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21 Tips for Better Guitar Playing

  1. A lot of what a good teacher does is tell the student to do the things written on the page. All those dynamic and tempo and expression markings are important. Do them.
  2. Exaggerate everything. Play Forte crazy loud and Piano very soft. Play staccato very short and legato as connected as possible. Your audience will thank you.
  3. In practice, fix one thing at a time. Never try to fix a whole piece at once.
  4. Practice perfect. Find the way that you can play a passage perfectly and do it. It does no good to screw something up 9 times, get it right once and quit.
  5. Think small. Virtuosity is in the little things.
  6. Technique practice is important, and should be done daily.
  7. That said, no one comes to a concert to hear technique exercises. Don’t forget that playing any instrument is about playing music. Technical exercises are a means to an end.
  8. Just thinking of a group of notes as a unit changes the way you play them. Find the groups.
  9. A phrase is a group of notes. Phrases crescendo slightly towards their climax, and diminuendo away from it — phrases have a shape. Sometimes the phrases are written in for you with phrasing slurs, play them as such (see number one).
  10. The most expressive thing in music is silence. Start and end a piece with a moment of poise, and be sure to “play” the rests. For guitarists that means we have to mute strings.
  11. Not all phrases are created equal. Not all phrases need a huge ritard. The end of a phrase shouldn’t sound the same as the end of a section; the end of a section shouldn’t sound the same as the end of a piece. There’s always a hierarchy.
  12. The most important technical aspect you can work on is relaxation. Guitar playing should feel easy.
  13. The big knuckles (the one connecting your fingers to your palm) on your left hand do not absolutely have to be parallel to the guitar neck. Sometimes an angled position makes things easier. Pay attention to what works, and do whatever is easiest.
  14. If you don’t notice what you’re hands do during a difficult passage, there’s no hope of fixing it. Pay attention. Analyze the movements. Break it down, and figure out what gives you trouble. Practice that. (see number five)
  15. Scales get all credit for making great guitar players, but we spend most of our time playing arpeggio textures. It only makes sense to give arpeggios a fair amount of practice as well.
  16. Keep a practice log. If you can’t remember what you practiced a week ago, how do you know you’ve gone anywhere at all?
  17. Record yourself. It’s enlightening to hear what you really sound like.
  18. Melody gets all the attention, but the bass line matters too. Pay attention to the note values and the bass line’s shape. Changing the way the bass is played can change an entire piece.
  19. Play lines separately. Get a melody or bass line to sound perfect on its own, then put it back in the complete texture an try to make it sound the same.
  20. Left hand fingers can be sequenced. Before plopping fingers down, ask yourself when they really need to be added. Waiting to add a left hand finger can make a hard passage easier.
  21. File your nails the night before or at the start of a practice day. Never in the middle. It’s too much work to get used to the “new” nails.
10 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 November 9
    Jordan Clemens permalink

    Great post, Chris. Lots of solid information to absorb here.

  2. 2009 November 9

    Two points I want to especially agree with – numbers 1 and 12.

    In regards to playing what’s on the sheet music, I’m working on “Hymn 11″ by Pierre Bensusan right now. I played it with a really improvised feel, which is partially what he goes for live. But my teacher really put me to the task of learning the music AS IS, rhythm, phrasing, dynamics and all. Even after two lessons’ worth of it, I’m seeing a HUGE improvement in the way I play the song.

    As for practicing relaxation, I’ve dedicated a significant amount of time to this in the past year or so. Before I started taking lessons, I had absolutely horrid technique – wrist against the guitar, plucking upwards from UNDER the string (no nails back then). A bout of wrist pain scared me enough to start dedicating myself to complete relaxation on the instrument. I still have a long way to go with the pressure I apply to the strings, but with the technique change and working on my posture, I sound like a completely different player – and that’s definitely for the better!

    Great post. The little things need to be reiterated sometimes, even for experienced players.

  3. 2009 November 14

    Hi Chris!

    Here’s a presentation by Ricardo Iznaola:
    Making Music: Is Musical Ability a ‘ gift’…or…

    https://portfolio.du.edu/pc/port.detail?id=147183

    What do you think?

