I get the question all the time “What can I do to become a better guitar player?” We all want to know the secret and find a quick a easy recipe but the truth is that there are no easy answers and there’s certainly no easy way to becoming a great guitarist. In this feature I’ll share 5 tips that has helped and inspired me throughout the years.
I started to play guitar when I was in my early teens. I borrowed an acoustic from a friend and learned Smoke on the Water and a couple of Bob Dylan songs. The standard story. A year or so later I got my first electric guitar and amp. I now had the tools to play Sabbath, Kiss, Purple, Zeppelin etc.
It sounded horrible and I often lost the inspiration but I kept on practicing because my friend that had lent me the guitar and my music teacher at school insisted that practice was the only way to get better. It took years before I got my first pedal and even longer to care about changing strings and getting decent cables etc. Not because I wanted to delay those things but no one told me there was pedals or the need to change strings every now and then.
A lot of people ask me for help on becoming a better guitarist. I know that frustration and hopelessness. I’ve been there and I sometimes still feel it. Every musician does, no matter on which level they are. Practice is the one thing we all have in common. Patience is something we all wish we had but sometimes it’s not that easy.
1. Playing guitar is about you
OK, it’s a cliché. It’s the fingers and not all the gear. We often say that when it comes to describing the genius of a guitar God but that saying also applies to you. No matter how much you think you suck.
Playing guitar and creating your tone or voice isn’t about the gear. It’s about what’s in your mind and how that translates through your fingers and onto a guitar. The guitar, pedals and amp are only the tools you need to express yourself and amplify the music you have inside your head. It may sound stupid or even too hard to comprehend but it’s really that simple. I can’t play like David Gilmour and he can’t play like me.
I would say that this is the most important thing to remember. Music and playing guitar is about you. What kind of guitarist do you want to be? How do you express your feelings and music through your guitar? It doesn’t matter how good you are. What it means is that you need to find your own “voice” and tone and get the confidence in what you are doing. Don’t try to be someone else but trust your own talent and then you’ll become unique.
2. Study other guitarists
It may sound like a contradiction to what I said above but no one becomes a great musician without studying or being influenced by others. If they claim they are, then they’re lying or neglecting an important part of who they are.
We are all inspired by something. I’m inspired by Pink Floyd, David Gilmour and about a thousand other bands and guitarists but I’m also inspired by other types of music, art, a walk in the park, a certain feeling or mood. Anything.
Now, we are perhaps a bit above average interested in David Gilmour’s tone and gear – to put it mildly – but I see that as both a hobby and an inspiration. I love tracking down information, studying images and trying pedals that he’s used but I’ve also learned a great deal about playing guitar by studying his playing in detail. He’s taught me licks, the blues, phrasing, bending, picking, how to use the volume control to create dynamics when I play.
The list is long but I can say the same about many of my other influences too. I’ve spent countless hours studying and practicing and learning from guitarists and musicians that I admire and that inspire me.
And so did they. David Gilmour learned from the old blues legends but also from many of his contemporaries. Hendrix, Van Halen, Page, Slash, Rhoads – they all learned from someone and they picked up the stuff they liked, made it their own and created something new and unique.
3. Develop your own taste
We live in the internet age and we can seek out information about everything we want. We also have a tendency to seek information that will confirm what we want to believe. If you want a pedal to sound good or if you desperately need to justify purchasing a new guitar, then someone out there have praised it for sure – or a famous guitarist has used it. But, is that the honest and unbiased information you really want?
Likewise, there are plenty of bullies and mr know-it-alls out there that will trash anything you thought you liked and claim that only they know the true path and answers. Nothing will kill your inspiration more than people who makes you feel like a stupid nuisance.
Use the information available. Seek out both good and bad reviews when you’re buying new gear and make up your own mind. Trust your instincts and buy if it sounds good or works for you.
Listen to the guitarists and bands that you like and be inspired by a variety of different styles and genres. Don’t let anyone tell what to listen to or which guitarist is good and who’s not. If you develop a taste for the combination of Nile Rodger’s funk, Albert Lee’s chicken picking and Toni Iommi’s doom then you’re certainly not stupid or boring. You’re unique.
4. Keep it simple
There’s really nothing wrong with huge pedalboards but does it make you a better guitar player or musician? Are you more capable of expressing yourself by having every single pedal you own in front of your feet? Well, in The Edge’s case that may be true but for most of us it’s a no.
As I said above I consider replicating David Gilmour’s, or any other guitarist’s tones to be part a hobby. In that sense, the more pedals and cool guitars the better. However, if you let that come in the way of finding your own tone, style and technique then I would say that you are limiting yourself rather than expanding your options. You don’t have to own every new pedal just because it’s available.
Guitarists in the 50s and 60s and even the early 70s, didn’t have all the stuff we are exposed to. They had to make the most of a guitar and an amp and that forced them to really explore the full potential of the gear and develop new playing techniques to get the tones they wanted and to be able to express the music they had in their minds.
Limits can often force you to be more creative, which again will keep you more focused. Use pedals and effects but don’t forget that they’re only tools. What matters is that you express your music and “voice” and not simply showcase the gear.
5. Stay humble and practice
This last one is perhaps equally important as the first one but it’s also a reminder. Stay humble and practice. Don’t ever think you got it. Don’t stop searching for new ways to express your music and playing. Don’t stop looking for new influences or stop letting yourself be influenced.
It doesn’t mean that you have to sit practicing six hours a day but have an open mind to new ways of doing things and stuff that you can learn and pick up from others. Of course you need to practice too. Playing an instrument well, or at least well enough to write music or being able to express some kind of emotions, require practice. Lots of practice. Getting to know your guitar, amp and pedals and how they can help you become a better musician also require practice but it should be fun and inspiring.
All this may seem too serious for many of you but no matter what level you are on you should take yourself seriously. Are you only a bedroom player? Fine. Do you occasionally jam with a couple of friends? Fine. Are you planning on making a record? Fine. It’s all fine but make it an important priority and one that you have thought through. Take your music seriously and be inspired.
Please feel free to use the comments field below and share your tips and experience!