Several years ago, my friend invited me to a guitar show at Jamil Temple. As I was walking through I saw Jerry Sims playing guitar in the middle of the show. Jerry is a local legend, owner of Sims Music, and even has his own signature 7 string Ibanez guitar. After he finished playing I asked him my question I ask every great player: “What’s your best advice for improving as a player?”. Jerry thought for a moment and answered, “Learn Tunes. Honestly, to this day, I try to learn a tune a day.” I was hoping for some profound answer, instead I got, “Learn Tunes.” That has stuck with me since then and has proven to be a fact. Today, I want to share 5 ways learning tunes can improve your playing:
Every song is like a new puzzle or challenge with techniques of varying difficulty. Metallica taught me bends, hammers, and pulls. Dire Straits taught me hybrid picking and double stops. Van Halen taught me tapping. Stevie Ray taught me how to play single notes while muting others. I could go on for days. My technique is a conglomerate of all of the tunes I have learned. To this day, I am constantly challenged by the songs my students bring into the lesson room.
Some of the best riffs and songs I have written have come from learning other songs. There are so many great ideas buried in your favorite songs. The trick is to actually tear the song apart and research its innards. You can find lyrical wit, chord structure, melodies, rhythm patterns, sound effects, instrumentation, and so much more to create a pool of ideas to grab from.
3. Language and style
As I have mentioned before, music is a language. Just as Spanish, English, and German all have different characteristics and vocabulary, so do the various styles of music. Digging into songs can give you the vocabulary used in specific styles. I have delved into classical, jazz, blues, rock, bluegrass, metal, indie, grunge, and much more. Every style was a new exciting adventure for me, equipping me with a new set of vocabulary.
Your repertoire is directly proportionate to how many types of gigs you can play. If you can cover a large variety of styles and tunes, you will be able to play in a lot more situations. Also, it makes stepping into a gig easier if you have less to learn. This skill also transfers into original projects. Most music you play with others will have strains of songs that have been written before. The ideas you have garnered from your repertoire will help you in your creative process. More gigs equals more money. Having a large rep can definitely increase your worth.
I have found that my inspiration in music ebbs and flows. I do my best to keep it peaking. One of my favorite things to do is just listen to music, find something that moves me, and learn it. This almost always inspires me to play and also to write. I encourage you in your down spikes to explore and find new music that churns that inspiration back to the surface.
If you are practicing the same stuff everyday, it may be time to add something new and stretch yourself in a new direction. Try to challenge yourself into learning a new song everyday this week, but don’t just learn the song, learn from the song. Use it as a source of inspiration and a way to propel yourself to new territory and opportunities. Happy practicing!
1. Per Pattern Licks
One of the beautiful things about playing guitar is that you can play the same scale many different ways, creating a lot of various fingerings. Thus, each pattern has different possibilities. You should write several licks for each specific pattern.
2. Pattern Connection Licks
I encourage my guitar students to practice connecting the patterns together on each string. Some guitar players get lost when using a connection they aren’t familiar with. To reinforce this concept, write several licks pattern-to-pattern.
This is one of every guitar player’s favorites. Don’t just write licks with bends, but try to be creative with how you use them. Use the bend, release, and adjacent notes to come up with some really original bend licks. Use 1/2, whole, 1 1/2 step bends etc. You can even bend from notes that are not in the scale.
4. Hammering and Pulling
Write licks focused on just hammering, just pulling, and a combination thereof. Don’t forget to hammer the string below you also.
How creative can you be with slides?
6. Single String Scales
Practice playing the scale on each string from the root note. Become familiar with the intervals. Then, write licks that go up and down one string.
7. Use Open Strings
Open strings can be great pedal tones. There is an open string that works in almost every key. If it’s not in key, it can be a chromatic note that you can use as a passing tone. An open string can be placed above or below a single string scale, or you can pull off to it.