  4. 2009 November 18
    Jeff Lowe permalink

    Hi Chris!

    What about learning from expressive performers?

    For example to learn Spanish late Romantic performance practice, who better to listen to than Segovia:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzmcrm226fo

    PS: Show me a better recording of Torroba’s Sonatina! Segovia’s interpretation is unsurpassed.

    • 2009 November 18

      Learning from other performers is fine for beginners. Advanced players should be more capable of making decisions based their own musical intuition, and experience. A teacher or a musical coach can also be involved with musical decisions.

      I don’t think, however, that we should be slaves to some “master performance.” It’s okay to make different decisions. And because Segovia or Williams played something a certain way does not make it correct.

  5. 2009 November 18
    Jeff Lowe permalink

    What this means is: learning about musical style from performers who really know the style and the musical heritage.

    In other words:
    To learn about Torroba, you cannot listen to Ana Vidovic, …

    To learn about Bach you cannot listen to Narciso Yepes, Andres Segovia, …

    To learn about Albeniz you cannot listen to Xuefei Yang, John Williams, …

    To learn about Barrios, you cannot listen to David Russell, John Williams, …

    To learn about Giuliani, you cannot listen to David Russell, John Williams, …

    To learn about latin american music, you cannot listen to David Russell, John Williams, …

  6. 2009 November 18
    Jeff Lowe permalink

    (When do you progress from “beginner” (as you call it) to “advanced player”? But more importantly:)

    Where do you get that “musical intuition, and experience” that you write about?
    :)

    PS: You wrote “And because Segovia or Williams played something a certain way does not make it correct.”
    -> I fully agree. Esp with Williams. If you play it like Williams, your missing the point! And Segovia’s technical-deficiency-rubato that occasionally pops up is also not good.

    But in some pieces, Segovia’s performing has something special. All I’m saying is: don’t underestimate Segovia’s role in the performance of late-romantic Spanish repertoire.

  7. 2009 November 18
    Jeff Lowe permalink

    I think maby I’m not actually clearly expressing myself here…
    But I’ll try and more clearly substantiate what I mean.

    Here’s something to try out:

    Do you have the sheetmusic of Manuel de Falla’s “Homenaje pour le tombeau de Debussy”?

    ***Please try and get the sheetmusic and play it, and find your interpretation of it.

    After you’re happy with it – only then! – go ahead and listen to this:
    http://www.fundacionjoseguillermocarrillo.com/sitio/audio/segovia/002-2-ESP-AS-0254-13-1793.mp3
    This is Andres Segovia’s interpretation of the work.

    -> I would be interesting to hear your thoughts, then…

    This “experiment” basically happened to me and …
    well…
    …let me just say: I’ve new-found respect for Segovia in his knowledge, intuition and experience of interpreting late romantic spanish works.

  8. 2009 November 18

    PS: I’m not saying you need to play like any one else!!

    You wrote: “I don’t think, however, that we should be slaves to some “master performance.” It’s okay to make different decisions. ”

    I think that’s a very insightful and wise observation and I can nothing but fully agree with it!
    I’m not asking you to copy Segovia. All I’m saying is: to hear some historically-informed “late-romantic spanish style”…

  9. 2012 February 26
    Tom White permalink

    Jeff Lowe – Quite a lot of unanswered posts there!

    I disagree with you both, though. I don’t think that you have to be from Asturias to play Asturias by Albeniz beautifully, and Segovia’s rendition of Bach’s Bourée in E Minor is superb.

    And Christopher Davis, to say that “learning from other performers is fine for beginners” seems a bit narrow-minded. We should always try and learn from as much and as many as we can – whether a beginner or a professional performer. “Musical intuition and experience” comes from what music you have heard and enjoyed, performers you have admired, composers who have moved you and even from things that appear to have no relation to music at all.

    In other words, you should try to be influenced by as many people as you can! Nobody’s style is their own invention – it is just a mixtures of all his/her influences. If you like the way Jason Vieaux plays Bach’s Gavottes (as I do), then find out what it is about his performance that you like and try to bring that element into your own interpretation.

    It shouldn’t matter where the performer or the composer comes from – who cares? If you like the music, you like the music.

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