“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.”
25. Eric Clapton
“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.”
Strap length matters?
Peter Hodgson of gibson.com thinks so. Here’s his article, “From Zakk to Jimmy Page: A Study in Strap Length”
We guitarists reveal ourselves to the world in a lot of different ways. Our note choices, the tones we choose, the notes we avoid, styles we gravitate to. Playing music is a very personal form of communication, unique to every individual, yet it’s also a universal language with enough common information to be understood by anyone. And just as with verbal communication, body language is crucial when it comes to guitar. You can tell a lot about a guitarist by how they wear their instrument. And that is the crux of our hypothesis today: that strap length is directly related to personality and musical style. This is merely a hypothesis, one of many possible interpretations of the strapular-guitaristic-personality matrix.
There are six main guitar strap length personality types: Low-precise, Low-relaxed, Mid-precise, Mid-relaxed, High-precise and High-relaxed. There are very, very few exceptions – for example, those who exclusively play sitting down, or who have an entirely unorthodox technique like WWIII guitarist Chet Thompson, whose party trick is playing the guitar upside down with the body on his shoulder and the headstock between his legs, with both hands on the fretboard.
Zakk Wylde is capable of incredibly nimble feats of guitar daring. The speedy ascending licks in the “No More Tears” solo, the epic harmonics of “Harvester Of Pain,” and of course nailing the neoclassical fury of Randy Rhoads nightly on stage with Ozzy Osbourne – all are indicative of Zakk’s technical command of the instrument. But watch Zakk in concert and you’ll see that the guitar itself is part of the performance, not simply an instrument to perform upon. Zakk wears his guitar low and if that’s the perfect position from which to blast out a fast alternate-picked chugging riff like “Parade Of The Dead,” so be it. But when it comes to laying into those precise solos, Zakk typically hoists his Les Paul into a much more shred-friendly position. Whatever it takes to do the job, Zakk is able to do it while simultaneously stalking the stage like a heavy metal viking god.
In the studio, Jimmy Page is a sonic explorer, a brilliant arranger and producer, and a man who can craft three-dimensional musical experiences seemingly as easily as breathing. But on stage an entirely different side of Page’s musicality comes out. The studio craftsman is pushed aside by a swaggering rock god, the ultimate guitar hero, with exaggerated gestures and sure, the occasional gloriously sloppy note. Page’s onstage blues-meets-prototypical-metal style doesn’t just work better with a low-slung Les Paul: it practically demands it.
Joe Bonamassa is that rare kind of player who lives in the moment yet never seems to lose control of what they’re expressing at the same time. He has the ability to see in between each beat, each note, and pull out the most perfectly phrased licks and melodies time and time again from his Les Pauls (such as the Gibson Custom Joe Bonamassa Les Paul and the Gibson USA Joe Bonamassa Les Paul Studio). If you watch his hands while he’s playing, there isn’t a single muscle twitch that seems to be out of his control, yet the musical results are always human, never mechanical.
Paul Gilbert is still a very precise axeman – that’s why this category called Mid-relaxed instead of Mid-sloppy – but he’s the perfect example of a player who wears their guitar mostly around the mid level (around tummy-height rather than sub-belt or encroaching-on-chest) and who employs their whole body in playing guitar. In clinics and lessons Gilbert is fond of expressing the importance of using ones’ picking hand as a type of metronome, letting it travel far away from the strings before crashing right back down on the perfect beat. It’s the same type of approach used by great funk guitarists like Nile Rogers, whose pioneering rhythm style is dependent on the physical manifestation of rhythm.
The electric riffs Tom Morello has pumped out with Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave and Street Sweeper Social Club are deceptively nuanced and intricate. Just listen to the fine details in the rhythm guitar work of “Killing In The Name” by RATM or Audioslave’s “Revelations” – surely Morello wouldn’t be able to rock out that hard or play such sensitive arpeggios if he was slinging his strap down at Johnny Ramone levels.
Albert Hammond Jr.
One half of the guitar team from The Strokes, Albert Hammond Jr. is instantly recognizable even in silhouette: his distinctive ‘just out of bed’ hairstyle and high-slung guitar are very identifiable. Hammond regularly employs a very loose picking technique that appears to originate from his elbow rather than the wrist, and his guitars are worn at precisely the right height for maximum efficiency and attack. And if you listen closely to The Strokes in headphone it becomes immediately apparent who is doing what. Nick Valensi handles more of the lead and single note work, while Hammond’s insistent, consistent strumming technique makes him a rhythm guitarist in the truest sense of the word.
This article originally appeared on Sonicbids.
As we get older, there are more and more responsibilities that get in the way of practicing. For most adults, the 10-hour days spent glued to your instrument are long gone. I’ve encountered the same issue and have thus tried to really streamline my practice. In doing so, I’ve found (or have been shown) some really great methods to maximize efficiency in the practice room.
Note that many of these tips will be twice as effective if you’re also working with a private instructor. If you can’t afford it, there are many organizations that offer scholarships to those who want a tutor. I highly recommend trying to find a way to get lessons.
1. Go into it with an actual plan
No matter what the subject is, having a plan of action is the key to efficient progress and productivity. Practicing an instrument is no different.
Keep a record of what the weak areas of your playing are. (If you’re unsure about where you’re weak, see my second point.) Your primary focus should be on addressing these weak areas until they’re no longer weaker. That’s improvement, right? But take it a step beyond that. If you know what you need to work on, keep a list of the songs and exercises that are going to help you the most, and make a detailed plan every day about what specifically you’ll be doing.
