I have been playing guitar for (gulp) about 20 years now. Unfortunately, time served does not equate to ability in this case, as I squandered much of that in a love-hate relationship with the instrument.
In the past few years I have come to realise that my approach to playing guitar has been pretty abysmal, and that much of what I did was purely out of habit rather than had any particular logic behind it. Once I started to question that stuff and got better, there were a bunch of things that I wish I had come around to sooner. Here are some of them:
1. Your pick matters
I have been using Landstrom Sharkfin plectrums for as long as I can remember. I don’t really know where I picked this up initially, but I am sure I gravitated towards them just because they looked cool. In any event, I’ve stuck with them because they feel comfortable, and have a few different angles that can change how you interact with the strings. However, in the past few years I have gone from using the ‘medium’ GP02 picks, right up to the GP107 ‘Super hard’ picks – which is a huge jump in thickness terms.
The thing was – I tend to play pretty aggressively when strumming, and was always afraid that I would snap strings more easily with a hard plectrum, so went for an in-between option. What I didn’t really appreciate was that a flimsier pick makes it much more difficult to pick quickly and accurately. Switching to a harder pick almost instantly had a positive impact on my playing. Oh, and I haven’t broken any more strings than normal.
p.s. I went to the official Sharkfin site to do some research on the pick names for this blog, and came across this testimonial, explaining why they use harder plectrums: “I think it has something to do with masturbation. You’re hand isn’t as fast when you get older. The red one is extremely soft”. I have literally no idea why they chose to publish this.
2. Cheap strings are a false economy
When I started playing, having to constantly replace strings was a nightmare as I never had any money. What I didn’t realise was that I would be replacing strings a lot less if I spent a few quid more on a half decent set, as opposed to the cheapest ones I could find. Now, I spend about £5-10 a set (rather than £2!), play even rougher, with a harder pick, and rarely snap strings.
3. You need to intonate
…and some guitars intonate better than others.
Intonation is the process where you adjust the strings to make sure they are in tune all the way along the neck. I vaguely knew about doing this, but never really bothered doing it as I assumed it was a huge job. In most cases, it’s actually relatively straightforward – and it makes a huge difference to the sound. No matter how well you play, it will sound crap if your guitar isn’t intonated properly – especially if you are playing further up the neck, or doing any kind of clever stuff like tapping. Ideally you should intonate every time you change your strings, and definitely before you record.
In some ways I wish I had continued to live in ignorance, as now I am on an endless, impossible quest to get all of my guitars perfectly intonated, and whenever they are out it drives me crazy.
One other important thing I learned was that certain guitars simply will not intonate properly with different string gauges, or with alternative tunings. For example, I have always played with Light Top, Heavy Bottom (10-52) strings, because somebody told me a long time this was more balanced for heavier music – and I’ve never really deviated from that. However, I have a bunch of unusual guitars, and it turns out that many of them (especially the vintage ones) aren’t able to adjust adequately to compensate for the heavier gauges – so won’t intonate properly.
Similarly, I have a Danelectro Longhorn bass which I could never get to sound in tune, and wrote it off as a design flaw. However, I realised that this problem was partly the string gauge, and partly due to me tuning a half-step down by default. When I tuned to standard, and used a different gauge, the intonation improved dramatically.
TL;DR: Intonate your guitars. If you’re having problems, adjust the gauge of your strings, and/or figure out whether you actually need to be tuned a half step down.
4. Practice makes a difference (and music theory probably helps)
If only somebody had told me (!).
Even though I played regularly in a band, I wasn’t really writing, practicing, or learning anything new outside of that for a long time. Part of this was because as a teenager I didn’t really enjoy reading tabs or figuring out songs by other bands; I just wanted to come up with my own sounds and make songs with them. Equally, the prospect of studying music theory seemed incredibly dry, boring, and far too much like homework for my liking. I was firmly of the position that learning theory would just mean I ended up stuck in a box creatively anyway.
That renegade approach worked fine for a while… but when I hit a natural plateau and my ideas dried up, I simply just didn’t play guitar any more. Doing so felt like a chore, rather than something that I enjoyed, and that’s the way it stayed, for a long time.
At some point I got fed up not really knowing what I was doing, and forced myself to at least pick up the guitar regularly. I looked into learning some scales, and to try and play some lead parts from bands like the Smashing Pumpkins that always seemed impossibly difficult before. After a few false starts, it didn’t take long before I noticed a vast improvement over a fairly short space of time. Once I sat down and consciously made an effort to understand what I was playing, or stuck with tricky songs until I got them right, it was as if a lot of things clicked into place at once. It was as if my muscle memory machinations synched up with this new knowledge of the neck, and I was no longer as afraid of picking, or that if I improvised I would hit a duff note.
Now, I deliberately try and develop different styles of playing that I would never normally bother with (tapping, shredding, etc) – using a metronome to keep me on the straight and narrow. Even if I never really get to a decent level with these specific skills, I now actually enjoy playing guitar – and miss it if when I can’t. Weird.
When it comes to theory, one thing in particular that I found incredibly useful was to learn how the Circle of Fifths works. This provides a quick and easy way to understand different notes in a scale, what keys work with which, etc. Somebody had told me to do this a long time ago and I never bothered, but when I actually took the time to sit and make sense of it, it was mind blowing – like a secret key had unlocked all this musical theory that I thought was impossible to grasp before. I even got a Circle of Fifths watch to remind me how it works…
So long story short: Practice every day, even just for 10 minutes. Play other folk’s songs, and learn some theory. Rather than kill off your creativity, it will expand it.
5. Don’t stick with the same kind of pickups
When I was younger, I would slap a humbucker in any guitar I got my hands on. Why? Well, because they were louder (duh), but also because I used cheap crappy strings that snapped all the time, and I had to have a similar output so when I was switching guitars live there wouldn’t be a huge difference in sound. I even had two USA Fender Strats that were exactly the same for this reason. I’m not sure why it never occurred to me that I should just buy better strings rather than another guitar, but still.
What I realised when I started to collect more guitars was actually that the diversity of sound was an asset, rather than something I should aim to flatten out. Instead of getting the same kind of tones from every guitar, having the choice between P90s, single coils, vintage pickups, humbuckers, etc means that I can be much more creative when recording – like adding in a silky, round additional guitar part to complement things more than an additional brash humbucking lead would.
TL;DR: Embrace sonic diversity. Don’t try make everything sound the same.