Have you ever had someone question your technique? You played the show of your life, all the solos and riffs came out great and yet some guy in the crowd says, “Bro, you gotta use your pinky more.” or “Man, you’d be able to do more if you wore your guitar higher.” Well, all those “pro-tips” that everyone hears could be helpful if there weren’t a million and one exceptions to those technique rules. Do what works for you individually. Focus on how you feel in your mind/body. Does it hurt my hands/back/shoulders when I play? Technique can definitely affect feel/emotional content. And to get the proper emotion, sometimes, you must sacrifice textbook technique, which in most cases, will not cause bodily damage if done with creating great music in mind. Sometimes, you have to use absolute perfect textbook technique to pull of the idea/lick/riff.
First, let’s discuss technique. I’ve taken lessons from some of the best guitarists on this here planet Earth. I have such a great respect for each of them. Some are more known than others but who they are isn’t as important as what they taught. They all said that having a basic understanding of solid guitar technique is important. In the beginning, I learned to wear my guitar really high and play with my thumb behind the neck, using all four fingers and do bending and vibrato with each finger as well. Alternate picking was firmly taught as an absolute technique not to be deviated from in most cases. Sweep picking? Yes. Economy picking? No. My playing while technically sound wasn’t very exciting. I played some cool melodies and got a lot of positive feedback, but there was a lot missing.
As time went on, I went to Portland State University to learn jazz and started teaching about 20-30 guitar students per week. In school, technique was heavily enforced and in my lessons, I took those things very seriously. But, as I taught Ace Frehley, Jimmy Page, Jimmy Hendrix, Don Felder, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Marty Friedman, Kirk Hammett and other rock, blues and metal greats, I realized that there were many viable and valuable technical variations that are extremely useful. If I didn’t use those techniques and used only strict alternate picking, the licks just didn’t sound right. Even if you’re doing hammer-ons/pull-offs in the right place but following where up/down strokes would be, certain licks sound stiff and certainly didn’t sound bluesy, jazzy or even come close to rocking. Once I started letting my guard down and opening my mind to these new ideas, my playing started sounding miles better.
Some of my fave guitarists with unorthodox techniques: Marty Friedman, Pat Metheny, and Wes Montgomery. Each player has a very unique approach to the guitar and I studied them intensely. I had to morph my technique to theirs to get the sounds they were getting. Mimicing their style physically and sonically was very important to my development. It pushed me beyond what my initial personal style was giving me. I watched countless hours of videos and live concerts to see how they were attacking the instrument differently than I would or other great players. I did this with ALL my fave guitarists. No stone unturned in the seeking of another method to beat the living crap out of my guitar.
After learning countless songs, riffs, chord progressions and solos and playing them with my metronome (shameless teaching method plug), this gave me a very well-built foundation for constructing my own songs, solos and letting go of conventional technique when necessary. It allows me the flexibility to change the way I attack any musical idea. Even when I was taking private lessons, I would watch my guitar teachers so closely and asked tons of questions. I either came with a list in my mind or was inspired to ask spontaneously in the lessons. If they played something cool, “hey do that again.” “what was that weird thing you just did?” “That was awesome, can you show me that?” Luckily they all did. They know I’ll never sound like them in a million years. I might get close, but why would I want to? If you compare me back-to-back with Slash when I’m playing in Appetite for Deception, it’s reaaaaaally close but not identical. My fingers can never duplicate Slash’s fingers, or Marty’s fingers, or Wes’s fingers. It’s fun to do the best I can with mimicry, but I would never say I can get it exact.
No matter what I play, I’m very intentional about the technique I use. I work out the choreography for a lick very meticulously with tempo, meter, feel, dynamics, style and context all in mind. Is it supposed to sound aggressive and thrashing, or is it supposed to sound gentle and smooth? Is it fast and shredding or is it slow and swinging? Whatever the case may be, make sure that you sound EXACTLY how YOU want it to sound and feel. If it’s supposed to sound kind of sloppy artistically….do it. Picasso didn’t make his blue period paintings by not trying something new. And some things are simply happy accidents that come from screw-ups. Why should we as musicians be restricted to playing everything with exactly precise picking and rhythm? Most times, accuracy works best but there are times when we must throw caution to the wind to make great art. Whether it’s pop music or classical music, risks to move things forward must be taken at times.
