Controlling Your Guitar

By Ben Levin

            Music is a very complicated and abstract concept.  Mastering an instrument requires a comprehensive understanding of a seemingly infinite number of concepts, emotions, shapes, and techniques, plus a life’s worth of ear training. Although many will argue that it is impossible to truly master an instrument, there are plenty of people who strive for such an understanding and dedicate countless hours to becoming the best musicians those people can be. I personally am one of those people, and I know many others as well.  If you are one of them, or are a casual player, one essential step to becoming completely comfortable with music and an instrument, is reaching a point where you are able to play whatever melody, progression, or idea you can imagine.  In order to obtain this freedom with your playing you must first break down the physical barriers that could prevent you from performing your ideas correctly.  In this article I am going to focus on the technical aspect of playing the guitar so that you can successfully overcome the physical obstacles that stand between you and your inner voice.

When approaching technique, keep this in mind:  technique is not a measure of speed, but rather, a measure of accuracy.  Many people assess a guitarist’s technique based on how fast the guitarist is, but forget to listen to the other important aspects of the player’s technique such as sense of time and control.  Eventually, a guitarist with excellent control will be able to play fast, but a guitarist who only practices at a high speed from the start, will never be able to have good control.  I believe that in order to really find your own voice, you need to learn how to play with good control slowly, at a medium tempo, and at fast tempos. 

The successful progression of a guitarist’s technique should generally break down as follows:

1.  Strength Building

2.  Control/Accuracy

3.  Speed Building

Strength Building:

This first step in establishing a strong technical foundation on the guitar is the easiest to commit to.  No matter what exercises, chords, or songs you play, your strength improves simply from playing.  Strength building is the process of creating the necessary stability and strength in both hands, so you can effortlessly play any chords or melodies you come across, at least at a slow tempo.  The following are three stages to reaching the strength necessary to approach more advanced playing.

Stage 1 Beginner:

Learn bar chords such as those in Figure 1.  Play them with the index finger pressing down all six strings at once.  If you have difficulty doing so, start by barring 4 of the strings such as E A D G or D G B E, and gradually try to add more strings.  The middle, ring, and pinky fingers should press the frets that the index does not bar.

Learn the open major and minor chords that are in the first position (Figure 2.)  These are very standard, and commonly used in all types of music.

Once the chords sound clear and you are able to play them with little hesitation or set up time, learn the scales shown in Figure 3.  Pick them however you like for now, and make sure to use the pinky on the third note of each string.

After you have the ability to play all of the previous scales and chords relatively comfortably, move on to the intermediate stage.  Remember that technique is a lot like lifting weights.  In order to move to the next level, one must practice regularly.  It is better to consistently practice a little every day than to practice for a long time once or twice a week.  If you want your hands to grow stronger, you must accept that you can’t master technique in one session, and you must approach strength in little steps.  To further your abilities with the beginner level material, incorporate the scales and chords into songs or etudes, or learn music by artists that use the previously mentioned chords frequently such as Bob Dylan, ACDC, or Green Day.  In general, most popular music heard on the radio utilizes the basic chords.  In addition, applying the chords in a musical context will help you with more than just your technique.

Stage 2 Intermediate:

Many guitarists learn the beginner chords and get the impression that there is nothing left to learn about chords.  All too often I hear people listen to a song and say, “that’s easy, it’s just chords!”  I am afraid that those people are mistaken.  The strength and coordination needed to perform chord progressions accurately and in tempo, takes a lot more effort to acquire than most people think.  For the intermediate stage of strength building, you must learn to put your fingers in odd shapes and positions without hesitation, and, all of the fingers should (ideally) land on the fret board at the same time.  By learning to do so, the muscles in your hands become more flexible and strong.  Learn the chord shapes presented in Figure 4.  These shapes are tricky and require a lot of patience.  Set the chords up slowly and make sure that all of the notes sound that are supposed to sound do so when you play them. 

Practice bending each string up a whole step.  Bend the high E, B, G, and D strings up, and the low E and A strings down.  This will help your fingers as well.

The next important concept in intermediate strength building is right hand dexterity.  Strum all six strings (forget about the left hand for now,) in an up down up down pattern.  Start slowly with a metronome.  Set the click to about 100 BPM and strum quarter notes.  Try to accurately line up the strum with the click.  Next try eighth notes, then eighth note triplets, and finally sixteenth notes.  If you are having trouble lining the strum with the metronome, slow the metronome down.  Your strength will really only increase if you control your tempo.  Anyone can strum quickly and sloppily, but the real training is in the alignment of the metronome and your right hand.  Increase the metronome speed when you honestly feel that you are strumming accurately and comfortably. After you feel comfortable at a given tempo, try this exercise with different chords so that you can kill two birds with one stone.

