…what really keeps me going on this musical journey is hearing my own progress.
The flatpick guitar style is difficult to master, making it easy to get discouraged. I’m not nearly where I’d like to be as a guitarist, and there are probably ten guitarists on my neighborhood block in SE Portland who are “better” than me (I try to remember that music isn’t a competition.) Sometimes I feel like giving up, but I never will. I keep at it because I understand that it takes a lot of hard work to be able to sound how you want to sound. Talent alone doesn’t cut it. I know what I need to work on and I always make an effort to touch on as many of those elements as I can in my practice. What I love most and what really keeps me going on this musical journey is hearing my own progress! Here are 10 ways you can improve your flatpick guitar playing.
1. Practice in performing position.
If you perform sitting down, sit down when you practice. If you perform standing up, stand up when you practice. I usually perform standing up, and for me, it’s more challenging to play standing than sitting. I find it harder to get a sturdy foundation for my right hand. I’ve been getting better at it with practice, though. If you perform standing up and you’re more comfortable sitting down, sit down in the posture you’re comfortable with. Make sure you have your strap on before you stand. Take a mental and physical note of how your right arm feels. Stand up slowly and try to keep your arm in that same comfortable position where you feel most anchored and in control. If you can’t keep your position, then you’ll have to adjust your strap length.
2. Loosen up. Relax your ass.
Guitar players, really all developing musicians, hold tension in various places when they play, including: the right leg, the shoulders, the neck, the jaw, left hand, etc. Unfortunately, it’s basically impossible to play fast, technical stuff when you’re all tense. The best advice that I ever got for achieving relaxation was from classical guitarist Jim Piorkowski at SUNY Fredonia. Strange as it may sound, his advice was to relax your ass. Relax your butt as if you’re about to… relieve yourself. Yes, you read that correctly. Obviously, you don’t want to literally do that but relax your butt cheeks while sitting down (or standing up) straight with your shoulders back. Take a couple deep breaths and feel the tension flush away. The key to playing clean and fast is to have relaxed hands, arms, and shoulders—I swear to you, it all starts from your behind!
3. Practice with a metronome on the off-beat.
It is necessary to practice with a metronome if you are working toward being an advanced musician. The audience notices rhythmic “mistakes” first, way before flubbed notes. Look at jazz players, some players play WAY far out note choices, but if they are in time and create a rhythmic motif, it sounds hip. The key to getting that “in the pocket” swinging feel is to practice your lines with the metronome on the off-beat. It almost automatically gives you a more danceable and desirable sound to your playing.
4. Left hand technique: stay on your fingertips.
There are many things to work on with your left hand. You have to have a good, natural position, you have to work on your dexterity by practicing hammer-ons and pull-offs, plus you have to learn scales, arpeggios, and licks, etc. WOW, that’s a lot! One of the biggest things you can concentrate on with your left hand, though, is staying on your fingertips. Staying on your fingertips will improve your tone, and will be the foundation for making all those other techniques sound good. Staying on your fingertips will give you get the cleanest tone because you’re fingertips are less fleshy and will secure the string against the fret. You’re also less likely to get residual string noise from adjacent strings.
5. Right hand technique: use your right arm at the elbow.
I’ve noticed many guitarists wiggle their hand at the wrist. These folks will likely end up with carpel-tunnel syndrome, or they’re just not playing with the force required to get good tone out of an acoustic instrument. There’s a lot of debate out there about your right hand and how to get the best use out of it. I look to the cleanest pickers in the world like David Grier, Chris Thile, Clay Hess, Chris Eldridge, etc. They all have something in common: they keep their hands very relaxed and make subtle movements that start from the elbow and follow through to the thumb.
If you’re having trouble with memorization, or mastering a particularly difficult lick, isolate your hands. For example, if you’re working on a difficult cross-picking pattern in your right hand, take the left hand out of the equation. Practice the right-hand pattern only, effectively playing the open strings. You’ll be amazed on how quickly you’ll conquer that really tough run.
7. Practice in front of people.
Get out there and perform. Perform for your wife and kids! Perform for your friends! Get used to playing ENTIRE songs without stopping. If you practice without an audience and flub up and stop in the middle of a sing you are more likely to do that during a performance. It’s important to keep going and learn how to recover from those inevitable flubs. A great way to help you out is to record yourself and listen back for things you can improve upon. This is really tough for every musician; however, it’s the only way to reach the pinnacle of your individual style.
8. Improvise and write your own licks.
Improvising is a fundamental of most musical styles. Even the coolest “classical” composers for guitar, like Leo Brower, leave room for improvisation and wild interpretation. Improvising and trying new stuff is the best way to find your individual style. Not everyone starts out like Coltrane, however. Where do you start? Get some back-up tracks. I use Band-In-A-Box software with bluegrass “real tracks.” Let the music play and just try wild stuff—release your inhibitions and don’t be hesitant to experiment. Record whatever comes out and listen back to see what you think. You may be more pleasantly surprised than you ever imagined you could be! When you hear something from what you played that you like, transcribe it or memorize it, and put it into your box of licks. Transpose it and play it in different keys, play it in different tunes. In time, you’ll have a collection of licks and lines that become your unique signature.
9. Listen to your mentors and heroes.
It’s great to want your personal style to shine through in your playing but it’s also important to study the masters. The best thing you can do when you’re learning a particular style of music is to immerse yourself in it! Listen to the music ALL THE TIME. When you hear something you like, make a note of it. Go back over your notes regularly and pick specific things to study deeper. Break down what David Grier, Bryan Sutton, or Cody Kilby is doing. Take the time to match their fingering, tone, and timing if you can. I also like taking ideas from non-guitarists, too. Some of my favorite artists to borrow from are Stuart Duncan and Jerry Douglas. I use the Amazing Slow-downer to slow down and analyze licks and melodies that I like and that I want to learn. There are several other great tools out there that allow you to listen to your favorite musicians at a pace you can follow along with. Figuring out how the masters do it helps to open doors for you in your own improvisation, which is also helpful when you are writing your own licks.
10. Record yourself and listen back.
An underlying theme in most of the tips I’ve shared with you is to: record yourself, listen back, and act as your own critic. It’s important to the process and will help you get better. That means you need to get a recording interface and mic. It doesn’t have to be expensive either! I have a Focusrite Scarlett USB Audio Interface that I use all the time to record rehearsals and practices. You can find the interface for $150 and you’ll need a mic, cable, stand, headphones, and a computer, too. When you have these valuable tools you’ll be able to analyze what you don’t like about your playing and be able to identify ways to change it. It’s difficult but important. Admittedly, it can feel demoralizing to listen to yourself and think, “THAT’S what I sound like!?” There’s no way around it, though, because the first step to improving is to know where you’re at, relative to where you want to go. Once you get in a groove with recording yourself, listening back, and fixing aspects of your play you don’t like, you’ll really enjoy hearing your progress.
Take it one step at a time. Learning is an iterative process. The key elements to practice are Isolation, Repetition, and Iteration. You’ve got to keep going and whatever you do, keep on pickin’!