Tips to improve guitar playing Technique

There are 5 main challenges that electric guitar players must overcome in order to learn and master guitar technique. These 5 guitar technique challenges are divided into 3 groups:

1. Awareness

2. Sounds you ‘want’ to hear (the notes you are attempting to play cleanly)

3. Sounds you do ‘not’ want to hear (the sloppy sounds you sometimes hear such as unwanted string noise)

Lets have a look at the first two groups.

Focused Awareness – Many guitar players are not fully aware of every imperfection in their guitar technique. Some of these players do sense that ‘something’ may be wrong, but are not sure about exactly what their specific guitar technique problems are. Obviously, you cannot effectively correct a technical problem until and unless you know exactly what it is.

There are 2 main ways you can approach this:

1. Record yourself playing a something you want to improve on. Listen back (carefully) at 25%-33% speed so that you more easily identify any unclear notes, excess string noise, scratchy noises between the notes, inconsistency in your pick attack, etc.). You may or may not be able to hear everything on your own (many people simply can’t yet) and you may or may not be able to ‘correctly’ identify the cause of each imperfection present in your guitar playing. If you can that’s great, but if you’re not sure then…

2. Work with a guitar teacher to evaluate your playing and use that feedback to begin the process of making any necessary changes to your technique. Not only will a good teacher help you to play clean by telling you ‘what to do’, but also because he will hear problems that you may not really be hearing.

If you have an excellent ear, you should be able to identify the fine details of your problem, if not, work with your guitar teacher.

Articulation – The First Half of Two Hand Synchronization

The second step is to focus on your articulation. Articulation is the first half of two hand synchronization. To play cleaner you need your hands to fret and pick each note at precisely the same time (simultaneously).

There are 3 critical things you need to do to improve your articulation:

1. Use a clean guitar tone when practicing (no distortion and NO effects!). Distortion and effects will mask any imperfections in your articulation, so do not practice with them when focusing on “Articulation” (the rules will change when we talk about “The Release” in the next section).

2. Play loud enough so that you can truly hear what is happening as you are playing

3. When you are practicing something slowly MAKE SURE that you do NOT change ANYTHING about how you approach and articulate each note. Fact is, most guitar players actually play very differently when playing slow compared to when playing fast. If you change anything in the way you are articulating the notes (such as playing with a lighter touch, using a weaker or stronger pick attack, changing your hand position, pick angle etc.) you will NOT fully improve your technique because the sound you make when playing will be different and therefore harder to detect and identify any problems with your articulation.

The Release – The Second Half of Two Hand Synchronization

The third step toward cleaner playing is ‘the release’. For most guitar players ‘the release’ is the hardest problem to detect and correct. That’s generally because once players articulate a note cleanly, they ignore what immediately comes after (small sloppy noise in between the notes or 2 notes slightly ‘bleeding’ together.

And practicing your guitar with a ‘clean’ tone (no distortion) – as described above when focusing on articulation – almost always masks problems in the release phase of playing a note. This is why many people think their guitar playing sounds pretty clean when practicing without distortion but sense something is wrong when later playing with distortion… but they are not sure what the problem is… or worse, they actually do not hear the problem at all (but other people do). This is why focused awareness is so critical.

Some absolutely necessary steps toward correcting problems with ‘the release’.

1. Practice your guitar WITH distortion (but NO EFFECTS!) now. (Notice, this is the exact opposite advice I gave you to identify and correct ‘articulation’ problems above).

2. Again you need to play your guitar loud enough to hear precisely what is coming out of your amplifier (other noises in the room can mask the subtle things you need to be listening for).

3. Practice slow (but as stated above, do NOT change ANYTHING in the way you articulate OR RELEASE a note compared to when you are playing fast!).

4. Listen for any subtle noise in between notes (you will probably notice a ‘scratchy sound’ just before you play the next note). If you have a hard time hearing anything then record yourself and listen back to the recording at 1/4 or 1/3 speed (I guarantee you will hear this short scratchy sound now!)

5. Now that you know what to listen for, you will probably notice it all the time whenever you listen very carefully… and THEN you are ready to being to correct the problem…

Fact is there can be several reasons why your guitar playing may not be clean during the release of a note, but the most common cause is this: When you release a note your brain is probably telling your finger to ‘lift off’ (make an upward motion away from the string you just played). This can cause all sorts of nasty technique problems (fatigue, slower guitar playing speeds, and sloppy guitar playing… among other things).

