How To Sound More Like Your Guitar Heroes
What Does It Mean to Play With "Feeling"?Playing with feeling isn't really a switch you can just flick on and off. It's not like simply scrunching up your face and looking like you're constipated will make your guitar sing beautifully and captivate an audience. Must be hitting him in the feels Well, maybe it works for Santana... Playing with great feeling doesn't seem to be taught or highlighted as much as scales or technique. My guess is that, for one, musical expression is hard to describe. But playing with expression and character is the other half of the equation that makes a truly outstanding guitar player. A grand chunk of our early days as guitarists is spent building up the mechanical skills to be able to correctly play what we want. That needs to get done and I won't try to downplay the importance of it. But there are a lot of guitarists out there who have been playing for a while and have decent chops, but they have yet to discover a proper awareness of musicality - the icing on the cake that gives music its true voice. These are the more subtle aspects of guitar playing, and like most subtle things, it's easy to look over them. But once you become aware and listen for them, you realize how their interplay makes music sound like music. Think of guitarists who make the guitar ... sing! Guitar greats like Jeff Beck or Derek Trucks - these guys seem to have that natural ability to make the guitar's voice come to life. Their riffs and solos are filled with character, depth, expression, emotion, drama ... etc. You may have heard terms like phrasing, dynamics, articulation, rhythmic push and pull, timbre and tonal colors. Look up the textbook definitions if you'd like, but you'll likely find it difficult to understand their significance in isolation. Terminology aside, you can just think of these things as the stylistic choices that can be applied a piece of music to make it sound more interesting, unique and expressive. Simply becoming aware at what great guitarists and musicians do to make their music come alive can open up your world to what's musically possible and get you on the right track to making your own guitar playing sound more musical. Let's get warmed up by listening to a little jam by bass greats Victor Wooten and Anthony Wellington. (Hint - it's often a good idea to critically listen to music that's not guitar-based). Pay attention to how Wooten weaves between soft and loud notes. Notice the difference in tonality between the different phrases he plays (some notes are plucked with more pressure and have a grittier sound, while some notes are played more delicately, sounding sweeter). Notice the space Wooten inserts between notes to add drama and suspense. Now think about your own playing and ask yourself how you would approach soloing over a track like this? I'm no Victor Wooten by any means, but once I started paying closer attention to the subtle musical qualities that made players sound more "musical," I ended up playing less and less like a karaoke brand of guitar player. There are a few things you can become aware of that will significantly help take your playing from sounding mechanical and uninspired to dynamic and a perfect showcase of your personality. My goal today is to have you walk away with a new and curious sense about what it means to be musical and of how you can apply these concepts to your own guitar playing. Below are 3 simple steps you can immediately apply to help you start thinking more musically, sound more like your guitar heroes, and start finding your own voice as a guitarist. Read on to make your guitar playing come to life!
1. Go Back to Easier Songs You Know and Really ListenOne way that can really train your ear to identify musical subtlety is to go back and deeply listen to easy songs you learned in your early days as a guitar player. The experience is kind of like rewatching a movie you used to love as a kid and picking up on jokes/subtle sexual innuendos that completely flew over your innocent child mind (Disney's gotta keep the parents entertained, right?). With this exercise, you'll likely hear elements of the guitar parts you missed before. So go pick a handful of easy tunes, and since you've already learned the songs back in the day, it shouldn't take you long to brush off the cobwebs and start playing them. Take a listen to these songs and try to identify anything you missed. You might realize you never played the part correctly, or you might notice the strumming pattern is different than you thought. I'll give you a fairly obvious example of this is in "Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple - a riff most beginner guitarists learn. I learned this riff - as do most people - by strumming big fat power chords along the sixth, fifth and fourth strings - the root on bottom, the fifth above it and octave on top. If you really listen to how Richie Blackmore plays the riff on the recording, you'll realize that bottom note isn't there. He's not playing power chords with the root, fifth and octave. Rather he plays 4ths (the 4th of the root one is on bottom with the root on top). Also, if you really pay attention, it doesn't sound like he's strumming each chord with a pick, rather, he's plucking each set of 4ths with his fingers. By plucking instead of strumming, you get that sharp and punchy attack because each note is