What Skills Will Improve Your Guitar Playing Faster

Everything is explained in the title! But the article also explains WHY they are important skills, and what they do for you!

Ultimate Guitar

Have you ever tried getting together with your friend and jamming? If you're anything like me, when I was learning to play guitar, what probably happened was you got all excited and see yourself rocking out to some awesome songs, maybe trading solos, or getting up and head-banging while you chug some Metallica Power chords, and then here's what REALLY happened:

You start playing a song they know, and your friend tries to follow along. HOPEFULLY you both know the same song. Even if you do, it's likely impossible to understand what song it is because you're not playing in time! The solo comes up, and you both want to play it, and end up getting confused, and probably stop playing

What if you DON'T know the same songs? Then you might try a REAL jam, where you play a chord progression, and your friend plays lead guitar, and then you switch back and forth every couple of bars.

Usually, the chord progression is random, or so simple it's boring, because anything harder would be too challenging to solo over. Your friend who's soloing is probably searching for the right place to play the pentatonic scale over the chords, and feebly attempts a few stock-licks There is probably a huge gap of time where nobody is playing anything when you two switch from lead to rhythm or vice versa.

Do any of these scenes sound familiar to you? Because I promise you, this is what was happening to ME in the past! So I can relate fully, completely, and honestly. I've been there. I've done that. I feel your pain. NOW, I've finally learned how to cure these symptoms.

So the first question you should ask yourself is, what do you really want? Most guitar players don't reach their goals because they don't actually HAVE a goal! So they try to learn whatever they think they want to learn (like playing cover songs), rather than focus on what they NEED to learn in order to reach their specific goal. Usually it takes them in directions that don't bring big results.

1. Do you want to be able to learn and play any cover song that you want? 2. Do you want to be able to exchange improvised licks over a set of chords with a friend (jamming)? 3. Do you want to compose your own music and write your own songs?

Before I explain which skills will help you reach each goal, it's important to remember that you do NOT need to fully master the skills listed. For example, you do not need to "fully master" any of these skills to improvise, or to write your own music.

You WILL improve your songwriting (slowly but surely) just by practicing songwriting, even if you don't practice voice leading. But, in order to reach your goals quickly, easily, and effectively, you need to IMPROVE your skills but they don't have to be perfect. The better your skills are, the easier it will be to improvise or compose.

When you have a good teacher, you will be shown exactly how to practice these skills, in what order, why they are important, and how to use them.

Skills important for playing cover songs:

* Strong sense of tight rhythm guitar playing. Why? If you want to be able to keep up with the song, and not sound like a total slop, you want to be able to play tight. It doesn't sound good when you are playing out of time. It's just as bad as playing out of TUNE! Unless you want to play arpeggios at fast speeds in your room, you'll need to focus on rhythm guitar HEAVILY. You need to know how to change chords fluidly, palm mute effectively, play power chords, barre chords, open chords, and inversions.

* Wide arsenal of lead guitar techniques. Why? There are millions of songs that use slides, bends, vibrato, legato, pinch harmonics, string skipping, double stops, sweep picking, and more. In order to play these songs, you need to be able to execute these techniques fluidly and seamlessly.

* Sufficient speed to play at the right tempo. Why? Building speed isn't only about playing fast. This is part of it, but you need to have good 2-hand synchronization, a strong pick attack, minimum finger tension, independent fingers, and all sorts of other things. In order to play in TIME comfortably, you need to be able to play at a decent speed comfortably (without sounding sloppy).

* String muting techniques. Why? Usually the biggest cause of sloppy guitar playing is inefficient string muting. Some players try to mute strings that aren't played with their palm, but this leads to a set of other problems, such as awkward pick angling, and excess pick motion. Thumb-muting is extremely efficient, and it sounds absolutely amazing. The only challenge is changing from lead guitar to rhythm guitar, but that is a fair compromise. You want to be able to play CLEAN or your guitar playing won't sound good!

* Song-memorization strategies. Why? A lot of guitar players struggle to memorize songs quickly, but this is very easy to solve. Read my article on How to Master Learning Songs if you are having issues here. You should know how to read tab (NOT SHEET MUSIC), and be familiar with basic strategies like divide and conquer, rapid-fire, closed-eye repetition, and others.

* Strategies to integrate your skills together. Why? This is probably the most IMPORTANT part of guitar playing. Being able to smoothly transition between one technique to another, without pausing, and without excess noise is what makes a good guitar player a GREAT guitar player. If you can't INTEGRATE your skills together, you will ALWAYS STRUGGLE to play guitar. It's like trying to fit puzzle pieces together that don't match. There's always going to be problems and it won't sound right.

Skills important for improvising (jamming):

* All of the above

* Highly trained aural skills. Why? This is extremely important as well. In fact, serious guitar players may spend 90 minutes practicing ONLY aural skills every day. When you have well trained ears, you not only have a much better ability to identify intervals, chord inversions, hearing the next note to play, but also have MUCH greater creativity, and will be able to REALLY FEEL music when you hear it!

* Thorough knowledge of music theory. Why? When there's a chord playing, you need to know what notes sound good over the chord, and which ones don't. You need to know what scales you can play over the chords, you need to know chord theory to construct your own chords and inversions as you are playing to introduce variety, modal theory so you can open up hundreds of new scale options, intervals, inversions, and much, much more so that you can have a HUGE library of tools to choose from when there's a chord being played. As you can see, knowing music theory MASSIVELY EXPANDS your options, rather than ...limit your ability to play guitar, as so many guitar players believe.

