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12 mind-blowing guitarists reveal the techniques they struggled to master, and how you can improve your guitar playing faster

Paul Gilbert
(Image credit: Joby Sessions/Future)

As one decade passes into the next, you may be reflecting on how much you’ve managed to improve as a player during that time – or, just maybe, feeling a little guilty if you’ve fallen short of where you hoped to be. 

Don’t despair, though: even pros don’t improve as fast as they’d like. To help you turbo-charge your own playing skills, we spoke to some of the biggest names in guitar to ask how they feel they could have improved faster…

Joe Bonamassa

(Image credit: Joby Sessions/Future)

1) A technique-based ‘I wish’

“Legato: I have absolutely no capacity to play anything using the legato technique. Eric Johnson blends legato and picking perfectly in my opinion. I am an Al Di Meola school player, especially when it comes to faster playing. I pick literally every note unless I’m on stage playing pretend rock star. 

"I’ve tried to incorporate legato a little, but as my tech – who is extremely good at it and a huge Allan Holdsworth fan – glares over with the look of, ‘You are embarrassing yourself, Bonamassa,’ I decided it was not in my best interest to pursue that avenue.”

2) A theory-based ‘I wish’

“One of my strengths and weaknesses is that I have a very limited knowledge of theory. Strength: it makes me more fearless as a musician. I don’t care if what I’m doing is in the book; it just sounds good to me. 

“You use that intra-barometer in all facets of your playing and life. I don’t want the numbers or the rulebook swirling in my head. Weakness: some people ask me if I want a chart for the song. I laugh and say, ‘Play the demo and save a tree.’”

3) One music-related thing I wish I had done earlier

“One of the reasons I do not collect celebrity instruments is because they will not write those iconic songs for you. Right now, I am in Abbey Road Studios making a new album. The Hey Jude piano is in eyesight. If I went over and played it, it’s not gonna write a song of that calibre for me. It’s gonna sound like a hack piano player playing in the key of G. In hindsight, I would trade some of my playing ability for songwriting ability without hesitation.”

Martin Barre

1) A technique-based ‘I wish’

“Nobody mentioned alternate picking in 1960 when I bought my first guitar. Many years later, I pay the price for having a hybrid picking technique! There are some things I struggle to play picked and resort to a legato style to bridge the danger areas; I’m frustrated when I can see the obvious method but have to take a bypass. 

“I construct musical passages that, in theory, have no barrier in executing them. It is a challenge that I can meet, but only if I had worked on alternate picking. That said, playing mandolin helps my picking technique – a great instrument to explore.”

Self-discovery makes music a very personal journey and gives the player a unique ‘personality’

Martin Barre, solo artist/ex-Jethro Tull

2) A theory-based ‘I wish’

“Music has a habit of taking us on a journey. At no point on this fabulous trip is there something that is not a pleasure to discover and examine. So the rules are written in stone yet I would rather discover them with an ear for music than to transcribe them or download a video. Self-discovery makes music a very personal journey and gives the player a unique ‘personality’.”

3) One music-related thing I wish I had done earlier

“I have no regrets with my music career. I savour the good times and learn from the bad. If anything, I should have had a business ‘head’ earlier on. In the late 60s and early 70s it was all about the music and very little attention to finances. 

“This enabled a lot a bad deals from a handful of dubious music execs. The mindset was to make business appear too complex for the average rock musician. Nowadays, we can run our own band, record and market our own music – we do a better job

Paul Gilbert

(Image credit: Future / Joby Sessions)

1) A technique-based ‘I wish’

“I had all kinds of strange technical ‘mistakes’, but they all turned out to be beneficial. The first two years I played guitar, I only did upstrokes. But I got really good at upstrokes! I also held the pick with too many fingers and at a backwards angle. This turned out to give me a larger palette of tones and textures I still use all the time. 

“My fingering for an open G chord is also really odd. I didn’t know I was doing it ‘wrong’ until a few years ago. I may switch to the world-standard G chord, as it’s a little easier on my wrist, but my old weird one sounds good for a lot of things!”

Simpler is often better. And always wear earplugs!

