1. Focus on sound when you practice.
When I first heard Surfing with the Alien by Joe Satriani, my initial reactions were related to how awesome he sounded. I didn’t know enough about technique to identify what was going on. All I knew was he had an incredible sound and that I definitely didn't sound anywhere near as good as that!
Despite not having Joe’s experience, skill and higher quality gear, my resolve was to use my pick to craft my tone so that notes shone out with clarity, excessive and unwanted noise was muted, notes weren’t just played but really PLAYED.
If we make the overall quality of sound our goal when we work at something, we'll land much closer to what we hear in our head than if we just focus on the techniques.
2. Copy your heroes but don’t imitate them.
To copy our favorite guitarists is to take something of theirs for ourselves. To imitate them is to try to actually be them. When we take a lick idea from one of our influences, we can change a few things around. We can apply our own preferred fingerings, we can apply our preferred method of picking. We even can take a legato passage and add tapped notes if the stretches are too wide, making it something completely new.
A great artist knows how to copy from others and make it his or her own. Some people take it a little too far and confuse borrowing with imitating. Not only do their play licks note for note from their favorite players, but they strive to get their tone, their vibrato, they even write the same kind of chord progressions and, in some cases, dress like them.
Some people might be happy doing this, and that’s fine; but ultimately it’s a missed opportunity to be yourself.
3. Write, write, write!
Writing is essential if you want to become great at guitar. There isn't one great guitarist who hasn't written his or her own music. You don’t even need to make your written efforts public. It’s just part of the process of developing on your instrument.
Writing is your main opportunity for developing your ear, for making musical decisions on melody, what note goes where, how to build up a solo, when to push, when to hold back, when to leave things alone.
These are things that only you can decide and the only way to practice doing it is by… well, doing it. Don’t worry if the first 10 or 20 attempts are bad.
The important thing is that you’re doing it. And the great thing is that you don’t need a particular level of skill to start. You can begin right now!
Ben Higgins started playing guitar at age 10. He’s released five solo albums and continues to teach guitarists from around the world. In 2012, he released the YouTube video “30 Shredders in One Solo,” in which he emulated the style of 30 of the world’s greatest guitarists. He followed it up with “30 Misplaced Shredders” and “Another 30 Shredders." In 2016, Ben developed his “Badass…” online courses, which are aimed at improving people’s technique in picking, sweeping and hand synchronization. To find out more about Ben and his courses, visit benhigginsofficial.com.