If you’re a guitar player of any level, you’ll appreciate that there is a lot of information around the internet on how to improve your skills. It seems to me that most of this is centred around learning a specific lick/phrase and improving general technique. This is great, and is very useful indeed. Being self-taught, I spent a lot of time sucking in as much of this knowledge as I could (and still do).
But ask any world-class or well respected guitar player about playing, and I’m sure they will agree that technique comes second to musicality, and developing an instinct for creating music, not just sound. And if you start to focus on technique for a while, it can be very easy to get trapped in a cycle of trying to develop flawless physical technique whilst ignoring the creative mental processes that you need to make something sound pleasant.
I’ve always had an instinct for musicality, but I too became somewhat trapped in scales and speed. I decided to think about how to start expanding my mental capacity for music creation. No doubt, there are many psychological methods that will help with this. However, I’ve decided upon a list of 3 that allows enough room for growth, but without overwhelming myself (and you) with too much information. The first tip is somewhat specific to guitar, but the other two can be applied to most any instrument you play.
1. Use the Whole Neck!
This first tip is probably the most practical one. I found when analysing my own playing that I’d focused a lot on the standard scale shapes that are 2 or 3 notes per string and progress in a ‘vertical’ fashion from lower to higher strings. Your fretting hand adheres to a kind of ‘invisible box’, from which your fingers don’t deviate much. This makes sense, of course, because it is efficient in that your hand and fingers don’t have to move very far.
But I noticed two consequences that seem to emerge from this approach. Firstly, you quite often end up playing through these shapes in a somewhat linear fashion, because that’s what is easiest for your brain and fingers to process. Secondly, because of this, a lot of the notes you play may be a bit one-dimensional – the tonality and dynamics of each note are often sacrificed because of the way some of the notes fall on the neck. For example, you might be unlikely to add vibrato to notes that always land on your little finger if you adhere to strict scale fingering guidelines, because that finger is usually weak and therefore a bit lazy.
There are a couple of solutions to this. The first is to learn how scale patterns join up with one another along the neck and to try and play scales on just one string horizontally along the neck, rather than down the strings. To start with, you might want to try to play a pentatonic lick over say 2 strings that you would normally play across 4. This way, you will be incorporating a lot of sliding along the neck and this will in turn give you the opportunity to add further dynamic flourishes to the notes you play e.g. by adding in large bends.
One important skill that this forces you to learn, among others, is eye training. I find that this is somewhat akin to driving. When you drive, you look at where in the road you want to go and your hands will naturally steer you in that direction by adjusting the wheel until your body direction lines itself up with your eyes.
The guitar is no different. If you’re not used to making 6 or 7 fret jumps along the neck in either direction, what you will likely find is that you will miss the fret you want to land on. The key is to train your eyes so that you’re always looking one note ahead of where you are playing. Once you master this, you will find that your hand will always follow and land where you’re looking.
Another useful thing to practice, and one which has quite a lot of coverage on the internet already (though it tends to be focused around technique) is string skipping. There is no reason why you need to play notes up and down a scale. You can jump from very low notes to ones which are next in the sequence but a couple of octaves higher, for example. This allows you to add a bit of spice to a seemingly standard scale fragment or lick.
So the main message for this point is: don’t confine yourself to standard hand positions. Experiment and use the entire length of the neck you have been blessed with!
2. Play Outside the Scale
Here’s something that may be a little surprising (maybe less so if you listen to a lot of improvisational jazz). Sometimes you can play notes that are totally ‘wrong’ in theory, in the sense that they are not ‘supposed’ to be played over the chord or key that you are currently playing in because they will lead to a dissonant sound. This is certainly true most of the time.
However, time is the most important factor here. If you play a dissonant note on a downbeat when a chord is being resolved to its root, for example, then it will sound horrible. Birds will screech, glass will break etc etc. On the other hand, sneaking a couple of chromatic notes in between 2 ‘strong’ notes (ones that are in the key you are playing in) might sound pretty cool if you make sure that you land on a ‘good’ note on the downbeat, or other strong point in the rhythm you’re playing.
It’s important not to go overboard with this idea. There’s a fine line between sounding cool and sounding like you can’t play. But if you can execute it correctly and at the right times, then sticking in unconventional notes will help make your music stand out, if you’re going for that sort of thing of course. Steve Morse, Greg Howe and Guthrie Govan are all great examples of players that seem to do this extremely well, if you need a little inspiration. (I’ve actually used this kind of idea in the music I’ve created to date. Go to the Auditorium to listen.)
3. Listen to Other Instruments
Here’s a suggestion for you. If you predominantly like playing rock guitar, try listening to some jazz saxophone (John Coltrane, maybe)! And then try to play it! This is definitely the most abstract of my 3 tips, but as such, I think it may well be the most useful.
The problem with learning any instrument is that, more often than not, you are merely letting the instrument learn you! What I mean by that is there is a danger of looking at how to play the guitar and doing things that are specific to the guitar, learning lessons that show you how to get sounds that other guitar players are making and so on. This is fine up to a point. Everyone needs to be able to handle the instrument so that it feels natural to them.
But, it is important not to get in the mindset of ‘I’m playing a guitar solo’. You need to think ‘I’m playing a musical solo’. Think about the sounds you want to make rather than the sounds you can make just because they are standard ones for your instrument. For the guitar, I just need to point towards the number of solos or riffs that go over the same old pentatonic patterns time and again. There are some great examples of doing this well and effectively of course, but I think that these are the minority rather than the majority of cases.
What listening to different instruments will do is expand your auditory horizons. For example, piano players find it easier to jump across octaves and play the same patterns, so you’ll notice this a lot in piano-centric music. To adapt techniques from other instruments to guitar is often quite difficult from a technical standpoint, but even attempting to do so will stretch you in ways that you aren’t used to. And this is always a good thing when it comes to learning and development.
A similar thing goes for listening to new genres. They might use scales that are unfamiliar to you. They might play in strange time signatures, or have exotic rhythms. All of these things will help you see music in a different light than you are used to, and by pushing you outside your comfort zone a little, you can start to broaden your vocabulary. Over time, you’ll start to notice that you incorporate some of these new ideas into your natural style, and that’s when the creative juices will hopefully start to flow.
One final thing related to this is something I remember from a Steve Vai interview. He often sings a melody (in his head or out loud) to a chord progression or idea he has in mind, or has recorded. By singing (or if you have a terrible voice like me, by thinking about what you want to sing) you aren’t bounded by the limitations of your instrument. That way, you can come up with things that you wouldn’t otherwise do if your technical knowledge and note vocabulary wasn’t necessarily of the highest standard.
Once you have the idea, then you can start to try to play it on your instrument. Listening to a voice is the same as listening to a different instrument. When trying to play a sung piece on the guitar, you will probably run into new patterns and finger positions that you haven’t encountered before, or are not very comfortable with.
By using these 3 ideas over time, you will make the unfamiliar familiar. Eventually, the ideal outcome is for you to be at the point where you can think something or hear something and play it on the guitar (or your chosen instrument) as if it was an extension of your own body, in the same way that you can repeat words that someone else has said to you or that you have just read. I hope this helps to give you a fresher perspective on playing guitar.
Check out my video below if you want to see the kinds of things I’ve been talking about in action.