I remember when I was about 11 or 12 really wanting to play the “Sweet Child O’ Mine” solo.
Guns N' Roses was my favorite group at the time and if there was one thing I wanted to do before I died, it was master that solo. The sweet bends, the awesome tone and the intensity of it all. I was hooked.
I printed out the tab and got started. It was going surprisingly well until the lick starting around 3:02 (which you can see below):
That run was just too fast.
I tried, but couldn’t force my fingers into playing the right notes. It was really frustrating. I’d learned the whole song up to then, but that part was above my pay grade. In the end I gave up, moved on to other things and decided that I just wasn’t good enough yet.
Thankfully, after getting a few more years of experience, I went back to that solo and finally conquered it. However, we don’t always want to do that. We want to master it now, not wait months (or even years) for our abilities to improve.
Since then, I’ve come across loads of songs just like this, where there’s one section I just can’t crack.
Through the course of mastering these songs, I've developed a step-by-step process you can use to master any difficult section in any song.
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I’ll show you how to break the difficult sections down into individual parts. Then we’re going to find out what underlying technical issues are causing the problem. After that you’ll learn strategies to overcome these difficult areas and fix the bad habits that caused problems in the first place.
Finally, we’ll re-integrate those difficult sections into the rest of the song. The new skill will become part of your everyday guitar vocabulary, ensuring that you retain it and get good long-term results.
On song selection:
If the difficult section you have in mind is more than two or three bars long, or involves techniques you’ve never used before, learn some easier songs first. Work on the individual techniques too, then come back to the difficult song later. Don’t try to take on too much at once.
Breaking It Down
First we need to analyze the difficult section of music - the problem area - so we can break it into individual parts. We’ll use this tab as an example:
The first step is to look at what techniques we’re using. In these two bars we have sweep picking, some pull-offs, some economy picking, hammer-ons and vibrato.
The second step is to split it up into mini-sections, one for each technique.
Here’s the sweep on its own:
And here are the pull-offs:
Now we have the economy picking section. Economy picking is when you alternate picking on one string, but use sweeping when you change strings to make switching strings easier.
Then we can isolate the hammer-ons on the G and B strings:
Before finally adding the last vibrato note:
See how a really difficult section is actually five separate challenges?
Of course, with your example the techniques might not divide so easily. For instance, you may come across a section like this:
We’ve got some bends, some alternate picking, a pull-off and a little two-string sweep at the end. There’s also a barre because notes 5 and 6 are both on the fifth fret on different strings, so we’ll have to “roll” one finger across the fretboard to play the notes.
Dealing with Technique Overlap
It’s difficult to isolate the techniques completely because they’re integrated so closely with each other.
Instead we can do it a few notes at a time.
I’d separate out the first bend to practice it on its own and make sure it’s in tune. Then I’d practice the bit on the high E string before doing the final three notes. There’s some overlap because the fifth note is part of the pull-off and part of the barre.
Identifying the Biggest Obstacle
Now we’re going to use a metronome to figure out which part is the hardest. We’re not practicing the sections yet, just evaluating which one we need to focus on. If you don’t have a metronome, search Google for “metronome” and use the free one they have available.
Set it between 40 and 60 bpm. If in doubt, or if the tab has lots of notes per beat, go towards the slower end of that spectrum.
Grab the first mini-section and play it along with the metronome. Play the same number of notes per beat as in the original song. For example, if it’s an eighth note lick, play two notes per click of the metronome.
In our example we’d be using the following section, so we’d do four
notes per click:
If you can play it perfectly five times, increase the tempo by five bpm and go again.
Keep increasing in five bpm increments – playing it perfectly five times in a row before moving on – until you start to make mistakes or tense up your muscles. If that happens, go down five bpm. This is your maximum “perfect” speed. Write it down in a notepad or on your phone so you can refer to it again later.
- Start with a baseline tempo between 40 and 60 bpm.
- If you can play at a bpm perfectly five times or more, go up in five bpm increments until you start to make mistakes or tense up.
- Go down five bpm from that point and jot down that bpm as your "ideal" speed for that section.
- Do this for each section.
Now we’re going to do the same thing with the other mini-sections. Reset the metronome to 40-60 bpm again and work up to your maximum speed in the same way. Again, write down your top perfect tempo.
On some mini-sections, like the vibrato in our example, measuring speed is pointless because speed isn’t the main problem. Instead, compare your playing to the record and note how close it is to the original sound. Use this to judge how much you need to work on that mini-section.
Now, look at the tempos you have recorded. Which section is the slowest? Just like how a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, you can only play the song as fast as you can play your slowest section.
Let’s say this is our hardest section:
Try pushing the most difficult part just past your maximum speed, again paying close attention to how it feels. Which hand tenses up/messes up first?
You'll need to pinpoint where the problem is. Does the left hand or the right hand have the most difficulty? Do you repeatedly miss a note or mess up a string change with the pick? Is it because your hands go out of sync?
If you’re struggling to identify the underlying issue then don’t worry. As long as you know which section is hardest you’re good to go.
Mastering the Challenge
Grab the most difficult section again. It’s time to clean it up.
First, we’re gonna slow it down.
We’re aiming for one note every three to four seconds (don’t use a metronome). I know that sounds ridiculously slow, but there’s a good reason for it. When we play that slowly we can make everything perfect, not just in terms of getting the notes out, but also in making our movements small, relaxed and precise.
There are three specific things to focus on:
- RELAXATION: Pay close attention to your fingers, wrists, forearms, back and shoulders. Relax them as much as possible. And yes, the back and shoulders do matter, because tension there will spread as you speed up and prevent you from playing faster. If you tense up your muscles then they can’t work with each other effectively.
