The guitar – and I assume any other instrument – has limitless potential. There are so many styles, so many techniques, so many different approaches to playing that no person could master them all in a single lifetime. The challenge for guitarists is to figure out which style and technique will get them where they want to go creatively, and then attempt to learn them. The first item is harder, and I struggle with it daily. The second thing is actually pretty simple. If there is a particular technique you want to learn, simply go to YouTube to find numerous videos demonstrating it, then practice it. In the twenty some-odd years I’ve been playing, I’ve tried to learn a wide variety of techniques. The goal is to have the physical skills to execute whatever idea serves your artistic vision. Now, I’m not even close to this ideal, but I do think my bag of tricks is diverse enough for me to can play in a variety of pop styles.
Over the last year I’ve been in a couple of groups that have a major hip hop influence. I got to take my playing in a new and rewarding direction, but I neglected to keep up some of my old skills. When I began working on the music for this site, I realized that some of the rock techniques I first started playing when I was 16 were a little rusty. Guides on effective guitar practice mention the need to review things that you’ve already learned so you don’t lose them, but I haven’t been doing that. Finding time to rehearse, perform, and write new music is hard enough. How am I supposed to add “review everything you know” to that list?
Well, I don’t think I can. What I can do, though, is make sure I touch on a core set of techniques that I need to maintain in order to do all of things I’m trying to do on the guitar. Below is a list of these techniques along with some exercises to keep them on point. If I go a few days without playing, I can feel it when I finally pick up there guitar again. The idea behind these exercises is to put together a mini-practice routine that will prevent me from losing too much ground between serious practice sessions. If I spend 20-30 minutes each day running through these exercises, I’ll be better equipped to tackle something that I’ve never tried before.
A note before I begin: I ALWAYS use a metronome (or some other timekeeping device such as a drum machine) when doing exercises like this. Being able to play to a beat is such a fundamental skill, and keeping a notebook of tempo settings is a great way to measure progress.
I tend to carry extra tension in my neck and shoulders and I need to take a few minutes to get rid of it before I start playing. The older I get, the more important this becomes. I can’t go from stone cold to blazing lead passages without warming up. Before picking up my guitar, I stretch. If I’ve been sedentary in the hours leading up to my practice session – which is likely, since my day job requires me to sit at a desk – I try to a few minutes of light activity first. A short walk usually does the trick. It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes if I get the blood moving a little bit before I start.
After that, it’s chromatic scale exercises to wake up the left and right hands and getting them working together. I start slow, and try to resist the urge to speed up until I can I cross all six strings and back down again cleanly.
notes 5-6-7-8/6 5-6-7-8/5 5-6-7-8/4 5-6-7-8/3 5-6-7-8/2 5-6-7-8/1 |
notes 6-7-8-9/1 6-7-8-9/2 6-7-8-9/3 6-7-8-9/4 6-7-8-9/5 6-7-8-9/6
Once my pick is warmed up, I put it down to play some chords with only my fingers. This excerpt was taken from Luis de Milan’s 1st Pavan, a classical piece I love playing on my nylon string guitar. The chords are basic open position forms that we all learn as beginner guitarists. The point here is to make the changes cleanly and to play the correct notes using the thumb and first three fingers of the right hand.
tabstave notation=true key=G time=C|
notes :h (3/5.0/3.1/2.0/1) (2/5.0/3.3/2) | (3/5.0/2.0/1) (0/5.2/4.2/3.1/2) | (2/5.0/4.0/3.3/2) (3/6.0/4.0/3.0/2) | (0/5.2/4.2/3.1/2) (2/5.0/4.0/3.3/2)|
notes (0/5.2/4.2/3.1/2) (5/5.4/4.2/3) | :w (2/4.0/2.0/1) :h 1/3 | :w (0/5.2/4.2/3.2/2) =||
Being able to play individual notes across strings has never been easy for me, and I tend to avoid it. That’s a bad habit I have to break, since the technique sounds so good when done smoothly. A good riff to use to practice this technique is the intro to Never Thought That This Would Happen by Arkells. Note that this one requires a capo at the 3rd fret.
notes =|: :16 8d/5 5u/4 8/5 :8 0/2 :16 5/4 8/5 5/4 7d/5 5u/4 7/5 :8 0/2 :16 5/4 7/5 5/4 | 3/5 0/3 2/4 :8 0/2 :16 0/3 2/4 :8 0/2 :16 0/3 2/4 :8 0/2 :16 0/3 2/4 0/3 =:|
Knowing a riff is one thing, being able to play it for a long time without getting tired is another. The intro to Bruce Springsteen’s Rosalita is a great example. The riff isn’t too hard to play once, but playing it for a minute (or longer) at a time is very difficult. That 1st position F chord is a bitch. I have to focus on keeping the using the least amount of pressure needed to fret the notes with my left hand or else I cramp up.
notes =|: 3/4 1/2 2/3 (3/3.3/4) 1/1 1/2 3/3 | (2/3.3/4) 1/1 1/2 (0/3.3/4) 1/1 1/2 0/3 =:|
Troy Grady’s Cracking the Code site has been a tremendous help to my playing. Every guitarist should check out his site. For years I struggled with the problem of playing faster in one direction. I can ascend a scale pattern much more quickly then I can descend. Grady’s videos made it clear that the downward pick slant I use by default trips me up on my descending runs. To fix this I’ve been working on alternating between downward and upward pick slanting, and have the basic idea down for pentatonic playing. The lick isn’t hard; the key is to switch to upward pick slanting when the run switches from ascending to descending. I should be able to go up and down at the same speed.
notes :16 7d-10u/4 7d-9u/3 8d-10u/2 8d-10u-8d/1 10u-8d/2 9u-7d/3 10u-7d/4
By the time I’ve run through these exercises, I feel warmed up and ready to cut loose. I don’t think the specific exercises matter, and I plan to switch them up every now and again to keep them interesting. But having a basic workout planned out in advance has really helped me power through those days when I don’t feel like practicing. It’s so much better to practice a little bit each day than it is to practice for a long time every once in a while.