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Five Simple Changes Guitarists Can Use to Improve: Part 2

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The guitar’s an amazing instrument with so much scope for expression—consider how many other instruments can sound so radically different from player to player.

Yet it’s amazing how many guitarists fall into certain ways of sounding or doing things and how quickly this can occur.

Every player benefits from shaking things up periodically and that’s what these tutorials are about. In part one I suggested experimenting with:

  • The pick, be it size, shape, thickness, material
  • The strings, whether it’s brand or gauge
  • The tuning, as a different tuning offers fresh challenges

In this tutorial I’ll show you two more inexpensive ways of creating fresh enthusiasm for guitar playing.

Wired for Sound

I got into recording very shortly after I started playing. I’d owned a guitar for a couple of years but never really progressed very far. Then inspiration for a song struck that really kick-started my journey into becoming a guitar player and, ultimately, a musician.

Soon I was writing regularly, but all I had was pieces of paper with lyrics and chords. So I plugged a cheap mic into my Hi-Fi, loaded up a cassette (this was the 1990s) and rough demos were recorded.

Whether or not I realised it at the time this wasn’t just about judging the quality of my songs, it was letting me know how good or bad my playing was.

Critique

If you’re playing to an audience, they’re judging you on how you sound, not on how easy or difficult it is for you to play. You should be judging yourself in the same fashion.

Judging your abilities is difficult, especially in the early days as you’re concentrating so hard on the mechanics of playing that you rarely have enough facility left to simply listen.

Play and Record

If you can’t play and listen at the same time, you need to do them separately. The answer is to record yourself. 

Concentrate on the playing during the recording—once it’s done, put the guitar down and listen critically to the performance.

In my capacity as a remote session musician, I do it all the time. I’ll be working on adding guitar to a track and, as each part is done, I’ll listen to it before proceeding to the next part.

DAW

If you’ve got a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), such as Logic, Pro Tools, Cubase or another, you get an added bonus. Once you’ve recorded your part, you can look at the waveform—the pictorial representation of the sound recorded. If your playing was reasonably consistent, the waveform should reflect that. 

If, however, there were moments where you were too quiet or too loud, the resultant gap or bulge in the waveform will point this out. It’s a great way of gauging your playing.

Phone It In

Of course, you don’t need fancy recording software or hardware. If you just want some rough recordings, use a smartphone.

They all have some sort of recording/memo facility and, as long as the phone isn’t close enough to the sound source to cause distortion, you’re good to go. 

If you’re placing the phone on a table or chair, I’d recommend putting something like a cloth underneath it. This cushions it from vibrations coming through the floor and gives you a clearer sound. 

This is particularly important if the sound source is loud, like a guitar amp or creates sudden shocks like a drum kit.

If you want to progress beyond the memo function, there are free or cheap recording apps available. Some even offer basic multi-track facilities, so you can record parts separately. An online search reveals the latest and best available.

Moving Pictures

Along with audio, don’t forget the smartphone can record video. This is a great tool for improvement as you get to see your playing from an angle you can’t usually appreciate. 

Not only can you hear how you sound, you can see any physical struggles. 

If you’re learning a well-known piece, you can compare how your playing looks with footage of the original guitarist. YouTube’s of course the place to check this out and I’d encourage you to try this.

Genre

We all discover quickly what we like and don’t like as players. Perhaps it’s a certain style, band or artist that got you into playing and you’ve focussed on absorbing as much of that as you can. Not necessarily a good thing.

Think of it like your favourite food or meal. You may love it, but consider how might you feel if it’s the only thing you’ll ever eat again.

Moving away from your favourite genre, even for brief periods of time, can only be a good thing and even benefits your playing when you return to a preferred style.

Broaden Horizons

An important realisation is that so many styles are often intertwined with each other.

A teenage student came to me saying that he wanted to play metal. I said fine, we’ll start with the blues.

“I’m not playing that!”, he exclaimed, “Blues is boring”.

I explained to him patiently that if he wanted to play metal he had to understand blues as so much metal is just blues played louder and faster.

If you’re into something like metal, try jazz.

It might sound odd, but metal often uses chromatic and dissonant tones that are also commonplace in jazz. Indeed, Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick later went onto study jazz to degree level. Not only does he perform with his own jazz trio, he acknowledges that his playing of Testament’s thrash metal has improved radically.

You don’t need formal qualifications in another genre, there’s always something to learn that you could then apply to your own playing.

Conclusion

It’s easy to get frustrated with the state of your progress, or lack thereof. These two tutorials are here to rekindle enthusiasm.

Remember to try:

  • Recording yourself, whether it’s audio or video
  • A DAW’s helpful, but your smartphone will do
  • Try a different genre or skill

Your playing is only as limited as you want it to be, so go explore.

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