July 03, 2020 by Don Russo
Students often ask what areas of guitar should they should focus on. So, I took the time and compiled a list. It is not exhaustive, but certainly a great start. Here are 11 Areas of guitar focus that every guitar player should look into.
Chords/Chord Building – Great rhythm players make for great lead players. Chords aid songwriters, lead players, hobbyists, and every other kind of musician you can imagine. My suggestion is to take the time to learn the basic triads: major, minor, augmented, and diminished. Then, make sure you get at least these seventh chords down: major7, 7, min7, and half-diminished. There are tons more, but those are a good start. Systems like the CAGED System are crucial for helping students grasp chord voicings and how they fit up and down the neck.
Scales – Scales and arpeggios get a bad reputation for being shredder tools. Yes, scales are one of the main ways for soloing over a song, but there is much more to learning scales. Scales can create riffs and melodies for singers, etc. Start with learning Pentatonic and your Diatonic (major and minor) scales. Then, you can expand into Harmonic and Melodic Minor. Make sure you know how and where to use them.
Arpeggios – Arpeggios, like scales, are often associated with shredder guitar players. We have all seen Shreddicus Maximus showing his guitar prowess by ripping through arpeggios as fast as possible. Though there is a place for shredding, is not the only purpose for arpeggios. Perhaps one of the most tasteful approaches to soloing is “chasing chords.” “Chasing Chords” essentially means, following the arpeggios of each chord in a given chord progression, highlighting the notes within each chord. This is great for improvising, writing melodies, etc. Start with the basic chord types mentioned above in the chord-building section and learn those arpeggios in all positions on the neck.
Music Theory – Music Theory was the most confusing concept for me when I started playing guitar. Every time someone said it out loud, they could never quite explain it to me. It is often the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The Wikipedia definition of Music Theory is this: “Music theory is the study of the practices and possibilities of music.” That is a never-ending rabbit hole if I ever heard of one. Start with these questions: what are the 12 keys, what notes are in each key, what triad chords are in each key, what 7th chords are in each key, how are those chords determined, how does harmony work, how do melodies work over chords, etc.
Rhythm – Rhythm is the foundation of music. Victor Wooten once said, “People feel music before they hear it” in his book, The Music Lesson. If you want to be a great lead player, learn how to be a great rhythm player first. MANY things go into being a great rhythm guitar player from subdivisions, to muting and resting, to string sets. I wrote a blog series to cover several of these components a while back. Check it out.
Technique – Techniques are like muscle on guitar. You want to work them out, not so you can flex necessarily, but so that you have the strength to pull off what you need to, and do so comfortably. For example, when you work out the muscles of your body, it makes it easier to lift lighter weights and perform certain tasks, making you feel more relaxed. Being relaxed on guitar allows you to have better feel, better creativity, and overall, just enjoy playing more. Examples of techniques are hammer/pull exercises, speed drills, endurance exercises, pattern exercises, string skipping, string crossing, sweeping, etc. Basically, whatever technique you suck at, get better by isolating it into an exercise, starting slowly and increasing the tempo over time. The metronome will be your “weights.”
Ear-Training – Too many guitar players depend on tabs, YouTube videos, and, sometimes, their instructors to learn tunes. Others read music and never take time to pick out music by ear. All of this can be very crippling to a musician. After all, music is what we listen to…so using your ears is pretty dang important. Just like techniques, your ears are going to gain strength the more you work them out. I’m blown away with how my ears have progressed over the years. My suggestion to my students is to start with something easy and build your way up. Perhaps pick out a simple melody like “Happy Birthday,” or holiday tune. Then, try a video game melody, singing melody, or TV show melody. Start with single notes. Then try picking out some simple solos. After that, try picking out bass notes of chords in songs. Perhaps try to pick out a two-note solo. Next, graduate to picking out chords in songs. You get the idea. Build your ear muscle.
Improvising – This is scary territory for many. This is where what you have learned and listened to collides with spontaneity. The only way to get better is just do it and be vulnerable. With practice you will get better; however, there are some things you can do to help the process. Try these tips: learn about phrasing and its importance, listen to a LOT of solos, transcribe solos and learn those licks, create licks that work over certain chords and progressions, etc. Just try grabbing your guitar sometimes and just play whatever comes out. I’ve written a blog series on how to solo as well for extra tips and help. Check it out.
Creativity – I believe that humans are creative by nature. Expression and creating songs or riffs is one of the most rewarding parts of music for me. It’s extremely energizing and brings much joy to my musical journey. Perhaps start by listening to some of your favorite songs, riffs, etc and study what they do. At first, you can try to emulate what they are doing, or even copy it, and make a version similar but slightly different. Remember that listening is always half the battle. Listen to a LOT of music. Try writing a chord progression, a simple melody, a short riff, a few lines of lyrics, co-write with others, or even try a new guitar tuning. Do whatever it takes to make that spark and run with it. For you songwriters out there, “Writing Better Lyrics” by Pat Pattison is AMAZING!
Performance – Studying, creating, and working hard is awesome, but nothing is more rewarding than sharing that with others. I know, you may be reserved at first. My friend Tom Conlon told me a story once when he asked his grandmother to play the piano for him. She said, “Absolutely! Remember Tom, if someone asks you to play, say yes. It is your civic duty to do so.” I always found that fascinating. There is an exchange that happens when you perform for someone (IF they are actually listening and paying attention). They experience the joy that comes from listening to you play and YOU gift them with that. You get the affirmation and gratitude of the listener and the joy that you shared something with them that, more than likely, affected them in a positive way. It’s a win-win. Start out with an open mic, showcase, playing for a significant other, family member, or a friend. Maybe even begin by making a video or record in the studio. You’ll find an outlet to share that makes you comfortable.
Repertoire – I once asked my good friend Jerry Sims, owner of nationally renowned Sims Music and accomplished guitarist, what was his number one tip to getting better on the guitar. He thought for a moment and said, “Learn a song a day.” I was kinda shocked. I was expecting him to say that something like “go learn your scales” or “practice your arpeggios more, etc.” It makes so much sense though. What’s the point of learning all of this stuff if you cannot enjoy it and use it to help you better understand your favorite music? New songs and artists keep me inspired and give me a goal or a project to complete. Also, every song I ever learned taught me something. Go listen to music, find some heroes, find what inspires you, create a list of songs, solos, etc. that you want to learn, and learn them. More importantly, learn from them.