Paul Gilbert

2) A theory-based ‘I wish’

“Melodies often drop from the root, directly to the lower 5th, without playing the 6th or 7th. This can be a bit of tangle to do on the guitar, especially if you’ve trained your hand to play every note of the scale… which I certainly did! My recent experiments in leaving these notes out has been such a great melodic discovery. I certainly wish I had left out the ‘Crazy Train note’ [the b6] a bit earlier.”

3) One music-related thing I wish I had done earlier

“When I set up my monitors on stage these days, I just need to hear my guitar, my voice and some snare drum. I used to want all kinds of things like ride cymbals and hi-hats and a pretty blend of everyone’s voices. That made for some long and ultimately impractical soundchecks. The Beatles didn’t have any monitors when then played stadiums in the 60s. Simpler is often better. And always wear earplugs!”

John McLaughlin

1) A technique-based ‘I wish’

“I wish I could have had either a drum kit and teacher, or the possibility to learn and be able to articulate the fundamentals of rhythm. In improvised music, 99 per cent of the time we play with drummers, and to fully understand what they are playing is essential in this world.”

2) A theory-based ‘I wish’

“The harmonic foundation that is used in contemporary jazz for the past 60 years is founded upon the music of Ravel, Satie, Fauré, Scriabin and others such as Bartok and Stravinsky. It would have been extremely useful to have had an opportunity to learn the harmonic techniques of these composers.”

3) One thing related to music I wish I had done earlier

“I should have taken singing lessons!”

Mike Stern

1) A technique-based ‘I wish’

“I always knew guitar came first, but I wish I had learned at least one other instrument. Sometimes when you learn another instrument, it can help your guitar playing. When I was a kid I took some piano lessons, but then I let that go when I started playing guitar. But no real regrets, there is so much to learn on guitar; it’s endless. It’s always a challenge and it’s always kicking my ass!”

2) A theory-based ‘I wish’

“I wish I had studied a bit more classical music when I was younger. I do it now. I read and try to learn some Bach pieces, but I do it with a guitar pick. I wish I had learned more fingerstyle classical technique at the beginning.”

3) One music-related thing I wish I had done earlier

“I got into drugs and alcohol when I was younger. I’ve been sober for over 30 years now. The guitar may have enabled my drinking and drugging, but it also had a lot to do with saving my life. Music is such a positive force.”

Tommy Emmanuel

Tommy Emmanuel

(Image credit: Future)

1) A technique-based ‘I wish’

“I wish I had learned to read music. I could have learned a lot more and perhaps had a better understanding of the fretboard. I was busy trying to earn a living and support my family by playing and teaching guitar. I tried once, but I found it impossible, so I just carried on as I do today and followed my instincts.”

I suggest getting to work on training your mind to understand time and groove. When you’ve spent enough time with a metronome, that thing will set you free!

Tommy Emmanuel

2) A theory-based ‘I wish’

“I learned later in life to be more adventurous and unafraid when going for a solo. When you are young and inexperienced you tend to play it safe and stay close to the melody. But when you’ve had some time to grow as a musician you feel the freedom to step outside the comfort zone and see what’s possible to make a bolder statement and have fun with music.”

3) One music-related thing I wish I had done earlier 

“I wish I’d have been more aware of time when I was younger. I was too busy trying to impress people enough so I had plenty of work. What I now feel is that I would have been a much better musician if I’d started working with a metronome, every day! 

“Time, feel and groove: these are the elements that put bums on seats and cause people to run out and buy concert tickets. So I suggest getting to work on training your mind to understand time and groove. When you’ve spent enough time with a metronome, that thing will set you free!”

John Etheridge

1) A technique-based ‘I wish’

“I wish there had been a good theory of picking. Like everyone else my age, I developed my own erratic methods. Actually, this has worked okay and helped to give my generation of players individual approaches. When I see a lot of young players, particularly the Gypsy guys, their picking hands look so beautifully efficient.”

Cramming more notes in does, in an undisciplined player, lead to speeding up. For people playing with you, this is infuriating. Good time is the best ingredient a player can have

John Etheridge, Soft Machine

2 ) A theory-based ‘I wish’

“Reading music. I’m very slow and this has cost me energy, nerves and given me a sense of inadequacy when playing with other musicians who tend to read better. I wish someone had forced me to do this at age 13 to 15. It’s boring but is so helpful, time saving and opens up so much music to you. And more money could have been made from playing sessions!”

