Hack guitarist wants to become less of a hack.
January 10, 2006 9:16 AM   Subscribe

What little things separate a hack guitarist from a decent one and how does one make the transition?

When I see an amature guitarist play, the ones who stand out are the ones who add little bass runs in between chords or they might throw in a little lick here and there. They're not just playing the guitar part to a song, they're playing the whole song. They take a song that was recorded by a full band and make it sound complete on a single guitar. I want to be able to do that, or at least get as close as I am able to.

I've been a guitar owner for about 20 years now. As is required by law, the first ten years were spent learning Van Halen intros while high. I've since grown up somewhat and now I strum chords on my acoustic. I can play chords just fine, I know about the 12 bar blues and I, IV, V, I know a scale or two (though I'm unable to utilize them when I play), if I have the chords or some tablature I can fake my way through a lot of songs. But my playing is so amateurish. I might play a little intro and then start roboticly strumming the chords. It doesn't... flow.

First off, The Answer is "take lessons and practice a lot." Life is busy and unpredictable, and while I'm not opposed to lessons, my experience with them has not been good. Young Berklee grads who think everybody wants to play Korn songs. \m/. If I took lessons I would need the right sort of teacher. Where do I find them? (Metrowest / Boston)

Specific questions that can be answered:

What are the little tricks I can learn that will help me sound less like a robot when I play? (example: When you switch from C to G, this little run will make it sound really cool...)

Where do I learn said tricks? Any good books that go beyond the basics without focusing too much on just teaching scales? Every book on scales I've ever seen teaches them without teaching you why you should learn them or how you can use them, other than in your totally awesome solo, dude.

Free on-line resources that do not suck. Good lord, there are a lot of bad guitar sites out there. I want sites that have interesting and clear articles, preferably with MP3 examples. A couple good ones that I am aware of are Guitarnoise.com and howandtao.

Tab and chord sites that are not Olga mirrors, tab search engines, etc. What I'm looking for here is someone who has posted their own transcriptions of well knows songs. whotabs.net, Ron's Folk Chords, etc.

Without hopping a train to memphis or going to prison for shooting the man who stole my old lady, how does a nerdy white boy from the 'burbs learn about the blues?

How does a 30-something hack find other 30-something hacks to play with? I don't want to play clubs, I don't want to show off, I don't want to tour, I don't want to start a band in the styles of Slayer and Pantera, I don't need to stay in to do homework, I can afford to buy strings when I need to. As far as I can tell, I'm the only one.

I'm interested in mostly focusing on playing an acoustic. Rock, pop, modern folk (Eddie From Ohio, Moxie Fruvous, Dar Williams, etc...), kids songs, blues, etc. My knowledge of rock ended around the time Pearl Jam hit the scene, so any recommendations of modern bands/artists that might be inspirational would be welcome.

Again, I don't want to dazzle anyone with my chops, I just want to be able to lead the group in a drunken Beatles sing-along or play Old McDonald for my kid's preschool.

Wow. Sorry about the length of this post. Next week I'll ask how to get to the point in under 10,000 words.
posted by bondcliff to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Pure technical ability is of secondary importance next to a highly developed sense of musicality and a degree of taste. The "between chord runs" and suchlike that you refer to are the result of many years experience, listening to music (all kinds of music) and knowing what works in what context. Many of the world's greatest musicians aren't the greatest technicians by any stretch of the imagination but what they do have is a great feeling for the music.

Listen to all kinds of music - don't be a snob and play as much as possible. Don't believe those who tell you that the ability to read music stifles creativity either - although by no means essential, being a "reader" means you'll be able to pick up any standard songbook and be able to learn and analyse pieces far more quickly and accurately than is possible (for most people) purely by ear. You'll be able to write down your own compositions for others as well!
posted by NeonSurge at 10:05 AM on January 10, 2006

Heya, bondcliff - I don't think I can really offer you a very satisfying answer, because I think a lot of the things you are talking about involve instinct and a certain arsenal of knowledge, rather than specific shortcuts that work every time. That said, there are two suggestions I can make that helped me achieve the goals that you are talking about and serve me very well everyday of my life as a professional guitarist here in New York City.

