Tips From a Guitar Vet
Written by Herb Smith   

Herb Smith is a guitar soloist who's a veteran in the music business.  I personally fell in love with his playing when I heard his luscious rendition of Tango #3 (by Jose Ferrar) over at his Jazzmatrix site.  Spanish classics, jazz masters, contemporary guitar styles, Herb plays it all and lives to write about it.  Check out his Guitar Performance and Instruction blog here.  

"The guitar is the easiest instrument to play poorly."Andres Segovia

This is my first posting for Jemsite so I feel like I should introduce myself and make a confession of sorts.   I've been a guitar player for nearly 40 years. I started teaching in the '70s. My motto: Want a real guitar teacher? Hire one with gray hair.

I am old enough to have seen the original Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" tour. I was in the front row.

I am old enough to have seen Andres Segovia perform several times. I once had a seat on stage at the Kennedy Center for one of his concerts. The last time I saw him he was 88 years old and had a six-year old son. Right then and there I said, "that's what I want to do."

One of the many advantages of being my age is that I've seen a lot of good concerts you'll never see if you're under a certain age — Zappa in the '70s. Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie with Peter Frampton and that other guy who was great... Steve something.

I saw Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Ten Years After with Alvin Lee, John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, and Black Sabbath and their ilk. I've seen Ravi Shankar, Julian Bream, Carlos Montoya.

I've seen George Benson, BB King, the Stones when they were touring with Stevie Wonder. The Count Basie and Duke Ellington Orchestras when they were both still alive—thankfully their orchestras live on. I've seen Steely Dan, Santana, Mingus, Hubert Laws, Chick Corea & Return to Forever, Al Dimeola, Weather Report, Mel Torme, Charlie Byrd playing with Laurindo Almeida. I could go on. Google or YouTube anybody in this post you don't know and be stirred.

Now if I'm right in my presumption that you’re a bit younger then I, I'm guessing I've been through a lot of what you’re going through in learning to play and perform on the guitar. I should further introduce myself here to explain why I think so.

I started out in a rock'n roll band in high school covering tunes by the Allman Brothers, Santana, Cream, Zeppelin, Deep Purple and other bands of the day. It was a great era of rock'n roll bands. I wanted to be one of those guys. I liked the guitar yes, but I also noticed that guys in bands had cute girlfriends. That was my real impetus. The bands have changed but I'm guessing a few of you can relate.

After a few years of trying to learn on my own, I'd seen enough great players to realize that I needed to take lessons. Very few people are great players right out of the box. Most of us have to work very hard just to get pretty good.

The man I took lessons from only offered two styles, either jazz or classical guitar. I knew nothing about either. Nothing. I chose the classical guitar thinking it would be cool to learn fingerstyle so I could play CSNY or James Taylor or Jim Croce tunes.

As for jazz? What's jazz? I learned as I went along, I really knew next to nothing about playing the guitar or what it was capable of.

Studying classical guitar opened my eyes and I started to see (read: hear) what was really possible. The classical guitar has been called "The Small Symphony" and it is. It gave me a real interest in the instrument and in music in general. It led me to want to learn about, and maybe even learn to play in other styles.

I started asking: Who are the really good rockers? Jazz Players? Chicken Pickers? Blues guys? Steelstring acoustic players? Female players? Flamenco? Latin? Brazillian? Asian? What influences them? What do they have in common?

Here's some of what I've learned that might help you. Some are obvious, some maybe not.

  • The guitar is an amazing instrument that everyone seems to have an interest in, guitar players or not.

    It's so versatile that it fits naturally into any kind of music. It has universal appeal. People react to it at gut level. Everyone is touched by some kind of music and there's a better then good chance that whatever kind of music that is, there's a guitar in it.
  • Learning guitar is a lifetime experience. Don't rush it.

    Quality always beats quantity. Whatever you learn to play, learn it well before you move on.
  • To play well, you have to work not so much "hard", as work smart.

    Work hard yes, but learn with a process. Spend your time on the guitar with a plan in mind. Practice time is precious, don't let it be scatterbrained. Which brings me to:
  • Take lessons from a good teacher. Read good books. LISTEN.

  • Practice slowly and with a metronome.

    Want to play fast? You'll never be a consistent burner until you can play a line slowly and get it right every time. The metronome doesn't lie. It'll tell you where you are with a piece or a line, instead of where you might think you are.
  • Keep your strings fresh and  stay in tune.

    New strings help, plus they sound brighter. Getting used to playing a gauge or two heavier than the superlights you may be playing will help you stay in tune. It'll help strenghthen your fingers on bends too.
  • Always keep the groove.

