We figure that if you’re going to expand and maximize your talents, you might as well learn from the best.
So we offer these 25 tips from guitarists who know their stuff—from rock royalty to jazz patriarchs to any-and-all, top-of-their-game bad asses. Hopefully, you’ll find something in these cosmic, practical and musical nuggets of wisdom that will kick that rut-raddled mind of yours into higher gears of inspiration.
If you’re locked away in a basement for eight hours a day with a metronome and a torturous practice book that is equal parts Mel Bay/Guantanamo Bay, you’re still not assured of transcendent six-string skills.
Sure, you might get stenographer-like dexterity and harmonic book-smarts up the f-hole, but playing soul-shaking music often requires a more diverse skill set. But this doesn’t mean that attaining the level of expression produced by someone like Jeff Beck necessitates a life of guitar monk-dom. First, don’t worry about the transcendent and unattainable talent of Jeff Beck. That’s just silly.
What you need to do is ensure that whatever you play makes the hair on your arms stand up and quiver with bliss and excitement.
Here’s part two of this series. You can find part one, “Expert Advice: 35 Ways to Play (and Sound) Better Right Now,” right here.
“Moving into uncharted territory is a key ingredient to making your practice sessions a success. Playing the same stuff over and over will only take you so far. Introduce a new set of chord voicings, tunings, or scale patterns to your routine every week. It’s not necessary to know how to implement the stuff right away, just make your fingers go to new places, and let the musicality follow naturally.” —Joe Satriani
2. Beat on the Brat
“Here’s an unconventional technique for building your rhythmic chops and expanding your ideas about inventing phrases for solos—and it involves zero notes! Mute the strings with your fretting hand. Now, forget about that hand completely, and start a groove with your right hand by scratching a beat on the muted strings. The minute you start getting bored, challenge yourself to come up with a variety of rhythmic phrases—both busy and sparse. Think of the exercise as a drum solo that maintains the groove, and try to keep going for five minutes or more.” —Bob Brozman
3. Unmask Your Sound
“Try cutting back on the effects in your setup. It may help you to better discover the music.” —Bill Kirchen
4. Mess With Your Head
“Try to keep your playing as fresh as possible, and not rely on set patterns. When I practice, for example, I often tie off some strings with rubber bands to force myself to look at the fretboard differently. I might practice on the G and D strings only, or even the G and A strings.” —Jim Hall
5. Cut Back
“Sometimes that massive, high-gain, mid-cut, huge bass tone can sound about two inches tall in a concert setting. The guitar’s voice is in the midrange, so try adding some midrange and cutting the bass. For even more punch, attack, and clarity, cut your gain and distortion levels. Too much gain can be counterproductive, as it compresses your tone and kills dynamics.” —Greg V.
6. Shift Priorities
“Play what you would like to hear, rather than what you would like to play.” —Bill Kirchen
7. Try Rhythmic Soloing
“If the band is playing in 7/4 time, try to play in 4/4. When you do that sort of thing, you begin to notice certain ways in which the two rhythms synchronize over a long period of time. Thinking in these long lengths, you automatically start to develop rhythmic ideas that have a way of interconnecting.” —Jerry Garcia
8. Grease Up
“Want to make a solo greasy? Start on the ‘and’ of one.” —Dave Wronski
9. Get Funky
“Forget about the fancy chords, and just concentrate on a funky beat.” —John Lee Hooker
10. Lighten Up the FX
“It’s best if people don’t notice effects that much. If you overdo it, and everybody realizes you’re using a phaser, then you’re on the wrong track already. You’ve got to use those things with a certain degree of subtlety.” —Keith Richards
11. Get Your Rhythm Chops Together
“To become a better rhythm player, you must listen to the drummer. I’d also advise that you listen to the masters of rhythm guitar. The work that Steve Cropper did on the Stax records is the definitive document of how to play songs and accompaniment parts. Also listen to Chuck Berry. His rhythm playing is so intense that he can go out and perform with bands he has never seen or heard before and hold them together like glue.” —Danny Kortchmar
12. Play, Don’t Worry
“Don’t spend more time worrying about what it is you’re supposed to be doing, rather than just doing the work. Once I was stuck while trying to write some new music, and I asked my friend Wayne Horvitz how he did it. He gave me a pencil sharpener. The moral? There are no short cuts, so stop whining and get on with it!” —Bill Frisell
13. Move in Stereo
