Sometimes, we guitar players can get so caught up in executing that blazing 16th-note-scale run at 180 bpm, that we forget about the true strengths of the instrument.
Unlike the piano, for example, the guitar offers us the opportunity to manipulate a note in various creative ways. We can even alter a note to where it's no longer one of the established 12 tones of Western music. This kind of versatility is what helped the guitar earn its status as the dominant instrument of the 20th century.
However, some guitar players can get stuck in a mental trap of thinking that fast technique and "feel" are mutually exclusive elements. Improving your "feel" might involve a lot more listening and reflection than sheer practice, while improving your technical speed isn't as complicated as one might assume.
It clearly takes devotion and self-discipline, but the task is simple enough; practice, practice, practice. You need to find the energy (and the time) to engage in deliberate and repetitive dexterity exercises on a daily basis. These dexterity exercises don't have to be boring chromatics, but they might need to be practiced at a nauseating level of persistence. This is how, over time, you build that mountain of muscle memory to which things become second nature.
But the process of practicing the guitar should not always be like boot camp. This is where I feel some players can get caught in that mental trap. Taking a step away from that intense mentality on occasion can give you a much-needed sense of perspective. If not, there is always that risk of tunnel vision. This is when almost every musical idea you might have seems to be stuck within a narrow field of purely mechanical-sounding techniques. The best way to avoid this mindset is to take a look at the periphery, the subtle power of musical inflections.
Musical inflections are ways to make your playing sound more exciting and entertaining to the listener. An unfortunate reality check for many musicians is the realization that not everyone cares about how fast you can play. If you're a pitcher, should you always throw your fastball? Probably not. This will make you predictable to your opponents. You'll be much more effective if you're constantly changing up your pitches. Similarly, we can get as creative as we want with our expressive options such as bending, vibrato, sliding, hammer-ons, pull-offs, tap harmonics ... you get the idea.
The trick is not just to mix these inflections into your lightning-fast runs, but to take detours altogether. Instead of going 80 mph on the interstate, take an exit to a scenic road where the speed limit is only 40 mph. You might not get to your destination as fast, but I'm willing to bet you'll enjoy the ride more.
Does this mean you have to totally rethink your approach to guitar playing? Not at all. For the sake of full disclosure, I have worked hard over the years for my ability to play fast and, at times, I'm sure I sound too mechanical for some listeners. But the key is to always strive for that balance. If you can throw some well-placed inflections into your guitar solos, you might just prick up the ears of an otherwise apathetic listener. Which, in my mind, is always a victory.
Chris Breen is a New Jersey-based guitarist with 14 years of experience under his belt. He, along with his brother Jon (on drums) started the two-piece metal project known as SCARSIC in 2011. Due to a lack of members, Chris tracked guitars, bass and vocals for their self titled four-song demo (available on iTunes, Spotify and Rhapsody). They have recently been joined by bassist Bill Loucas and are writing new material. Chris also is part of an all-acoustic side project known as Eyes Turn Stone. Chris teaches guitar lessons as well (in person or via Skype). If you're interested in taking lessons with Chris, visit BreenMusicLessons.com for more info.