* Memorizing the fretboard. Why? When you know what notes you can play over what chords, the next step is knowing where they are on the guitar so you can instantly find them. This will make guitar playing LOADS easier for you if you can see the fretboard clearly as you are playing. If you can't, then it's like driving along a road you've never been on before, in pitch black darkness, without a map. :)

* Mastery of phrasing. Why? Guitar playing is like a conversation. You need to be able to phrase your licks in such a way that is interesting, and doesn't ramble on forever. A lot guitar players think that guitar playing is all about soloing for hours without stopping (I used to be this way too!). Phrasing means targeting the right chord tones at the right time, speaking with your guitar, spacing your licks, using various techniques, and more.

* Understanding the basic 7 elements of music. Why? When you understand rhythm, harmony, melody, dynamics, texture, timbre, and form, it becomes much easier to improvise a guitar solo and create an interesting sound in real time while playing. You can sense when there is an imbalance in the music, and try to correct this so that you or the listener can enjoy the music more.

Skills important for composing music:

* All of the above

* Mastery and application of the 7 elements of music. Why? This is KEY to having a pleasing song. If you are just playing randomly without thinking about the elements of music, you can make a cool song, but it will be so much harder. You want to write cool music because you KNOW what you're doing, not because you made a mistake and it sounded good (although this is also great!). You will also approach songwriting in a different way when you have mastery in this area. It's sort of like boiling a potion with ingredients: when you know exactly what things are needed to make the potion work, you reduce trial and error, and you don't cause explosions. But nobody said you can't experiment!!! :)

* Advanced music theory concepts. Why? You can make your music much, much more interesting when you can use and control things happening in your music such as suspensions, appoggiaturas, secondary dominants, and other advanced concepts. It opens up thousands of new options and sounds for you as a composer.

* Voice leading. Why? You can play the same 3 chords in hundreds of different ways by changing the movements of the bass notes, or finding new inversions. The emotional impact your music has when you are good with voice leading is much greater than when the chords you're playing are just barre chords.

Again, I want to stress that you do NOT need to master any one of these skills in order to reach the goal of improvising, or composing music. IMPROVING the skills above will help to make improvising and composing more FUN, EASIER, and FASTER!!!

Now that you know what skills are important, you should spend the time focusing on the skills that you know are holding you back from reaching your goals. You do not need to MASTER them, but you should be familiar, and be able to apply the skills to playing real music, AND be able to integrate the skills fluidly.

This is by no means a specific road map or strategy for you to become a professional composer. It is only to show you what you should be focusing on, that will help you do the things you wan to do. You don't have to go down the list and finish mastering one topic before the next. You should instead practice ALL of them at the SAME TIME!!! When you improve one skill, it makes improving another skill easier! You may not understand how this works right now, but eventually you will notice that this is the truth.

Matteo Miller-Nicolato Guitar Lessons in San Diego

23 comments sorted by best / new / date

    toothless tim
    Excellent article. All the nay-sayers are tards and dont want to put the effort to learn.
    You made guitar playing sounds like a rocket science. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. Better to listen to Vai's advice.
    I know many of these theoretical things and stuff, but I do not use them while writing songs or improvising. When I improvise I'm either improvising with a band or a basic drum beat, and I always go by feelings. I feel like doing something, I do it, if it sucks, I don't do it again. And when making songs, it's some riff I've created while improvising, that was so good I wrote it down and then continued. Also when I hear some cool chord, I try to make something where I use it. For me trial and error is a much more interesting way of learning.
    Well written and very useful. It does take applying techniques such as this and daily practice, if possible.
    that'd be great if I had another guitar player I could play with. Last band I joined I left because they wouldn't do originals yet, and they decided to let me go since the other player wasn't too happy for competition since he seen my playing lol.
    Thanks for the great feedback guys I'm glad you found this article informative
    tehREALcaptain wrote: wow, a lesson that is actually informed, intelligent and applicable. it must be UG opposite day or something.
    So true. Great advice.
    pailoong wrote: Did Tom Hess write this article?
    Kinda seems like it, huh? Really great article, I've never gotten the chance to just "jam" with anyone (really small town, few musicians), so this will definitely help in the future.
    practice makes permanent. make sure you're doing it right to avoid injury. speed is a byproduct of accuracy
    fan413 wrote: What are aural skills? and how do I train them?
    Train your ears, hearing the intervals etc. You train them by using certain computer software OR you can take one interval...hear the relation between the two notes, remember it, then go on to the next interval. Very useful to train but takes a lot of time.
    Why not? If you're covering, say, a not widely known classical piece reading the sheet music would be good.
    Actually, I believe that you should put jamming as a harder and more demanding thing than songwriting - because a good jam should be a good song, but done from scratch in a matter of seconds. And yes, it is possible to write a jam with a verse, chorus, and even a bridge! The secret lies in communication. Also, playing jams (doesn't matter, how they turn out - with every one you will grow out of yourself) is the easiest way to learn to write songs, communicate with other musicians, find melodies and play solos. That's, what my experience says
    Nothing that I had not already realised by myself, but still very helpful, clear and well written. Nice!
    Apples on Cacti
    tehREALcaptain wrote: wow, a lesson that is actually informed, intelligent and applicable. it must be UG opposite day or something.
    No it's not! (teehee)
    wow, a lesson that is actually informed, intelligent and applicable. it must be UG opposite day or something.