8. Confining Notes Per String
Only allow yourself to play one note per string for pentatonic scales and two notes per string for diatonic scales. It forces you to play with more intervals and gives you a new “pattern” to solo with.
9. Scalar and Interval Patterns
Try playing the scales in various patterns of 3, 4, 5, etc. Also, try to play them in intervals of 3, 4, 5, etc. The lick possibilities here are endless.
10. Double Stops
Practice playing the scales two notes at a time. Write various licks using double stops.
This is not just the 80s kind of tapping here. You can trace arpeggios, add a high note you can’t reach, or a quick flare of a lick in the middle of a solo. Use tapping to augment your style and write some licks.
Again, this technique often gets that negative “show-off” stigma, but I use it all the time in moderation. I personally like using short sweep patterns in my licks. If you don’t know how to sweep, you won’t know if it fits your style or if you even like it. Don’t judge it if you can’t even do it.
13. Octave Displacement
Play your scale and displace the notes into different octaves. For example, if you play a major scale 1 2 3 4 5 6 7, maybe take the 3 and 4 higher: 1 2 10 11 5 6 7. You can change any note of a scale up or down an octave. This will certainly bring more interval licks into your playing and make your playing way more interesting.
Write runs with the octave of the note attached. This is a great technique players like Wes Montgomery and George Benson use to beef up their solos.
Create some chords from the scales. That’s where the chords come from anyway. Practice creating chords in each pattern and harmonizing the chord patterns up the neck. This is a great way to start exploring chord soloing. Chords can really beef up your solo as well.
There are certainly more ideas, but these 15 will keep you busy for a while. Don’t forget that you can also combine any of the ideas. Imagine the possible combinations within each technique, the combinations between the 15, the scale patterns, and the types of scales. The possibilities are endless!
As I mentioned before in the previous blog, The Importance of Writing Licks, making up your own licks is imperative to becoming a unique player. Start by taking each concept and writing 15 licks per week. Then, never stop writing licks. Be prolific. Your playing will explode! Have fun!
1. Pick: There is a lot to be said about using the right pick. If you are picking fast or intricate lines, using a thicker or harder pick usually offers better results. Transversely, if you are strumming, a thinner pick can be better, especially in studio settings. Different materials produce different tones. There are various shapes, grips, tips, etc that may affect your playing greatly. Try several different kinds before settling in. Here is an article entitled How to Pick Your Pick by Premier Guitar.
2. Action: The “action” refers to how high or low your strings are, and how your guitar “plays” over all. A lot of guitar students bring a guitar into their first lesson that they have been practicing on, and the action is too high for me to even fret notes! I immediately send them to get the guitar set up by a luthier(someone who makes or repairs string instruments). Action is a preference thing, so make sure you figure out how high or low you enjoy the strings on your instrument. Having it too low can cause a guitar to buzz. I personally don’t mind a little buzz. You have to strike a balance between how low you want the strings, and the tone you are going for. Here is a link to a local luthier in Columbia: Strings Attached
3. Guitar Teacher: With so many people playing guitar, there are a lot of “guitar teachers” out their that have no business teaching anyone. Make sure you do your homework, and find someone that has a good reputation for teaching. There are a lot of great players that can’t teach a lick. Here’s a great place to look for guitar teachers: 😉 Freeway Music
Here is a great blog about: How to Pick Your Teacher
4. Technique: Playing guitar requires a lot of fine motor movements. You could be holding your hand slightly wrong, and move it just a touch to make a chord sound way better. It’s not how hard you press, but how you press the strings that counts. Not only can you adversely affect your guitar playing, but you could be on a track to injuring yourself if you are not careful.
5. Guitar: Let’s face it, there are some guitars that are just pieces of junk. I don’t have enough time to go into how many I have seen pass through my guitar lesson room. The basic rule is go to a local store that specializes in selling music instruments, not a department store that specializes in selling toys. There may be a little more investment up front, but it is totally worth it. A good guitar is crucial to making the learning experience more successful. A great store to check out here in Columbia, SC is: Sims Music