When you’re running low on ideas, a great place to turn for inspiration is other instruments. Learning a sax lick, a piano chord voicing or a vocal melody can allow you to approach music from an entirely new angle. Getting a peek at how other instrumentalists think also can help you get in sync with your bandmates. If you know what your bass player is trying to do, then you can complement his basslines better with your guitar part.
Like any practice, you actually have to practice in order to learn anything. This is one of the biggest challenges with any skill you want to learn. As soon as we try to start a new habit, all sorts of resistance pops up and creates obstacles to sticking with it. Being masters of rationalization, it’s easy for us to come up with reasons to skip practice. “I don’t have time.” “I don’t know what to practice.”
If you treat each note of a chord as a different voice, paying attention to how each note transitions to the notes of the next chord, your playing will take on a new maturity. This is known as voice leading. Think of it as directing a choir on your fretboard rather than playing a series of shapes.
Something about this simple categorization really jumped out at me. When you stop to think about it, those three areas are all you really need to worry about when it comes to vocabulary. No matter what sort of material you’re practicing, you’re basically either working on the rhythmic, harmonic or melodic aspect of your playing.
From the very beginning of my guitar-playing history, picking away at older Metallica songs, I’ve always been drawn to interesting rhythms. This interest eventually led me from metal into prog-metal (Dream Theater), prog-rock (Rush, Yes) and complex rhythm masters like Tool and Meshuggah. But it wasn’t until a class in college called Dalcroze Eurthymics that I could really feel these rhythms.
I had six months to prepare for auditions after buying my first classical guitar, and I did some serious woodshedding. Thanks to this work, I not only passed the audition and got accepted into the classical guitar program, but I also began teaching classical guitar at the same university just three years later.
A tie is a curved line connecting two notes of the same pitch. What this does is extend the first note for the length of the second note. In other words, it adds the two tied notes together. If an eighth note is tied to another eighth note, you end up with the length of a quarter note. Ties happen across beats or across measures. You don’t need to tie together two 16th notes in the same beat, because you can just rewrite them as one eighth note.
Good rhythm is one of the most important skills to have as a professional musician. Other musicians don’t care what scales or chord shapes you know. They just know if they can groove with you or not. And really, the same goes for your audience.
It’s amazing how quickly young kids can pick up languages. Adults can pick up languages at the same rate, but only if they’re in the same circumstances. Since music is a sort of language, wouldn’t it be interesting to see if the circumstances that let kids pick up languages quickly also let adults pick up music more quickly? Here are ideas from language acquisition that can be applied to learning or teaching guitar.