I am frequently asked by fellow guitarists, fans at shows, students, peers and the randomly occurring but feverishly passionate “Dude, I saw a Youtube video with you in it. You looked like the guy from The Big Bang Theory and that shit was savage!” guy at a party if I have 15-20 second soundbites of that “thing” that can help them be better players, or if not that, then if I have stumbled upon some anciently kept secrets of becoming a better guitarist (read: a faster guitarist) and what they can do to have this knowledge as well.
What is this? Fucking Lord of the Rings, us trotting up to the gates of Moria (like that mega nerd reference?) to knock out some secret passwords which’ll open the doors of destiny, as Joe Pass, Randy Rhodes, Hendrix, Dimebag Darrell, SRV and Chet Atkins all walk out, bathed in light, with four 30-packs of PBR (That’s enough right? I mean, we’re basically talking about 7 people, so 17 beers a person should do it, right?), a portable Weber, some farm raised bison patties and all the secrets of the guitar world to bestow upon you?
While there are absolutely, without doubt and unquestionably no secrets to anything, let alone something as tactile as playing the guitar (I mean, do you think there are “secrets” to table making? Nope. You make a fucking table. If it’s good, it’s a table. If it’s not, it’s a floatation device during a flash flood.) there are, however some things you can do to improve your playing which I routinely focus on and which I have noticed throughout the years that many guitarists, regardless of ability, do not focus on.
Guitarists are famously masterbating tools, and this definitely translates to the practice space, where 99.9% of guitarists strap on the guitar, turn on the amp and just play, man… Just play… (in between bong hits or handfuls of Captain Crunch… obviously All Berries… we’re not barbarians)
OK, sure. Everybody wants to play faster. I get it. Playing fast is cool, makes all of your greasy-haired bros think you’re the shit, makes all of the other guitar players in the world think you’re the Messiah, and makes you feel bad ass (However, against common thought, does not makes chicks dig you. Like at all. Like never. Shredding is like bug spray for hot chicks. Be warned.)
I have built much of my fan base from blazing the shit out of my guitar and melting the faces of much of the first three rows of every concert I’ve given since learning how to pee standing up, so yeah, I get it. I like to play fast.
To me, there are few things cooler to achieve sonically than a massive, epic “wall” of notes, a “sheet” if you will. It’s super killer, especially when balanced with not playing all the goddamn notes in the universe.
Of course the sport of basketball involves much more than that, howeverstrictly speaking for the act of taking 3 point shots, if I were to dedicate the equal amount of time toward the practicing of 3 pointers that Lebron has (I’d be roughly 47 years old at this point), there would be no difference between the two of us (other than him being basically three of me) because shooting a basketball is a technique, not an art or a gift. Playing basketball and being incredible at it is an art and a gift but shooting isn’t. Shooting is technique.
Your muscles, your mind and your hands must NOT THINK. Your brain should be completely devoid from the process. It’s not about thought or art. It’s about the cold and perfect execution of a technique, nothing more.
And, should you be one of the millions of musicians who live in inhumanly packed apartment buildings where your “practice space” is literally a millimeters thick wall from your neighbor’s MMA Body Improvement Zone, which, should you invade the space of which with in all your amplified glory, would promptly result in your neighbor paying you a visit with with his just-gelled faux hawk and just-groomed goatee so your face could have a meeting with his just-manicured fist, then try these things:
2. Talk to your neighbors and ask them when they’re not home. With some careful, thoughtful and open-minded scheduling, you’ll likely be able to find a time when playing amplified will only bother your girlfriend or wife.
Unless you’re a professional reenactment artist for the US Jazz Museum, recreating the glory days of the Benny Goodman Big Band, you should be standing when you perform, which means you should be standing when you practice.
- Wake up from jet lag induced nap
- Pull face from pool of drool
- Stumble around room in panic, not remembering what city I’m in
- Remember what city I’m in
- Drink 3 gallons of black tea
- Realize all the band members have left the hotel for the show without me
- Find it extremely difficult looking around the hotel room for my guitar and gear, because said boutique, super hippy and Boho hotel (owned by Americans strangely) is covered in an impossible to describe quantity of silk drapes, kerchiefs, tapestries and goddamn swathes of every fabric imaginable, creating a constantly moving and changing panorama of colors and light, something like what I imagine Brian Jones likely saw moments before his death.
- Hit THE SHIT out of my head on a book shelf
- Disoriented again
- Stumbling again
- Walk through the medina alone asking random people and Bedouins for the “rock show” (I actually used those words. “Where’s the rock show” yeah….) while bleeding.