1) Play with a metronome always, or AT LEAST as often as possible. When you listen to music, try to be as rhythmically aware as possible - think analytically about all the components (e.g., the snare drum is hitting on beat 2 and the and of 3, while the kick lands on 1 and the second sixteenth of 3, and he's playing eighth-note triplets on closed hi-hat.) That's right, don't limit yourself to the guitar. Truth is that most guitar players get so obsessed with learning licks, chord voicings, etc., that they completely ignore rhythm. And the fact of the matter is that alot of really cool music (including a lot of the music that you mention above) is not very complicated harmonically, but it IS extremely SPECIFIC rhythmically. As an example - the blues scale, as you may know, only has five notes. Yet think about how much mileage BB King, Albert King, and Albert Collins, to name just three, got out of those five notes. And they all sound COMPLETELY different from one another. Sure, some of those differences can be attributed to guitars, amps, picks or no picks, etc. But I'd argue that, if you put all three of those guys on the same guitar* through the same amp, you'd still be able to tell one from the other. That's 'cuz of rhythm, and, more generally, something in their hands that, for all we know, is DNA-specific. Still, you CAN - and SHOULD - learn their rhythmic idiosyncracies. How? Read on.

2) Transcribe as much as you can. If you like a song, learn the chords. Hear a cool riff? Learn it. Dig the way Stevie Ray Vaughn plays? Learn one of his solos - not all of them are unplayable to the mere mortal such as ourselves. That cool lick that your favorite guitar player plays in your favorite song? Learn it. (One of my favorite resources is old Beatles tunes. This is partly because I love the music, but also because the guitar parts are NEVER obvious - see the descending arpeggios in "Help" for a perfect example.) Transcription is a skill that you may need to work on - there are various ear-training exercises that you can and should do. Blues solos from the likes of the guys I mentioned above are a particularly good place to start, because they are often not too demanding technically - they are not blisteringly fast or filled with astronomic numbers of notes, but they feel GREAT. You will develop an authenticity to your playing that you can't earn ANY other way.

As for resources, rather than spend alot of time and money on websites, instructional videos, and the like - go out and get a record that you really like and learn as much as you can from it by ear. BB King "Live at the Regal". Albert King "I'll Play The Blues For You". "Showdown", by Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, and Robert Cray. Countless, countless others. Just choose one and go!

I guarantee you that doing both of these things will exponentially improve your playing and, just as importantly, your general awareness of and appreciation for music.

*I know that Albert King was left-handed and played his guitar upside-down.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 10:10 AM on January 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

bondcliff, I saw Dar Williams live this weekend, solo, and it was amazing how she used her guitar to play songs I had previously only heard played with full backing band. That said, they were selling sheet music of her stuff in the lobby. You might check that out.
posted by Biblio at 10:35 AM on January 10, 2006

Second the learning by ear tip.

I'm a 30something hack guitarist that used to do studio guitar work and playing for hire. In other words, I wasn't always a hack, but I don't think I can any longer claim to be anywhere near "pro."

When you learn by ear, the very act of training your ear and hacking out the stuff you're trying to learn, as painful as that process may be at first, teaches you to think like the player whose song you're learning. You'll build mucsle memory for those licks/riffs/whatnot in a way that will never happen if you learn from a book, etc.

As you internalize the riffs of the players you admire, the skills that go with those riffs will start to connect with other aspects of your playing, and you'll find that you're doing the things that impress you without even realizing it most of the time.

Play as often as possible, invent stuff yourself and improvise by yourself often.

Play along with music to help your rhythm -- a metronome works, too, but playing with a CD is more fun. And when you play with other people, you should be paying more attention to what they're playing than to what you're playing. A great guitarist knows when not to play.

