Like many guitar players I comfortably move between electric and acoustic guitar, I also swap from plectrum to fingerstyle without even giving it a second thought and will often play both in the one song. This wasn’t always so and it took quite some years to get to the point where the transiton was seamless, or in a way thoughtless, in this case thoughtless means without thought, not careless.
In the initial stages, as a rule most players want to be able to play just like the great or famous and not so great players and it takes quite some time to develop ones own musical voice, this means our own particular way of expressing through the guitar. But there are many players that don’t develop their own musical voice but just rehash the work of others, to be honest with you I am not interested in that sort of guitar playin at all, and if that’s where you are at you’re probably at the wrong site.
Generally, if a person doesn’t undertake some sort of formal or semi formal lessons that are well structured to take a player through a step by step process, which is well thought out to cover all aspects of music, the player will be missing a lot of real musical pieces and much of what they do will be imitating riffs and solos and playing rhythm parts of songs that they like. This is all very well but in the long run, it is an incomplete proceass and it will be a very long pathway to becoming a balanced guitar player musician who is equiped to play professionally.
The trouble with a lot of guitar players is they often only learn to play little bits of songs, does this sound familiar to you? A bit of a solo here, a riff, a rhythm pattern, a couple of chords, a few scales or modes and lots of facial grimaces and other odd expressions. When you look at the previous scenario and analyse it, you’ll see that is very, very common amongst guitar players, particularly electric players and it is a very fragmented approach. Acoustic players will often play songs from end to end as they will sometimes sing as well, but this is not always the case.
I have an extremely simple solution to enable any guitar player to bring all the pieces together and become a good solid player who is capable of developing in a balanced way. Because I started playing 39 years ago and had formal lessons from very well respected guitar player / musicians, it gave me a great insight into what is required to develop wholistically as a player. The training I had involved the standard (what a lot of people would consider boring stuff), this included reading dots (musical notation) , understanding keys, improvisation using scales and modes, chord substituion, ear training and playing arrangements of tunes; the arrangements were complex by todays standards and were generally jazz tunes, or tunes with a truck load of chords in lots of different keys. Although all the things I have mentioned are extremely valuable, and in the long term are essential elements, I’m confident beyond a doubt that the most important of these things was playing solo arrangements of tunes (not to be mistaken for solos in the middle of songs).
And here’s why. Simply, you are playing music, and this is the goal that needs to be kept in sight always, but the following is very important. When you play an arrangement of a song you generally play an intro, a good intro often hints at the song without playing the song itself, it will spell out where you are going. Learning to play good intros will help you develop an ear for coming in on time at the right place when you get the opportunity to play with other players. A well designed intro is fantastic for working with other musicians because there’ll be no questions about where you are and where the song starts, this is essential; an audience, whether they are fully attentive or not will automatically, subconsciously make a decision on whether the song is going to be ok or not as soon as it starts, if musicians are not together in an intro they’ll have to work that much harder to get the audience interested in the music; the audience will automatically tune out if it’s not right.
When you enter the next part of a song, generally the verse, it is very important to be able to play a strong melody, this doesn’t mean to be stiff in your playing but a good melody is alwys hummable and very MUSICAL. I developed a strong sense of melody by consciously sitting down and working out dozens of vocal lines of songs (in my case I read the music dots) . The way you phrase a melody is what will define you as a player, knowing just when to pause and exactly how long to be silent for, how long to hold the note to the minutest degree ; also having the ability to slide or bend notes and to play around with the dynamics of the notes, this means the volume and intensity, making sure there is a variation.
With the chorus of the song the same principles apply as when playing the main melody of the verse. What you will need to do is to initially is to learn to play the essential notes of the accompanying chords of the song, this does not need to be complex and in the early stages when you first learn a tune, you may like to just play the chord for just one beat whenever they change and use the melody note on top (the highest sounding note) of the chord, regardless, what is important is you get in the habit of playing melodies and chords together. As time goes on you can be a little bit more inventive and play around with moving bass parts a little and playing additional passing chords.
Knowing exactly where you are with the chords at all times will enable you to start to improvise. Initial improvisation when you are starting out may just be adding a few notes here and there to the melody and as you become more advanced you will be able to move further away from the melody and also subsitute some of the chords. Learning a few blues and country scales will be very helpful in giving you some simple ways of adding interest to the improvisation without having to fry your brain with comolex modes, and in many cases you’ll find that using country scales are much more sensible than many of the other scales that could take you hours to learn but are really just major scales with fancy names because they start oln a different note than the key you are in.
OK, so where to start?
- Pick a simple song that you are very familiar with, just learn the melody, learn to hum it, if you think you can’t sing, hum it even softer
- You may find that the melody is more suited to be played in another key on the guitar than the original one; if necessary play the melody starting on another note, make it easy for yourself so when you eventually add the chords you won’t have to do finger gymnastics to play the chords and melody together and then find yourself giving up in frustration.
- The next step is to add the chords, make sure it is a simple chord pattern, if need be, leave out a few chords to start with. Often songs will still sound pretty right by dropping a few chords, you will be able to add other chords and additional parts later on.
- Once you have gotten to the point where you can play the melody and chords together, start to work back through the song playing the melody and chords with a small variation. Each time you play it through, alter it a little.
- When you are confortable with this, play the song through just using the chords and leave out the melody. Train your ear to hear where the chords are changing, I suggest that practice in your head without the guitar and visualise changing chords in your mind.
- Next, play only the chords once exactly where they change, if a chord goes for a while and is repeated, just change it on the first beat of each bar.
- Next play the chord followed by adding a little bit of guitar inprovisation, keep it simple, it often helps to hum what you hear in your head and then play it.
- After you have worked through the chords and improvise a few times, go back and play the melody and chords together again, as in step three and after you’ve done that a few times, return to the improvisation again. Keep it reasonably loose, there’s no need to be in a hurry.
- At some point you’ll need to add a simple ending; endings should be obvious sounding.
If you apply the above technique to a number of tunes, you’ll find your playing will become very strong. You should aim towards being able to play in a manner as if you were accompanying a singer and suddenly he singer fell off the stage, you will automatically be able to take over instantly playing the melody and chords as if it was meant to be. You can always ring the hospital later to find out if the singer is ok. :-)
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