I am frequently asked by fellow guitarists, fans at shows, students, peers and the randomly occurring but feverishly passionate “Dude, I saw a Youtube video with you in it. You looked like the guy from The Big Bang Theory and that shit was savage!” guy at a party if I have 15-20 second soundbites of that “thing” that can help them be better players, or if not that, then if I have stumbled upon some anciently kept secrets of becoming a better guitarist (read: a faster guitarist) and what they can do to have this knowledge as well.
What is this? Fucking Lord of the Rings, us trotting up to the gates of Moria (like that mega nerd reference?) to knock out some secret passwords which’ll open the doors of destiny, as Joe Pass, Randy Rhodes, Hendrix, Dimebag Darrell, SRV and Chet Atkins all walk out, bathed in light, with four 30-packs of PBR (That’s enough right? I mean, we’re basically talking about 7 people, so 17 beers a person should do it, right?), a portable Weber, some farm raised bison patties and all the secrets of the guitar world to bestow upon you?
Well, that’s not gonna happen, even though I’d love to hang and witness Chet and Dimebag get plastered together, playing some blues.
While there are absolutely, without doubt and unquestionably no secrets to anything, let alone something as tactile as playing the guitar (I mean, do you think there are “secrets” to table making? Nope. You make a fucking table. If it’s good, it’s a table. If it’s not, it’s a floatation device during a flash flood.) there are, however some things you can do to improve your playing which I routinely focus on and which I have noticed throughout the years that many guitarists, regardless of ability, do not focus on.
So, I guess these are like secrets. Sort of. Secrets-ish.
Anyway, do this shit. Get better.
10. Know what you want when practicing
Why are you practicing?
To write? OK, then write something.
To improve on something specific? OK, then don’t stop until you’ve improved that thing.
To learn a song? OK, then learn the song completely, perfectly and by memory and don’t stop until you have.
Guitarists are famously masterbating tools, and this definitely translates to the practice space, where 99.9% of guitarists strap on the guitar, turn on the amp and just play, man… Just play… (in between bong hits or handfuls of Captain Crunch… obviously All Berries… we’re not barbarians)
But what the fuck are you playing??!!
Practice without intent is utterly pointless.
Practice with a goal. Achieve that goal. Either stop practicing or find another goal and reach that goal, etc.
Do this daily.
Music is creative. Playing an instrument is not.
Playing an instrument is a slowly building, daily climb towards mastery that must be viewed as the tactile endeavor that it is.
Taking this climb without a map will lead to nothing but being lost (and probably sexually violated by a bear or caribou).
Know what you want and get it.
9. Technique is a combination of muscle memory and repetition
OK, sure. Everybody wants to play faster. I get it. Playing fast is cool, makes all of your greasy-haired bros think you’re the shit, makes all of the other guitar players in the world think you’re the Messiah, and makes you feel bad ass (However, against common thought, does not makes chicks dig you. Like at all. Like never. Shredding is like bug spray for hot chicks. Be warned.)
I have built much of my fan base from blazing the shit out of my guitar and melting the faces of much of the first three rows of every concert I’ve given since learning how to pee standing up, so yeah, I get it. I like to play fast.
To me, there are few things cooler to achieve sonically than a massive, epic “wall” of notes, a “sheet” if you will. It’s super killer, especially when balanced with not playing all the goddamn notes in the universe.
But there is absolutely no secret to playing faster. None.
Musical technique is purely physical and therefore has nothing to do with anything but time, dedication and obsession. Period.
Look, Lebron James can rain down 3's with a success rate of 90%, meaning he basically makes every fucking shot he takes. That’s rad. Can I do that?
Because I’ve basically dedicated .000001% of my life’s energy toward being a basketball god, as compared to the 99% Lebron has dedicated.
Of course the sport of basketball involves much more than that, however strictly speaking for the act of taking 3 point shots, if I were to dedicate the equal amount of time toward the practicing of 3 pointers that Lebron has (I’d be roughly 47 years old at this point), there would be no difference between the two of us (other than him being basically three of me) because shooting a basketball is a technique, not an art or a gift. Playing basketball and being incredible at it is an art and a gift but shooting isn’t. Shooting is technique.
And, like all techniques, deserves absurd quantities of repetition for mastery.
Your muscles, your mind and your hands must NOT THINK. Your brain should be completely devoid from the process. It’s not about thought or art. It’s about the cold and perfect execution of a technique, nothing more.
To get to this point you need a lot of time and a lot of dedication.
From the ages of 12-18 I practiced nothing but scales for 12 hours daily with no breaks, with no time for anything and slept for 4 hours nightly.
For 6 years.
That should give you an idea.
8. Practice without headphones
Do you play shows with headphones on?
A musician understands what the music he plays sounds and feels like within a physical space.
The choices you make musically, as well as the techniques you develop will be directly in relation to how you feel what you play around you.
Ever played with shitty fake reverb through headphones and seconds later played with a natural spring through an amp?
You’ll ceremonially sacrifice your headphones to Odin.