3) One music-related thing I wish I had done earlier

“I always practise with a metronome or drum programme nowadays. For years I practised all my scales just tapping my foot. I was a terrible ‘racer’ as I always wanted to play like John Coltrane. Cramming more notes in does, in an undisciplined player, lead to speeding up. For people playing with you, this is infuriating. I think I’ve got over this now, although as a result of years of bad practice, it can creep in. Good time is the best ingredient a player can have.”

Andy Timmons

1) A technique-based ‘I wish’

“The whole idea and application of economy picking and sweeping has largely eluded me for most of my playing career, even though some of my lines do include some of these techniques – it must have happened naturally. 

“There is now much more awareness and instruction available for working on developing these techniques that I wish would have been around in my early years of learning. But as they say, ‘It’s never too late!’ I’m now working on these techniques daily as part of a practice regimen, so I will see if any of it works its way into my playing.”

Playing all the time is essential, of course, but also pushing yourself to learn new things consistently while also fortifying what you already know is a way to grow rapidly

Andy Timmons

2) A theory-based ‘I wish’

“Learning by ear is most assuredly the best way to obtain and retain music. I feel fortunate to a degree that there wasn’t an abundance of didactic material when I was growing up. I eventually took lessons, but I was largely self-taught from the age of five to 16. Someone showed me barre chords and the A minor pentatonic scale and off I went. 

“I had my guitar and a record player. Occasionally, you’d see someone on TV – I loved Roy Clark on Hee Haw! – but I had to ‘earn it’, meaning figure out by ear what was on the recording.

“This realisation was fortified years later – if I would learn a song first by the chart, I would be reliant on the paper as opposed to when I took the time to learn it by ear. It internalised aurally instead of visually – and isn’t music largely an aural experience? Of course, some music may be more complicated than your ear is capable of ‘figuring out’, but always make an effort to get as much as you can, then check out the video or transcription.”

3) One music-related thing I wish I had done earlier

“I wish I’d have been a more ardent and disciplined practiser. I played all the time, but I wasn’t always practising. Big difference! Playing all the time is essential, of course, but also pushing yourself to learn new things consistently while also fortifying what you already know is a way to grow rapidly. I’m only now – at the age of 55! – becoming a good practiser. I’ll keep you posted how it goes.”

Alex Skolnick

Alex Skolnick at the Met

(Image credit: Christine Jordan)

1) A technique-based ‘I wish’

“The main technique that I wished I’d learned earlier is mental: achieving focus and clarity, or what is often referred to today as ‘mindfulness’. I was already in my late 20s when I discovered a great book by jazz pianist Kenny Werner – one of the best, in my book – Effortless Mastery, which deals with these concepts for musicians. That led to other enlightening materials, with care taken to avoid anything pseudoscientific or ‘culty’. 

“Today there are great apps for your smartphone, such as Waking Up App by Sam Harris.  John McLaughlin really set an example with his embrace of meditation and Eastern philosophy in the 70s, which I dove into and appreciated more as I got older. But as a young guitarist, I just wanted to rock! Ironically, the rock is the perfect metaphor for stillness, tranquillity, inner calm and strength.”

History is full of music theory taboos that later became acceptable to our ears... Whatever your musical trajectory, it’s most important to focus on sound first and theory later

Alex Skolnick

2) A theory-based ‘I wish’

“My hindsight theory relates to music theory itself and if written as an equation, it would be this: Music > Theory. In other words, music determines music theory, not the other way around. 

“History is full of music theory taboos that later became acceptable to our ears, from a minor 3rd rubbing up against a chord with a major 3rd, a staple of the blues, to the tritone interval, once thought to be sacrilegious. The earliest musicians – probably cave-dwellers who discovered sound-making in a manner similar to Kubrick’s apes in the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey – were not thinking, ‘Wait! The book says we can’t use this note in that scale!’