played at the exact same time, versus the slight stagger of strumming a pick across two strings. This is subtle, but it changes the overall effect of the riff. If you have your guitar handy right now, try playing the riff both ways and see if you can tell the difference. Counterintuitively, it's heavier this way! I'll give you another example that blew my mind. A few years ago, I was asked to sub in for an '80s/'90s rock cover band and I had to learn a good 40 songs for the gig. One of those songs was "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana. I already knew how to play the song on guitar and most of my teenage bands had covered it at some point in time. It's a pretty common staple in any pubescent rock band, after all. Whenever we covered the song, I always told the bass player to simply mirror what the guitar was doing. Being such a simple riff, I just assumed the bass line just followed the guitar, played with straight 8th notes. Upon re-listening years later, I realized that every single band I was in played it wrong! If you listen to the isolated bass track below, you'll immediately notice the rhythms are different between the verse and chorus. The really interesting part is how the notes slide in and out of each other during the verses. In order to do that, the bass line is needs to be played exclusively along the lowest string instead of switching between the fourth and third string, like I always thought it had. "Teen Spirit" isn't all that complicated, but I was quite surprised to when I really listened and had my assumptions shattered. What I thought was just a follow-the-guitar bass line is actually played with a little finesse - the choruses are punchy and loud, while the verses are played with a legato, fluid, almost snakelike movement. Listening and relearning the bass part helped give my live performance an added spice of authenticity and character. These examples - although simple - do a good job at illustrating the subtle musical characteristics are often skipped over. By simply becoming aware and identifying these kind of subtle characteristics will massively improve your ear and guitar playing. Action Item for You: Go back to one of the first songs you learned how to play and really listen to what the guitar is doing. Afterward, try relearning the song and apply any new discoveries you encountered. Search for isolated guitar tracks on YouTube to magnify the guitar track's subtleties and let your ears guide you. Now you're becoming aware of subtle musical characteristics. You're already half way there! Next, I'll show you some exaggerated examples of phrasing and dynamics to open your ears to the array of musical qualities that create vibrant and expressive instrumental performances.
2. Expose Yourself to Different Types of Music and InstrumentsOver time, I started to get a better ear for musical subtleties, but it took me a long time to fully realize and internalize these concepts and hear them in action. This was probably because a lot of the music I listened to back in the early-mid 2000s wasn't particularly dynamic (highly-compressed hard rock and metal). Over time, I started listening to different genres such as blues, jazz and classical, and began to understand what musicality actually meant. I'll argue that the best examples of dynamic instrumental performances come through classical music. Even if classical it's not your thing, you can learn a lot from observing what different instruments do in regards to instrumental performance. All of these examples are intended to show you what's possible in the language of music - to expand your musical vocabulary a bit. Let's start with an example that's relatively close to our instrument - classical guitar. First, we'll take a look at Andrés Segovia, who is kind of like the Jimi Hendrix of classical guitar. He did a lot to elevate and bring classical guitar to the mainstream and he created many different sounds out of the instrument. In fact, Segovia described the classical guitar's sonic capabilities as a "little orchestra." This is one of my favorite tracks by Segovia, recorded in 1931 (!). Aside from being a musically and technically challenging composition, listen to how the music breathes and changes throughout the piece. Listen for fluctuations in volume and tone (warms sounds, tinny sounds), rhythmic variations (playing on, behind or ahead of the beat), and overall expression. Let's zoom in on a few particular moments that stand out. Consider 0:37 seconds into into the song. Segovia starts an extended sequence where the bass line (bottom voice) descends, while a top voice plays a repeating series of notes. Take a listen at the top voice line and you might notice this is where a lot of the dynamic variations come in. There's a slight rhythmic variation at 0:42. Segovia starts out playing the phrase ponticello (a tinnier sound played closer to the bridge), and eventually begins playing closer to the guitar's sound hole for a more dolce, or sweeter sound. He slightly gets warmer and then hits you with dramatic tonal shift at 0:57 that also drops in volume. Now listen to the same sequence again and focus on the bass line. It keeps a consistent rhythm and stays at relatively the same volume and tone. But it joins the top voice at 0:57 as Segovia moves his thumb closer to the sound hole, giving it a dramatic shift into a warmer, sweeter