Well, Rog is off for a while so I decided to take some initiative and actually write something myself–something I haven’t done in years. Mr. Corton is selflessly helping people in his part of Georgia trying to cope with Irma (Note to the people in charge: You should definitely pick more epic names for super-storms. I mean, c’mon. ‘Irma’?) Anyhoo, whatever he’s doing it’s definitely more important than helping me do (cough) ‘social media’.
But fortunately, we do have a ton of material stuck in ‘the vault’. OK, it’s not really in a vault. What it is, is that when Rog and I do these Skype chats, he chops them down to 1,000 words and then sticks the rest of the blather in a virtual trash bin that never seems to get emptied. So at times like this, all I have to do is write a witty introduction like this. And then? Et Viola! Instant Rant. Like this.
The following is actually from a chat we had four or five years ago. I was doing a lot of teaching at the time and Rog, being a student of the guitar himself, thought it would be a good idea to put down some of my ‘deep thoughts’ on practicing. But after we were done I told him to forget about it because, frankly, who actually studies guitar anymore, right? I leave it to you to determine if these little gems are actually worth seeing the light of day.
1. Learn at least some theory. And by that I mean really learn the notes you’re playing and not just shapes out of a chord book. Most of those chord books are filled with 13th this and 6/9 flat five that and it’s intimidating as hell, creating the impression that there are literally thousands of different chords. But guess what? There aren’t. For example, if you start off learning some basic idea such as the fact that all those F# chords are exactly the same as all the Gb chords (shocking right?), it saves a LOT of time. And by the way, big shot composers like Bartok didn’t think in terms of ‘G7b5#9’ either. Just learn the notes and then all that complicated ‘jazz’ stuff will take care of itself. Really.
2. Learn the middle of the fingerboard. I mean take a few months and just force yourself to never use an open string or go below the fifth fret or above the tenth fret. Just trust me on this.
3. Stick with 3 and 4 note chords. So many guys gets hung up on playing these 6 string barre chords–again, I think from all those stupid chord books. And then when they learn some ‘jazz’ they figure they need to flesh out every note into that G7b5#9/A. Which is impossible. You’re not a piano, so get over it. Just pick the three or four notes you like best (usually the ones that lead to and from logical places melodically) and fly. When you hear a good chord player, he sounds like he’s playing a chorale; you know, like a choir. There’s a melody to it. When you hear a bad player, it sounds disjointed because he’ just grabbing all the shapes he learned out of that darned chord book. So there’s no flow.
4. Everyone worries about having an even tempo. That’s important for sure, but I’m telling you that you also need to be just as concerned about playing at an even volume. You can and should be able to be your own compressor. You need to learn to play so evenly that the waveform of your playing looks like a rock steady sine wave from The Outer Limits. In fact, you can practice by recording yourself into your computer and seeing if the amplitude varies. Practice until it doesn’t. You sound MUCH better when you can play with an even volume. Bonus: in doing this you’ll probably find that you play more gently. That’s good. Even if you’re a Swedish Death Metal kind of player, you’ll find that a softer touch gives you a much richer tone.
5. I probably don’t need to mention this to anyone under forty but learn to sweep pick. I didn’t bother with this until I was almost… wait for it… FIFTY. And then I broke my hand and necessity is a mother, so I learned. Which took me a YEAR. I wish I had done it thirty years earlier! I didn’t necessarily learn to play faster, but what I did get out of it was a LOT more relaxation and a lot less TENSION. My guess is that you’ll reduce your risk of long-term injuries greatly.
6. Learn to play the melody of every song you’re working on. And by that I mean, really learn to make the thing sing. If you work on enough tunes, you’ll work out all the difficulties of moving from string to string that makes playing sound herky-jerky. The idea is to learn to make the melody sound even, regardless of where you are on the fingerboard and whether you’re using open strings or not. The added bonus is that as you get better at this, you’ll find yourself breaking out of the same boring patterns you’re stuck with now because we all tend to fall back on the hand movements we’re already familiar with.
7. Pick another style you admire and apply it to your world. You’ll be a much better country player when you learn some jazz chords. You’ll be a much better jazz player when you learn some authentic Bulgarian tunes. It can be any style, but pick one that is a) diametrically opposed to your ‘thang’ and b) that you actually like (guilty pleasures are the best.)
8. When you practice, every day or week, pick ONE riff or lick and internalize it. I mean really get it down. I see way too many kids who only half ‘get’ things right. When yer learning something? Imagine that it’s going to be your ‘Crazy Train’ lick… you know, the thing you’ll toss off in Guitar Center to impress people. It’s a magicians trick. You have to have it so down that it looks as if you just improvised Stairway To Heaven.
9. Dig your limitations. Many of these tips are based on the fact that I have wee, short, yet surprisingly fat and soft fingers. Think those scrumptious little cocktail franks they used to serve at Bar Mitzvahs. All those six and seven fret stretches that are such a huge part of flashy flamenco playing? I don’t even bother. What I did work on (a lot) was how to cheat–ie. how to sound good with only four fret stretches. I made the stuff I can do impressive enough so that listeners don’t notice what I can’t do. If that sounds like another example of magician misdirection? You’re learning.
10. I saved the worst for last. When you practice? Work on the stuff you know you need to work on, NOT material you enjoy or can already do. It’s not supposed to be ‘fun’; it’s practice for God’s sake. Learning music is bodybuilding for your fingers. Literally. You don’t get better by playing stuff you already know. Weight lifters don’t get stronger doing stuff they already can do. You get stronger by pushing yourself to do the stuff you can’t do. As they say: No pain, no gain. There is simply no way round the fact that practice is not entertainment. The latest research says that doing really INTENSE exercise for 15 minutes does more for your body than an hour of easy activity. There’s just something about really pushing yourself that forces change. Music practice works exactly the same way. So work on the crap that you hate, the stuff you are absolutely terrible at, the stuff you don’t think you’ll ever get down. Do that for fifteen minutes a day and you’ll make a lot more progress than guys who noodle for an hour. Really truly.