Whether you are an experienced guitar player or just starting out, it is very easy to plateau at any stage in the game. Of course, this tends to be the case more often with experienced players, but a novice can go through it as well. Sometimes, we get fixed into a practice routine and fail to broaden our horizons, resulting in the dreaded “noodling” throughout our practice time. If there is anything I would like you to take from this today, it is that to get a different result, you have got to try something different. There is an old adage saying, “If you always do what you always did, you’re always going to get what you always got.” Now, I don’t know who said it, but it sure is brilliant! With that said, we are going to discuss some of the finer points of this philosophy as it applies to guitar playing. More specifically, we will be discussing adjusting your technique, learning repertoire, and learning music theory. Let’s get started!
If you have noticed that your playing is a bit sloppy or not as crisp as you would like it to be, chances are your technique could use some adjustment. Really, the best way to go about correcting this would be to find a teacher whose technique you admire. We are not always afforded this opportunity, so the next best thing would be to watch videos of great players whose technique you would like to emulate. See how they hold the pick and how their hands look holding the guitar and the fretboard. Does it look like yours? Maybe some posture adjustment is in order here. If you never had anyone coaching you in the early stages, you might suffer from bad form. This is perfectly normal and can be adjusted with a bit of practice.
Learning songs and learning from other players in general is, in my opinion, the very best way to break through plateaus. Now, I am certain you have gone through the process of learning several of your favorite songs, but did you really? Sometimes, as beginners, we tend to skip parts that give us trouble, or maybe we play “reduced” versions of certain sections. I know this is definitely something I used to do. The fact is, I didn’t get better until I made an effort to really get into the nuts and bolts of each song.
Now, if you are someone who does learn songs as they are played, great. The next thing to try would be songs that you find particularly difficult and songs in other genres. We tend to box ourselves in to one or two styles of playing. In my opinion, this is a huge mistake. I feel there is no better way for us to really expand our musical minds than to learn from other genres. Every genre presents its own techniques, challenges, and obstacles for us to overcome. This also includes genres you do not particularly enjoy! You would be surprised to find out that there is always something to learn from another style of music and this can also help to open your mind a bit and appreciate different things.
Guitar – particularly electric guitar – is often regarded as a “street” instrument. Many of us got into playing because we heard a wicked guitar solo or some cool riff, or maybe we saw a friend starting to play and became interested. What this also tends to mean is that our approach was not particularly academic. I know mine wasn’t. For this reason, electric guitar players tend to skip out on being able to read music and learning the theory in the early stages. This is a big mistake. Knowing the theory means knowing how your favorite sounds are generated and that leads to being able to access those sounds at a moment’s notice. It also means knowing the fretboard from top to bottom.
Knowing this information is not only valuable in an individualistic sense. It also helps to communicate ideas to fellow musicians. I’m sure you have been this person before: “Ok, 3rd fret on the 2nd string, then you play the 6th fret followed by the 5th fret. It goes something like, ‘bum bum ba’.”
Sound familiar? Yeah, many of us have been there. It is much easier – and quicker – to simply say, “D then F then E, and it’s two 8ths and a quarter note.”
Sing What You Play
This is kind of on the back of the previous section, but it is important to note. As a guitar player, it is important to be able to sing what you play. Because of the nature of the instrument, we tend to rely on shapes. This is perfectly fine so long as you don’t let the shapes dictate what you play. To remedy this, first you will have to learn your intervals and what they sound like. There are a ton of great resources online and through YouTube for this. Next, learn each interval’s shape as it would be laid out on the fretboard. With a bit of practice, you should eventually be able to connect each sound to a particular shape, and you will be able to sing what you are playing while you play it. This is an incredibly valuable skill, particularly if you have any interest in improvisation.
Hopefully, this little lesson has helped you out some or at least provided some insight on how to improve your practice routine, thereby improving your playing. As it is with just about anything in life, the best way to improve is to work on the backs of those who have done it before you. Someone has already figured out most of what you want to know, so learn from them and build on that. Take these considerations and you should see marked improvements in your playing in just a few months time. Happy practicing!
About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, a phenomenal online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.