Now, with the left hand, press the 12th fret of the low E string, and with your right hand pick the low e string alternately (down pick up pick down up down up etc.)  This alternate picking technique will be especially significant later on.  Pick the low E string alternately as fast as you can.  It doesn’t need to sound even or steady, but what is most important is that the right hand gets a feeling for where it maxes out on speed, and how alternate picking feels.  Perform this exercise on each string.  This will build up your right hand strength more and help you get to the next level of strength building.  The right exercises are relatively brainless, but have the best results if practiced for longer periods of time, so I recommend practicing these while watching television.  Make sure to stop and take a break if you begin to feel soreness or pain.  Practice these chords and picking patterns regularly, and when you feel comfortable with them, move on to the advanced stage of strength building.

Stage 3 Advanced:

It is natural to like some types of music better than others, but I recommend approaching music with an open mind and at least trying everything to see what you can learn from the plethora of genres.  The advanced stages of strength building rely a great deal on the techniques used by rhythm guitarists in the heavy metal genre.  If you do not personally enjoy metal music, I still believe it is important to have these advanced strength skills no matter what style you wish to pursue.  Similarly, I believe it is crucial for all guitarists to understand the jazz chords and inversions I presented in the intermediate strength building section.  Keep an open mind; it will serve you well.

To build up your left and right hand strength to an advanced level, I recommend learning the lick in Figure 5 slowly with a metronome (around 75 BPM sixteenth notes).  Down pick everything palm muted in this lick and get the whole thing into your fingers.  Once you are comfortable with this part at a slow tempo, speed it up until it begins to sound sloppy.  Move the metronome back 8 clicks and work on it at that tempo.  Continue with this approach until you can play it at 100 BPM (sixteenth notes.)

Next, learn Figure 6 and use the same methods.  Start without tempo to get coordinated, then begin at 60 BPM and go to 95 BPM (sixteenth notes.)

Finally try Figure 7.  Alternate pick this one.  Start at 70 BPM and go to 108 BPM (sixteenth notes.)

At this point the best thing for you to do to continue building up your strength is to try and learn a piece by bands such as Metallica, Megadeth, Children of Bodom, or Shadows Fall.  Don’t worry about the solos, just focus on rhythm parts.  At this point in your technical growth, using tabs or sheet music from these bands is a fun and useful learning tool.

Control and Accuracy:

Control and accuracy are the most critical elements of technique and are also (ironically) the most overlooked.  I know all too many musicians who refuse to work with a metronome, and they all have the same problems:  inconsistency, sloppiness and very little sense of tempo.  In every genre of music control and accuracy are the central and most important technical elements.  In Jazz, mastering the swing feel requires a very solid and reliable pick hand and coordination between the two hands.  In metal, sweep picking and speed of light alternate picking runs need precision and relentlessly steady motion and coordination of both hands.  I could go on, but I think you get the picture. 

First, let’s get the right hand and left hand synced up.  Guitarists often have very strong and fast right and left hands, but the two don’t work together all that well.  Figure 8 is the first step towards fixing that problem.  This simple pattern is extremely important, so pay close attention to your accuracy.  At 90 BPM alternate pick Figure 8 at quarter notes.  Don’t forget to keep the down up down up picking style even when switching between strings.  Practice it at quarter notes, then eighths.  We’ll worry about speed later.

Now, take the scales from Figure 3 and play them alternate picked slowly.  Drill these scales until you can literally play them with your eyes closed without missing a note.  TAKE IT SLOW! 

This next exercise will help your fingers feel comfortable with any combination of motions.  Put your index finger on the first fret on the low E string, your middle finger on the second fret of the low E string, your ring finger on the third, and your pinky on the fourth.  Throughout this exercise, those fingers will only play those frets.  Play the frets one at a time slowly alternate picked. (1, 2, 3, and then 4.)  Do that going up each string like so:

E                                                                1 2 3 4

B                                                    1 2 3 4

G                                       1 2 3 4

D                          1 2 3 4

A             1 2 3 4

E 1 2 3 4


Repeat that with the following combinations:

1234    2134   3142  4132

1243    2143   3124  4123

1342    2341   3214  4231

1324    2314   3241  4213

1423    2413   3412  4321

1432    2431   3421  4312

Next let’s take some more challenging shapes.  Figure 9 is a C major arpeggio.  Play Figure 9 alternate picked for now, but later we are going to use it to learn how to sweep pick.

(Sweep picking is a technique in which the left hand outlines an arpeggio, pressing one note at a time, while the left hand simultaneously strums or “sweeps” the corresponding strings so that the result is like strumming a chord with only one note sounding at a time without any notes ringing into the next.  Sweeping is used to play arpeggios very quickly, and is one of the most economic ways to play a triad.)

Alternate picking where one note is played on each string is difficult, but doing so slowly greatly increases accuracy.  The surest way to clean up alternate picking is by doing so in challenging patterns such as Figure 9.  Always practice this with a metronome once you have memorized the pattern.