Some techniques to explore. Alternate picking, economy picking, sweep picking, Fretboard Tapping, Slurring (hammer-ons/pull-offs), Palm-muting, artificial harmonics and others can drastically change the soundscape of your riffs/chords and solos. Learn the songs that you love, from simple in the beginning, to difficult as time goes on.
Another factor that affects technique is the length of your strap. I wear my guitar at varying strap lengths for the particular gig I’m playing. Sometimes you have to wear it slightly higher depending on what you’re playing. But mostly, I wear it low. I like low. It feels comfortable and looks better. Ironically, when I played with strict, “correct” technique and a high strap, I get a lot of hand pain. Not necessarily connected but interesting.
Feel, to me, is how you play a note in time and the emotional content of the lick or riff. The main way to develop this I’ve found is, besides copying people’s phrasing, is extensive live and studio playing and watching how you respond to your own playing and how the audience responds. The real result of your playing is an emotional response (or lack thereof) from your audience. You can develop it at home and you must do that homework. But,the real test is this: can you stay in the moment and emote on your guitar in the pressure situation? At first, this is a huge challenge. How the hell do I emote on a guitar? It’s more than the sum of it’s parts (dynamics, picking, fretting, timing, phrasing, yada). I believe you have to get out of your own way, know your music so well that there is nothing left to do but express emotion. The licks and riffs need to be unconscious, because if you’re nervous, that’s the exact emotion you’re going to express with your axe.
One of my teachers taught me to practice until I’m not nervous anymore, then I’ll know that I can do anything. So, I did. The way people perceived me was so different, because I had made some truly frame-breaking change. I watched in real time the results change from “nice job dude” to “holy f#$king crap, you’re so amazing.” A once insecure, nervous kid had now taken it to a level where I didn’t need to think anymore. Nerves vanished. The sound came into my head, and my fingers did what my heart and mind told them to do. The audience was perceiving my confidence, my calm, my ease in just playing whatever I wanted to play without inhibition. I was literally feeling my way around the neck in an emotional and sonic way. I am not unique in this. AND, it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to maintain. Remember last blog? My talent is perseverance.
I think most people can learn to play with great feeling and great technique. It all depends on your aptitude for the instrument, your commitment to practicing and your attitude about how you approach learning. The “great feeling” part depends on how vulnerable you can be to express yourself fully. It takes courage to show sorrow or joy or ecstasy or anger and revel in those emotions in front of a large audience…hell even a small audience can give you quite a head trip if you’re not prepared for it. The challenge is great. How far are you willing to go to connect with your bandmates or the audience? Do you stop at technique, or do you let your soul shine? Can you show your deepest intentions that you can’t explain with words? Are you willing to risk being laughed at when you express humor in your playing? Confident enough to know that people just got the joke and they’re not laughing at you? Will your technique hold up when the stage is cold because it’s a huge room and people haven’t shown up yet?
There are times when I step off the stage and I can barely hold it together. I let down the walls so far, I need about an hour or 2 to regroup and get back to normal functioning. Totally overwhelmed. I left it ALL on that stage and everything went right. But, talking to people or putting gear away takes concerted effort, until I return to earth. I guess it’s the technique of showing one’s true self. Stripping back the veneer and living on the edge.
These ideas span the experience of life, not just music. Music is a reflection of life and it can affect life as well. There is a time and purpose for everything. Technical precision is very important. Feeling your emotions and expressing them is also important. Balancing those aspects in your life can be extremely difficult. Balancing them in the intangible, abstract of music can be even more so. It can be done. Diligence, determination, perseverance and a willingness to accept and understand one’s self are all imperative to whatever it is you’re doing.
Thanks for reading. Please feel free to drop questions and comments.