This is basically a revision of a thread I created ages ago which got lots of very positive responses and is all i know about practice and tension but taught in an accessible manner. Hope you guys like it.

Technique – musical technique is about the physical actions required to produce sound. Someone with poor technique has a physical approach to an instrument that leads to great effort with little result, poor “tone” (as in the “tone” that comes from your fingers, not your amp), limited note choice, risk of injury, and so on.

Someone with great technique makes very little effort, and can produce a huge array of licks and riffs at will, each sounding great – they have control and ability, meaning that when they choose to create a sound, any sound, they can do it, provided they have enough control and ability.

Now, why bother with that introduction? It’s a bit “dictionary mouthed”. I want to get across that there’s a lot to the idea of good technique, and that there’s more to it than just pouring rivers of notes out over an audience of youtube shredders.

I’m going to focus on what I see as the important things here, the real pillars of developing good technique, before going into any detail.

Important concepts

Muscle memory and practice

Your muscles learn by themselves. When you practice, you’re trying to get them to learn the right habits. For someone like Steve Vai, playing runs impossible to us is easy for him, because he does everything right throughout each run, hitting the right notes, at the right time, in the right way. He doesn’t have to worry about it, because his muscles know how to produce these effects themselves. In the movie “Crossroads” (Not with Britney Spears, dammit!) he loses a guitar duel when he tries to repeat what young Ralph Macciciccicio has played and fails. For this, Steve Vai had to screw it up, and badly. Sadly, his muscle memory made his work very difficult, as he was so used to playing things perfectly that the studio wasn’t satisfied with his messing up and had to call him back for more filming!

Your muscles learn fastest when you concentrate on them, and they learn what you DO – not what you intended to do. So basically, if you want your muscles to learn that Rusty Cooley run, then you have to be able to play it as well as he can to begin with.

Bit of a Catch 22, isn’t it? To be able to learn the run, you must be able to play it first!

Here’s the first bit of good news – you CAN play the run. I’m serious. You can play it ABSOLUTELY perfectly. In fact, probably even better than Rusty. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

But think about it, if you played slow enough, you could. If you don’t have to worry about getting to the next note in time (and why would you?) you can focus on clarity, muting, economy of motion – all the hundreds of factors that mean you can’t play the lick fast and well. You can correct them at your leisure, and then play that next note, all the while keeping your technique perfect.

With each repetition, your muscles go “Ahhhhhh, this is how it should be done!” (bear in mind, they’ve also learnt every BAD repetition) – and then they get better at repeating it without conscious thought. In fact, it’ll get to the point where you can play it so well, that you don’t really have to keep an eye on it. You can actually just play that lick at that speed, perfectly. As well as anyone in the world can. Then what you do is you play it a little bit faster, and sure enough, that’s when you run into important concept number 2 –


When we say tension in the forums or in this column, we don’t mean the way your muscles do work – we mean the way your muscles waste work.

Try this – tense your arm up as hard as you can. Do this – remember, guitar is about DOING, not about reading and thinking about it. You’re going to have to get used to this idea! Right, all tense? Now try and pick up a teacup and drink from it without spilling it. Or try to forge a signature perfectly.

Really hard, isn’t it? Well, guitar is much harder and more intricate than either of those two tasks, but at least no-one plays with their arms as tightened up as physically possible, right? You’d be surprised.

Anyway, I’ve made my point – tension makes it harder (and much harder work as well) to perform the detailed and subtle actions needed for guitar playing at a high level. In fact, tension is probably THE biggest problem with all but the biggest beginner’s technique.

But you don’t feel tense when you play if you’ve been playing a while – well, guess what? You are. You’re just so used to these feelings you take them as part of the feeling of playing guitar. Look at the greats play – they can play stuff that blows your mind, without making effort. They have hands that are pretty much like yours, a bit stronger, a bit more flexible, but the difference between you and them in terms of actual playing ability is huge. So it’s in the technique, not the assets we’re born with. The difference is that you have to fight all your small tensions to make the same movements, and that’s why you’re slower. Think about how fast you can play if you aren’t making a significant effort – now try playing at 10bpm more than that, it’s a much larger effort. You hit a wall in such a short space of time.

Right, I’ll explain why in a second, but lets try some more stuff to do. Trill between your first and third fingers on guitar – if you don’t do trills well, just flap em on a table. I’ll bet that your 2nd and 4th fingers move too. That’s because the muscles that work the 1st and 3rd affect the 2nd and 4th as well. This isn’t too big a deal unless you want to do something a bit more complicated than that. Like playing guitar. Imagine you want to swap quickly between fingers 1 and 3, and 2 and 4. When you bring in 2 and 4, they’re still under the effects of 1 and 3’s muscles, so the muscles in 2 and 4 have to work against those muscles to move – harder work. So you can’t flap 1 and 3 and then 2 and 4 as fast as you can just 1 and 3. Why do you hit that brick wall at 10bpm above your maximum speed? Because when you make the extra effort needed for those 10bpm, all the muscles make more effort, meaning they impede the other muscles around them more, which means THEY need to work MUCH harder, and soon, all the muscles in your entire arm are spending 90% of their time fighting each other, rather than working on playing the lick you want them to play, dammit!

Well, once again, practicing slowly allows you to beat this – when you trill fingers 1 and 3, as in our example a second ago, you want them to leave fingers 2 and 4 relaxed, so that only the muscles you actually want working ARE working. Needless to say, this is difficult. Try doing a fast trill between 1 and 3 and keeping 2 and 4 completely still and relaxed. Bloody difficult. Now, take it as slowly as you need to (And I mean, once again, actually try and do this, find out how slow I mean for SLOW practice) but actually keep them relaxed and still while 1 and 3 trill.

This takes concentration. For myself, i have to spend maybe a minute getting into the zone, and then it actually takes me about another 10 seconds to complete one single movement in the trill.

But if you can 100 repeats of keeping 2 and 4 still and relaxed, they’ll learn to do it a little bit. Speed up, sure, they’ll get tense again, but you’ve got this down.

Tomorrow, you’ll have forgotten it, but there’ll still be a scrap of muscle memory, and you could build on this, day by day, until you can trill as fast as is humanly possible with very little effort, because there is nothing impeding your muscles and all the work they do goes into what you want them to do – and because of those centuries of trilling, you have finger biceps from hell to do the work for you!

These two concepts are probably the most important. Almost all disagreement on technique and practice comes from debates over the ways to best reduce tension, but no-one disagrees on these important two issues.

So, every time you practice, think – am I doing this BETTER? Because you could be learning to do it better – in whatever way you want. You can make your picking more defined if you’re willing to lose 10bpm. You can make your legato cross strings better, if you’re willing to slow right down to 0 and work your way up.

But it WILL sound better, and it WILL get faster.

Provided you think – am I playing this in a way that actually makes this tense? Does your picking make your elbow seize up? Slow down, correct it. Do you do forget to relax fingers after hammerons, leaving you with your hand glued to the string after a string’s worth of notes?

Slow down, correct it, and you can improve faster, and to greater heights.

I hope to cover more important points, but for now, digest this, get it INTO YOUR HEAD. Demand perfection and you’ll get it if you work for it properly. Let slop by, and you’ll be sloppy forever. These points are all you need – but a bit of help is useful for everything else, so I’ll give that when I can with new threads, where I plan to cover, in as much detail as humanly possible, one topic at a time.