So, since the goal of mastering the guitar is to express yourself, generally speaking, the more expressions you have under your command, the more expressive you can be.
It’s like learning a language. If you can call up a wider variety of words, the more articulate you can be. The word “can” is the key, though — just knowing many words is enough. You have to know their meaning and when to use it to convey what you want to say.
The same thing with the guitar. There is a difference in how a note feels between just fretting and picking vs. bending up first and picking (the latter sounds more passionate/dramatic/sloppy?). A mature guitarist knows that difference in feel and then use the appropriate technique to convey something.
My Guitar Solo Vocabulary
Just for chuckles, the other day I wrote down solo-related techniques I know of. Of course sometimes it’s hard to describe a technique and make distinctions, but I found it a useful exercise nevertheless. Here they are:
- alternate picking
- picking + legato
- octaves (flat-picked, pick+finger/chicken-picking, pick+finger+varied timing, finger-picking)
- bend up, pick, down-up
- bend and shake
- right-hand tappng
- triadic sweep arpeggio
- double stops (flat-picked, pick+finger, pick+finger+varied timing, finger-picking)
- triple stops (flat-picked, pick+finger, pick+finger+varied timing, finger-picking)
- pick + finger arpeggio
- tremolo picking
Boy, that doesn’t sound like that many on paper, though I didn’t include any rhythm guitar techniques.
Now, the question is: do I really have command on all of them, so that I can pull them out at will?
The Reason Why Your Practice Time Grows with Your Skill
Now, imagine that every practice session, I devote 15-minute each to the above techniques. That’ll add up to 3.5 hours, and that doesn’t even include the picking variations I listed with some of the multi-stop techniques. Unfortunately, my practice session is more like 30 – 45 minutes, so I just pick three each month to focus on.
But imagine how good I can be, if I devoted 3.5 hours a day just exercising techniques! Of course you have to practice applying those techniques, too. But before you can use a word, you have to learn to say it first. In general I feel that I am weaker in my command of various techniques than my imagination, (when I’m improvising, I constantly come up with licks I can’t play — if I could, I’d be a great soloist. Some guitarists, though technically proficient, can’t dream up an interesting solo) so I lean toward exercising instead of performing for now.
So, the more techniques you have in your bag of tricks, the longer your practice time gets. When you’re starting out, you have fewer techniques to work on, so you don’t practice as long. And that’s OK.
Growing My List
Someone like Jeff Beck’s list of tricks spans many pages, I imagine. (I should try watching a live video and taking notes) Tom Morello developed his playing by actually writing down all the different noises he managed to make with his guitar. You become aware of more techniques, or ways to express yourself, by going through these 3 steps:
- You become aware of a technique through listening to/watching other guitarists
- You exercise that technique and gain command
- You practice applying it in music to express something
Until you master #3, you really don’t have a command of a technique.
How many different techniques/expressions do you have under your command? Which ones are still in stages #1 and #2?
Asking those questions help you grow as a guitar player. You’ll never run out of new techniques to learn. That’s what makes playing the guitar so fun; it’s a pursuit deep enough to devote our lifetime.