As guitarists we obsess about so many things and yet there are a few subtle things, that most guitarists you will ever meet in your life will never do.
Tip 1: Listen
It´s incredible how few of us are really able to listen to anything outside of ourselves. Totally absorbed in our own playing, our only concern can quickly become: Do I sound good, am I loud enough, how´s my gain sound? That is no problem, when we´re playing by ourselves, but as soon as other musicians come into play, the focus needs to shift: How do I sound IN RELATION to the other musicians I play with? How can I add to the beauty of the music to make the entire song better? How can I make song parts glue better? Am I stepping on everyone else? When you play with others, it´s about making the whole sounding great and not only one part. The more you are isolated in your own little guitar world, the more it will hurt the song.
Tip 2: Don´t play if a song doesn´t need it
This skill is something you will very rarely witness – a musician that does not play when it´s not needed. Whenever we are in a playing situation, whether we´re working out ideas with our band or jamming with others, our impulse is to always play.
It can be very helpful to pause and listen if the song we´re going to play on really needs another guitar part. If not, why not leave the song as is and save your playing for another song? This is the most difficult thing to do for any musician, because our assumption is: We have an instrument, so we always need to play something. No! We should play it, when a songs needs it. If the song does not need it (or is actually better off without another guitar part), master the art of not playing.
Tip 3: Study another instrument
See the guitar´s fretboard and it´s specific layout as the interface through which you access music. This interface makes certain things easy to do while it can make other things pretty difficult or close to impossible. Often we simply adopt a lot of cliches that are commonplace on our instrument, simply because of the fact that the layout facilitates to do a certain thing. That can make it difficult at times to take off our “guitar glasses” and approach music from a different angle. A great way to get out of this filter is to study another instrument for a while on the side. This gives us a great chance to view music from another angle. I took classical piano and drum lessons for a while to get out of my perspective as a guitarist and it was really enjoyable and liberating. You could also get into electronic music for a while and see how that affects your approach to your instrument or study music from another culture.
Tip 4: If you talk to other people, turn off the volume
Are you familiar with the common guitarist´s disease of constantly noodling – even when talking to others? I had different guitar teachers over time, but here´s what impressed me most about my best guitar teacher – he never noodled. When the student asks a question, he turns down his guitar and listens. How fantastic is that? Someone that really listens in the world of today? Hard to find. By doing this, we are practicing the skill of being present, the skill of listening, which will also help us greatly in our music. So the next time you´re in a band discussion or teaching a student – turn down your volume and really listen.
Tip 5: Compliment another guitarist for his playing
Only a brief visit on Youtube is necessary to see that even guitar can quickly lead to religious conflicts. If we swapped the guitars for guns, we´d have an instant war going on!
Music can be incredibly competitive and we are quick to find faults with each other, looking for all the things that are not perfect. Why not look for good stuff instead instead of getting all anal about a missed note? If you like what someone plays, tell that person! He will look at you like an alien, because he might be used to people talking behind his back and constantly looking for faults, but not someone telling him that his playing sounds great! Make it a habit to look for the good things and make that your focus!
About the author:
Derk Stiepelmann is the founder of Songwriter´s Shed guitar school and teaches guitar lessons in Dortmund, Germany.