Guitar technique – how important is it?

Guitar technique and its importance

Guitar technique is important; unquestionably. But just how important it is depends very much on what we want to achieve as guitarists.

For a singer-songwriter who just uses the guitar as a tool for composition, technique is fairly low down the list of priorities.

But for someone who wants to play music like that of Dream Theater, or in the style of Albert Lee, technique matters a great deal. Both of these styles feature very fast and accurate guitar soloing, which there is no getting away from.

A note on pick holding

There are different arguments in favour of holding the guitar pick in certain ways.

A quick look at a dozen or so world-class guitarists show us that there is not all these great players holds their pick in the exactly the same way. Therefore we can’t really say what is ‘the’ way that we should be holding our picks.

This is not helpful however when you are not satisfied with your technique and are looking for some help regarding your pick grip.

So, if you are looking for some advice on how to hold your guitar pick, take a look at the video below. In it I demonstrate how the majority of great rock players (not all of them) seem to hold their guitar picks:

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How good does our guitar technique have to be?

Whilst there is no generic answer to this, we can probably all agree that, in all styles of music, there is threshold of quality that we must reach. Our technique must be adequate for the job.

Perfect guitar technique?

Perfection is an ideal that few human beings could claim to have reached. Minor glitches are a normal part of any human endeavour, and they don’t necessarily take away from a heartfelt performance.

On the other hand, lots of clumsy mistakes will actively interfere with the musical message we are trying to deliver.

Economy and guitar technique

I’ve learned a lot about guitar technique over the years, and one of the best tips I ever picked up was about learning to play with small movements. Being economical with both the left and right hands is not something many people do spontaneously. It has to be learned.

Take a look at the two videos below where I explain and demonstrate both the benefits of learning to play economically and how to do it:

An important factor in learning to pick economically is the angle at which your pick crosses the guitar strings. Take a look at the video below for a quick explanation and demonstration on this:

Another factor in our picking technique is the position of the guitar pick relative to the guitar strings. Take a look at the following two video for a detailed look at two key factors in this area:

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How much time should guitarists spend on technique?

This again depends on the style of music, but none of us should be spending ALL of our practice time on technique.

This might seem an obvious thing to say, but technique practice can be very satisfying. Unlike other areas of practice, we can often detect small improvements in a relatively short space of time. Spend 30 minutes doing nothing but alternate picking and we almost always come out of the practice session slightly better than we went in.

As a consequence it’s easy for us to find ourselves investing too much time on guitar technique, at the expense of other important areas of musicianship.

Beyond guitar technique

How accurately or quickly we play notes says little, in itself, about how musical our playing is. Burning up and down a scale doesn’t really hit the spot for many listeners, at least not for very long.

Boring music played quickly and accurately, is still boring music.

Guitar technique and performance

Guitar technique and performanceAs well as overshadowing other areas of guitar practice, the appeal of playing quickly can also ruin actual performances.

Speed can be addictive. It feels good to play fast. It can be exhilarating. Because of this, once we have the capability of playing fast, we can easily find ourselves playing fast all the time, regardless of whether it’s appropriate.

So, unless we happen to only play music that truly requires constant high speed picking, most of us would do well to keep our desire for speed in check.

Phrasing and beyond

At least as important as guitar technique is our choice of notes, our phrasing, and the structure of our solos.

Language is a commonly used analogy for the performance of music. A note is a word, a lick is a phrase, a solo is a paragraph, etc.

Just as the words a speaker uses need to be appropriate to the subject matter, so too do we need suitable musical vocabulary in order to deliver a solo that’s appropriate to our chosen style.

Practising and using licks

So how should we practise and use licks? Well, only repeating licks exactly as written is probably not the best approach. And chaining together a random series of licks is unlikely to form a coherent solo.

Musical vocabulary should be flexible so that we can adapt our phrases, on the spot, to suit the tune. This flexibility also helps us to create solos with themes developed from core musical ideas.

For this reason, it makes a lot of sense to practice licks at different tempos and over different grooves, and to vary our licks both rhythmically and melodically when we practise.

Practising in this way helps to bridge the gap between the practice room and the performance; to move from sequences of carved-in-stone licks to musically organic solos.

For a demonstration of how you can vary licks watch the video below:

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Solo structure

As well as having appropriate vocabulary, great solos, like great speeches, often have a logical form that builds to some degree of climax.

Reaching a peak is not a rule in soloing, but it is a fundamentally appealing form that listeners can understand and enjoy, and we should all at least be capable of building solos in this way.

The subtle end of guitar technique

Good technique, authentic and flexible vocabulary, and an awareness of structure go a long way towards a good solo, but a guitarist with these assets can but still fall flat. What’s missing? I’d call it ‘subtlety and spirit’.

By subtlety I mean dynamics, speed and depth of vibrato, subtle variations in timing, how fast and accurately bends are made, etc.

By spirit I mean the emotion and expression that one puts into a performance.

Delivering a rock solo with attitude, or a delicate ballad with sensitivity, can make a world of difference to the overall effect.

Just as an actor has to commit fully to their role, and sound like they mean what they are saying, so too does the musician.

A hollow or half-hearted performance is glaringly obvious to all.

For more on subtleties of guitar playing see my article ‘Improve the quality of your guitar playing‘.

Developing subtlety and spirit

So how do we develop subtlety and spirit? I would say by getting away from tablature and instead listening closely to great guitarists whose playing you admire.

Focus on their vibrato and practise replicating it yourself. Record yourself performing their phrases and ask yourself what the differences are.

For more on vibrato read my article ‘Guitar vibrato and its importance‘.

How do their dynamics differ to yours? Is their vibrato stronger (or weaker) than yours? How quickly are they bending that note…?

When it comes to these kinds of subtleties, there really is no substitute for using our ears and learning from the masters.

Guitar technique conclusion

So yes, technique is important. But it is not the sole purpose of our existence as guitarists.

For more on managing our practice time, take a look at my article ‘The 80-20 rule and guitar playing’.

We should all try to strike a balance between improving our technique and developing other aspects of our playing, like vocabulary, structure, subtlety and spirit.

A well-constructed guitar practice regime helps us to achieve this. It keeps us from overindulging our ‘need for speed’ and helps us towards our ultimate goal, which is not be to be guitar-gymnasts. It is to be good musicians.

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photo credit: Emma Ruth Rundle via photopin cc
photo credit: LAVA Rock – Lenny Vertucci via photopin cc

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