“Try using two amps and some stereo effects to get a bigger sound onstage. A ping-pong delay sounds huge when you stand between both amps, and any type of stereo chorus, flanger, phaser, or, in my case, a Leslie simulator, creates the illusion of an even wider sound. Panning your signal from side-to-side is a cool effect. I do it using a stereo Ernie Ball volume pedal. I like the amps to be almost identical, while others—including Stevie Ray Vaughan—prefer two amps that have different sounds that compensate for each other. Finally, it’s important to understand that unless both of your amps are miked, and panned left and right in the house, nobody except you will hear the stereo effect.” —Oz Noy
14. Be a Sponge
“Listening is just as important as practicing. Your ears are your greatest assets, and they work on a subconscious level. You should steal from as many different guitarists as possible, as opposed to picking one and trying to emulate that person’s style. Once you have assimilated a number of different approaches, try to blend them into one vision, instead of jumping from one style to another.” —Will Bernard
15. Vibe a Little Vibrato
“Strengthen your vibrato technique by using each finger to play a note and bending it up and down continuously, in half steps. As you move to fingers two, three, and four, remember that all available fingers can help you attain this half-step movement.” —Jim Campilongo
16. Alternate Pick
“A good way to work on alternate picking is to choose three or four notes, and work on those. Too often, players who are trying to improve their right hand dexterity get hung up by trying to play too many notes with the left hand. I hear a lot of players running whole scales from the sixth string to the first, and playing them really sloppy. Keeping it very basic—using only a few notes—and playing slowly with perfect rhythm is a task in itself.” —Al DiMeola
17. Ignore the Obvious
“When you’re comping behind a vocalist or soloist, don’t always play the root of the chord on the low strings—especially if there’s a bassist on the gig. Sometimes the third and the seventh of the chord is all you need if the bass player is playing the root. It will still sound full, and the sound won’t be muddy.” —Tal Farlow
18. Use Stage Smarts
“A good band is not all about playing your instruments. You have to work on your stage sound, too, so that you sound good out front. For the guitarist, that means not being so loud. Now, I love loud, but I soon realized that if I turned down, there would be more separation between the instruments, and people would actually hear me better.” —Peter Frampton
19. Get Down
“For heavy rhythm, it has to be downpicking. It’s absolutely key. It’s tighter sounding, and a lot chunkier.” —James Hetfield
20. Stay Hot
“Keep your guitar out of the case and handy. Practice short periods—anywhere from five to 45 minutes—many times throughout the day, rather than for one prolonged period. Often times, five minutes is enough time to work on a technique or musical passage. The whole idea of practice is to get your reflexes working like a gunfighter’s, so you can pull out that gun and be instantly hot.” —Barney Kessel
21. Get Classical
“When playing while sitting, rest the guitar on your left leg—just like classical-guitar legend Andrés Segovia. This way, the guitar will be in the same position as when you stand. You can even get yourself one of those little foot stands to really anchor the guitar to your body when playing aggressive music.” —Dave Wronski
22. Use Cruise Control
“Fast playing begins with careful and sharply targeted slow playing. You must develop the ability to ‘hear’ and ‘think’ every note. A fast passage is a rapid succession of musical notes—not the product of a frantic, panic-stricken flapping of the fingers. Begin practicing with scales or patterns, which allow you to concentrate on getting your actions and timing in good shape. Always start slowly and deliberately. Increase speed gradually. Use some form of metronome or drum machine to monitor your work. When you reach a speed at which you can no longer get things right, stop. Any further attempted acceleration will do damage, not good.” —John Duarte
23. Don’t Peek
“Adjust your amp’s volume and EQ settings by listening, rather than looking at the settings. Simply shut your eyes, and turn the knobs to where the amp sounds best. I’m consistently surprised when I open my eyes to discover things such as the Bass being nearly full up in one situation, or the Treble on 10 in another.” —Cameron Williams
24. Use Teamwork
“When you sit in with musicians you’ve never played with before, do your thing in a way that compliments their sound. Listen attentively, and make sure that what you’re doing isn’t stepping on anyone’s toes. Play as if you were a member of the unit, and keep your eyes open to allow for good communication.” —Dan Lebowitz
25. Get in Touch
“Tone has more to do with touch than gear, and the most important thing is dampening anywhere you’re not playing. Dampening can be done underneath your fretting fingers or thumb, or with the outside of your strumming-hand palm or thumb. Also, the way your finger makes contact with the frets makes a big difference. You need to learn the sweet spots on your guitar like a violin player would.” —Eric Johnson