Getting better on guitar is all about learning. You may think you’re doing fine, but all players can improve with some thought about what they’re doing. Here are 20 practical and conceptual tips to help you play better.
Of course, “better” is subjective. Is Yngwie Malmsteen a “better” player than Neil Young? It depends on your taste. But rest assured that both Malmsteen and Young themselves have followed some of these tips….
1. Play With Other People
It’s obvious. No two people play guitar the same, and for all the woodshedding you do on your own, you’ll learn more by playing with others. They might have new ways of voicing chords, a unique rhythm style, or simply turn you on to new influences. Playing dual-lead guitar, honing your rhythm while someone else plays lead (or vice versa) or swapping licks. A guitarist’s best friend is another guitarist.
2. Buy a Tuition Book
Print may seem old fashioned in 2013, but good guitar books can be a real boost to your playing. Whether it’s chords, scales, theory or all three – read more, and you will learn more.
3. Learn Your Favorite Songs Note-for-Note
Yes, it’s a tough ask. But if you want to play like your heroes, try and learn exactly what they do. It will help you appreciate the art and skill of playing guitar like a legend.
4. Get One-to-One Pro Lessons
Lessons are not just for beginners. Every player has quirks (some bad) and a good pro teacher may help iron them out. You’re never too old to learn from a professional teacher. You have nothing to lose, other than learning more.
5. Record Yourself
In your head, you may think you’re playing great. Record your practices (solo or band) and you may hear differently. It’s a simple way of hearing what others are hearing. It could be sometimes painful, but will help you identify where you need to get better.
6. Use Technology
Guitarists often get obsessed by physical wood and wire and amps. They may make you sound better, but won’t always help you play better. From impromptu recording to chord apps to amp/FX emulation software, there’s a host of tech that can help you. Try the Gibson app for starters.
7. Play Slower
Sure, you may want to be fastest guitarslinger in town. But when you slow down your playing, you’ll learn more about your own phrasing and rhythm.
8. Use A Metronome
This will also help you with tempo. Even quirky rhythm, before or ahead of the beat – see Keith Richards – relies on knowing where the beat lies. Solo practice with a metronome will help you.
9. Buy an FX Pedal
Some great music happens simply because of an FX pedal. See U2’s The Edge. “I don’t think of playing through effects,” Edge ponders, “I play the effects.” Keith Richards says The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” wouldn’t have worked without his Gibson Maestro fuzztone. Color your sound, and new worlds can open up.
10. Take Care of Your Guitar
We’ve all let our guitars “be” for months. Get a pro set-up, tinker with action, keep it clean… Even a simple change of strings can help you play slinkier.
11. Change Your Strings
Try different gauge strings. As you know, guitarists can be creatures of habit. But heavier strings can help both your tone and fingering strength, while lighter strings may suit bigger bends. Experiment! Billy F Gibbons has the thickest tone but his top E is only a .007. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s top E was a .013. Changing string gauge may just bring out your best inner-self.
12. Try a Capo
Who defaults to playing songs in the same key with usual-suspect chords? I know I sometimes do. But buy a capo and you can be in another world. Capos are cheap, you don’t have to retune, and you can suddenly be playing your usual progressions in E-flat or A#. It will help you learn more about your playing and harmonic possibilities.
13. “Build” Your Songs and Solos
In a band and got your slot to wail? Think about it. Shredding scales is all well and good but the best songs and solos have structure, tempo changes and memorable licks. It may be a cliché, but listen to Jimmy Page’s solo in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” – now that’s how you build-up to a solo. It may be your time to shine, but don’t just gush everywhere – think about structure and let your solos build and breathe.
14. Swap Instruments
It could be hard, but try playing a different instrument once in a while. Guitarists playing bass will soon learn more about groove. Play a piano and you’ll find yourself thinking more about notes and scales outside of your 6-string comfort zone.
15. Play Outside of Your Comfort Zone
You may love only one style of music. And that’s fine. But try playing some other styles. Funk maestro Carlos Alomar went through hell on David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) album, being asked to play more “grinding” guitar alongside Robert Fripp. “It was very interesting,” says Alomar. “I learned a lot and when I came back to my more natural style, I felt really fresh about it.”
16. Don’t Just “Jam” Endlessly
Everyone just likes a random jam – ask the Grateful Dead. But when in band practice, stick to a regime. It’s too easy to go, “let’s play some blues in A.” Play songs. Focus on the songs.
17. Write a Song
You don’t need to be the new Bob Dylan of lyrics to write a song. Writing a song with your own lyrics and vocal melody will help you learn how your guitar fits into songs. Phrasing, space, when to play rhythm, when to think about any solo (see 13), chord changes etc. You don’t have to share it. But do it for yourself. It will help you understand songs much better.
18. Book a Gig
Think about your school exams. There’s nothing better than focussing a mind than a looming deadline. Book a gig, even if it’s just an open-mic night. You’ll be amazed how much drive you have to play better.
19. Bin Your Pick
It could be scary if you always use a pick. But listen to the likes of Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler – unique players who play their electric guitars just with fingers. It’s a good exercise to see if your fingers actually work better than picks. There can be wonderful delicacy in just using your fingers…
20. Go Zen
Philip Toshio Sudo’s Zen Guitar series of books are cult classics. Example quotes? “The Zen guitarist must choose an image to focus on, rather than focus on the audience.” And, “The most interesting and honest story is that of your own experience. Tell that story with your guitar.” No theory, no exercises, no chords. Just Zen. It may suit you.
That’s just 20 tips for all types of guitarists. Take what you will. And please, add your own tips in the comments below.
Gibson.com’s Arlen Roth has more good tips for you.