How to Improve your Guitar Skills
Once you get into the world of guitar, you’re hooked for life. You’ll be spending years practicing, learning new songs, buying and tweaking gear, and maybe even writing your own music. Of course, everyone has different ambitions – some plan on becoming professionals, others only want to jam at home, and some are only looking for a creative outlet. But whatever the level of playing that you’re at, you’ll always be striving to sharpen up your guitar skills. But this is easier said than done.
If you’re feeling stuck and not sure how to improve your guitar skills, don’t worry – every guitar legend who you look up to has faced the same issues at some point. Want to play faster but you feel like your fingers just can’t keep up? Feel like your left and right hands aren’t synchronized? Or do you feel like your soloing has become monotonous and that you’re playing the same style over and over again? Well, you’re not alone. All of us hit these barriers sooner or later.
There are always methods you can learn to take your playing to a new level. Of course, things are never that simple and if there’s one aspect of your playing that you want to get better at, there are always a few different techniques that you should continue practicing.
Since many guitar players are always looking for ways to get better, we’ve decided to put down a list of things that will help you improve your guitar skills.
Learn music theory
There aren’t enough ways to express the importance of learning music theory! It is the glue that keeps everything together. All the music that you enjoy listening to is based on certain rules. If you take the time to learn these rules, you’ll eventually be able to create your own music.
Of course, music theory is like a vast ocean and some musicians even dedicate their whole career to researching it. However, there are basic principles that you should start with that will help you grasp a better understanding.
Music theory might seem boring and even unnecessary to some beginner players. Even guitar legend, Jimi Hendrix, wasn’t proficient in music theory. Some might even argue that learning music theory will make your music predictable, less exciting, and bland. But, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Music theory, just like anything you learn, is a tool that you use in writing and reinterpreting music. Similar to a language, it’s a set of rules that will help you understand what’s going on. Although some musicians might have achieved the legendary status without knowing much theory, this doesn’t mean that you should ignore this “tool”.
It’s best to start with the basics – music intervals, scales, how chords are built, and the relation between them. After you feel like you have an understanding of the basics, try learning modes, 7th chords, how chord progressions and harmonies work, and so on.
Getting a full grasp of music theory to the point of implementing it practical situations is a long process. For example, when learning about chord inversions, you’ll question its practical usage. But, as you learn more about music, you’ll begin implementing the theory in your own music, giving your sound an extra layer of depth.
Learn music by ear
With the abundance of online resources, countless songs have been tabbed and uploaded on the internet. This practical system of guitar tab notation makes it easier for us to make out and learn trickier songs and intricate lead sections.
While tabs might be a shortcut to learn songs, it’s not a good idea to rely on them if you want to take your musicianship to an advanced level. This approach to learning music only teaches you to play mechanically. After all, music is more than just a numerical representation of frets on your computer screen.
Tabs might come in handy if you’re trying to learn new repertoire fast or if you’re having difficulties making out certain parts of the song. But if you want to grasp the music, you should always try to figure it out by ear. This way, you’ll “connect” with what you’re hearing.
If you have plans to become a professional guitarist, learning music by ear is a must. You’ll be doing countless studio sessions and it will be required for you to learn complicated lead sections on the spot without any tabs or sheet music. Some will even ask you to harmonize and or transpose these intricate melodies.
Knowing how to learn music by ear works hand in hand with the knowledge of music theory. This way, you’ll have a broader picture and full control over the music you’re creating. Even your own improvised solos will become more than just random runs up and down the scales and turn into functional parts of the song.
Know Your Fretboard
Now it’s time to focus on some concrete guitar playing skills; One of those being, having full knowledge of your fretboard. You should be able to know every single note on every single fret on your guitar neck.
To make life easier, it is required to learn music theory basics, such as knowing the position of sharp and flat notes on each fret. For instance, in standard tuning, 4th fret on the 4th string can be either F# or Gb depending on the scale that you’re playing.
This might be a little boring or even feel tedious to learn, but once you develop a good foundation, you’ll be able to learn how notes on your guitar’s fretboard relate to each other.
Learn different fingering patterns
Another crucial thing is learning different fingering patterns of the natural major scale. There are numerous resources online about these patterns and their possible combinations in one position. When you learn them properly, you’ll always be confident enough to play the next note in your improvised solo.
And when you get the hang of those, you should move on to 3-notes-per-string and 4-notes-per-string patterns on your fretboard. With all these basic and advanced patterns, you’ll finally get a hold of your fretboard and get the full picture of what you’re doing.
The next step is to use these natural major scale patterns and be able to modify them to get different scales. The modern approach to learning music theory sees every scale or mode as a modified natural major scale.
With proper theoretical knowledge, recognizing musical elements when you hear them, and the knowledge of all the notes on your fretboard will help you improve your guitar playing. With these skills sorted out, you’ll never feel lost mid-solo again.
Use A Metronome
Whatever style of music that you’re into, it is extremely important to keep up with the tempo, time signature, and the song’s overall groove.
While most people might think only fast tempo music is difficult to play, this couldn’t be further from the truth. If you want to stay on rhythm every tempo is difficult.