Lastly, realize that you're better than you think you are -- always. You probably already do a lot of the things you wish you could do, without realizing it. Record yourself just jamming for 30 minutes or so, then listen to it. You'll be surprised at how much you've learned.

And if you're ever in SoCal, email me and we'll jam.
posted by JekPorkins at 10:44 AM on January 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

turn the radio on and play with it ... find a way to add something to what you hear without distracting from it ... one can do the same thing with cds, but the advantage of the radio is that you have no idea what song is coming next

also, right hand technique is more important than left-hand technique
posted by pyramid termite at 10:54 AM on January 10, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far.

I should mention that I've been trying to play by ear for 20 years and I've never been able to do it. My wife, who is a classically trained musician/singer, has confirmed that there seems to be a problem. My ear/brain doesn't seem to work that way. I still try, and once in a while I accidentally stumble upon something, but I have trouble even picking up 3-chord songs.

I would gladly sell my soul to have that ability.

And I know people will still tell me I can do it, and as much as I appreciate that, it's like telling a color blind person to keep trying to see colors properly.
posted by bondcliff at 10:55 AM on January 10, 2006

no one here has mentioned jazz guitar playing yet. i firmly believe that learning jazz theory and playing will help a guitarist in any genre and will allow the guitarist to excel above the rest in his/her circle.

so, take jazz guitar lessons. period.
posted by jadanzzy at 11:01 AM on January 10, 2006

There are some decent community sites out there that can help. wholenote.com is good (especially the FretBuzz forums). As for how to use your scales, you need a dose of music theory. There are tons of books on this subject, but you don't need one specific to guitar, as the concepts apply to all instruments, not just guitar. I'm a bassist, so I can't recommend a specific one for guitar, but the Hal Leonard books are consistently good, so you might try this one.

You will pick up the little connecting lines between chords through experience, knowledge of scales, and ear training. Once you have the sound of the scales in your ears and the notes of the scales under your fingers, finding little runs to connect C to Am is pretty easy (and a lot of fun). If you already have a decent ear, you can find a lot of great ones by trial and error. Take any chord progression you like and try to find the connection between the chords. Start at a very slow tempo and work it up.
posted by wheat at 11:09 AM on January 10, 2006

so, take jazz guitar lessons. period.

If you want to become the best in your circle, this is absolutely true. If you just want to become less of a hack, and you're not willing to learn tough theory and practice scales and modal stuff, you might not be all that into jazz guitar lessons. The bottom line is that if you really want to become an excellent guitarist, you're going to have to put in the work, learn the theory and practice, practice practice.

If you just want to be a little less of a hack, then just practice, practice, practice. And then practice some more.

As for the ear training, slow down. Practice it a lot. Not everyone has a natural ear. But if you are trying to learn a three chord song, try this:

1. Start with the first chord. Play just that chord over and over again with your CD player, iTunes, whatever, until you're sick of hearing that one chord over and over.

2. Play one note at a time on your low E string until you find the root of the chord. If you can't find it, keep doing it until you can. If it takes hours, it takes hours. It won't take so long next time.

3. Once you've found the root, try the major, then minor, then other variants of that root's chords. Again, it may take a long time. Do it anyway.

4. When you play the chord that sounds exactly (or close enough) like the one you're sick of hearing on your iTunes over and over again, you're there. Move to the next chord.

5. It will get easier.

6. If you can't tell when the chord on your guitar sounds like the chord on iTunes, then yes, you're screwed. But that's not the case -- you've been playing for years, and you can tell what song you're playing when you play, so obviously you can tell one chord from the other, and you can tell when what you're playing sounds like the song you're trying to play. Don't get discouraged. You can already play the guitar. Now you just need to get better at what you can already do. How cool is that?
posted by JekPorkins at 11:11 AM on January 10, 2006

I was going to suggest lots of playing along with CDs too-- I was a guy who just fooled around on the guitar for years and never really could play a full song. Then a couple years ago I got into the groove of just putting on records I like and trying to play along. Of course, I love old punk, so it's not so hard when you're trying to copy the Ramones or the Misfits. But over time I was able to play more and more complex songs, and ended up joining a band. They needed a lead guitarist, which I'd never done, but what the hell, I figured I'd just dive in. Now I'm writing songs, playing pretty good leads, and getting major compliments from the ladies. We're going in to the studio in a couple weeks, and I can't wait to have my first real recording under my belt.

