It's better for business if you're good at what you do.
Because if you really are a talented guitarist and if you've developed the right skill set, then people will come to you and ask you to play for them.
That's a lot better than having to canvas other musicians and bands for a chance to play.
Session work, live gigging and teaching opportunities will present themselves readily and you won't have to prove yourself worthwhile.
You come pre-approved because your reputation precedes you.
What's the right skill set?So the right skill set I mentioned; what is that?
A group of skills on the guitar that are marketable and make you a more desirable musician.And since it depends on the niche, genre and situation that you're trying to break into, it's not about a universal standard of raw talent.
Though talent certainly matters.
But talent is a baseline requirement; a no-brainer. Of course you need to be talented.
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More so you need to be talented in the right areas; those that make you a flexible musician, a focused music student and a comfortable performer.
We'll identify those skills for you and talk about honing in on them and developing each one.
First, lest talk about practice and time management.
Managing Practice TimeWhen we devote time to our instrument, though not all practice is equally valuable.
If we don't know what to focus, and spend too much time on topics and concepts that don't improve our market value as a musician, we likely won't make it out of our living rooms and basements.
So the decision we must make every time we pick up the guitar is this: What is our ultimate goal?
What are we working towards and how are we getting there? What's our wheelhouse?
It can be as simple as just picking up and playing, but taking it a step further and really examining our practicing habits helps us focus on the skills that are going to make us the most marketable as a player.
That's where we really want to be.
1. Quick, Clean and Subtle Chord TransitionsChord transitions are one of the toughest issues that beginning guitar players face.
Eventually you can get your fingers in place to play most chords, but switching between chords, much less doing it quickly, can be an incredibly difficult skill to develop. Many players don't ever really master this aspect of the guitar, usually because they move onto other topics.
Spending too much time on something that seems so elementary tends to be frustrating, especially to a beginner. So much so that they skip onto more difficult topics that they believe should take a long time.
But leaving chord changes behind is a huge mistake which leaves a glaring hole in your skill set that's going to get noticed.
Developing or revisiting this concept takes time, but there are a few practical steps you can take to address it in your practice sessions.
- Arpeggiate chords and play one note at a time, making sure each one rings clean.
- When you change chords find a "lead finger," which is the first finger to land on a note for the next chord.
- Always keep in mind that the less you have to move your fingers and hand the better your changes will be.
- Practice keeping your hand close to the fretboard or even sliding to reach new chords in a progression.
- Memorize the most typical chord progressions.
For most guitarists that's a mix of open, barre and power chords that all need to be used interchangeably.
Identify those chords and apply the aforementioned practice techniques until your chord changes become second-nature.
2. A Keen Sense of TimingThe mathematical aspects of timing can be taught, but to really grasp and understand it, you have to be able to hear and feel musical beats and time signatures.
It's also critically important that you do this early on, because if you don't have timing right, all the tone, technique and theory in the world isn't going to make you sound good. Timing is a foundational skill that should be developed by guitar players as early as possible.
This doesn't mean you have to play drums or even understand the theory behind musical time.
Instead, you should practice training your ear and listening to the beat of musicy with the intention of mixing it into your guitar playing.
So once again, a practical approach is sufficient.
- Listen to the drums and key in on the beat when you listen to music.
- Play along with the snare and kick drum when you're playing a song.
- Use a metronome.
- Plug an iPod into your amp or stereo and play along with some of your music.
- Practice counting along with beats when listening to music.
3. A Melodic Approach to Fills and SolosFills and solos have an underlying purpose that have nothing to do with the speed or technicality with which they are played.
That purpose is simply to provide melody.
Now it's not to say that a melodic solo can't or shouldn't be fast, but too often the focus is on impressing with speed instead of inspiring with a melodic line. Guitar players make it harder than it really is by forcing on themselves an expectation of needing to play really technical for any lead guitar segment..
The correct approach is to first develop the melodic outline of a given solo or fill.
You need to ask; what's the story that you're trying to tell in that moment?
For example, Joe Satriani wrote "Flying in a Blue Dream" based off of dreams he had as a kid where he'd jump off of a ledge and just float.
Thus his solos in that song (which are incredibly fast and technical) are first and foremost, telling a story and providing a melody.
The speed comes later.
