We revisit John Petrucci's classic Guitar World column, "Wild Stringdom"
In order to become a well-rounded musician, you have to master the three major aspects of guitar playing: the technical side, the musical side and the creative side. The technical side comprises the actual physical components you need to have under your belt in order to get around your instrument, such as right- and left-hand technique, synchronization of both hands, executing scales, arpeggios and patterns, string-skipping, sweep picking, difficult licks, and memorizing (and playing) complete songs.
Once you've developed some technical facility on the guitar, the musical side (which entails theory, harmony, chord structure, ear training, sight-reading, composition and being able to hear chord progressions and licks) comes into play a lot more. This aspect is a lifelong study, but it's what makes you a good musician, as opposed to a good guitarist.
The creative side entails expressing yourself as an artist by composing music, lyrics or songs. It's often accessed in a totally opposite manner than the other two components-through free association. Sometimes just allowing yourself to noodle without any structure will enable you to stumble upon great new ideas, culminating in creating your own distinct voice on the instrument. I spent a lot of time developing my chops when I was younger. In doing so, I found that one of the hardest things was dealing with what to practice. That's not surprising, considering the almost inexhaustible supply of study materials (such as CDs, transcription books, magazines and instructional videos) available. With such a wealth of information out there, it's often intimidating to know where to begin, especially if you only have a limited amount of time.
I had to figure out how to organize my materials in such a way that I would be able to cover all three facets of guitar playing during a practice session. So I did the only thing I could think of: I set up a filing system. And you know what? It helped me so much, I still use it to this day! I heartily recommend that you create one for yourself.
Here's what I did (and you're welcome to use whatever suggestions work best for you): I created three different sections in my file cabinet, one for each of the aforementioned components of guitar playing. Subsequently, I divided each section into sub-categories. I bought a bunch of folders, and labeled each one with a particular sub-category.
Then, whenever I came across a piece of music that I wanted to learn, I'd assign it to a sub-category and pop it into its respective folder. The music could be from any source-a guitar lesson, a transcription, a magazine column, my own written exercises-it didn't matter. Everything went into that folder, including any books on that particular topic.
For example, let's take a look at how I filed the technical section. First, I made a list of all the technical sub-categories I could think of, and then I assigned a folder to each one. I created one folder for scales (which also included scale patterns and sequences), and another one for arpeggios. Then I had a folder on left-hand studies, where I included things such as legato licks a la Allan Holdsworth and trilling exercises. I also made a folder that contained intervallic studies, such as string-skipping licks, and one containing chop-building exercises, such as speed studies and chromatic lines.
I also created a separate folder that only contained licks, whether written, transcribed, or culled from magazines. For example, I used to transcribe licks from Steve Morse and Al DiMeola, and they actually worked like technical exercises. The mere effort required to master those licks helped my technique immensely. By the way, you may have noticed that I didn't make a folder for right-hand exercises-that's because the exercises in all the folders automatically encompass the right hand.
Of course, you're not limited to just those sub-category choices. Create ones that interest you. When I was younger, I had a folder on right-hand tapping, but since I don't really use this technique that often anymore, I no longer require a tapping folder. But if you want to master your tapping technique, by all means create a folder. Same thing goes for whammy bar tricks, etc.
I break down my musical component section into the following sub-categories: sight-reading (which includes single-string reading studies from Berklee College of Music [the school I attended] and classical pieces), chords and chord theory (which contains chord books, articles that depict chord boxes, and chord-melody transcriptions), and general music theory.
If you want to master a lot of different musical styles, I strongly suggest that you also create a styles folder. In this folder, you'd have blues, country and jazz sub-categories for starters, as well as any other styles you're interested in (death metal, bluegrass, etc.).The creative section will contain folders where you can catalogue your songs, chord progressions, melodies and lyrics-any original work that defines you as a guitarist and an artist.
The cool thing with this filing system is that when you go to practice, you not only have tons of material to choose from, but you can customize your practice sessions. This is especially helpful to guitarists who are in a practice rut where they don't know what to work on, or where to start, so they practice the same things over and over.
For example, let's say you have two hours a day to practice, and you've decided you're going to dedicate every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to working on scales and arpeggios. With this filing system, you'll never have to play the same exercises every day. Just go into the appropriate folder, and, if you filed your topics correctly, you'll have a bunch of different things to work that concentrate on the same technique. That way, you'll never get bored and you'll always be working on something new and interesting.
We'll go more into this next time. Until then, get those folders, and start compiling your own customized guitar library!