I was going to quite wittily entitle this article "10 Commandments for
Guitarists", but it seems Captain Beefheart beat me to it.
It's a weirdly and wackily humorous list, I'll give him that, although
its practical merit is somewhat questionable, such as with commandment
number 3 - "Practice in front of a bush" and 8 - "Don't wipe
sweat off your instrument". Hmm.
It's not like we guitarists like being "commanded" anyway. Not by our
spouse, our drummer, nor our sense of restraint when it comes to buying
At the end of the day, we're gonna do and play whatever and however the
hell we want.
But some rules are simply not meant to be broken...
1. If It Sounds Good, Play It
I'll be the first to admit my lessons can often come across a little
dogmatic. But that is not my intention. If I happen to say something
like "you won't want to play this..." then you can be sure I've based
it on some kind of historical consensus of opinion (i.e. playing a
minor and major 7th together in the same chord sounds bloody awful).
But I do get questions asking me things like "can I play X over Y?" or
"is it ok to play this?"
My answer is always the same - try it. If it sounds good, play it. If
it doesn't, lose it. Let your ears be the final judge in all this.
Yes, use theory to reduce the amount of trial and error time you spend
discovering what works. There are "tried and tested" scales, formulas
and systems. But if you have to ask if something is "ok to play",
you're missing the point. Everything is OK to play... unless it makes
your ears wince. Trust your ears and they will tell you everything you
need to know about music.
2. Play Something New Every Time You Pick Up the Guitar
Don't just repeat what's familiar to you - that comfort zone will soon
become a limitation. Whether it's starting on a new song, lick, chord,
strumming/picking pattern or exercise, approach the guitar with a
willingness to challenge yourself.
The beauty of being able to play a musical instrument is the ability to
create something nobody has ever heard before right here and now, if
you put your mind (and fingers) to it. That is a challenge every
creative mind should relish.
Striving towards this will not only help you realise your potential as
a creative musician, but it will have a background affect on the
development of your improvisation skills - the ability to create music
spontaneously, or at least apparently so...
3. Don't Try to Play Fast
Speed is undoubtedly an important part of a guitarist's timing, attack
and tone. But it's not a skill in its own right. Playing
comfortably at fast tempos is no different from the comfort
of playing at slow tempos. The question is how do you get to the point
where playing fast is as effortless as playing slow?
By increasing the tempo at which you play something so gradually that
your fingers "don't even notice". For that, my friends, a metronome
is essential. I recommend using increments of 10 BPM, only
notching up when you're comfortable with the current tempo. Eventually,
given enough time and patience, that "current tempo" will be bloody
Remember, you have to walk before you can... shred.
4. Always Tune as Accurately as Possible
Spend time tuning your guitar every time you pick it up. Don't rush it.
Its tuning is very fine. A well tuned guitar will sing your music with
much more clarity than even a slightly "off" guitar. This translates to
more satisfaction with what you play and more nuanced appreciation of
near-perfect harmony vs "just enough to get the message across" harmony.
This is especially important when playing with other musicians. You owe
it to them to make sure your instrument is tuned as perfectly as it can
If your guitar is tuned slightly off, you may not realise because
you're compensating (unconsciously) by slightly bending or
over-pressing the strings. Then, when you happen to tune it more
accurately, that same habit will become over-compensation
and you won't
understand why it sounds off. Give yourself some consistency - tune up
accurately, including fixing your intonation, and you'll always be able
to strike that off the list when things sound a bit off.
Take a look at these common tuning mistakes and see if you're tuning is
as accurate as it can be...
5. If You Feel Joint Pain, Stop Playing
Don't risk strain injury by gritting your teeth and "playing through
the pain". Put the guitar down for a few days and if the pain, whether
in your finger, thumb or wrist joints, doesn't subside then wait till
the end of the week. If the pain is still there, go and see a doctor.
Of course, some pain is necessary, such as the pain you get when
developing calluses - the hard skin on your finger tips, or the ache of
repeating a physically demanding drill. But when it
comes to acute joint pain, it can be to do with your posture and hand
position. Identify when the pain is pronounced - is it when you play a
barre chord? Is it when you try to play further up the fretboard? Is it
when you curl your thumb over the top of the neck?
Be aware of how every move you make feels, as far as how relaxed you
are, if there's any tension or strain etc. This will help you adjust
the position that's causing you the pain and find a better compromise.
6. Forget About Style
Wondering what the right
guitar playing style is for you? Don't! Instead, focus on
learning fundamental techniques and theory - those used across all the
musical genres - and get cooking with those core ingredients.
Naturally, you'll incorporate influences from the music you love -
nothing wrong with that. But don't limit your playing within some
abstract notion of "style". Develop your own style by finding and
playing to your strengths. But to know your strengths, you must have a
solid foundation of technique.
Style then becomes defined by you, much later on in your learning
journey, rather than style defining you from the beginning and restricting your creativity
within such strict boundaries. Forget about style and style will find
7. Play With Other Musicians Regularly
At the earliest opportunity, once you've learned the fundamentals, try
meeting up with other musicians and jamming out. Make it a friendly,
social occasion and let your ideas flow freely. Try to keep your ego
out of it. Granted this is easier for some than it is for others!
Playing with others will not only inspire and push you to new levels,
it will also help you make a connection to other musical worlds. It'll
teach you how to slot yourself into an existing musical expression,
when to support, when
to take the lead, how to read musical signals... and all the things
books and video just can't teach you. This is about intuition.
8. Don't Compare Yourself to Other Guitar Players
Don't get jealous or down hearted if they seem a million
miles ahead of you. They have been where you are now,
and you can be where they are, in your own way, sooner than you might think. It just takes time,
patience and persistence. But it's exciting to know that you will only
Some days you'll feel like the worst guitar player in the world. Others
you'll feel your progress soar reassuringly. Through these passing
never compare yourself to individual guitarists, rather listen to what
they play and, if you like what you hear, investigate how they
play it with a burning curiosity. You can then apply what you learn to your own music.
Don't try to model yourself on a particular guitar player - be inspired
by them, don't parrot them.
9. Feel Every Note
When exploring the fretboard, even when
you're just noodling, listen attentively to each note you
play and how it relates to other notes around it. Be aware of how each
move you make creates a specific sound and, most importantly, how it
makes you feel.
This kind of "musical mindfulness" will help you internalise movements
and patterns that sound good, powerful, emotive. It will also tell you
when to add in techniques such as bends, slides, legato and vibrato, to
emphasise those powerful notes.
10. Make Mistakes
As in life, many guitarists find that the best lessons are learned
through making mistakes. If you're following rule #9, you'll be
listening out for these bum or mis-played notes.
The main thing is that you stop and analyse for a moment exactly what
you did wrong, isolate that particular part and repeat it until you get
it right. Then repeat it some more until you can play it in your sleep.
If you're not making mistakes, you're not pushing yourself outside your
comfort zone enough (see rule #2). It's as simple as that.
While these ten rules are by no means a magic pill for becoming a
guitar god, they will keep you on the straight and narrow and ensure
your progress is as smooth and unstinted as it can be. Keep jamming