I think playing with other people is going to be your best path to getting better fast. I was lucky to have friends who were looking for somebody to jam with, but if you're not you might want to try MySpace. There's tons of musicians on there of all ages, and lots of folks in their 30's just want to jam and have a good time. Try craigslist too. The get together with them a couple times a week and have fun!
posted by InfidelZombie at 11:31 AM on January 10, 2006

jadanzzy, I'm sorry but I couldn't disagree more. It's great to learn Jazz - IF you want to PLAY JAZZ. However, having studied Jazz long enough to earn a Master's Degree in Jazz guitar playing from a fancy-pants conservatory, I can personally attest to the fact that Jazz skills will definitely get in your way when you try to play other kinds of music. There's often this sensibility that, since Jazz is "harder", and "more sophisticated", then if you can play it, you can play "easier" kinds of music. This, imho, is utter hogwash. That's like saying that Wes Montgomery could play like BB King, but BB King could not play like Wes Montgomery. The truth is that NEITHER of them could play like the other. Any of us can study BOTH of them, but to imply that Jazz has some kind of superiority in terms of music knowledge or technique is, I think, misleading. Yes, Jazz tends to incorporate a more harmonically diverse palate. Yes, Jazz musicians tend to play more notes and thus it requires greater dexterity. HOWEVER, to my ear, nothing sounds quite so phony as a Jazz musicians trying to play a soaked-in-the-mississippi-mud Blues. You'll hear way too many notes that don't groove at all. And then someone who has checked out BB King will come along and play ONE NOTE with all the right rhythmic placement, vibrato, intention, and intensity, and it'll devastate EVERYTHING said jazz-bo just played.

Sorry for the rant, and, indeed, jadazzny, if I've misinterpreted your intention, I apologize. bondcliff, if you want to learn Jazz, by all means, do so. But don't do it 'cuz you think it'll make you a better rock player, or a better blues player.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 11:36 AM on January 10, 2006

bondcliff, ear training can definitely be learned and improved upon. I know many teachers in the Boston area. email me and I can hook you up.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 11:39 AM on January 10, 2006

Best answer: Playing for 20 years, still can't play by ear too well.

The big thing for me was working out my own arrangements- don't use tabs! Use fake book sheets. I still can't sight read, but just learning to read sheet music isn't too hard.

1. Get a fake book of jazz standards and a book of guitar chords. The kind that just has chord symbols and the melody. Standards have more interesting chords than later pop.

2. Pick a song you like. I started with "All of Me." Work out which chord shapes let you move through the the changes most smoothly.

3. Learn the melody from the fake sheet. Make you own tab of it if that helps.

4. Work out how you can hit the notes in the melody while you play through your chord progression. Maybe you'll have to adjust a few of the chord shapes you'd chosen. Whittle away the strings that don't need to be sounded in the chord, whittle away the notes in the melody that are implied by the chord being played. You'll start to notice what parts of the melody make it distinctive, and the boxes you can play after you hit the chord that starts that phrase.

Soon, you'll have something that has both a backing and melodic element. After working out three or four songs this way my playing really opened up. I started working those subtler chords and melodic ideas into other styles.
posted by bendybendy at 11:45 AM on January 10, 2006 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: "Jazz. What's so hard about that? They make it up as they go along."

I love jazz, I enjoy playing songs that have jazzy chords in them (RHCP, for instance) and I can appreciate that knowledge of Jazz would certainly help anybody out, but I'm not sure learning Jazz would be the most productive way for me to get better at playing Margaritaville around a campfire, which is really all I'm seeking to do.