As far as your practicing goes, try to have both long-term and short-term plans. First, set your ultimate goals. Where do you want to be a year from now? Five years? From there, you can make weekly or monthly goals that will serve as stepping stones to reach your primary goal. Then, set daily goals to help you reach those weekly/monthly goals. Even if you aren’t able to do as much as is on your plan, as long as you’re taking steps towards your goals every day, you’ll reach them.
2. Record yourself
The microphone tells no lies. Recording your practice is essential, as it allows you to see and hear any weak spots in your playing loud and clear. It’s especially essential if you aren’t studying with and getting feedback from a private teacher, as this will basically let you see yourself from an outside perspective.
Recording yourself is also a wonderful way to keep track of your progress. I tend to record the things that I’m working on once a week, so that I can see the progress I’ve made over the week and adjust my goals for the following week. After a while, you’ll have long log of practice time, and going back to listen to old recordings can be very inspiring, as you’ll get to see just how far you’ve come.
While audio is great, video is even better. If you have a webcam on your computer, this whole process can be quite easy. Taking video will allow you to hear and see any issues with your technique. Try it out!
3. Keep a consistent time frame
Consistency is the key to lasting progress. It’s much more effective to practice 30 minutes every day rather than 2 hours every other day. This consistency will not only allow you to retain information better, but will also keep your technique from dropping below its full potential.
Again, I can’t stress enough that consistency is the key. Let me run you through a few scenarios: First, say you have 30 minutes to practice during the week, but two hours on the weekends. Even if that’s the case, stick to 30 minutes. Rapidly increasing your practice time, especially by that large of an amount at once, will put a ton of stress on your body and could lead to performance injury. Your mind also won’t be used to focusing for that long, and you’ll probably have trouble keeping up that high focus for very much of that time period.
Second, let’s imagine that you’re sticking to 30 minutes a day, every day. However, on Tuesday, you only end up practicing 15 minutes, and decide to add that onto Wednesday’s practice. But then, you miss practice altogether on Wednesday, and decide to add that time onto Thursday for a total of 75 minutes. Practicing this way is a straight path to performance injury, and I absolutely advocate against it. Life happens, and if you have to miss a day of practice, then you have to miss a day. Oh well. But if you find yourself consistently missing practice days, you may have a daily goal that’s too ambitious, and you might need to reduce your daily practice time to better suit your schedule.
4. Warm up
If you aren’t warming up, you’re missing out. Many players reach a point where they choose to forgo warming up. However, just like even professional athletes take time to stretch, it’s essential that you give you hands a stretch prior to heavy activity.
If you don’t typically warm up before you practice, try it out for a week. Even something as simple as running a couple of scales to a metronome will do the trick. I assure you that will be playing better, simply because your hands have woken up.
5. Use a mirror
This is one of the easiest ways to be your own private teacher. A mirror is instant visual feedback and will allow you to check on your practice posture and see any glaring issues in your technique. If you don’t have the means to take video recordings of yourself or aren’t recording yourself every day, then practicing in front of a mirror will do the job.
It doesn’t necessarily need to be a mirror, as long as it shows you a reflection. I’ve used large, reflective screens and webcams in a pinch. Give it a shot, and see if you notice any technical issues in your posture or playing.
6. Apply concepts to songs
If you aren’t applying concepts to real world scenarios, you aren’t going to be able to retain or use the information. As soon as you have that new scale, chord voicing, or lead lick in your fingers, pick a song and start using it. Sometimes when I learn a new chord, I’ll try to play an entire song using only variations on the shape I’m working on. Or I’ll work with a backing track to practice exercises, or improvisation using the scale that I just learned.
This is also a great way to learn new songs. Once you know a song well enough, try to pick something new to apply concepts to. This will allow you to get to know the song at a pretty deep level, and once you do, you can move onto more tunes.
Rehearsals are great places to try out new concepts (unless you’re involved in an important/big budget production where mistakes could cost you your job), as you’ll be able to see if you know them well enough to apply them on the fly. If the rehearsal is casual enough, you can also ask your bandmates for feedback regarding your new technique. They may even want to learn it from you!
7. Practice mentally in between sessions
In addition to my regular practice routine, I’ve recently started practicing through visualization as well. I often find myself with idle moments during the day when waiting for the bus or friends or sitting between classes. I’ve been taking this time to mentally run through new songs or run over new concepts in my mind. (It may sound crazy, but it’s been scientifically proven that mental practice is actually extremely effective, and really does make you better!) This is also a good time to run through music theory concepts; reciting the circle of fifths or spelling chords in your head is a great way to check your comprehension. You have to have a pretty vivid imagination to make this work, but I encourage you to give it a try!
8. Slow (way) down
If you take nothing else from this article, this is the big point I want to drive home: slow down! It’s far more difficult to play slowly than it is to play fast, and practicing things slowly will really drive in the information and muscle memory, thus allowing you to play quickly, but also accurately. Did I just tell you to practice slowly if you want to play fast? You bet I did.
Establish your “perfect tempo.” This is the speed at which you can play what you’re working on cleanly without mistakes. If you can’t do so, then you’re going too fast. The more you play slowly, the better your time feel will get, and the more precision you’ll develop. And it’s precision, rather than speed, that will typically get you hired.
Dylan Welsh is a freelance musician and music journalist, based in Seattle, WA. He currently plays in multiple Seattle bands, interns at Mirror Sound Studio, and writes for the Sonicbids blog. Visit his website for more information.