The solution is to stop your brain from sending your fingers instructions to ‘lift off; of each note and instead to simply ‘relax’. When your finger relaxes it will naturally, immediately and effortlessly ‘release’ the note you just played. There are 2 main benefits to this:

1. Because the motion is effortless, you can play faster and for a much longer time (and most importantly) with greater ease.

2. Because your brain does not give the finger the instruction to make a ‘lift off’ motion this actually prevents your finger from moving (or preparing to move) prematurely (which is a major cause of the sloppy ‘scratchy sound’ that may be present in your guitar playing.

It is now very important to realize two things. First you CAN solve these problems and improve your guitar technique. Second, it won’t happen over night, this will take time and some consistent practice (possibly over several weeks or longer). But the benefits of being able to play guitar clean are well worth the patience required.

If you are still suffering from sloppy guitar playing, the cause is likely unwanted string noise. For some guitar players, improving guitar technique may have nothing to do with how they are playing the notes they ‘want’ to hear. The sloppy noises we sometimes hear are caused from the notes (strings) we do ‘not’ want to hear.

If you are articulating the notes you want to play accurately, but you are still hearing sloppiness in your playing then this article will greatly help you to improve your guitar technique by eliminating string noise.

To effectively mute guitar strings we do not want to be heard we need to use two totally different sets of muting techniques: One to stop unwanted noise from LOWER (in pitch) strings; and another to mute the higher (in pitch) strings.

Muting The Lower Strings

Many guitar players use the palm of their picking hand to mute lower strings. Although this technique is pretty good at keeping most of the lower strings quiet there are two big disadvantages with this technique.

1. Muting with your palm will cause a slight delay in the muting of a string which has just been played a moment before. This delay causes brief moments of string noise. This happens for 2 main reasons:

a) The flesh of your palm is much softer than the side of your thumb and therefore takes more time for your palm to actually stop the string from sounding.

b) It is not easy to get your palm in the perfect position to consistently and reliably mute strings that are adjacent to the one you are playing in all playing situations.

2. When you use your palm to mute noise, the natural position of your guitar pick (when not playing) is now away from the strings. This is what I call your “Natural Point Of Rest”.

When your pick is at rest up and away from the strings (in between playing each note), it causes your picking hand to work harder and significantly increases the chance for sloppy playing, string noise and slower picking speed.

A great solution to these problems (and to improve your guitar technique) is to mute with your picking hand thumb for all lower (in pitch) strings like this.

Notice that the “Natural Point Of Rest” when using thumb muting is now ON the strings (as shown in the picture above). This greatly reduces wasted motion and enables you to pick faster with much less effort.

Muting The Higher Strings

Many guitar players are totally unaware of the possibilities for muting string noise from the higher (thinner) strings and this part of their playing is often one of the causes of sloppy playing.

There are actually two main techniques for muting noise from the higher strings that I teach to my students when training them to improve their guitar technique.

The first technique involves using the underside (the fingerprint side) of the fretting hand’s index finger. This part of your finger is used to “lightly touch” the higher strings that you want to mute. The key word in the last sentence is “lightly”. You do not want to press down so hard that these notes begin to sound like regular fretted notes. Simply rest your finger on them thus preventing them from sounding.

In addition, you can also mute these higher strings by using the unused fingers of your picking hand (fingers that are not being used to hold the pick, such as middle, ring and pinkie).

This extra layer of muting ensures that there is no possibility for the strings higher than the one you are playing to ring out and add sloppy string noise into your guitar playing.

When these ideas are combined with the string muting techniques of muting the lower strings, your playing will instantly become much cleaner than before. Now, every time you play, the only guitar strings that will be making sound are the ones you are playing!

If you have been working hard to perfect your guitar technique and two-hand synchronization then you already know that if your articulation/synchronization is developed well but your muting is not, the result will still be sloppy guitar playing. So, when trying to improve your guitar technique keep in mind the 5 areas discussed here :

1. Focused Awareness

2. Articulation – The First Half of Two Hand Synchronization

3. The Release – The Second Half of Two Hand Synchronization

4. Muting The Higher Strings

5. Muting The Lower Strings

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