How To See Immediate Improvement In Your Guitar Playing

Stevie Ray Vaughan playing Hendrix's Little Wing.

We are all looking for ways to improve our playing. The problem is, we usually keep doing the same thing over and over, thinking & hoping it’s going to just get better…somehow.

Often times, my guitar students are practicing hard and consistently but they aren’t seeing the results as quickly as they want. Part of it may be unrealistic expectations but part of it could very well be a student needs a different approach on something they’ve been working on. If you are building your skill set, you will be able to take new approaches and respond differently.

That’s the approach…just checking in on what we are doing, gaining awareness and finding areas to improve.

I often record my guitar students so they can hear and experience their playing. It is not an opportunity for them, or me, to beat themselves up but to become more aware. Also, I start recording my students fairly quickly after beginning a new piece of music. The end result takes care of itself if you do the little things along the way.

It is not about perfection or performance. It’s about being in the music and learning as you go. This approach also helps my students became less anxious, fearful and negatively self critical. Wouldn’t it be weird if athletes didn’t watch film of themselves? Imagine if a running back had no concept of his footwork. Or a golfer that didn’t watch video of his swing. That’s the approach…just checking in on what we are doing, gaining awareness and finding areas to improve.

Here is a great example by one of my students, Matt. He has been gracious enough to allow me to share this with you so you can try it as well. Matt has been woking on all of the things necessary to be a better guitarist: rhythm, technique, ear training, music theory, etc. In his last lesson, he wanted to learn the Stevie Ray Vaughan version of Little Wing, by Jimi Hendrix. We worked on it briefly, talking about the chord progression, chord & scale shapes, what notes to let ring, some fingerings and then I saw him a few days later.

The end result takes care of itself…if you do the little things along the way.

When Matt returned for the next lesson, he had put the time in and had a good understanding of the intro. The goal wasn’t total perfection (there is no such thing!) or expectations of performance level playing, just a good understanding so we could work on some of the aspects of the piece.

In the first video, Matt played the intro pretty softly and with a slightly narrow dynamic range. It felt like this is where he had settled after a few days of practice and working on the music. Playing Hendrix is demanding and difficult….there is a lot going on. I wanted to have Matt tap into more dynamic range, a smooth phrasing while also having a punchiness at the right moments and also a less spongey rhythm.

Instead of addressing some of the timing, phrasing and rhythm issues on a micro level, I simply asked him to play it again, but to just play harder. Here is that performance:

Not all of the “problems” many of my students encounter are going to be resolved by a linear technique exercise. It is not always about chops.

Notice how quickly Matt was able to get closer to the things I mentioned above. This was just seconds after the first time through. Notice how some of the punchiness, dynamics and phrasing just…kind of fixed itself. We didn’t turn it into a technique exercise.

Making adjustments to HOW you are treating the dynamics and phrasing is tough to do! It really throws a wrench into your technique and you have to figure out how to adjust. That’s the beauty in this approach. That’s exactly why it’s so important to do. It really changes everything, quickly.

Not all of the “problems” many of my students encounter are going to be resolved by a linear technique exercise. It is not always about chops. You have to be IN the music and it will REVEAL what needs to happen if you are listening and paying attention.

DO NOT wait to start paying attention to important musical elements other than technique.

On the 3rd time, I asked Matt to find a good compromise between the two approaches. I asked Matt to hear the music in his head as he was playing, to really think about the phrasing and dynamics and to shape them in more of an ebb and flow. Where do you think it should build and come down? Where does it feel the phrase is going? The goal being to identify and connect the musical phrases and not just approach it note to note. Here is that time through:

Keep in mind, all of this happened one right after the other. By focusing more on the musical aspects of phrasing and dynamics and not making too big of a deal out of the technical (which is what we usually do and just beat something to a pulp), Matt was able to quickly make adjustments that solved many of the underlying issues.

My point in this lesson for Matt, and you, is DO NOT wait to start paying attention to important elements other than technique. If you pay attention to phrasing, vibrato, tone and dynamics, it will INFORM your technique and your sense of timing and rhythm. Information that is what is needed to pull it off musically.

This approach will save you a lot of time and frustration when practicing and learning a new piece of music. Try to get inside the music with elements other than just technique.

Here are some more thoughts on that topic.

Remember, we are working to play MUSIC and find our own voice and style on guitar, so there isn’t a right or wrong. We get closer when we can make informed and conscious choices in our playing. Here are some examples.

Ask yourself, how did these players get there?

Thanks to Matt for allowing me to share these videos with you. We all feel vulnerable when we are learning something new and don’t quite have it under our fingers yet. It takes a lot of guts to do this in real time. If Matt and I hadn’t been working on these other aspects for a while now, he wouldn’t have been able to do this so effectively. He was able to pull many elements of the music together because of his willingness and ability to approach it a new way, and not just keep playing it the same way over and over.

Until next time, happy guitar-ing!

Shane