And, should you be one of the millions of musicians who live in inhumanly packed apartment buildings where your “practice space” is literally a millimeters thick wall from your neighbor’s MMA Body Improvement Zone, which, should you invade the space of which with in all your amplified glory, would promptly result in your neighbor paying you a visit with with his just-gelled faux hawk and just-groomed goatee so your face could have a meeting with his just-manicured fist, then try these things:
1. Move to L.A. and live in a house. It’s the same cash as a nice apt. in NYC, Chicago, etc. and, I mean, come on, it’s just better here.
2. Talk to your neighbors and ask them when they’re not home. With some careful, thoughtful and open-minded scheduling, you’ll likely be able to find a time when playing amplified will only bother your girlfriend or wife.
3. Get or share a practice space and practice there. If you have a band, this is the way to go.
3. Fuck it. Piss everyone in your building off (always my preferred option).
It’s all worth it though.
Drummers will walk 5 miles, take three buses and drive an hour to a practice space because the thought of playing through headphones is, well, what it is.
7. Stand when you practice
I mean, really, this one is obvious.
Unless you’re a professional reenactment artist for the US Jazz Museum, recreating the glory days of the Benny Goodman Big Band, you should be standing when you perform, which means you should be standing when you practice.
Ever played anything with a groove sitting down?
Yeah, it sounds like your Dad’s Hall and Oates cover band.
Stand up and practice like a professional.
6. Your guitar (and amp) doesn’t matter at all
Where’s that, you ask?
Well, that’s the Medina (ancient open market) in Fez, Morocco where I once played a show that will go down in the record books.
Here’s how my day went:
- Wake up from jet lag induced nap
- Pull face from pool of drool
- Stumble around room in panic, not remembering what city I’m in
- Remember what city I’m in
- Drink 3 gallons of black tea
- Realize all the band members have left the hotel for the show without me
- Find it extremely difficult looking around the hotel room for my guitar and gear, because said boutique, super hippy and Boho hotel (owned by Americans strangely) is covered in an impossible to describe quantity of silk drapes, kerchiefs, tapestries and goddamn swathes of every fabric imaginable, creating a constantly moving and changing panorama of colors and light, something like what I imagine Brian Jones likely saw moments before his death.
- Hit THE SHIT out of my head on a book shelf
- Disoriented again
- Stumbling again
- Walk through the medina alone asking random people and Bedouins for the “rock show” (I actually used those words. “Where’s the rock show” yeah….) while bleeding.
- Find gig
- Am kindly, warmly and graciously welcomed to the venue and am then presented with my amplifier which, for the love of christ, seriously looks like in came from a fucking riverbed. I mean, covered in shit and some sort of seemingly oxidized algae substance. Like, completely covered. I thought they were joking.
- Plug in amp.
- Of course, sounds like someone recorded me playing on their iPhone, e-mailed this file to my iPhone, covered my iPhone in bat shit, then covered that in hair and duct tape, then put it into a box and pushed play. So yeah, not good.
- Decide to play through the PA system. The PA system. Yes. No reverb. No nothing. Nothing. Dead, absolutely dead, dry guitar. Like the guitar parts in Mexican pop songs. Like that.
How does this story end?
It ends with me killing the gig, getting 3 standing ovations and playing four encores.
Because I’m a fucking cowboy and realize that regardless of obstacles and getting my ideal sound that, at the end of the day, my playing comes from me and my fingers and I can translate that to anyone, anytime, anywhere and with anything.
All of this guitar nerd shit of having boutique amps and boutique guitars made with swamp ash from Kentucky bogs and Koa from Hawaiian hills is utter bullshit.
None of this will make you sound better.
I gratefully have the fortunate situation of getting loads of free gear now, whether it be guitars, amps, pedals, strings etc. but I still play my $100 strat more than any other guitar I have. With stock pickups. Made in Mexico. No mods, nothing. And it kills.
Save your money for the inevitable piles of paid publicity you will need and require to get your music and band to the masses.
5. Learn all of the inversions of every chord everywhere
I can think of 20 versions for playing the “E” chord off the top of my head.
Learning all of your chords all over the neck will make you utterly invaluable as a side man and composer and will land you every single gig you can think of.
Because when somebody says, my song is “E-A-C#min-B” and you go “Sure, cool” and bust out some seriously beautiful, tasteful, voice-lead, grooving awesomeness, and then they go “Shit man, you’re a genius” you’ll be thinking to yourself “I hope this band gets on Conan with my dope playing so I can play all of my sick ass, tasty inversions for America and be inadvertently watched by a group of chicks having a girls night, one of whom will be Jessica Alba, thereby cementing our destined marriage”.
But really… It’s a fucking tragedy that guitarists don’t know this stuff…
Don’t be one of those guys.
And while you’re at it, it wouldn’t be harmful to read some music.
You know, be a musician.
These things will lead to MD (Musical Director) jobs.
That’s when you stop asking Mom and Dad for cash and buy some furniture.
4. Hand position
You know your hand moves, right?