It’s not rare to stumble upon a guitar player who brags about their impressive “shredding” skills, yet can’t stay in rhythm and is always rushing ahead or falling behind. What less experienced musicians might not realize is that playing in a slower tempo can be as difficult depending on the rhythmic pattern.
With this being said, you should always practice with a metronome. Period. If you want to get clarity in faster tempos, you should try and build up to that speed.
And always play complicated licks at a very slow tempo and gradually build your speed up to the desired level. It’s a long process and can be excruciatingly boring. But once you start seeing the results, you’ll be motivated to keep doing it.
You must never increase the tempo if you’re not ready. It’s better to have complete confidence and control over what you’re playing at a slower tempo than to move on unprepared.
Learn to improvise
Playing someone else’s music might be fun. Playing the lead parts the way they’re supposed to sound is all great, but there’s nothing more satisfying than coming up with your own improvised solo.
The concept is a little tricky and there is no “official” or conventional methods of getting this “right”. It all depends on your artistic tendencies and the type of genre you’re playing.
One way you can approach this is by analyzing solos from your favorite artists. You can “borrow” certain licks from other songs, combine them with some of your own licks, and create a meaningful solo.
However, improvisation shouldn’t always rely on someone else’s licks or one-dimensional run-up and down scales. It may sound cliche, but you should let loose.
One method, developed by jazz master Joe Diorio that you can try out is taking a metronome, set it to a relatively slower tempo, and play around the fretboard in quarter or eight notes.
And make sure not to use any patterns that you’re used to. The point here is to completely break loose from what you already know.
Then take it to the next step – while playing try to sing along with it. This particular exercise will not only help you discover new musical territories but will also help you connect the music in your head with what your hands are doing.
Practice Your Picking Hand
While a lot of young players focus on their fretting hand (left hand if you’re playing right-handed), there are many reasons why you should practice your picking hand.
This doesn’t mean that you should change the way that you’re holding your pick – there are countless guitar masters with unusual picking techniques, like Pat Metheny or Marty Friedman. However, you should have clarity and complete dynamic control in your picking hand.
This goes for fingerpicking and those who use a plectrum. No matter how fast your fretting hand is, it won’t mean anything if you don’t have that clarity and control in your picking hand. The coordination between your left and right hand will come over time.
Learn how to shape your tone
You often hear guitar players saying that tone comes from your hands. While pickups, pedals, and amps certainly shape your tone, there is a lot of truth in this statement.
First off, your technique will have an impact on your tone. This is not about whether your playing is too sloppy or too sterile. It’s about the way you’re picking and holding down on the strings.
For instance, the angle at which you’re holding your pick against the strings will determine the sound of the tone. And don’t get us started on how legato and pull-on and pull-off techniques sound completely different compared to classic picking. Another thing that can completely change your tone is by palm muting.
When it comes to the technique and its impact on the tone, it’s something that you should experiment with and come up with the best solutions for the style of music that you’re playing.
But when it comes to the gear – guitars, pickups, amps, and pedals – you should make sure to educate yourself on how they shape your tone. For instance, get familiar with different effects, learn how they work, and how you’re supposed to control their parameters to achieve a certain tone.
Learn about different pickups, guitars, and amps and what kind of tone it’ll help you achieve. And most importantly, try out the gear. If you’re unable to, there’s an endless sea of information about gear on the internet, including video and audio demos.
Discipline and patience
Of course, none of these tips above would work if you’re not dedicated to the craft of guitar playing. If you’re not serious about learning new techniques and improving your skills, you won’t become better at guitar.
The first thing that you should have on your mind is consistency. Find time to practice every day. Or as much as you can, depending on your weekly schedule. And no matter how things get hard, no matter how bored you are at the moment, this time slot should be dedicated to playing only.
Put your cellphone or any other distractions away, and just practice. Lose yourself in the music that you’re playing. Be sure to check out our article discussing making time to practice your instrument.
The key to success is setting short-term and long-term goals. Take a big goal, and break it down into smaller tasks and come up with your daily routine.
Feel the music that you’re playing
Everything that you’ll be working on – whether it’s music theory, technique, tone shaping – is supposed to help you express yourself.
To be capable of fully expressing yourself the right way is to know the style of music that you’re playing. But aside from all the theoretical and technical foundations, you should be able to feel what the genre is all about.
With all this in mind, you should know what kind of music will you be focusing on. While some virtuosos are talented enough to play numerous different genres, you should (at least in the beginning) find your musical direction and focus on what you want to play.
By narrowing it down, you’ll be able to become fully proficient in this one particular style. Once you achieve the desired level, you can move on to the next genre and start all over again. Eventually, you will start building your own unique and recognizable style.
At the end of the day, music is an art form. It’s like a language that we use to express the feelings that can’t be conveyed by words. This is why you should always feel free to explore and let your creative juices flow. Take the music theory rules that you learned and bend them the way that you want.
Many talented classical instrumentalists who practice one particular piece over and over again until they achieve perfection. But there is just something special about making your own music in your own style. This creative approach will certainly open up new horizons and improve your playing in every aspect.
The only thing left for you to do now is to go out there and practice. Be consistent, be disciplined, always be open to new styles of music, and most importantly, Enjoy Life!