Now, let’s work on your accuracy at keeping in tempo.  Set your metronome to 120 BPM.  Alternate random single notes (quarter notes) and play a different note on each click.  See how long you can go alternate picking randomly at this tempo.  By doing so, you will achieve a sense of pulse and internalize the feeling of alternate picking. When you play random notes, you are forced to play unrehearsed combinations and patterns, which will help your ear and improvisational abilities later on.  Try to switch between strings and play different arpeggios.  Attempt different tempos, and gradually go faster.

Figure 10 shows some note bending patterns.  Learn these and focus on your intonation.  Play the note you want to bend to, before you bend so that you can hear your pitch accuracy. 

Now, let’s talk about sweep picking.  Sweep picking is notorious for being incredibly difficult.  Let me say now, that sweep picking is not difficult, learning to sweep pick is difficult.  Anyone can strum a chord, and at this point, you can most likely move your left hand pretty quickly.  So, the real issue is the timing and synchronization of the two hands.  Sweep picking is best approached slowly and carefully.  First slowly alternate pick the patterns in Figure 11.  Practice these patterns alternate picked until they are absolutely clean.  Then, try to play them in the sweep style, very slowly still.  Make sure that each note rings and stops ringing as the next one is played.  Don’t even think about speeding it up.  A lot of people play sweeps slow ten times and then start trying to make them shred.  When they hear some elements of the notes sounding, they figure, “gee I’m getting pretty close.”  Well, those people are incorrect.  Sweeps are an all or nothing technique.  You are either sweeping cleanly or you’re not sweeping at all.  Stay slow, be patient, and you will have it in no time.  In the speed building section, there will be plenty of time for shredding the sweeps, but for now just hang tight.  Trust me, this method works. 

Next, try sweeping Figure 9 slowly.  You will notice that Figure nine does not go straight up or down but rather goes up then down then up then down and so on.  When you are moving from the low sounding strings to the high strings, sweep up, then down when you go back a string.  This motion is harder to master than a straight down sweep, but if you perform this exercise slowly and accurately, you will have much better control over the normal sweeps.  Don’t bother speeding up yet, if you master this slowly, you are in perfect shape, and speed won’t be an issue later, but if you play this even a little sloppy, you are reinforcing bad habits.   Sweeping is a lot like riding a bicycle in that once you have the feel for it, it is easy.  Once again, patience is key.

Speed Building:

Speed building is very important even if you never want to play fast.  A lot of people say that learning how to shred is a waste of time because they don’t want to play those kinds of licks.  Well, learning how to play very quickly with a lot of control, will really free your hands up and make playing at medium tempos effortless.  The whole point of all of this technique is not to be the fastest guitarist in the world, but to have the freedom to express anything that you can imagine on the instrument. 

First let’s take Figure 8 again.  You should have no problem playing this slowly right now.  Let’s turn the metronome on to 100 BPM and play this exercise with eight notes.  This should be a piece of cake.  Now turn the metronome up 8 beats at a time until you reach a tempo where it starts to sound sloppy at eight notes.  Go back eight beats and practice it there.  Keep practicing it at that tempo until you can move on.  Eventually practice sixteenth notes

This method of two steps forward one step backward is the best way to ensure accuracy.  Once again, patience is crucial.

What happens when you reach a point where you physically can’t go any faster?  The answer is simple; endurance.  At a reasonably fast tempo, where you can easily control the exercise you are playing, play the exercise for a long time until you are tired.  Building up stamina improves strength.  Figure 12 is a long etude that you should try to do repeatedly at a comfortable speed.  When you have done this for a long period of time easily, go faster, and eventually your maximum speed will increase.  Make sure that you are always playing at a speed at which the etude is clean.

The next most effective means of building speed is through alternate picking arpeggios.  Alternate pick the sweeps in Figure 11 again, but now use the two steps forward one step back method.  Before you know it, your alternate picking will be super accurate and much faster than it was before. 

To build speed with sweep picking, wait until you can sweep pick cleanly with a metronome using the tips in the control and accuracy section, then practice sweeping using the endurance method in which you play at a comfortable speed for longer.  This will speed your finger motion up without losing the cleanness and coordination you previously possessed. 

In conclusion:

Practicing every day consistently is the best way for all of this information to work.  Don’t practice something incorrectly for a long time because there is no way that after playing something incorrectly 1000 times, that on the 100st time you will suddenly play correctly.  Practice with a metronome, and practice accurately and at comfortable tempos.  Technique is very important, but don’t let it consume you.  Remember to practice improvising so that you can increase your knowledge of the neck and sense of time and feel, and study all of the music you can get your hands on.  Learn music and love music.  Technique by itself is not music, but it is essential that you learn it.  Don’t skip steps in this manual, and be honest with yourself, and you’ll be able to shred in no time.  It takes everyone different amounts of time to get this stuff, but as long as you practice correctly, you will achieve your goals with technique.  Don’t forget to have fun, a friend of mine once said, “Remember that you play your instrument, you don’t work it.”  If you work hard at your instrument you will get results, but make sure you enjoy it.


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