Becoming a great player takes time and dedication. No one is denying that. It's a fact of life. There are still a couple of things you can start working on right now, that will take your playing to the next level quickly. They will make you sound a lot better, and when you sound better, that means you can play better, right ? Here are the steps.
Work on executing accurate bends based on the scale or lick you're using. There aren't many things that sound worse than a poorly executed, out of tune bend. No matter what level everything else is at, if your bends are sub-par, you will be perceived as a mediocre player, because people tend to grab the notes you lean on much more than the notes in very fast lines.
Who cares if you can play 16th notes triplets at 200bpm if the one note you're leaning on is completely out of control ? Remember a chain is only as strong as its weakest link...
So an idea would be to take a scale ( natural minor for example ), and bend each note to the next one. As far as licks are concerned, you have to know what scale or arpeggio the lick is based upon. Then record yourself playing this exercise, and check the recording to make sure you're doing it right. Do no trust only your ear at first, as there are many things involved at the same time and you will be better off with an objective representation of what you've been doing, like a recording. If you cannot record yourself with a computer, use your digital camera, your camcorder, or your cellphone.
Work on your left-hand vibrato.
Like bends, nothing gives away a player that is not in command of his instrument more than poor vibrato. I know the next question is how do I do that ? I thought vibrato was just shaking the string and that it was such a basic thing I never really gave it a second thought. That's probably why you don't really sound the best you can right now.
A player with a great vibrato and average technique will be much more appreciated than one with a poor vibrato ( and bends ) and capable of playing high octane shred. I don't think there's a better example of this than David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. The man has awesome expressiveness through his bends and vibrato, but he couldn't play a string skipping lick to save his life. He's still considered one of the most influential guitar players of all times.
On the other side of the spectrum of technique, we have Yngwie J. Malmsteen. Now alright... I hear you. He's not everybody' cup of tea. Yet nobody can deny the guy has both insane chops AND expressiveness.
So work on that vibrato. Listen to players with great vibrato such as George Lynch, Zakk Wylde, Paul Gilbert, George Bellas, Neal Schon, Doug Aldrich, Marty Friedman, Jason Becker, Steve Vai... and try to emulate their tone and delivery when they're applying the technique. You will learn a lot, improve a lot and have more choice at your fingertips if you're actually trying to express something with your instrument.
Learn how to write modal progressions.
After all these years, I find unbelievable that people are still content playing basic pentatonic or simple major or minor progressions. I'm not saying they don't work, just that there's a lot of room for a little more experimentation, even in blues or rock.
You don't have to go all out jazz here, but including a couple of different sounding progressions in your song can give your playing great new grounds to explore. Learn how modes are constructed, and how chords progressions work. It's not as hard as it seems. Basically if you can count to 7, you can learn modes... So why not do it. It's definitely a massively overlooked area by new players and bands, but it will help you achieve a different sound and actually stand out from the rest of the pack as a player or band.
First learn major and natural minor scales and how they relate to each other ( hint : that is modal playing already ), learn the rest of the major scale modes, then learn the harmonic minor scale, melodic minor and their modes.
Open those doors, you'll be glad you did. All of this will take a while to digest, but the early steps are enough to make your playing from stock to not so stock in a few weeks' time. Well worth it if you ask me.
Work on non-typical scale sequencing.
Everybody is doing 3 and 4 note groups. Use 5, 7 or even 10 or 11 note groups and you'll have a very different workout involving stamina, concentration and huge overall improvement opportunities, but you'll also stumble upon great sounding licks in the process. Work awfully slowly at first to be able to master the process. It's not too difficult to move to the 5 note groups when you've been doing 3 and 4 note groups already, but 7, 9, 10 or 11 will definitely be a huge challenge. Apply those note groups to modes ( including the fifth mode of both the harmonic and melodic minor scales ), different time signatures, and various beat divisions to break new musical grounds...
Don't forget to write licks based on those ideas, mix and match sequences, vibrato, bends, linear phrases, arpeggios... Be creative with those things. Don't rehash the same old pentatonic ideas over and over. Only by challenging yourself out of the comfort zone will you be able to come out new and improved.
Work on your right and left hand accuracy, synchronization and versatility by trying new things all the time.
As above, do not rehash the same old stuff over and over again. Take some rest from the usual exercises you have been doing and tackle some stuff that is way beyond your current technical ability or in a totally different style from yours . You will not get it down quickly, but working on something quite hard or totally different for you will make everything else feel like home, seem much easier and will definitely sound very fresh and revive motivation to practice more than usual. It happened to me when after over 10 year of pure rock and metal, I (re)discovered blues and progressive music.
If you're a blues player, learn sweep picking. If you're a metal player, learn some country licks. If you're a pop artist, learn progressive metal rhythms... Anything that gets you out of the comfort zone ( yet again ). Then take the outside knowledge and import it in your playing... You may discover new opportunities for development. Do not necessarily spend entire practice sessions on the new and different stuff, but do make the time to include some in your current practice program.
After you implement these five steps in your program, you will see that they are actually easier to use than you might be thinking right now. Take the time to make this work. It's worth it in the end, and gives almost immediate results. Improving your bends can be done in a matter of a few weeks, same goes for your left hand vibrato. Those two things alone will make you sound so much better that people will really notice the change. The three remaining steps will obviously take a little longer as they have less to do with the sheer technical side of playing but they will also dramatically improve your overall skills so do not overlook them. Those should be implemented in a mid or long term program and even though they'll give you results quickly after first using them, mastery will take at least a few months. So don't delay, and get busy.
Chris Martins is a guitar player and teacher in Paris, France. Chris has been playing the guitar for over 25 years and has been actively teaching for 15 years. He is currently working on his band's Legacy Of Gaia debut album, and on a solo instrumental album, as well as a pedagogic DVD for intermediate guitar players who want to go well beyond their current level of ability.