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Thread: Maybe the biggest tip for improving technique

  1. #1
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    Default Maybe the biggest tip for improving technique

    This is just a summary of some advice I'll offer, from a guitarist who has become a decent player, but by no means had an easy time technically... no thanks to a lot of rules I learned over the years. This will be gold to some and stupid to others, so chew up the meat and spit out the bones.

    Here it is... IMHO the most important technique tip: THERE ARE NO HARD FAST RULES!!!

    Let me explain. We've all heard that talent is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. But most of us who have struggled with the mechanics of playing are well aware that this is a lopsided truism. Fact is, some players are gifted with more physical dexterity or natural ability then others. Just as some people have great ears, even perfect pitch, and others are tone deaf. Whatever combination of nurture or nature brings about such talent is irrelevant. The fact is, denying such talents exist and do make things easier is just denying reality. With that in mind, consider these categories of guitar players..

    1) Some have more itinerant gifts and do well with the instrument, and then press on and practice to become good players.
    2) Some come to know (or just decide) they are wasting their time, find it too frustrating or decide its too much work, and quit.
    3) Some do find it difficult, but love the instrument and press on anyway, despite the frustration.

    As a player in that 3rd category, I can tell you that a major detriment making things worse is that a great many teachers are in category #1. While it makes sense that the most successful players end up teaching as a main or secondary income source, category #1 players can only go so far to help you accomplish things that are driving you crazy. You may learn tons of scales, theory, ear training and new songs, but if you are endlessly struggling to just increase your chops to a moderate level (however you define that), these teachers just can't help you. They followed a formula and practiced certain things a certain way, and in time it got easier, and therefore the same will be true for you. And watching a capable player play makes it pretty tough to argue that they are wrong. But the fact is, they ARE wrong if their directions for improvement are not working for you.

    Now don't get me wrong... I'm not speaking here of the player that just picked up the instrument a couple of years ago and is frustrated because they can't play like a pro. I'm talking about people who already have gone beyond just "messing around" with the instrument, and and have taken on the disciplines of learning, worked with some teachers, practice the many hours required, and still instinctively know the result isn't satisfactory. That's what I mean when I speak of the category #3 player. So if that's you, I have some good examples of "rules" we hear good players and teachers suggest all the time regarding technique, that simply should be take with a huge grain of salt. And again this is just my 2. My biggest personal challenges by the way involved my picking hand, so some of this will be skewed in that direction.

    1) Always use alternate picking... all the time... no excuses.

    Sorry, but its not true for everyone, nor anyone for all styles of music. If it works for you, fine. Definitely I (and most) will agree that if you haven't gone the alt-picking route, you really owe it to yourself to do so for a good long while and take it as far as you can. There are definitely some natural physical advantages here. BUT... when sweeping across strings or alternating between strings, plenty of good players use a more "consecutive" picking approach. And the string crossing problems are ones that some players learn to play through, while others try for years and never make any headway. So what is the "best" picking technique? the bottom line and only legitimate answer is "whichever works best for YOU". Finding exactly what combination is optimum for you at various tempos is something only you may be able to discover, and a GOOD teacher will help you find YOUR way, not dictate theirs all the time. Here's another...

    2) Economy of picking motion.. always the wrist, always avoid using the arm
    3) Another like it... "THIS is the "correct" wrist or arm angle, and the THIS is the "right way" to hold a pick.

    OK, there are some very BAD practices and habits guitarists end up with, and it doesn't hurt to start with some standard that has worked well for some players. But I can't believe the number of right hand picking techniques I've seen over the course my lifetime that worked, for the one doing it. Granted, a great many successful players seem to have similar right hand approaches, but even then there are quite a bit of variations, and I've also heard/seen some great playing by some with very unconventional movements. Again, I strongly do encourage starting with some techniques offered by proven players for whom it has worked. But if you find yourself struggling to get beyond a certain point, year after year, do yourself a favor and experiment! If you find yourself excelling or gaining some ground by getting more "arm" into your playing, more "finger/thumb" movement of the pick, a completely different wrist or arm angle, using fingers to pick across strings along with the pick action, then go with it for a while and see how far you can take it. And if some methods work better for certain genres, tempos, or even individual passages, there is also no rule that says you can't mix techniques.