You know it’s not some sort of immovable, Sword in the Stone (second nerd fantasy reference. Score.) type of thing, glued down for all of entirety, yeah?
Move that shit.
Your hand and subsequent pick position have massive effects on the sound of your playing.
Play a chord and just move your pick from the bridge to the neck position of your pickups, slowly so as to hear the difference between the two and all of the variations between.
Sharper near the bridge, warmer and more bass responsive near the neck?
That’s because as you move closer to the neck pickup the overall tension on the strings reduces, which creates a softer, warmer sound.
Now play a groove and do the same.
Hear how something this simple can have such a tremendous sonic effect?
It seems almost stupidly obvious, but an incredible amount of guitarists never do this, choosing instead to think that pedals are the only way to change sound.
Consider this always.
3. Pick types and models
I am obsessed with picks.
I currently own probably, I dunno, like 90 different pick types, not because I need or even use them (you only really need one pick) but because I’m constantly curious about finding a pick which perfectly suits my playing, something I have yet to find, not for lack of trying.
Currently I use the bad boy below (in 2.0mm), but with the edges filed down for a sharper attack.
I have been using this particular pick since I was 13 and, even though I am seeking to find something better (this pick and I have a contentious love/hate relationship) I have yet to do so, but I am always on the lookout.
My point is that everybody’s either a Jazz II player, a Jazz III player, or a Tortex player, generalizing of course, but that’s definitely what the majority of people are using, in my humble yet vast experience.
I mean, everyone is a unique player, but for all of us unique players to be using the same seemingly innocuous, but vastly important thing is crazy to me.
The pick is what connects your physical body and the instrument together.
What could possibly be more important than that?
I would go as far as saying that your pick choice is more important than your guitar, amp or effects, as your pick has the largest effect not only on how you play but on how you perceive and feel your playing as well, and that being said they deserve much more thought, experimentation and contemplation than most players give them.
Plus, they’re fucking cheap.
Take the 15 bucks that you would spend on some overpriced, overthought, pretentious “cocktail” featuring juniper sprig reductions and preserved lemon exfoliations at the bar where everybody’s dressed like they’re waiting for Wes Anderson to show up and instead buy one of every pick you can find and try them all.
You are bound to find something that suits you better than what you’re using now, which means you’ll end up feeling more comfortable and confident about what you’re playing immediately.
2. Metronome is God
The hippest harmonic shit played out of time is worthless.
The most basic stuff played with unshakable time and groove is undeniable.
The hippest stuff played with unshakable time and groove is transcendent.
Nobody gives a shit about your technique, your sound, your guitar, your look, your 6-pack abs or your awesome voice if you can’t do any of this shit over a groove and lock into it, and this is something that most guitar players are horribly lacking ability in.
And by “time” I don’t mean sort of aimlessly, kind of, like, you know, whenever you’re not paying attention to something else while practicing paying attention to time, the metronome just on in the corner of the room while you pump out your licks like you’re on a job interview for Guitar and Keyboard City.
I mean practicing the ability to be inside of the music, to be an integral part of what is happening around you, to be able to play even the simplest thing with a lazer-like, knife-sharp groove that needs to no other band members to make people want to get up and move.
You should have the metronome on, eyes closed, standing up and getting inside of that pulse like you could eat it, chew it, punch it, sweat it. Feel it like it’s right there, like it’s tangible.
To do this requires that you never practice without a metronome.
For roughly 15 years I have never picked up a guitar without a metronome on (for verification of this, ask my mother and fiancée how much they hate the sound and how it plagues their lives and haunts their dreams) and now, to me, the sound of the metronome is the sound of practicing.
I love that sound. It sounds like home, like progress, like movement.
It’s the sound of a friend.
That’s where you want to be, because once you’re there, you’ll have a time feel that will crush all others around you.
And once you have this, a simple equation arrises:
- Drummers and bass players get way more gigs that guitar players
- You have a time feel that drummers and bass players love
- When people ask their drummer or bass player “Know any ripping guitarists” they go “fuck yeah” and call you
- See the end of #5
There is nothing more important than believing in what you do and have to say musically over all else.
Regardless of options, critics, insecurity and doubt, you have to believe that your shit is the shit and that the world is lucky to hear your swaggering, elephantine mastery, of which you have allowed them to witness.
This belief will push you to progress and to perform with a command that others will lack and will inform you ability to constantly develop and take risks with the experimentation necessary for artistic freedom because you will have belief and with belief you need nothing else.
So, with that said, fuck everything I just wrote.
Erase it all from your memory.
Be yourself. Fuck anyone else.
Nobody knows more about how you can be you than you do.
Show the world.
Bryan Baker is an internationally recognized guitarist, composer, songwriter, producer and author called “A combination of Ornette Coleman, Trent Reznor, Bill Frisell and Richard James” by DOA Magazine. In addition to having released seven albums as a solo artist, Bryan is also the founding member of hard rock band Black Baptista, electro/post rock group The Readers and the author of the widely respected musical treatise and instructional book “Principles of Music”.