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How I could Improve as a Guitarist

As a Guitar Teacher I often feel compelled during lessons to present myself as a source of infinite knowledge about music and guitar playing. This partly comes from simply wanting my students to see me as a competent teacher, (who wants to learn from the guy that doesn’t have all the answers?) and partly from the way some of them talk about my playing. When someone is even just a little more experienced than you at anything, watching them do it can seem like wizardry. Watch someone on their second day at unicycle school (It must be a thing somewhere) and their level of ability will already seem incredible to you, someone who is statistically likely to be a non-unicyclist.

So in a guitar lesson I might play what I know to be a fairly simplistic blues lick, only for the beginner guitarist to say “That was really cool I could never do that.” This is the worst thing someone learning something new can ever say, and the worst thing you can cause someone to say as a teacher, because they’ve immediately set mental limits on what they are willing to aim for. And from a personal point of view, if you hear that enough times in a day you’re bound to think...

“Hey, great, I’ve done it I’m an awesome guitarist now and I know everything.”

This thought is the first step on the road towards waking up one day and realising you’ve not improved in years. And that really does make for a bad teacher.

Recently I’ve found that my students do much better when I’m open with them about particular things I’m finding difficult, and then talk about how I’m setting about working on them. I realised that when I do this I’m not exposing myself as a charlatan, but instead I’m doing two things.

1) Presenting myself as a fallible and more accessible musician to my students. Suddenly the guy on the unicycle isn’t some impossible and terrifying wizard that you can never hope to emulate. He’s a guy that’s a bit better at unicycling than you because he’s spent more time on it and practiced well. He can show you a few tricks if you’ll let him.

2) Demonstrating effective techniques for breaking down a challenge in to its component parts in order to take it on effectively, improve gradually and ultimately achieve my aim. This bit is really important for students to understand why I set the exercises and songs that I do, and for them to see the same approach being used successfully by their teacher.

So in the interests of bettering myself, here’s a couple of holes I’ve spotted in my own musical ability, and what I’m doing to remedy them.

1. Playing unbroken lead lines over non-diatonic chord progressions.

One thing I’d like to improve on is playing more fluidly across unusual sets of chord changes. A common thing to see in a lot of guitarists who aren’t used to playing over jazz-style chord changes is that they often revert back to basic arpeggio playing in this situation. That’s ok as a starting point, but as guitarists often learn things in ‘shapes’ as opposed to actually learning the notes they’re playing, what you often hear is a series of disjointed arpeggio runs lasting a bar each.

This means that they often end up being stuck rhythmically as well because they aren’t able to extend their run for longer than a full bar. That’s not quite the situation I’m in, but I’m not where I want to be either. I often feel like I’m just about getting by with that style of playing, and I’m not really able to experiment in the way I would with a more ordinary set of changes, unless I spend time in advance analysing the song to find out what I can do with it. I’d like to be able to spot ways of linking the chords as quickly as if I was just playing the chords themselves.

Plan for improvement.

· Revise linking single arpeggios across the neck.

· Analyse several songs that use non diatonic chord progressions and look for common similarities. Eg I’m good at spotting when songs have borrowed their chords from the harmonic or melodic minor scales. Another common one is the altered scale, but I’m less adept at recognising it. Another common one is flicking between major and minor keys based off the same root note.

· Record and improvise over four chord turnarounds where two of the chords don’t fit the key.

· Build back up to playing over full sets of changes in previously unseen songs.

2. Chord Substitutions.

One thing I’m generally very good with is chord knowledge. I’m pretty happy playing just about any chord anywhere on the neck of the guitar. However one idea I haven’t played with much is the idea of chord substitutions. An example of a useful one would be playing a minor chord based off the third of the tonic. So for instance if your song is resolving to a D major, playing an F#m7 (as long as at least one other band member plays the D) would give you a Dmaj9. This is because the F# note of the minor chord works as the third of the D, The A note as the fifth, the C# as the major 7th and the E note as the ninth. It’s a really lovely sound, but I don’t regularly use these ideas in my actual playing, and feel like there are more options available to me that I’m not aware of. The main reason I want to improve on these is to give me an enhanced repertoire of sounds that I can use in my performing and song writing. The guitar is restricted to a maximum of six notes that can be played at any one time, and restricted further by the tuning and the reach of the players’ fingers. Using chord substitutions is a handy way to play very extended chords by ignoring the more fundamental notes of a chord and focusing on its extensions.

Plan for improvement.

· Work out one new substitution per week.

· Spend that week writing and recording chord progressions over which I can implement the new substitution.

· Use the ones I like in performances with my bands to fully integrate them in to my playing.

My plan is to improve upon these elements of my playing, make some recordings and add them to this blog post. I will then add some new challenges for self-improvement in order to demonstrate that there is always more that can be learnt.

#guitarlessons #guitarlesson