Eric Bourassa runs a music school by day and shreds guitar by night. You can find him at his Fort Worth website, where he helps guitarists.
Very often, I work with students who simply want more stuff - another exercise, a new scale shape, a fresh arpeggio idea, more chords. And though these things are all valuable and beneficial to us as musicians, most of the time they are not necessary. If you've been playing guitar for any length of time, there's a good chance you already have notebooks full of ideas. You've probably learned bits and pieces of a lot of songs from Internet tabs or videos or your teacher. You likely own enough instructional books and videos that you will never be able to learn every example from them in this lifetime (I am certainly in that group). There's a good chance you already know everything you need to know. Now it's time to master it.
What's better: knowing 4,000 arpeggio patterns that can't be recalled quickly in a song or knowing 12 and playing them with the fullest level of conviction, phrasing, and rhythm?
To answer that question, let's look to the publicly celebrated masters of guitar. I'm not talking about the guys who have achieved virtuoso levels of playing per se. I'm talking about the most famous, influential, and listened-to guitar players of the last 60 years. I'm talking about Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Angus Young, Carlos Santana - you know, the guys you see month after month, year after year on the covers of the guitar magazines. These are not even necessarily my favorite guitarists, but they are a handful of the most popular lead guitarists in rock music. I used to roll my eyes when someone would tell me how great Hendrix was, because all I could think was, Steve Vai can play way better than him! And technically speaking, yes, he can, but then I began to approach this matter from a more objective standpoint - rather than ask, "Who are my personal favorites?", I began asking, "Who are the favorites of the general public, and why?"
Once I got off my elitist-guitarist high horse, I began studying these classic players, and came to the very simple conclusion of, "These guys don't do a lot of things well, they do a few things really well!"
Let's take Jimmy Page, for example. Does he know all the Pentatonic boxes and each note by name? Maybe. Does he know the Harmonic Minor scale? Possibly. Can he play a Db9 arpeggio and apply it the Phrygian Dominant scale? Doubtful. But when you listen to his playing, all of a sudden the answer to those virtuoso-testing questions becomes, "Who cares?" So what is it, exactly, that does make him great if he doesn't know how to recite all this nerdy guitar jargon that I enjoy discussing and playing way more than I should? Staying true to Chet Holmes' famous quote, I've boiled it down to 12 simple things you likely already know but just need to do more:
1. Vibrato - I can't tell you how many players I know that can play a lot of notes, but they can't play one really good note.
2. Bending - Many players use bends. Few guitarist play them in tune.
3. Hammer-on's and Pull-off's - The note that is hammered to or pulled from should sound smooth and just as loud as any picked note.
4. Two Pentatonic Boxes - Memorize the first and fourth box of the Minor Pentatonic scale in every key.
5. Slides - Play them in rhythm and without losing any volume.
6. Picking - Learn how to pick well in some fashion. It could be alternate picking, economy picking, tremolo picking, sweep picking, or hybrid picking. It doesn't have to be all of them. Just pick one and master it. Many famous guitarists are not fast pickers, but they pick with conviction.
7. Rhythm - Too many players focus on lead without having mastered the art of rhythm playing. Those who have mastered rhythm playing have decided to forget that leads should have rhythm. It's not about just notes: make it groove!
8. Silence - Take a break every now and then. You don't have to fill every sixteenth-note space available.
9. Confidence - The difference between a good guitarist and a great guitarist is very often a matter of confidence. Hit those notes like you mean it!
10. Balance - Great guitarists balance loud passages with soft playing. They balance fast runs with slow, long-ringing notes.
11. Wear Your Influences on Your Sleeve - Learn a few licks from your favorite players, then overuse them. For instance, Satriani heard a single-string legato descent that Hendrix did maybe a few times during his career and inserted it into nearly everything he's ever done. Now it's considered a Satriani-style lick!
12. The Signature Move - Jeff Beck is a master of the whammy bar. Santana is a master of long-ringing notes with excellent vibrato. Eddie Van Halen is a master of two-hand tapping and speed picking. What is your signature move? Decide on it, then master it the way no one else ever has.
A lot of this is really common sense. Of course we should learn how to use vibrato and bend in tune, but I also know a lot of overweight people who know more about nutrition than I do. I know plenty of atheists who know the Bible better than I do. I know people that are in debt but know a lot about savings and retirement. And I know a lot of guitar players who know far more than I do about playing guitar but can't actually play what they're talking about if you put them on a stage. It's not about how much you know, it's about using what you have to the fullest extent possible.
About the Author:
Eric Bourassa owns and operates a music school in Fort Worth, TX, and plays regularly at City on a Hill Church and with his band, Eric Bourassa. His instrumental rock albums are available on iTunes and at his website, www.ericbourassa.com.