sound. Amazing! It would be a lot less interesting if the entire section was played straight without any variation in dynamics, rhythm, or tone. This is kind of an extreme example highlighting a very intimate instrument and what kind of phrasing choices classical musicians might make when they interpret a piece of music. You can get a much better sense of musicality by listening to other instruments as well. Check out this Bach piece by pianist Glenn Gould: Glenn Gould was a beast! I love this video because you can hear Gould humming along with the music and see the expressions on his face and his exaggerated body movements that are directly related to the musical phrases he's playing. His mannerisms are certainly animated (you don't necessarily have to act out your expression quite like this), but I wanted to show some extreme examples so you can see the "human" quality that can be applied to music. And of course, you can hear fantastic examples of dynamic playing with orchestral instruments playing off each other. Check out this piece from Beethoven's "4th Piano Concerto." The piece as a whole tells the story of Orpheus's descent into Hell (how metal is that?!). The deep strings represent hell beings, while the sweet, triumphant, and brave-sounding piano represents the hero Orpheus. For the most part, it's a call and response piece - the strings play and the piano responds. The piece has dark, ominous moments. It also has sweet, tender moments. And how eerie and chilling is it when the piano and strings finally join together at the end? I like to envision that it signifies Orpheus finally being swallowed into hell. Gooosebumps! And undeniably metal. Listening to classical music like this is kind of like sipping on a fine wine and noting its subtle flavors and complexities. The more you sample, the more refined your palate gets. "But I don't want fine wine!" you might be scoffing. That's totally fine. It's not to say this kind of music is inherently better. Sometimes you don't want a $300 bottle of wine. Sometimes you just want some Two-Buck-Chuck to pair with some gritty blues rock! Even if you're not going to be blasting Beethoven on your way to work or dedicating yourself to the classical guitar, you can still check out to these examples simply expose yourself to what's possible from a musicality standpoint. Action Item for You: Make a point to expose yourself to more genres. Give yourself 30 minutes today and go crazy on YouTube. Watch live videos of guitarists, pianists, cellists, whoever - and try to note the differences in each performance and see what you can observe about their instrumental performances that make them come alive. Now you have more colors to paint your music with. Now I'll show you how to apply these to your own guitar playing so you can play more expressively and start sounding more like your guitar heroes.
3. Rely on Your Ear When Figuring Out SongsThis is probably the single most important skill you want to develop that will not only help you identify the subtle characteristics of your favorite players, but also help you become a better listener in general. Over time, my ear has gotten better at detecting the musical nuances in the songs I learn. This skill has not only helped internalize what it means to play with feeling and expression, but it also helped me become a better listener overall. Once that happened, a whole new musical world opened up. I want to give you a few tips based on how I approached improving my critical ear. These strategies helped me not only accurately transcribe and figure out my favorite songs, but also recognize and apply the musical characteristics of my favorite guitarists. This attention to detail will help take your guitar playing from simply hitting the right notes at the right time to commanding the instrument and finding your own voice on guitar. Listen and practice with headphones - this will help your ear tune into musical nuances you might not hear over external speakers. Your ears get more intimate with the music you learn and you start to magnify what you're actually playing. Personally, I like to have my guitar plugged into my laptop through an audio interface when I'm in learning mode. Find a good audio balance between the track you're learning and your guitar's signal coming out of your computer. Do that and you'll be set to hear all those tasty musical subtleties! Use software to slow down/isolate guitars - this step becomes important for figuring out difficult passages that are hard to decipher at speed. There are a lot of great programs out there, but I wanted to give you my favorites to make it easy for you. Most of these come with a free trial so try them out and see which one you like best. They're all pretty intuitive as well. RiffStation QuickTime Player (7) Transcribe! Guitar Pro Ask yourself questions as you listen and figure out parts - consult tabs and music notation while you learn, but trust your ears when figuring out your parts. As you mimic the phrases you're learning, ask yourself questions like:
- Do these notes sound like they're played on a single string or across a few strings?
- Are the notes all picked or are there slides, hammer-ons/pull-offs?
- What's the quality of the vibrato? (Wide, fast, slow, etc.)
- Are there any particular notes that are emphasized within this phrase?
- Are any parts of the phrase played behind or ahead of the beat?