Improving Your Chops--Become A Complete Guitar Player

Jul 15, 2005

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The Bottom Line Playing a guitar is easy--playing it well is quite another thing. Realize your full potential and become a complete guitar player.

In this review, I want to give you some ideas that I think will help make you a better guitar player. I practice what I preach, and I think that some of these ideas have made me a much better player than I was in the early days, when I thought I was a pretty good player. The guitar has infinite possibilities, and some of these exercises and ideas might open up new vistas for you, whether you're a beginner, intermediate player, or an accomplished guitar slinger. I don't care how good a guitar player is, there's always room to take it up a notch, because remember--the guitar has infinite possibilities. I would like to offer up a couple of disclaimers, however.

First of all, I don't read music--I've played by ear for 41 years, and it's the only way I know. This probably prevents me from having meaningful exchanges with formally trained musicians, but for the most part, when I hear it I know what it is. I don't know the roots of a diminished or augmented chord, but if I hear it, I can play it.

Second, I'm a jack of all trades, but a master of none. I can play virtually music of every genre (except jazz) competently, if not spectacularly, and I could sit in with most groups on a moment's notice and get through a gig. I guess I'm what you call a journeyman or a hack--not the flashiest guy around, but one who can switch gears without much of a problem. There's probably more blues influences in my style than I would care to admit (I'm enslaved by melody), but that comes from my southern upbringing.

Disclaimers aside, here are some thoughts on how I think you can become a better guitar player:

1. If you’re a beginner, learn on an acoustic guitar—if you already know how to play, practice often with an acoustic guitar. Most acoustic guitars, even those made by quality manufacturers, don’t have the speed or action of electric guitars, and it takes a little more effort to play an acoustic guitar. If you do learn or practice with an acoustic guitar, playing your electric guitar will seem almost effortless to you, simply because the electric guitar will seem lightning-quick compared with that frumpy old acoustic box.

2. Develop some exercises that involve all the fingers of your chording hand, and most importantly, get your little finger involved in the festivities. Many beginning guitarists tend to avoid using the little finger because it’s just naturally the weakest of the five digits, but a good exercise will quickly strengthen the pinky and make your journey across the fretboard seem slicker and easier.

One of my favorite exercises is to start on a fret (let’s say the 5th fret) on the top E string. Press your index finger on the A note, then your middle finger on B flat, then your ring finger on B, and finally your little finger on the C note. Do it as fast as possible and try to make it flow smoothly with each note sounding when picked. Go immediately to the next string and repeat until you reach the bottom E string. Do the exercise in reverse order starting with the C note and your little finger until you return to where you started. An exercise like this is a great warm-up routine, but it will also increase your speed and dexterity and will make your little finger stronger and more nimble.

3. Learn fingerpicking techniques—yeah, I know, you may say that you’re a metal player who likes to shred the guitar and all that business, but fingerpicking patterns will give a player a lot of insight into melodies, harmonies and chord structure which will ultimately make you the best player you can be, regardless of your preferred style.

4. Learn the scales, but don’t become enslaved by them. Lots of guitarists who are much better that I’ll ever hope to be don’t place a lot of importance on the scales, but I think what they’re really saying is that the scales only constitute a small element of being a good guitar player. All of the immortal guitar gods took the scales and stood them on their head—in other words, they did (and do) things with the scales that other guitarists just don’t do. That’s what makes them great and gives those guys distinctive styles. They use the scales and expound upon them, rather than becoming enslaved by them, or confined by them.

Think in those terms when it comes to the scales and you’ll be a better, more imaginative player

5. Learn all the chords that you can possibly digest—yeah, I know that you’ll probably never use that D minor augmented 7th suspended that you worked so hard to learn, but it will give you a little more insight into chord structure and will improve your ear, whether you’re a reader or an ear musician. An infinite knowledge of chords will make you a more complete player and switching genres (if you’re a working musician) will become easier.

6. Speaking of genres, it’s no secret that the lines between musical genres are blurring as we speak. The “country” music coming out of Nashville these days is really pop and is taking a direction towards being more hard and edgy. Keith Urban and Angus Young have more in common than you might think. Learn basic licks from all genres—you never know when you’ll discover that the lick that you like so much on your favorite Velvet Revolver track was actually lifted from or influenced by a George Harrison lick on Rubber Soul. If you pick up these cute little licks from an old soul tune or a Black Sabbath headbanger, you might be surprised how well they might transpose into the genre that you like. At any rate, it’ll make you a more complete player.

7. Play and practice with other guitar players. It doesn’t matter whether another player is better than you or not—just watching another player has always been a good learning experience for me and most of the time I come away with a new lick, a new chord, or a new way of looking at my technique.

8. And last but not least—PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!

These are just a few of the ideas that I’ve used to try to be the best player I can possibly be. Please don’t take it as being a comprehensive list, because it’s certainly not. Every accomplished guitar player has his own protocol, so always remember to keep an open mind.

The guitar has infinite possibilities—it’s up to each of us to explore them.

Thanks for reading.

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About the Author ID:
Member: Mike Mosier
Location: Jackson, Tennessee
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