Practicing The Intangibles
It is easy to focus all of your attention on playing fast, but guitar players often overlook what I consider to be the intangibles of guitar: Vibrato, Cleanliness, and Phrasing. These little things are not the flashy aspects of playing but in the end make the most difference, and separate the great players from the average. We all know that they exist, but most of the time we don't take the time to practice them because we didn't think to or didn't know how. Think of all the great guitar virtuosos, they all have the intangibles.
Stringed instruments have the unique ability to add vibrato to the notes that they play to make them more expressive. It is important to know that when you add vibrato to a note it is much more than a simple string wiggle. Every time we slightly bend a string it alters the pitch of the note we are playing. Therefore it is important to keep in mind what note you are trying to alter the pitch to. It might be helpful to think of vibrato as a fast series of bends. Keep in mind that when you utilize vibrato you should be able to use all fingers equally. Practice vibrato at different speeds and different widths, this allows you to use the appropriate type that goes along with the feel of the music. A nice way to work up the strength and evenness of your vibrato is to practice with a metronome at different tempos. During each click you should bend up to the new pitch and back down to the starting pitch. Try to keep the fluctuation of the note as even as possible. Yngwie, Rusty Cooley, and Tom Hess, who I think has the best range in vibrato ever, are some players you might want to check out. You will notice how pleasant to the ears a player with great vibrato sounds and how aggravating someone with poor vibrato can be. It is very common to have a very great player play an insanely fast run and end it with a note that sounds as if it were a mosquito. Reference a singer or violinist, listen closely to what they are doing and try to emulate it.
Another extremely important aspect of guitar playing is playing cleanly. What is the use of extreme speed if your notes aren't articulate or can't be distinguished? The solution to playing clean, mute the strings you are not using. I am sure this is no surprise to any of you, but it still seems to be a major problem amongst most players. Here are some tips on muting: Your left hand naturally mutes the strings underneath it by lightly resting on the strings. You can use the palm or the thumb of your right hand to mute the lower strings above the pick. I nice way of gauging how clean you are playing is to have a friend hit the strings between the headstock and fretting hand while you are playing. When this happens there should not be any miscellaneous strings ringing out. If you are truly playing cleanly this exercise will work no matter what technique you are using or how hard your friend is hitting the strings. Clean players have a way of projecting more than others, if you would take average Joe and have him play the guitar and than a virtuoso plays through the same equipment afterwards there would be a significant difference in the sound the virtuoso projects. Most of the time this is because he plays much cleaner than the other player. It is not that the first guy is not a good player, he could have been playing faster, it is just that he wasn't clean. He probably didn't take the time to work on playing clean as well as practicing all the rest of the intangibles. Don't forget that speed is a by -product of playing cleanly and articulately.
The next aspect of your guitar playing you should pay close attention to is phrasing. It is important to make sure you are not just zipping up and down scales. Phrasing is what makes the notes you are playing sound musical. Try to think of phrasing as playing your guitar line as if a singer was singing it. Many people know what they want to play when they improvise, but they have a hard time translating it to the guitar. A nice exercise to try is: singing what you want the particular part you are playing to sound like. This will help you in the process of connecting what is in your head to guitar. We all hope in the end that this translation becomes instantaneous. But the only way to get to this point is by actually working on improvising and phrasing. A simple exercise you can do to get yourself headed in the right direction is to pick three notes and play them in as many different ways possible in all positions and orders. You will be surprised at all of the different combinations you can come up with. When you learn scales, fragments, or arpeggios, don't just do it for the muscle memory but the sound as well.
All of these topics will in the end help you accomplish what most musicians' ultimate goal is: to have their own unique voice. So the next time you sit down to play make sure that you pay close attention to the little things. The intangibles.
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