[Newsletter] 4 things self-taught guitarists should practice to make everything else easier
Julian Lage performance; Add musical engagement to dull finger exercises
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Something to think about
4 things self-taught guitarists should practice to make everything else easier
Just like many other things in the universe, the Pareto Principle applies to learning guitar.
When the Pareto Principle applies, it means 80% of the outcomes are from 20% of the causes. Translated for guitar players: 20% of your effort during practice is responsible for 80% of your progress. To make your practice time more efficient and fruitful, wouldn’t it be ideal to know exactly which concepts are in that 20%? Since they are responsible for so much of your improvement, why not optimize them?
In my own playing and with people I play with, I’ve noticed these important concepts time and time again: ear training, pentatonic scales, triads, and repertoire. If you’re looking for some stuff to make up that 20%, this is a great place to start.
Having good ears is among the biggest shortcuts to becoming a strong musician.
Shortcut is a big word - it takes work to learn - but there are really only two important types of ear training to focus on: relative pitch and clarity in listening. Relative pitch means being able to identify pitches, chords, or rhythms in relation to others. With strong relative pitch, you can hear a song once and know which chords are being played, pick out the melody, figure out the guitar solo, all by ear. Clarity in listening means being able to hear different layers and details of music clearly. While listening deeply, you can hear which register the guitar is playing in, if the bass has round wound or flat wound strings, or when the drummer is on the ride cymbal or hi hats. This kind of listening is how you understand the inner workings of how music is made which gives you a huge boost in musicianship.
Spending much of your practice time training your ears will drastically improve how quickly and easily you learn other aspects of music.
The versatility of the pentatonic scale is profound. Knowing it well gives you a strong foundation for so much melody in all types of music.
Playing a C major scale with the standard shape in 7th position is good to know. But it’s a little sterile and not super applicable in all styles. Knowing the C major pentatonic scale in a couple different positions will take your melodies further. Especially on guitar, pentatonic scales feel good under the fingers. Your hand almost moves melodically when you’re playing the patterns.
Becoming automatic with the pentatonic scales will give you the foundation to place licks, solos, melodies, and other scales. Knowing them well makes everything else you play easier.
Triads are to harmony as pentatonic scales are to melody.
Triads are essential for underlying understanding, but also for opening up the neck of the guitar and being able to play more interesting parts in different registers. Knowing how triads are built (from the major scale) and how they relate to each other (diatonic harmony) means you understand 80% of Western music. Combine your knowledge of this with good ear training and you’ve found another shortcut to learning more music way faster. You no longer think of each song you learn in isolation, but they all become part of a common framework.
With this knowledge and practicing triads around the neck, you can play the most complicated chord changes all in one position with smooth voice leading.
You can learn all the Spanish grammar you want, but that won’t translate directly to how the language is spoken in Spain.
So it is with music. You can know all the theory, scales, chords, how to read sheet music, and all sorts of other stuff, but still not play convincingly. Studying the “spoken word” in whatever genres of music you like is going to improve your playing significantly. By practicing clarity of listening, you pick up on the little stylistic parts of your favourite types of music that are hard to explain in theoretical terms. For examples, things like the time-feel, how the music is mixed (maybe the drums are at the forefront or maybe the guitar), phrasing, cliches, and tone choice.
If you want to play that style of music, immerse yourself in the language. You can strip away the useless options in what you play and double down on the useful options.
Something to watch
Some players have reached the point where the guitar becomes irrelevant - the player becomes the instrument.
Julian Lage is a master of dynamics. In this performance, he plays the melody louder and up front while taking care to play the chords and colour notes a little more quietly in the background. It's common for many accomplished players to do this kind of thing, but Lage just has such a touch about it.
I always really notice the phrasing of Lage's playing.
In his solo, he has a way of fulfilling and breaking expectations with every idea. Sometimes the lick is based off the melody and he drags it to the point of breaking, but just keeps bending. Other times he's playing straight ahead with new melodic ideas. Wherever he is in the solo, each piece fits together like a puzzle. All syncopations land just so. Again, nothing other players don't do well, but Lage just does it differently.
I've written about Julian Lage before. He's spent a lot of time thinking about tone, rhythm, expression, and taste, which are the most important elements of music for all guitarists.
Something to practice
The Spider finger exercise is a popular way to get your fingers working independently.
Once you’ve got the exercise down and you’re starting to feel comfortable, you can make it more musically engaging. Try this: put on a drone backing track in any given key and, following the principles of the exercise (keeping your fingers planted as you go, minimal movement, same note pattern), play melodic phrases.
There are lots of different backing tracks, but I would want something subtle and just enough to give a key/harmonic centre. Something like this:
I wouldn’t be worried about note choice because the exercise determines the order of the notes. But now I’m thinking, “how can I make these notes a musical phrase?” I would play to some kind of meter, change the rhythms, and try to land consonant notes on the downbeat. If I got bored of this, maybe I’d find a way to land dissonant notes on the downbeat. I would improvise melodic ideas and feel out the tension between consonance and dissonance.
The effect is that I’ve given myself the constraint of the exercise and, as long as I follow the principles of the exercise, I’m getting the benefit of it. Even though I’ve set out to do the Spider finger exercise, it has become secondary to the process of actual music making. Although it’s counterintuitive, this is exactly what I want. Thinking about phrasing and consonance/dissonance is in the 20% of work that brings 80% of the benefit.
To me, the thought of sitting down and just drilling the finger exercise to a click track for 10 minutes is a nightmare. Like, I literally couldn’t imagine something more draining to do with a guitar in my hands. But I could easily do what I described above for an hour.