- Find gig
- Am kindly, warmly and graciously welcomed to the venue and am then presented with my amplifier which, for the love of christ, seriously looks like in came from a fucking riverbed. I mean, covered in shit and some sort of seemingly oxidized algae substance. Like, completely covered. I thought they were joking.
- Plug in amp.
- Of course, sounds like someone recorded me playing on their iPhone, e-mailed this file to my iPhone, covered my iPhone in bat shit, then covered that in hair and duct tape, then put it into a box and pushed play. So yeah, not good.
- Decide to play through the PA system. The PA system. Yes. No reverb. No nothing. Nothing. Dead, absolutely dead, dry guitar. Like the guitar parts in Mexican pop songs. Like that.
Because I’m a fucking cowboy and realize that regardless of obstacles and getting my ideal sound that, at the end of the day, my playing comes fromme and my fingers and I can translate that to anyone, anytime, anywhere and with anything.
I gratefully have the fortunate situation of getting loads of free gear now, whether it be guitars, amps, pedals, strings etc. but I still play my $100 strat more than any other guitar I have. With stock pickups. Made in Mexico. No mods, nothing. And it kills.
Because when somebody says, my song is “E-A-C#min-B” and you go “Sure, cool” and bust out some seriously beautiful, tasteful, voice-lead, grooving awesomeness, and then they go “Shit man, you’re a genius” you’ll be thinking to yourself “I hope this band gets on Conan with my dope playing so I can play all of my sick ass, tasty inversions for America and be inadvertently watched by a group of chicks having a girls night, one of whom will be Jessica Alba, thereby cementing our destined marriage”.
I currently own probably, I dunno, like 90 different pick types, not because I need or even use them (you only really need one pick) but because I’m constantly curious about finding a pick which perfectly suits my playing, something I have yet to find, not for lack of trying.
I have been using this particular pick since I was 13 and, even though I am seeking to find something better (this pick and I have a contentious love/hate relationship) I have yet to do so, but I am always on the lookout.
My point is that everybody’s either a Jazz II player, a Jazz III player, or a Tortex player, generalizing of course, but that’s definitely what the majority of people are using, in my humble yet vast experience.
I would go as far as saying that your pick choice is more important than your guitar, amp or effects, as your pick has the largest effect not only on how you play but on how you perceive and feel your playing as well, and that being said they deserve much more thought, experimentation and contemplation than most players give them.
Take the 15 bucks that you would spend on some overpriced, overthought, pretentious “cocktail” featuring juniper sprig reductions and preserved lemon exfoliations at the bar where everybody’s dressed like they’re waiting for Wes Anderson to show up and instead buy one of every pick you can find and try them all.
Nobody gives a shit about your technique, your sound, your guitar, your look, your 6-pack abs or your awesome voice if you can’t do any of this shit over a groove and lock into it, and this is something that most guitar players are horribly lacking ability in.
And by “time” I don’t mean sort of aimlessly, kind of, like, you know, whenever you’re not paying attention to something else while practicing paying attention to time, the metronome just on in the corner of the room while you pump out your licks like you’re on a job interview for Guitar and Keyboard City.
I mean practicing the ability to be inside of the music, to be an integral part of what is happening around you, to be able to play even the simplest thing with a lazer-like, knife-sharp groove that needs to no other band members to make people want to get up and move.
For roughly 15 years I have never picked up a guitar without a metronome on (for verification of this, ask my mother and fiancée how much they hate the sound and how it plagues their lives and haunts their dreams) and now, to me, the sound of the metronome is the sound of practicing.
- Drummers and bass players get way more gigs that guitar players
- You have a time feel that drummers and bass players love
- When people ask their drummer or bass player “Know any ripping guitarists” they go “fuck yeah” and call you
- See the end of #5
Regardless of options, critics, insecurity and doubt, you have to believe that your shit is the shit and that the world is lucky to hear your swaggering, elephantine mastery, of which you have allowed them to witness.
This belief will push you to progress and to perform with a command that others will lack and will inform you ability to constantly develop and take risks with the experimentation necessary for artistic freedom because you will have belief and with belief you need nothing else.
Bryan Baker is an internationally recognized guitarist, composer, songwriter, producer and author called “A combination of Ornette Coleman, Trent Reznor, Bill Frisell and Richard James” by DOA Magazine. In addition to having released seven albums as a solo artist, Bryan is also the founding member of hard rock band Black Baptista, electro/post rock group The Readers and the author of the widely respected musical treatise and instructional book “Principles of Music”.