    5) Conserve left hand motion... keep your fingerings tight.

    Again... this depends. Few players struggling with "alternate picking" would argue against the fact that life would be easier if there were just one string to contend with. (LOL!). Of course that's not the case, but... there are many useful patterns and exercises where you can drastically cut the number of string transitions by reaching further with your fingers on the fretting hand. There are tons of tricks based on this idea. Also, if you constantly find "inside" alt picking easier than "outside", or vice-versa, it is possible to re build a lot of your favorite scales and patterns with even numbers of notes per string, so you can play with your strengths just by starting a phrase picking in the appropriate direction. Now I used the word "tricks". Are these things indeed just "tricks" in the sense that they are "cheats" that you should avoid? NO! There is no such thing as "cheating"! Sure, avoid shortcuts that might result in a convoluted fingering if you don't need them, but anything that puts things within your grasp that were impossible before should never be discounted.


    6) Pick every note.

    That will seem odd to a lot of rock players, but definitely my first Jazz teacher enforced this, seeing I was a rock player who relied on hammer ons and pull offs before. Like many such mandates it was a good thing to do for a while to force my right hand to work more, and this teacher did follow his own advice... he even picked all the notes in standard 2 octave arpeggios. Well, it certainly is sounded to me like a lot of traditional jazz players followed this edict most of the time, so I spent a lot of years trying to go this route. But adhering to this rule, at least for me, made my playing way too stiff and too full of tension. Then some years back, a jazz player I very much respect called BS on this "rule", and introduced me to a guitarist named John Scofield. My jaw dropped. Amazing chops and definition, and the guy barely seems to pick at all.

    7) ALWAYS play all your passages and exercises SLOW... and build up the speed a little at a time.

    UM... yes and no! On the one hand, this is VERY good advise for the frustrated player that is always trying to force speed and never learns to play with any accuracy or muscle memory. In fact, the less natural "chops" you think you have, the more you can actually benefit form slow deliberate playing exercises. But there is also a major trap in this logic, and I hope this extreme example makes sense. Consider that if you play "flight of the bumble bee", but only intend to play it at 40 BPM, you just might be able to learn to play it holding the pick with your foot! Of course you wouldn't do that but my point is this: If you never explore speed, judiciously and with a metronome, you might never discover important variations in hand position, pick grasp, wrist angle, or other modifications you need to make in order for YOU to play faster. So it is important to do this. Even if you only play very simple phrases at higher tempos, at least you can compare what your hands are doing at the faster tempo, and try to refine it by using it at the slower tempo. Then, a simple thing everyone seems to miss, even when you play slower, it is good to pick each note with the same rapid motion you would 3X faster.

    Here's another related point. Consider that there is a reason why a car has a transmission. There are laws of physics that make different gears appropriate to easing engine load at different speeds, and driving all day stuck in 1st gear would definitely strain the engine as you drove faster. In the same way, some variations in your technique often MUST occur to transition into higher tempos. Now some people are lucky, and their bodies learn to automatically make these transitions with such subtly, they feel as though nothing changes as they make this transition. But that might not be YOU! I found over the years that sometimes I could play a lot of 1/16 note passages 112BPM and beyond, and also could play them slower below 94BPM, but would have great difficulty at the middle range between 98 -108. really? What the hell? But I've slowly made solid headway by the same method. Carefully working the physical changes I make at higher tempos into the lower ones, pushing the slow technique slightly faster, and also pushing the fast technique slightly slower, until they coverage and overlap. The point is, had I not ignored this "Play slow and build up" rule in favor of working the problem from both directions, I'd never have gained the ground I have.