“Yes, music theory is quite useful and recommended for some; I wouldn’t play the way I do without it. But that doesn’t mean it’s required for everyone. Whatever your musical trajectory, it’s most important to focus on sound first and theory later, if so inclined.”

3) One music-related thing I wish I had done earlier

“What I wish I’d done earlier is pursuing additional instruments, particularly piano. I did get a piano about 15 years back and just love getting lost in music separate from the familiarity of the guitar, as well as figuring out piano parts from recordings – film and TV soundtracks, classic tunes I grew up with, manageable classical and jazz pieces. 

“I also have some percussion instruments and know some very basic drum beats, but, again, I wish I’d started much earlier. It took a while to figure out, but so many of my favourite guitarists play other instruments, too, from Pat Metheny composing on the piano, to Al DiMeola getting behind the timbales in concert, to Stevie Ray Vaughan playing drums occasionally, to Eddie Van Halen’s keyboard skills – drums, too – to the all-time master multi-instrumentalist, Prince.

“Though I wish I’d started sooner, having incorporated piano and percussion into my practice in more recent years has helped develop my playing, timing and composing invaluably. Better late than never!”

Steve Lukather

1) A technique-based ‘I wish’

“I wish I had practised more!”

2) A theory-based ‘I wish’

“I wish I had started learning to read music when I started as a kid of seven or eight years old. I started to learn and study at 14. Wish it was day one, but… rock ’n’ roll hit! I can’t tell you how much it has helped me, but sight-reading takes time. No way around it.”

3) One music-related thing I wish I had done earlier

“Watch my money and I wish I’d never let ‘the party’ get in the way. It was okay as a kid, but when I got older, not good. So I quit all that 10 years ago. I wish it was 20. Sorry. It creeped up, ended bad, but I am okay now, thank God. I was 18, thrown into a room with 20-, 30- 40-year-old people and it was 1976 to ’77 to the early 80s, the most insane times in rock ’n’ roll. Fun as some of it may have been, a waste of time and money and life.”

Joe Satriani

Joe Satriani

(Image credit: Joseph Cultice)

1) A technique-based ‘I wish’

“I wish I had found my most comfortable ‘right-hand position’ at the start. I’ve gone through three radical shifts in how I anchor or float my picking hand. At first it was resting my palm right above the bridge, at the muting spot. Then I tried no anchoring, but dropped that after many trials and tribulations. Next was resting my fingers on the pickguard area – good for some stuff but not everything. So now I use all three whenever they seem appropriate. I’m still searching!”

If you want people to sing along with your melody, don’t make it complicated

Joe Satriani

2) A theory-based ‘I wish’

“All theories are equally golden and dangerous. It’s good to remember that in music there are no rules, only cause and effect. The key to embracing this approach is to learn all the cause and effect situations, remember them and apply accordingly. If you want people to sing along with your melody, don’t make it complicated. If you want people to get up and dance to your song, don’t make it dreadfully slow or painfully fast. Theories get dangerous when they stifle creativity and lead you down the path of mediocrity. Free your mind, your guitar will follow.”

3) One music-related thing I wish I had done earlier

“I wish I’d pursued learning recording studio techniques. Perhaps a job at a local studio would’ve been the right move when I was in my teens. I can’t help thinking it would have opened my eyes and ears to the wonders of the recording studio. However, my path led me to the stage, which helped me build my live performance chops. After answering these three questions I’m reminded of an old Scottish proverb: ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’ So true!”

Rusty Cooley

1) A technique-based ‘I wish’.

“I wish I had developed my eight-finger tapping and hybrid picking all the way through, the way I did many other techniques. I see a lot of value in it now and the added creativity that it can bring to your playing.”

2) A theory-based ‘I wish’

“I wish I had kept up my sight-reading. There was a time when I could read really well, but as the old saying goes, ‘Use it or lose it’!”

3) One music-related thing I wish I had done earlier

“I would have done anything to have gone to GIT [Guitar Institute Of Technology] right after high school. It just wasn’t in the budget. Being in LA at that time would have been amazing. All things aside, it’s never too late for anything and I still have lots of things I want to accomplish as a musician and plan on continuing to work on it each and every day.”