Perhaps I didn't stress that I'm not striving for excellence, I just want to suck a bit less.
posted by bondcliff at 11:52 AM on January 10, 2006

I'm fascinated to hear that you've been playing for 20 years and still can't do the "by ear" thing. I wonder what it means? I was going to suggest playing along with the radio and CDs too. That's how I learned to figure out songs.

As for the extra little runs and frills, I guess one way to find those things is to listen to the other parts of a full-band song -- what's the bass player doing? Try and do that with the lower E and A strings. What's the piano player doing? Try and work that into the upper strings.

The other thing I'd work on would be inversions of chords. There are different ways to play the same chord, so even if you're just playing a bar of the A chord, you could play the first two beats in the regular position and the second in another position further up the neck. Then find a quick chord which works as a transition between them, something like that.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:13 PM on January 10, 2006

If you've been "playing" for twenty years and you're stilling having rhythm problems, you may need to consider the possibility that you just suck, and that you may never be good at it in the way you want. Maybe guitar is the wrong instrument for you. I know for a fact, that no matter how long I practiced, I will always suck at playing drums. Always.

But barring all that, I will share how I learned to not suck:

Pink Floyd.

Pre-"Momentary Lapse" Pink Floyd in particular. I have the sheet music for every pink floyd song up to (and including) the Final Cut, and growing up, I learned just about all of it. The vast majority of their guitar lines are pretty simple and largely accoustic/clean. "More", "Obscured by Clouds", "Atom Heart Mother", and "Meddle" are really good albums to try.
posted by jaded at 12:15 PM on January 10, 2006

Response by poster: If you've been "playing" for twenty years and you're stilling having rhythm problems, you may need to consider the possibility that you just suck, and that you may never be good at it in the way you want.

I've "owned" a guitar for twenty years, I wouldn't say I've been playing for twenty years. I've pretty much accepted that I suck. I think I mentioned that somewhere. I still enjoy playing and my enjoyment increases whenever I discover that I can do something I couldn't do before. I'm trying to find the best way to learn a few of those new things. That's all.

When there are no other guitarists around, I suck less than anyone in the room. So I've got that going for me...
posted by bondcliff at 12:29 PM on January 10, 2006

I've been taking jazz guitar lessons since 1994 and I think it's made me a better player overall. But, to be honest, I still suck. I know a lot more about scales and chords, but I'm not considerably better than I was 20 years ago. In other words, don't take jazz unless that's what you really want (as mentioned above) to learn jazz.

That said, I've found having a goal with a fairly hard deadline worked like nothing else in getting me to improve over a short term. I decided to make a Christmas CD back in 2003 and I busted my butt learning a bunch of songs so I could record them and get the CD out in time. Nothing I've done before or since has had such a dramatic impact on my playing.
posted by tommasz at 1:24 PM on January 10, 2006

What are the little tricks I can learn that will help me sound less like a robot when I play?

That's exactly what makes so many amateurish guitar players sound amateurish: stringing together "tricks" instead of playing music. Can you really express yourself by cutting-and-pasting MSOffice clip art? Why attempt the musical equivalent?
posted by TimeFactor at 1:30 PM on January 10, 2006

I thought I posted this before but I don't see it -- my advice is to underplay. I've seen Steuart Smith live a number of times and he's just phenomenal - because he knows when to lay out (in layman's terms -- when to SHUT UP.) Whenever he plays something, it's an important part of the composition. A lot of guitarists fall into the rut of "playing along with the song," but usually the arrangement will be more interesting if you get out of that mindset and don't be afraid to not play. Playing music is about music, not about ego.
posted by chocolatepeanutbuttercup at 2:35 PM on January 10, 2006

I disagree with the suggestion that learning to play the rudiments of jazz guitar is a waste of time in bondcliff's situation.

The best thing I ever did for my hack guitar playing (also originally learned from Van Halen lps) was to take basic jazz/swing lessons from an old jazz dude. He taught me proper fingering, the basics of reading music, and most importantly, how to play scales and modes and when and how to switch between them.

