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10 Guitar Playing Rules You Should Never Break

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 the 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 new gear.

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 quick.

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 be.

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.

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 you!

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 that 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 get better.

Some days you'll feel like the worst guitar player in the world. Others you'll feel your progress soar reassuringly. Through these passing states, 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 your way!

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