Though melody may seem like an ambiguous idea, you can think of it as a vocal line or the predominant note sequence of any piece of music. Take the whistling at the beginning of the Andy Griffith show for example. That whistling is the melody.
Or the solo that Kurt Cobain plays for "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
That solo is just the melody of the lyric line in the song's verses.
A good way to come up with melody lines for a guitar solo is to think about a lyric line or a melody in your head. It doesn't have to be long, it just needs to have an emotional track. Once you've thought of something, tab it out on your guitar and build your solo or fill from there.
4. An Understanding of Song Structure (Instrument Roles)To get work (paying or otherwise) as a guitar player, it's not enough to just be really good at your own instrument. That's not to say you have to play other instruments, but rather you need to have an understanding of how they all fit together and compliment each other.
The head knowledge is fairly simple. Drums and bass are foundational instruments, where drums set the time and bass builds a chord progression.
Guitar, piano and vocals are melodic or harmonic accents, otherwise thought of as "decorative."
If you start to apply this to how you view music, you'll begin to develop a more complete understanding of how a song is actually created and how all the instruments fit together. That helps you stay within the role of the guitar and not become an intrusive presence when playing music with other people.
It's not that you need to be less aware of what you're doing on the guitar, but you need to become more musically minded and more concerned with the final product (the entire song) as opposed to your own playing.
Your playing should contribute to that as much (or as little) as necessary.
5. Understanding the Role of a ContributorSince the guitar is not a foundational instrument, a guitarist is almost always limited to the role of a contributor.
All this means is that your sound is an additive and not critical to the song's structure.
That means you've got a responsibility to understand what a song needs from your guitar and how to contribute.
It might involve a lot of loud playing or it might not involve much playing at all.
Understanding how to contribute means you're alright in either scenario and that you're comfortable with both ends of the publicity spectrum; either being heard a lot, or not being heard much at all. They both have their place at one time or another.
So how do you practice being a contributor?
- Learn to distinguish between the rhythm and lead guitar parts when listening to other music.
- Start to take note of how often each guitar plays in particular songs. Do they ever drop out? Are you constantly hearing a particular sound or riff? What parts of the song do you typically hear a given guitar part?
- Listen to music that's similar to the niche that you play in and pattern your playing after what those guitar players do.
So it's a safe bet, if you're just strumming or picking aimlessly, without any real intent, you're probably not contributing anything of value.
Think about why you're playing what you're playing.
Every audible not should have a purpose.If most of your playing doesn't have a purpose or direction, then you're misunderstanding your role in a musical setting.
That purpose should be one (or more) of the following.
- Adding melody.
- Accenting the vocal line.
- Layering melody.
- Adding harmony.
- Accenting the bass line (chord progression).
- Layering the bass line (chord progression).
Cultivating These SkillsIt's difficult to practice some of these traits, because in a lot of respects they're understood outside the context of just your guitar.
So things like melody, timing and chord transitions are concrete topics that can be practiced literally.
However, song structure and contribution are difficult to nail down because they're more theoretical and heavily situational. My advice would be to focus on the three concrete skill areas and develop the two theoretical areas over time as you fall into your musical niche.
The process is a long one and it takes years to develop this kind of playing. But knowing where to put your energy and what to work on when you do sit down to practice can help.
Depending on your natural abilities and giftedness with the guitar, you may progress faster than others.
Follow up ResourcesWe've got plenty of material here to help you with both the concrete and theoretical topics covered in this article.
Use them to develop your own practice schedule and to target the areas that need the most work.
Here are just a few resources that you might find useful.
- 7 Reasons People Will Want to Listen to You
- Introductory Guide to Building Foundational Guitar Skills
- 10 Things that Improve the Subtlety of your Guitar Playing
- 7 Speed Hacks for your Chord Changes
- Building Short, Effective Arpeggios
So don't be afraid to review and don't just check a practice topic off your list.
You can always get better and you can always improve.
Thoughts and FeedbackWould you have added (or removed) something from this list? Are you a successful musician with something to share?
Let us know over at Twitter and Google Plus.
Further ReadingHarmony and Theory: A Comprehensive Source for All Musicians by Carl Schroeder
Soloing Strategies for Guitar by Tom Kolb
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Iraun