It sounds to me like that is [partly] what bondcliff is looking for (except for the actual taking lessons part).

And I second learning a bit of bass...
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:43 PM on January 10, 2006

Best answer: I wanted to leave with more positive suggestions (other than don't learn tricks) so:

Learn simple songs with melodies that you know very well. Kids' tunes are great for this. Learn to pluck the melodies a note at a time. Play the chords and notice how the notes of the melody interact with the notes of the chords. Try playing the chords and melodies in different rhythms, like a reggae version of "Old McDonald" or a bossa nova "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". Try to come up with different double-stop (i.e. two notes simultaneously) versions of the melodies. Eventually you'll discover the "in between" notes (and chords) that sound good, that lead from one chord to the next, that reflect on the melody, that inject yourself into the song.

A little musical theory knowledge is very helpful. Music isn't random; we like certain combinations and patterns much more than others and you'll find them repeated over and over in all sorts of different kinds of music. It helps to know the basic vocabulary of music so you can understand how those combinations and patterns are expressed. The basic vocabulary includes scales, intervals, chords, and progressions. You're handicapped if you don't know what a minor third is, what's a major scale, what's a diminished chord. You don't need to write a thesis on it, just be comfortable with the basics. MusicTheory.net is a nice jumping-off place (although the DHTML interface maybe isn't so nice).

Playing with yourself (yeah, yuck yuck yuck) is a good substitute if you can't find others to play with. You can set yourself up with Audacity and a $10 microphone to do sound-on-sound recording on your computer. It won't sound great but it'll certainly be adequate for practicing. It'll especially help you be more disciplined about rhythm which, perhaps counterintuitively, helps avoid that plodding "robot" sound.

Pick a handful of songs to learn and focus on just those songs. Don't add additional songs until you've become comfortable with the first batch. It's hard to experiment until things are automatic. Your reptile brain should be handling the fingering while your conscious brain tries out new ideas.

Some people (like me) just aren't good at picking things out by ear. I've found Transcribe! a great software tool (Windows, Mac, and Linux) that helps overcome those deficiencies. It lets you slow down songs without changing pitch so you can figure out passages. You can change pitch to "tune" songs to your guitar. You can pick out notes on the onscreen keyboard as the song plays. You can download a free trial but I found it so useful that I paid for a license. (Amazing Slow Downer and Pacemaker WinAmp plugin are also good.)

You need to become comfortable with your instrument. You can probably sing a thousand songs and with a million variations. It might not sound so good because you may not have been blessed with a pleasant voice or wide range but you can still do it without thinking about it too much. You want to have the same familiarity with your guitar that you do with your voice and that takes some combination of talent and practice. There really isn't any alternative. You're not going to get any more talent than what you have now so the only thing you can control is how much and what type of practicing you do. Don't just practice the easy stuff. You won't progress unless you're constantly challenged but practicing doesn't need to be pure drudgery. Try to be "musical" when you practice. Listen for the melodies lurking in the scales, for the songs hidden in the chord progressions.
posted by TimeFactor at 3:06 PM on January 10, 2006 [3 favorites]

"I'm fascinated to hear that you've been playing for 20 years and still can't do the "by ear" thing. I wonder what it means?" (not the OP)

"First off, The Answer is "take lessons and practice a lot." Life is busy and unpredictable..."
(the OP)

I think that you need to approach this problem from the angle of "how do I reserve practice time", and not "what tricks do I learn." Practice *is* the trick. You don't get better if you don't challenge yourself, and 20 years of just playing without trying, regularly, to expand your theory (the mental), application (the physical), and simply your repertoire [thanks mefi spellcheck!] will not make you better. You don't generally get better without trying hard at it.

The "soul" part comes in when you've got the chops. Doesn't have to be much--you can play very technically limited stuff with feeling--but it does have to be at the level where you don't have to think about what you're doing and there's a direct line between the soul and your hands.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 7:35 AM on January 11, 2006

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