I have been woodshedding and teaching all weekend – including a guitar student who is learning very much from scratch the classical route, repertoire, and technique. Then, another client for whom I provide more of a singer-songwriter consultancy session, overhauling both voice and guitar accompaniment to improve both the technical chops of each and the overall performance. With an end goal of building a set for busking and gigging everything from Nina Simone to Radiohead.
I always played guitar as a teenager, but in my mid 20’s embarked on a serious revision of my playing. I re-started classical tuition with a film score composer and former student of both Julian Bream and John Williams. In stepping right back to the beginning, I had time and space to really think about the following: tone, space, position, percussion, phrase and phase, dynamics, impact, texture and surface, fingers and fingernails, tension, volume, sound production, light, shade, emotion, narrative , left hand/right hand independence and co-operation – and the importance of every singe pluck and strike.
The guitar has a huge range of expression and I have learnt to play or aim to play as I would sing – aiming to make every note count. Here’s some random top ten tips which can be applied to a range of guitars, genres and playing styles. (These suggestions assume right-handedness – sorry lefties!) Useful for students and for teachers. If you can engage at least some of the time with these, it will add an edge to your playing that makes all the difference. By the way, whilst effects are a thing of joy, I would suggest stepping away (for now) from the SupaHendrixTurboMojoVibe pedal until you can create expression with just the bare basics – acoustic or clean amp sound.
* Don’t let anyone tell you that vibrato is inappropriate or tasteless.(Whilst playing 16th century madrigals for instance – oops!) Practice it anyway as a matter of course until you have the strength and balance and thus choice, to employ it or not. It can be the subtlest, sweetest thing and is a natural part of song. Try telling a bird not to trill!
* A good practice method is to drill a piece of material, taking it through a different sonic ‘rinse’ each time. Be imaginative and have fun. Play the piece ‘like a lullaby’, or projecting ‘to the back of the Royal Albert Hall’, rising in volume as you rise in pitch, ‘as though your life depends on it’ or ‘with compassion’, ‘sunnily’ in a ‘purple’ way. ‘clean’, ‘dirty’ extra legato or staccato, or with a different tonal weight and colour for each phrase.
* Speed, technical tricks and advanced scale patterns are not as communicative as groove and feel and a simple idea played with assurance and not too quickly. Most listeners are hit by music on a subliminal level first. Relax and they will too. Also, silence speaks. Honour the spaces. Can you say what you want to say with less notes altogether?
* Never underestimate the value of the minor pentatonic scale. Know your fretboard and fingerings and you can build in passing notes, morph into blues or aeolian or relative major territory. Simple tools, infinite expression.
* A decent classical instrument has a big contrast between the left hand ‘tasto’ side of the sound hole (soft, muffly) and the right hand ‘ponticello’ (hard, metallic) area near the bridge. Get your strumming hand used to traversing these areas mid-phrase without looking.
* When playing on electric, experiment with striking downwards with the plectrum and nail simultaneously, literally crash into the string. With quite a lot of left hand bend and enough amp gain, you will get a pleasing pinched harmonic jazz/rock/soft metal effect. (but if this genre is not pleasing to you, avoid at all costs!)
* Make your phrases, riffs, solos and even chords more interesting and clever by looking at the punctuation of how you get into and out of every single note. Can you side up to the note? How about sliding off as you finish the note? How about rapid vibrato followed by fast slide up? Go through your piece with a toothpick and make decisions and fix them.
* A decent semi-acoustic guitar is also a drum, more so when amplified. Use the heel of your right hand to downstroke and damp/chop the chord at the same time. This can be very funky and ‘vibey’ especially when contrasted with more lyrical passages.
* Especially if you are still studying, you might want to remember the following general rule: The left and right hand are like 2 brains with different roles that interconnect but are independent. Both have to be relaxed and precise. The left hand is not there to express or be percussive or forceful or tense or effortful. Its job is to create accurate pitch. I see new students pressing too hard on the fretboard with the left hand, whilst neglecting the dynamic bite and expression of the right hand, which is what creates the tonal expression and velocity. Play like this for too long and you will get very sore left hand fingers and left shoulder tension and right hand fingers that feel ineffectual and weak plus an aching right hand wrist from overcompensating. (Obvious exception to this rule is ‘tapping’, where both hands are fretting, hammering and plucking.)
* Lastly, Silence speaks. Honour the spaces. Can you say what you want to say with less notes altogether?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this. So who are the most soulful, most expressive guitar players? In terms of resources I would be hard pressed to cite my favourite guitarists for illustration of this – there’s far too many, both alive and deceased and all too different to compare. We should all listen, research and learn widely. But here’s just a few suggestions. Check out: Orianthi Panagaris (herself a keen devotee of Carlos Santana) Malina Moye, B.B King, Albert King (died 1992) and Emily Remler (died 1990).