- SMALL MOVEMENTS: This is self-explanatory. Use the smallest movements possible to play the notes. Any excess movement is wasted energy.
- CLEANLINESS: Make sure every note rings out clearly and perfectly. It should sound crisp and every note should be distinguishable.
Pay attention to both hands – are they both doing everything correctly? Remember what the underlying issue was that you figured out in the last section and concentrate on correcting it. After 10 perfect super-slow repetitions, it’s time to apply it to progressively higher speeds.
Using the Metronome to Troubleshoot Muscle Tension
Set the metronome to 60 bpm and play one note per beat. Focus on the same three keys as before and don’t let your technique slip. Then increase your speed to 80 bpm for a while before going up to 100 bpm. Practice at that speed for about five minutes.
Then, go back down to 60 bpm but this time play eighth notes, working up 10 bpm at a time until you get to 120 bpm. If you feel any excess tension creep back in (which is likely) slow down and build back up again.
Now you can start to play at 60 bpm triplets/16th notes, increasing the tempo by a couple of bpm for every minute of perfect playing.
If you make mistakes before you’ve reached the tempo of the original song, then reduce the tempo and build back up again. There’s no shame in this. It’s much better than trying to “force” your fingers to go faster.
I remember once I was trying to learn a guitar solo and the hardest part was something like this:
I analyzed it and found that the left hand part was the hardest. I struggled with keeping my third and fourth fingers independent. I slowed it way down and found that my left forearm was very tense, and the excess muscle tension was hindering my progress.
Focusing on relaxing and using small movements helped make every note sound much clearer. It felt very different then what I was trying to do before.
Then I sped it up with the metronome until I reached the tempo of the song. I had to go back down a few times because the forearm tension was creeping back in.
A Broader Scope of Improvement
Then, because I’d focused on just this challenge, everything else with the third and fourth fingers felt easier. I could suddenly play loads of other things too, because I’d improved my finger independence.
That is the power of practicing in this manner. It makes you better at so much more than just the lick you’re working on.
Re-Integrating With the Full Song
You’ve mastered the hardest mini-section.
Now I want you to re-measure your max speed for each of the other mini-sections. If some of them aren’t at song tempo yet, find out which one is slowest and work on that one. Keep doing this until you can play them all at the required tempo.
Once they’re all mastered in isolation, take the first two sections and play them slowly together:
Focus on making the join between the two sections seamless. Once you’ve gotten the hang of that, take the second and third sections and play those together:
Now, play parts one, two and three together:
Then you can practice the third and fourth sections together, before playing the entire thing up to tempo.
The key is: Don’t put it together until you’ve mastered the individual parts.
Otherwise it’s like trying to ice a cake while it’s still in the oven – it’s not going to happen. Let the cake cook first, make the icing and then put the icing on the cake.
Adding Everything Back into the Original Song
Start by playing the bar before the difficult part, then going straight into the hard lick.
Then, play the difficult section and go straight into the next bar of the song. Start off slow, just like before.
Now you can start to add more of the song. Try playing four bars before going into the lick, and then four bars afterwards. After that, you’ll be ready to play the full song.
Don’t beat yourself up if you find this difficult. Just remember to play at a comfortable tempo and gradually build up. Re-integration can sometimes take as long to learn as the difficult section itself.
In this lesson you’ve done what’s called “vertical” learning, pushing yourself to a new level of ability that was previously beyond reach. Now it’s time for “horizontal” learning, where you can apply your new skills to lots of different music. Horizontal learning is where you use skills you’ve already developed to expand your repertoire of guitar solos and improvisational ideas.
This will make sure we get the most from our new skills.
We’re going to start by going way back to when we first analysed the difficult section.
What techniques were used?
In our lick we had a three-string downward sweep, a couple of pull-offs, four notes of economy picking, two hammer-ons and vibrato. Now I want you to create as many musical ideas as possible, just using the new skills you’ve learned. For our example, we could use the three-string sweeping idea. There are literally hundreds of ways we could apply this skill.
Here are just a few:
I created these by looking at some of the arpeggio shapes I know and noted how they could be played over three strings. This is the essence of horizontal learning: Using your new skills in combination with previous knowledge to create new music.
We can do the same thing with the pull-offs, too. Using my knowledge of scales I applied the pull-off idea to a long one-string run that’d be great for a climatic end to a solo:
Do it with each part in turn, then try combining them for even more ideas.
The next step is learning to use these ideas in improvisation.
Pick one of your new licks to start off with, preferably one that’s simple. What note does it start on? For instance, if we picked the E minor run above, then it starts on the 20th fret of the high E string. Next, get a backing track in the key of that lick (YouTube features hundreds of free backing tracks in all styles) and play over it.
Stay in a similar area of the fretboard as the lick you’re integrating. For ours, we’d stay in the upper half of the neck. Then, every single time you hit the starting note of the lick, play it. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t sound great. The point is simply to use it as much as possible.
Follow this “rule” as you improvise. It teaches you exactly where you can use the new pattern, as well as how you can go in and out of it effectively.
Top to bottom, that's the entire process – how to break through barriers in your technique and conquer songs that seem out of reach.
This method should help you with any song, because it’s based on basic principles you can apply to any style of music. I’ve personally used it for everything from metal to flamenco, and it would work just as well for jazz, classical or any other style.
Have fun with it and if you have any questions feel free to contact me via my website below.
You can also leave questions in the comments section of this page.
Flickr Commons image courtesy of Kmeron
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