    Miss a note if you have to, but never sacrifice groove to hit a cool note.
  • Change dynamics.

    Nothing is more boring then a band that plays at the same volume all the time. Want to really get an audience's attention? It sounds oxymoronic, but pop down to a softer groove instead of a loud(er) one. Heads will turn.
  • Listen to styles other than the one(s) you play in.

    You will find interests you never dreamed of and you'll be a better musician because of it. Hear it live whenever possible. Learn to tell Bach from Mozart from Beethoven from Chopin from Stravinsky. Louis Armstrong from John Coltrane. It’s not very hard and it'll open whole new worlds. You don't have to decide to live in their worlds, but just wait 'til you hear the inspiration and ideas you'll get. Plus you'll be able to converse with other kinds of musicians and at least have some understanding of what they say. Chicks (or guys) will dig your versatility too.
  • Think of yourself as a musician first, not just a guitar player.

    Become a musician who happens to play the guitar.
  • Listen in the present.

    Develop your aural sense. Hear everything, even the most mundane and discover the music in it. I recently took a train trip that gave me an aural and physical groove for four hours. It sped up and slowed down. It got softer and louder. It brought melody into my head. I argue it made music. I'm listening to my neighbor's dog howl like nobody's business as I write. It's music too. That's right, my neighbor's dog is a master blues musician of the purest kind.
  • Listen to those guys who tell you to learn all your major scales & the 3 forms of minor.

    If this seems daunting at first, learn two a week well. One major scale and its relative minor. No biggie, you'll have them knocked out in no time. Then learn to play them in another position at another part of the neck. Then another. Play them with roots on every string. This will do more then anything else to build your chops. Plus at this point you'll inherently know all the modes, you just might not realize it yet. But when the time comes to learn how to use them, it'll be a forehead slapper when you see how easy it is after good scale work.
  • Learn the C-A-G-E-D system.

    Nothing I've found is easier for students who want to unlock the mysteries of the fretboard than this system. There are 5 simple basic pentatonic scales based on 5 simple basic chords. Learn them across the fingerboard individually, and then learn them up and down the neck by connecting them in an infinite number of ways. Your imagination is your only limitation.
  • Learn to play the arpeggios of every chord.

    You'll eventually want to learn them in every key but don't let that intimidate you. Start with one key. E, G, A, B or C Major are all good starting points because of how they lie on the fretboard, but any key will do. Learn one inside and out. Learn every chord in the scale and its arpeggios. The second one will be a lot easier and they'll continue to get easier from there.
  • If you want to be a rocker, learn to play the blues.

    Nothing will help you become a rocker like learning blues. The blues is deceivingly simple music. A simple 12 bar blues has 3 chords. Learning how the thirds, sevenths, ninths and beyond of blues changes, in conjunction with the C-A-G-E-D system and arpeggios will do wonders for your fretboard knowledge. You will be a better player in any style because of it. Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, just to name two, are masters of the blues who've applied what they've learned from old blues players and adapted it into a style of their own. Playing good blues forces you to think in the present. Three chords but infinite potential.
  • Steal licks.

    There are players out there that are masters of copying other guitar players right down to every nuance and tone. I have great admiration for anyone who gets up on stage, plays Stevie Ray tunes and sounds just like Stevie Ray. But that's not what I'm talking about. The best guitar players steal from the best. Don't worry that you're going to sound like someone else. You'll learn a little here and there and it will stir your own ideas. Why reinvent the wheel?
  • Steal licks, Part II: Steal licks from other instruments.

    Listen to how piano players comp and learn their rhythms. Learn how they use double stops in soloing. Steal solo lines from other instruments too. The great jazz guitarists learn from each other, but they also learned from pianos players like George Gershwin, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and sax players like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, or Wayne Shorter. This list could have gotten really long, I've just named a few.
  • Spend as much practice time learning to play rhythm guitar as you do soloing.

    Great guitar players are always great rhythm players. (B.B. King is the exception that proves the rule.) Again, listen to how piano players comp. Hear the beauty of just using 3rds and 7ths in different rhythms.
  • Once you learn a lick, play it like you own it or don't play it.

    It has to come from the heart.
  • Listen to old guys.

    Want to know more about Derek Trucks? Listen to the Allman Brothers Band. Especially the ones made before Duane Allman died. I'm pretty sure DT would tell you the same thing. Listen to guys older than that too.
  • Find out who you really are and let it out.

    You will never be a truly good player until you do. Get your ego out of the way to make music. Never compare yourself with anyone. It gets in the way.
  • If you want a good seat at a concert sit as close to the soundman as possible.

I'd love to hear your questions and/or comments. Write me.

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