The rise in popularity of guitar bands and the phenomenal success of the Guitar Hero video game franchise has lead to more and more people picking up the guitar recently. Sales of guitars in the UK has hit an all time high in the past three years and as more and more people are starting to play, the guitar has surpassed the piano as the most widely learned instrument in schools.
With all these people learning I thought I'd pass on some tips from my 10 years of experience playing guitar and help point people in the right direction as they start learning their technique. In this article I've listed some things that I feel are very important to playing well but are often overlooked by those just starting out. If you're a seasoned player then there won't be much here for you, but if you're new to playing guitar then hopefully I can help out and perhaps shed some light on things you maybe hadn't thought about before.
The one factor that has improved my guitar playing beyond any other was taking the time out to learn the basics of music theory. Once you manage to break out of the pentatonic scales so overly used by rock guitarists you'll find that your song-writing and improvisation will come on in leaps and bounds. Believe it or not, by learning the scales you'll actually become far more free than when you didn't know them. Ironically, learning the rules of music has left me much more open to play expressively than before. Don't forget that once you know them, you can break them, and this is where your playing can really start to become interesting.
So how did I go about learning the theory I needed for playing rock guitar, and how might you learn it too?
Well, it hasn't been a fast process and I'm certainly not finished yet, I learn something new all the time and there is a massive amount I simply don't know yet. I started by learning a couple of major scale shapes, E major, C major and D major are good ones to start out with. Try finding a song you know in one of these keys and play over it, picking out the notes that sound good, and the notes that don't sound good. A good way to learn scales is by checking out some of the free guides floating around the Internet.
I started out by learning a couple of positions for each scale, taking one or two at a time. Once you've done that a great method to help your soloing is to learn each scale on each single string. Take it slow at first, one or two strings at a time and just move on when you feel comfortable. The advantage of doing this is that before you know it, you will know every note you can hit on every string to stay in key and switching positions becomes a breeze. Once you're happy with the major scales you can start to pick up the minor keys, which is actually a lot easier than you might think.
As well as learning scales I looked at chords and how they're built and how they work together. I would recommend learning the scales first, as once you have those down, constructing chords becomes much easier. The key factor when learning is not just knowing them parrot fashion like "this is a Cmin7", but rather learning why it is a C minor seventh. Once you know why the chords are then you can build them anywhere you need and you'll find it that bit easier to write great melodies over the top.
A detailed guide to learning music theory is beyond the scope of this article but hopefully I've highlighted an area that may be lacking in your guitar playing. Remember even the most basic major and minor scales can make a world of difference when writing that next song, or improvising with your band. There are a huge range of free lessons available on the web, and some great tutorials on YouTube, so make sure you check them out.
Something I feel is crucial to being able to play rock guitar well is being able to bend the string accurately. String bending is what makes the electric guitar the instrument it is, having been used by countless guitarists to convey every kind of emotion you can imagine. When it is done well a big bend sounds amazing, but done badly it can sound terrible. If you have a great ear for music then you shouldn't have much trouble bending and keeping in key. If however you're like me and aren't blessed with a natural ear then you'll need to train yourself to bend accurately.
For the best results when bending strings always try to use three fingers on your fretting hand. I find when playing rock the best method is to fret the start note with the ring finger and use your middle and index fingers to help control the string as you bend it. I generally bring my thumb over the neck and 'squeeze' the fretboard to bend the note. Some guitarists might argue that bringing the thumb round is bad technique but I find it helps your control and is useful for muting the strings you're not playing.
Once you have a solid technique the first thing you need to do is make sure you're bending in key. Pick any note on your guitar. Then pick a note two frets up and play that. Play the two notes one after another getting used to the sound of the interval. Once you have the sound in your head, play the first note and then bend up to the second. This whole tone bend is the most commonly used in rock guitar playing and you should make sure you're comfortable with it. Once you've mastered that you can try single fret (semitone) bends and even three fret bends. Remember to always bend up to a note that is in key with the song you're playing, nothing sounds worse than an out of key bend!
To hear some fantastic string bending listen to any guitar solo from Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd. You should be able to hear a lot of blues style bends as well as really controlled bends across wide intervals.
Your vibrato can be defined as your touch or feel as you play. How you vibrato the notes you play can often define you as a guitarist and help to differentiate you from everyone else. For example take Yngwie Malmsteen with his super wide vibrato and then Steve Vai with a much more smooth and controlled sound. You can tell the two apart instantly. In fact I'd go as far as to say you could have them both play the same passage of music and you'd be able to tell the difference, even when playing the same notes.
Vibrato is varying the pitch of a note as you hold it to give a vocal like quality and expression to your playing. The amount and the speed at which you vibrato the note is entirely down to personal preference, so really just experiment with everything you can think of. Try everything and see what you think sounds best. As a test, try playing a melody with some light vibrato. Then play again but don't vibrato a single note. The time without vibrato will often sound rather lifeless and uninteresting. It is an important technique to work on as once you have it down you'll sound like a real guitarist and not a beginner anymore.
When I vibrato notes the motion generally comes from the wrist. I try not to overdo it and generally let the mood of the music decide how aggressively I vibrato the note. There isn't really a steadfast way to teach vibrato, I found the best method was to simply watch my favourite guitar players as they played and pick up techniques as I went along until I settled on a sound I felt comfortable with.
Try some songs from Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai and BB King to get a good idea of some different vibrato sounds.
Timing is everything. It doesn't have to as complex as Dream Theater but one thing is for sure, if you play out of time you'll sound rubbish. The issue of timing applies to lead and rhythm playing but of course is ten times more important for playing rhythm, after all, that's why you're playing it.
A great way to make sure you play in time is to always practise with a metronome. They're cheap and available from every music shop, and failing that there are several free software metronomes floating round on the web. By always playing with a beat you'll be used to hitting your notes in time and sticking to a regular rhythm. Before I joined a band I never played to a beat and so for the first few practises my timing was quite out on places as I was just used to jamming around on my own.
Remember that even the most simple of passages must be in time and that you need to be able to play your rhythm parts consistently.
An aspect that is often overlooked by new guitarists is their picking hand. I was the same, generally all the focus goes onto the fretting hand to make sure those chords stick and the bends sound good. However the picking hand is just as important and will have a big impact on your sound. There are a whole host of approaches when picking your notes while you play, you can play fast and precise or loose and slower and everything in-between. If you ignore your picking technique you'll have to go back and learn it again, which is what I had to do after three years of playing.
A solid picking technique is vital for rhythm playing as you'll need to be able to reproduce the same thing every time you play the song. You'll need to make sure that your picking hand is synched up well with your fretting hand, you don't want to hit dead notes, especially on clean sections.
The technique of picking properly is enough for a separate article, but just remember not to overlook it. Try searching YouTube for some videos from Paul Gilbert and John Petrucci on picking technique. For a looser feel you can always turn to Jimi Hendrix, Wind Cries Mary and Castles Made of Sand have some great sections in them for getting some new picking ideas.
While I haven't covered anything groundbreaking here I certainly hope I may have uncovered some weaknesses in your playing that you can keep in mind as you work on your technique. These are often things I see new guitarists overlook in favour of playing some loud power chords or trying to shred away from the start. Remember that the key with learning anything new on the guitar is to start slow and make sure you can play it cleanly before moving up to speed. By taking things slow and learning the best techniques you'll become a much better and more versatile guitarist in the future.