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Five Simple Changes Guitarists Can Use to Improve: Part 1

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Whether the guitar is a recent thing in your life, or you’ve been plugging away at it for years, there are times where you may feel a lack of progress. As your skills improve and tastes change, you can grow dissatisfied with the state of your playing. Or perhaps you find yourself lapsing into playing the same things.

This tutorial will give you some simple, inexpensive ways to shake up your playing and perhaps give you some fresh inspiration.

Change the Pick

I’m evangelical when it comes to guitar picks. It baffles me how people can spend thousands on guitars, amps, pedals, and so on only to then filter it through some cheap piece of thin plastic.

Whatever you strike or pluck the strings with, that is the primary interface between you and the rest of your signal chain. From the humble acoustic to the most outsized touring rig, your choice of pick has a fundamental impact on the resultant sound.

If you remain unconvinced, watch this short comparison video.

The pick’s a very personal thing in terms of gauge, size, material and so on. I’d never tell anyone their choice is wrong, but I encourage my students towards stiffer, heavier picks. 

A flexible pick is always playing catch-up; for me it's the difference between choosing a pen or a brush to write with. Either will work, but the pen will always be easier. A heavier pick also promotes a lighter touch, giving your more dynamic range, and is ultimately less fatiguing to use.

So my advice is to buy picks you'd normally avoid. They'll make you play differently, and you could discover a whole new sound.

Strings

This is another subjective topic, just as personal as picks. Over time we all discover preferred gauges, and often become loyal to a particular brand.

I'll admit, when it comes to electric guitars, my default choice is D’Addario EXL110. I've used them for years, I know how they feel and I like how they sound.

But that doesn't mean I've only ever used them or, indeed, that I'll never use anything else.

Brand

I recently changed my choice of acoustic strings purely by accident. I'd fitted a magnetic pickup to a friend’s acoustic guitar, and realised it would struggle to work with the wound strings as they have a low ferrous content. 

I did a little online research, and discovered GHS White Bronze strings, designed specifically to work with magnetic pickups on acoustic guitars.

Once fitted to his guitar, they worked as advertised but also sounded really good. I therefore fitted some to my acoustic even though it doesn't have a magnetic pickup.

Gauge

I'm a remote session musician, in that people hire me online to add guitar to their music. Sometimes pieces are composed on a keyboard without consideration of the guitar’s range, and I'll be presented with something that's too high to play.

As this is quite a regular occurrence, I struck on the idea of tuning a guitar up a minor third.

Now this is achievable with nine or ten-gauge strings, but not advisable, due to the significant increase of tension on the neck. I therefore fitted seven-gauge strings, the lightest available.

The guitar in question was one I'd previously been playing less and less. However, the change of gauge and tuning has transformed it as I love how it sounds now. It also means I can play some really screaming solos with a lot less effort.

Tuning

EADGBE, or Standard Tuning, is something guitarists are presented with from the start.

We persevere with it, learn chord and scale shapes and recognisable sounds emerge accordingly. But familiarity breeds contempt, especially after years of playing it.

At the time of writing, I've been playing for 24 years. I know the fretboard, have a decent command of chords, scales and so on. I also teach, and nothing makes me appreciate that long-forgotten sensation of being a beginner than being in an unfamiliar tuning. Everything’s moved, none of the patterns or shapes work, you really are back at the start.

Whilst this might sound terrifying, it's actually very liberating. Rather than falling back on learned traits and stock phrases, you have to learn a whole new vocabulary.

Earlier this year I was playing in an original blues band with another guitarist and I realised certain songs would benefit different chordal voicing. I therefore tuned one guitar to DGDGBD, or Open G. It's not a massive departure from Standard - strings 4, 3, and 2 remain the same—but it still made me practise harder to ensure my mind didn't go blank swapping from one tuning to another.

I mentioned previously tuning a guitar up a minor third. All the patterns are the same, but you have to transpose—for example, soloing in positions of E minor produces the notes of G minor. Similarly, a recent recording job had the brief that my playing should sound dark, so I used the tuning BF#BEG#C#, or Drop-B.

In both cases, whilst patterns are largely or completely the same the change in tone can be dramatic. When I used Drop-B I didn't increase the string gauge. This meant reduced string tension, so I was able to employ far wider bends and vibrato than in Standard Tuning.

I may never go back...

Conclusion

Progression on guitar is rarely linear, in that improvement’s not simply a continuous upward motion. In my experience, these upward trends are punctuated by periods of plateau.

If this is happening to you, don't panic, it's a normal event in your journey with the instrument. If you feel like you've hit a creative wall, trying something new will give you a fresh challenge.

So why not try:

  • A different pick, be it gauge, size, or material
  • Changing your string brand
  • A new string gauge
  • A different tuning

In the next tutorial, I'll offer some more ways to shake up your playing.

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