1.25.2013

Building Great Technique: How to Practice Control



Your technique as it develops is mostly comprised of habit, more so than intentional movement.
Therefore it's hard to teach technique aside from introducing concepts and allowing them develop over time.

In the spirit of building great guitar technique, I'll start by introducing the concept of playing with control and giving some practical advise on how to do so.

Playing With Control

The level of control with which you play is one of those concepts that after you know and practice, it's just a matter of patiently pushing through until one day you realize that you don't even have to think about it anymore.

But how do you practice playing in control?

It's true that for most beginners the guitar is more or less in the driver's seat. You spend the first several years just trying to get the guitar to "let" you do certain things.

It's an uphill battle pretty much the whole way, until you realize that one day the guitar is taking orders and you're the one calling the shots. The reason that's happening is because you're either consciously or sub-consciously learning how to play with control.

So let's say you're at the point where you know that you're not playing with the level of control that you need to be, but you want to do some things to proactively speed that process up.

Here's how.

Controlling a Single Note

If you've never "practiced" control before, the logical place to start is with the simplest action of playing a single note. You might be surprised to find that getting this step nailed down is a fairly involved and difficult process.

Unfortunately there isn't a lot of talk in the guitar lesson world about playing single notes.

There's an art to it and a strategy that should be made available to beginners. If you're lacking control in this area, than it's definitely something you need to clean up before moving on to other topics.

How do I know if I'm playing single notes with control or not?

There are few indicators that will tell you whether or not you need to tighten up a note. They're simple enough to list so we'll go that route.

If you answer yes to any of the following questions than single note control is something you need to practice.

  • Are you having trouble eliminating buzzing sounds?

  • Do you lack quickness or accuracy when moving to the note and playing it?

  • Do you need to move to the note and check with your eyes to make sure your finger is in the right place before you play it?

  • Is it painful or difficult to put enough pressure on the fret for the note to come out clearly?

  • Do you hesitate before moving to or away from the note?

If you answered yes to any of these question than playing a single note isn't something you should check off your to-learn list yet.

Practicing Control

So how do we practice this?

What's the practical application? I'll admit, it can be a little bit obscure, but if we look closely at what we're trying to do, we can learn a few things about how we need to practice in order to get ourselves there.

Step #1: Simply work on pressing harder on the strings.

The most basic part of playing guitar is pressing the strings down hard enough, so there's no harm in practicing this part on its own. You don't even have to strum anything, just work on pressing hard one finger at a time.

Step #2: Practice jumping to different notes quickly.

If you're struggling to maintain control when moving from note to note, simply practice that movement with your chording hand.

Again, you don't need to strum anything.

Just work on increasing the speed with which you can transfer between two notes. For example, try jumping from the sixth string on the third fret to the tenth fret of the same string. Once you building up speed and are consistently accurate, try picking the notes with your strumming hand.

Step #3: Fight the urge to keep looking at the fretboard.

Looking at the fretboard is a habit that every guitarist needs to break eventually, at least in terms of relying on it to make sure that what you're playing is accurate. Your hands and ears should and will tell you whether you're playing the correct thing.

Practice by choosing another fret transfer (try the first to the twelfth fret) and make the movement as quickly as you can without looking at the fretboard.

Step #4: Learn alternate picking.

Don't let the lingo "Alternate Picking" scare you. The concept is actually quite simple. All it means is that as you pick the strings, after you pick down through a string, pick back up to hit the next note or chord instead of moving above the string and coming back down again.

In other words, you'll utilize both the up and the down stroke every time. It takes awhile to get used to, but once you do it will  give you a tremendous amount of control and confidence with your strumming hand and will go a long way in developing your overall command of the instrument.

Step #5: Practicing pressing the note and picking the string in conjunction.

After you chord a single note the quicker your pick hits the string, the greater your control will be.

For starters, just practice hitting the same note over and over again until you get the timing as close as you can. Then start moving from note to note and try to pick the note as soon as your chording finger presses down on the string.

Controlling a Chord

Controlling your chords and chord progressions requires a slightly different approach than if you were going on a note by note basis. Understandably it's a bit more difficult, though there is more material and information out there in lesson form that addresses this issue.

Just as with single notes, there are ways to tell if you're losing control of your chords. If you answer yes to any of the following questions, than feel free to consult the practice recommendations below.

  • Do your chords have buzzing notes when you strum them?

  • Are you having trouble muting strings that need to be muted?

  • Are you having trouble playing open notes that need to be played?

  • Do barre chords throw you off at all?

  • Do you have trouble quickly and/or accurately transitioning between chords?

We can see right away that many of the issues with single note control manifests the same way when it comes to chords. Chords are simply a collection of single notes, so it makes sense.

What we want to do now is apply some practice tactics to try and improve the level of control over the chords we know. We'll lay out five practice tips the same as before.

Step #1: Weed out the buzzing notes.

Pick through your chords and figure out where your buzzing or unclear notes are coming from. Once you do, treat it as a single note problem and either apply more pressure to the fret, or get your finger more centered on the fret.


Step #2: Determine which strings are to be played open and which are to be muted.

Muted and open strings are a part of most chords. Go through the chords you know and learn how to identify them. In chord charts they're usually marked by either an 'X' for muted, or 'O' for open at the top of the chart.

Once you know where they are in your chord, work on getting them to come out the way the chart indicates.

Often times your hand's natural position will mute strings, or you can just be careful to avoid picking the strings. If a string is to be played open, make sure you aren't touching that string with your hands.

Curling your fingers more aggressively can help prevent this.

Step #3: For chord changes, simply work on getting your fingers onto one chord, quickly.

In order to be good at switching between chords, you need to be able to quickly engage a chord on its own.

Often times, the problem has nothing to do with the actual movement from one chord to another (that's the easy part) but rather lies in getting all your fingers to go where they're supposed to regardless of where you start.

Pick one chord and work on it by getting all the notes pressed down as quickly as you can. Once you feel comfortable, start incorporating other chords the same way and eventually begin to move between them.

Step #4: Use your thumb to anchor your hand.

Your thumb can be helpful through the chording process, since you can basically anchor your hand in place using the back of the fretboard. If you already do this than you're ahead of the game, but if not, start to be aware of the control that it can give your chord, particularly when playing power or barre chords.

Step #5: Practice barring with every finger.

Barre chords are tough to get used to, but if you practice them it'll help develop your finger strength and even get you more comfortable with less strenuous open chords.

A good way to practice this is to simply barre notes with each finger. Don't worry about strumming if you don't want to. Rather just barre two, three or more notes at once until your fingers start getting used to it. Once that happens, incorporate your strumming.

How Long Will it Take?

Like I said before, being able to control your guitar is a pivotal point that you probably won't reach until your second or third year of playing. If you've just started and feel like that's a long way off, make sure you're getting a good daily dose of playing time in and you might get there a little quicker.

It really just depends on the time you put into it and your natural abilities. These practice methods are enough to point you in the right direction.

Being bossed around all day by your guitar is no fun, but once you get over that hump, it'll feel like you can learn and play just about anything.

Thanks for reading. Leave comments and questions below.




About Robert Kittleberger

Robert is the founder and editor of Guitar Chalk and Guitar Bargain. You can get in
touch with him here, or via Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus.