Ten Tips to be a Better Guitarist

There are more than just these, and there is a lot more that could be said about each, but they're all about extending your experiences in order to play differently and better than you do today.




Play different guitars.  Different guitars have different sounds (e.g., humbuckers vs. single coils), different features (e.g., Floyd Rose vs. Bigsby), and just a different feel (e.g., rosewood vs. glossy maple).  All these qualities and components affect the way you sound and play.  Most guitars have a musical lineage associated with their tone and features.  You pick up a Telecaster, and you automatically shift toward playing rockabilly, country, or even surf.  Conversely, an Ibanez Jem screams to have its strings bent to the extremes with lots of dive bombs on the trem bar, all through distortion to take advantage of the high-output humbuckers.  If you're only playing one guitar, you're limiting the musical roles you can play competently.*(but see the bottom of the page for a corollary of this.)

Play with accessories.  There are lots of devices out there that modify the instrument or how you approach it.  Anything that makes you play differently will automatically push you into new territory musically.  For example, playing with a slide allows you to go farther up the register.  Playing with a capo frees you to apply more complex chords higher up the neck as well as altering the action on the neck, changing the feel of the strings, etc.  Even somewhat high-tech devices like the E-bow make you rethink fundamental ideas about your previously familiar parameters of attack, sustain, and decay.

Play with effects.  Effects change your tone, and that forces you to play in different styles.  If you pick extremes such as long delay effects or heavy phasing, you're going to play differently than you're used to.  If you happen across a combination that sounds like a favorite guitarist (e.g., plenty of reverb = Gilmour, fast delay = Edge, etc.), you can't help but experiment in their style as well. 

Play other instruments.  Every instrument has a certain dialect.  Pianos don't allow string bends (though, yes, synths do), but they make you think about the bass cleft.  You can't play chords on a saxophone, but you really get to know melody.  I remember a famous heavy metal guitarist talking about how he never plays the sax professionally, but he still practices on it for inspiration.  One example he gave was that, because you have to take breaths on the sax, it forces you to develop phrasing, whereas it's easy for a guitarist to play dozens measures of sixteenth-notes without a break.  The ideas you take back from other instruments to your guitar make you think in new ways about what works musically, not just as a guitarist.

Play with other musicians.  There are more reasons to do this than I can list: Getting new ideas, sharing techniques, being introduced to others' influences, learning to function as a unit, seeing how to put the needs of the piece before the interests of the individual performers, and so on.

Play along with backing tracks.  YouTube is full of generic backing tracks that emulate classic tracks without copying them exactly.  Backing tracks of familiar songs are great, but they let you get into the rut of just re-playing what you already know.  Look up something like "rock ballad backing track" or "heavy metal backing track," and you'll find dozens of tracks that are "familiar enough"-sounding, only they don't ask you to be so reverent to the material that you feel you have to copy the recording note-for-note.  And because they aren't exact copies of familiar songs, you can, say, play outside the box by playing your own solo after you've finished the recorded version, just for starters.

Play along with songs that don't have guitar parts.  Try playing pop songs and techno, genres built around keyboards/synths/sequencers.  There's seldom much guitar in them, and what's present is almost always low in the mix.  There's a lot you can do with these: Invent riffs, double existing parts, play "call-and-response" with the vocals, solo over instrumental sections, create mash-ups with other songs with musical parallels (e.g., same chord progression), etc.  There's even a techno genre called "drum and bass."  What's missing?  You!

Play the melody, not just the guitar parts.  Melodies are the bridge between the rhythm and soloing.  If you're new to the fretboard above the 5th fret, this is a good gateway exercise.  If you're already a proficient tab reader, this is a way to better train your ears and get you thinking on your feet.

Play in different tunings.  There are plenty of well-known ones out there, but you don't even have to go with any of those to find that you are going to be doing a lot of mental gymnastics to find your way around the first time you use them.  On the other hand, some tunings will make things much easier and allow changes you couldn't have done previously, which will give you access to new phrasings.  Drop-D is a great start, but then you can move out from there.

Play scales, then modify them.  There are loads of exercises on how to run scales.  One of the fun explorations I started was to modify scales.  For example, play a pentatonic scale, but add chromatic notes between them (e.g., for Em minor pentatonic: add a note to bridge D to E and A to B).  Add or subtract different notes such as a flat 5th or a sharp 5th (the latter shifts it to a minor key such as how a G# changes C to Am).

*Play the same guitar... only modify it.  New pickups are a start, but then you lose what you originally got our of your guitar.  Also, there are plenty other sounds you can get out of your existing instrument with a little re-wiring.  Adding a varitone, for example, will give you loads of new tones.  Preamps will boost your output and some will selectively boost a specific range to re-voice your guitar.  You can also add switches to change the phase of your pickups, such that you can get interesting cancellations in the signal, leaving new tones (think Brian May of Queen, for example).  Other switches can convert single coils to humbuckers or vice versa.  Still other switches can add in pickups in new combinations.  All these options give you new colors to paint with, even though it's a familiar brush.


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