    I'll stop there for now, but there are many more examples I could give of good advice, rules and tips, that simply are not appropriate for your particular hands. I just want to drive home the point that IF any so called "right" guitar technique is simply not working for you year after year, and you know you are a person that loves the instrument too much to give up on it, you owe it to yourself to start thinking outside the boxes that you may have been pushed into. Yes, the people "declaring" these rules often play well. But then again a bird will have no trouble describing the right way to fly, and you likely are not a bird! So if the "right" ways aren't working, explore and try some new approaches, and keep at it. And in the end, if you find a hang glider that helps you "fly" and some bird says you're cheating, tell him/her to go suck an egg. :-)

    OK... one more thing. The internet (and especially youtube) is filled with infinite self help and often free lessons on technique. Some will be useful for you, others not so much. But be aware that many are also obvious BS, designed to suck you in to a believing you will become a super shredder, just like the guy in the demo, with these "simple" exercises, yours for the low price of (whatever... fill in the amount... "and wait... there's more!" :-) ). Don't get me wrong... if you have struggled with technique for a long time, even if you've been at it a long time, it is NOT a bad idea to start paying someone for some lessons. If nothing else, you may get a fresh take on your problems. An independent observer might alert you to some fixes you never considered. But if you do, I'd strongly recommend looking to find the kind of teacher that obviously is not super gifted, but instead has figured out some ways around his/her problems. Remember, a "gifted" chop monster will never be able to understand what it feels like to experience your frustrations, and will often endlessly just tell you to practice more. On the other hand, a teacher that plays well, but has indeed had to struggle and overcome physical obstacles him/her self, may actually help you break those molds, and at least start moving forward again.


    --
    Randy Constan
    Last edited by PeterPan; March 3rd, 2016 at 07:57 PM.

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  3. #2
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    Hey PP - nicely presented words of wisdom! Thanks -there's a lot of solid common sense advice here.
    "GAS never sleeps" - Gil Janus

    "Now you got to pay your dues. Get that axe and play the blues." - Spudman

    Gear: Epiphone Sheraton II, Epiphone Wildkat, Epiphone Emperor Joe Pass, Fender MIM Strat, Tacoma DR-14, Johnson JR-200 resonator; Fender Super Champ XD amp

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    Well thank you, and I'm glad its of use to someone. When the mechanics don't come natural to you, and you decide to stick with the instrument anyway, you eventually learn a lot of ways to get around your problems. I almost feel like I could write a book filled with them. The unfortunate thing, as you can see from what I wrote already, is all the time you can waste being convinced to follow the straight and narrow rules. The rules usually are good starting points but when they don't work, they don't work... and then its time to either think outside the box, or spend all your days in never ending frustration.

    One of my more interesting discoveries has to do with customizing the shape of your picks, and then experimenting with the picking angle. When you get the ideal combination for YOU, the pick naturally bounces upward slightly as you cross over strings, thus finally breaking through the maddening problem of string crossings with alt-picking. OK... only a relentless nerdy engineer type like me could delve into figuring this out, but the fact is that those whose hands do this naturally with an off the shelf pick shape never really understood WHY it works for them. Of course they don't need to. But if you're trying to learn from someone like that, they can never really understand why its a problem for you and can't offer any real solution beyond "practice more". It can be maddening! And really, anyone can begin to discover these kinds of things over time, once they decide to take chances and color outside the lines. Sure, there will be some ugly sounding failures along the way. But its better then staying stuck forever in "right ways" to do everything that don't work, right?

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    I'm definitely one of those category 3 players, so the encouraging words and useful/practical insights are helpful!
    "GAS never sleeps" - Gil Janus

    "Now you got to pay your dues. Get that axe and play the blues." - Spudman

    Gear: Epiphone Sheraton II, Epiphone Wildkat, Epiphone Emperor Joe Pass, Fender MIM Strat, Tacoma DR-14, Johnson JR-200 resonator; Fender Super Champ XD amp

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