Guitar Influences and Practicing
By Scott Allen
Hello, and welcome to my column on all things guitar. So just who am I to presume to tell you how to play guitar? What makes me such an “expert”? Well, mainly because I’m an expert. Not just on guitar, but on everything. Surely you know people like me, and what insufferable acquaintances we invariably make. That being said, I have a unique passion for guitar. I love guitar the way Kirstie Alley loves fudge, the way Dick Cheney loves oil, the way Dave Mustaine loves the sound of his own voice. And I’m here to share my knowledge with you; I promise it will make you not just a better player, but a better person. Or it won’t.
The first subject that I would like to tackle is how we as guitarists deal with our influences. This is one of the most important subjects, because it is probably the single most important factor in making us the players that we eventually become. There are many differing approaches, ranging from the guy who refuses to play anything remotely close to Van Halen because “it’s been done man!” to the guy who buys his hero’s exact gear, and shaves his head because “that’s why Satch is so good, I’m telling you!” I believe that, as with many other things in life, we should live somewhere between the two extremes. To deny our influences is pretty silly, because that also denies the things our influences can teach us. To completely copy someone else doesn’t leave room for our own personality to shine through. So what is a player to do? Here is my suggestion, take your top 5 favorite players, and try to identify what it is that attracts you to their playing. Mine are: Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Neal Schon, Steve Lukather, and Reb Beach.
From Eddie Van Halen I really learned to play with fire. I learned to put my heart into everything I played, with a heavy dose of balls. From Steve Vai I learned to play unpredictably, and to use my whammy bar. Neal Schon showed me how to construct a memorable solo, with fire and finesse. Steve Lukather taught me how much having the extra firepower of awesome technique can add to a melodic solo, listen to the solo to Toto’s “Girl Goodbye” if you doubt me. Reb Beach, in a word: tapping. I was very inspired by his tapping technique, as well as his phrasing. Check out Whitesnake’s live DVD; live in the still of the night, to see Reb kick some ass. Okay, so you’ve compiled your list; what now? You need to forge your style from the combination of these different players, much like a chef constructs a dish from differing ingredients, each with its own flavor and distinction, but combining to be one whole. A little dash of this, a pinch of that, can add up to one kick ass guitarist.
The single best thing you can do to improve your playing right now is get into a regular practice routine. I would suggest, for the serious player, no less than an hour a day, every day. But it is not enough to put in time; you have to make the best use of that time. Five minutes of practicing technique, and fifty five minutes of jamming on old Van Halen tunes is NOT practicing. You can do that ten hours a day, and still not get anywhere. Believe it or not, an hour is not very long. At the height of my practicing, right after I graduated from G.I.T, I practiced 14 hours a day, for months. Right now I only practice around 2 hours a day. I play for 10 hours a day, but only 2 hours of that is what I would call practice, the rest is teaching, recording, performing, rehearsing, etc. Any solid practice schedule should include these 5 categories: Lead Guitar, Rhythm Guitar, Songs, Reading, and Review.
Lead Guitar should include: Pentatonic Scales, Pentatonic licks and sequences, Diatonic Scales, Sequences, Modes, Arpeggios, Sweep Picking, Doublestops, Legato, Tapping, Advanced Scales such as: Harmonic Minor, Melodic Minor, and their respective modes, as well as, symmetrical scales like the Diminished and Whole tone scales.
Rhythm Guitar should include: Chords, Rhythms, Syncopated Rhythms, Key Centers, Modal Chord Progressions, Chord Theory, Finger picking, Hybrid Picking, Ear Training, and Odd Time playing.
Songs – Believe it or not, songs that you had down a year ago, you probably can’t play today if you haven’t practiced them since. It is important to cycle through your “song inventory” to keep up on tunes you haven’t done in a while. When I was getting ready to start rehearsals for the shows that would follow the release of my record, I was shocked to find that I had forgotten large sections of many tunes, and I wrote those songs.
Reading – This is the most controversial of the practice subjects, because, come on man, when am I ever going to use THAT? Well, you would be surprised how often reading comes up as a professional guitarist. If you are going to teach, play sessions, sit in with pro bands, or play jazz or classical, reading is a must. If you are going to just be jamming with Jimmy Joe down the street who knows even less than you do, then you’re right, it probably won’t come up. But keep in mind that if you just put in the time to learn those little black dots, then not knowing how to read won’t be an issue for you, will it?
Review – This is your chance to go back and work on any of the above topics that you have problems with. It is crucial that you don’t fluff your ego with thoughts like: “No, I think I’m pretty good with sweeping”, or “No, I’ve got that sequence down good enough”. Look, I know you know when you suck at something. And believe me, if you know, so will the audience when you eat crap trying to do that lick on stage that you “had” in the practice room. Rule #1: It is always better to screw up in the practice room than on stage in front of a crowd people. Your cat won’t tell anyone how much you suck at Diminished scales, but that prick in the front row will. And if you’re really lucky, a reporter for the local music magazine will be there to share your “special moment” with everyone.
Well, that about does it for me. If you find yourself staring at the practice section of this article saying, “Ohh man, what the hell is a Mode or a Diminished scale”? Don’t worry, I will be back to cover those topics in such excruciating, and torturous detail that you’ll swear you must have woken up to find yourself at GITMO facing down a CIA interrogator with cold hands.