Pedagogical Errors Were Made
One of the first lessons that guitar students are taught is the 1 note per fret 1-2-3-4 chromatic alternate picking exercise. While this is typically presented as an initial exercise to gain coordination – it has a very limited long run value. As a static exercise, it should be discarded from your regimen immediately because
you play what you practice
If you want to play semi-chromatic ideas at high speeds moving in 4ths – this is a great exercise to use. But it’s a boring sound, a boring exercise and doesn’t translate well into everyday performance.
“But Scott”, you might posit, “it’s just a warm up exercise. It isn’t something to play at a gig.” Then it’s a further waste of time as
everything you play should be something that translates to live performance
The Physicality Of Practicing or How To Lose A Gig
Here is a gig nightmare story that illustrates the point of proper technique versus strength. Since the embarrassment here is all mine, all of the names will be on the record for my moment of shame. Years ago when I was working at Sandy’s Music, one of my co-workers “Skinny Mike” Feudale wanted to see if I could play a gig with his rockabilly/psychobilly band – The Speed Devils. Mike is a great songwriter and the songs on the Speed Devil’s cd were really strong and lot of fun to play. The Speed Devils had a gig come up in NY and needed a lead guitarist to sub in. If it worked out – it could be a regular gig – but there were some rules.
1. I had to look the part – fortunately the drummer Judd had a vintage bowling shirt I could squeeze into
2. I had to play a vintage amplifier. Fortunately I had just gotten my vintage Gibson amp back from Tom at AzTech electronics (truly an amazing amp guy) – which sounded and looked great.
3. I had to play the Speed Devils guitar. This was a hollow body that Mike had fixed up and completely vibed out (full flames and dice for volume knobs) with heavy gauge strings and high action to push the volume a little more.
We rehearsed the set once or twice and then went to the gig a couple of days later.
On the way from Boston to NY, I didn’t have time to warm up so I was doing some finger exercises to limber up my hands. I was experimenting with a lot of grip master type things to strengthen my hands and try to fix my pinky (which was really quiet with hammer ons). We got to the club and I found out that there was no mike for my amp. The only thing going through the PA was the vocals.
This is the point of the story that I should mention that while everything was fine when we had rehearsed at low volumes; my 15 watt amplifier could not compete with the rest of the band in a club setting. As I was inaudible I started strumming louder, and with the live adrenaline kicking it, I started fretting harder as well. Between the heavier string gauge, the higher action, the underpowered amp and the over-tensed playing- I blew my hands out by the second tune.
My hands were so shot that chording was difficult and soloing was all but impossible. I limped through the rest of the performance – but nothing came out the way it was supposed to. Needless to say, I didn’t get the gig – a sound decision by the band – but I was really angry with myself because I had unknowingly sabotaged myself before I even got there and had I taken a different approach – I would have been able to play the show much better and not let the band (and myself) down.
The Physicality Of Practicing (slight return)
Playing an instrument is a physical endeavour. You can push your muscles too hard and hurt yourself badly playing the same things over and over. (Trust me – performance related injuries are not fun).
Having said that, this isn’t weightlifting. You don’t need muscular hands capable of cracking walnuts to play guitar well – you need hands that can move fingers quickly and independently – a fast twitch muscle versus a slow twitch muscle. This leads to a little secret that students generally don’t get exposed to in rock guitar lessons
hammer on volume comes from the speed the fingers strike the string not the force
In terms of volume, the most problematic finger is typically the pinky. One habit that I had to fix (and that I continue to see in a number of players) was the improper attack of the fret hand pinky on the strings. (In case you’re wondering about proper form, I’ve reposted some of the information from the Glass Noodles arpeggio post below).
Here’s a good way to visualize the fret hand finger motion you’re looking for:
Put the palms of your hands on a table. Now without lifting the palms up, tap your fingertips one at a time on the table starting from the pinky and ending on the index. You’ll notice that the fingers stay curved and that the large knuckle of each finger is responsible for the tapping. This motion is what you’re looking for in this process. Notice that you don’t need to hit the fingertips very hard against the table to get a crisp attack.
The concept of building up your hands like biceps – is just ridiculous. The goal of guitar performance is to keep your hands relaxed so you don’t blow them out in a gig or on a session.
How I warm up now
When I warm up now – I play scales and arpeggios, switching between chord voicings of tunes I’m working on and improvising around various patterns at low tempos and paying strict attention to
The 3 T’s in Performance: Timing, Tone Production and Tension
(remember these – this awareness could save you untold time and pain later!)
In general – you just want to make sure that all of your fingers have had a little blood flowing in them before you begin to play for any length of time. I do this with a timer for 5 minutes (more or less depending on how my hands feel).
External warm up devices are kind of goofy to me. Have you ever seen a runner go into a gym and max themselves out on a legpress before they went for a long run? Do you really think that putting mechanized unfocused tension on a finger is going to make it play a musical passage more efficiently?
The necessity of making mistakes
Along with the forthcoming GuitArchitecture books, I have also put substantial time into a general book of guitar technique. In addition to discussing specifics of practice and performance methodology – I also took the 1-2-3-4 exercise and broke it down into every possible positional variation as a way to develop technique. The book is currently 256 pages. The majority of which are the 864 individual graphics that had to be created and placed in the text.
Midway through this process I started to question the mistake of basing any technical study on such an exercise – or the concept of musical exercises in general. (Again the point isn’t to have svelte waistline or huge muscles – the point is to be able to play melodic and harmonic ideas more readily.)
I came to the conclusion that if the 1-2-3-4 example could be approached as a way to develop a systematic approach to generating both melodic ideas and melodic variation it could also benefit readers as a technical study as well.
Mistakes are teachable moments
It’s easy to see a mistake as something to learn from in a practice room session but harder to see it at a gig. If I walked away from the Speed Devils show and just said, “That gig sucked – so I must suck as a guitarist” I would have missed a great opportunity to see there was something very wrong in what I was doing. The gig taught me in addition to making sure that I had proper preparation and the right tools for the job that tension does not equal volume – and that lesson has been more beneficial to me than any lesson I could pay for.
I hope this is helpful to you!
Thanks for reading.
“You play what you practice.” Such true words… the pinky hammer on and pull off is something I am struggling with but working on. I think your advice might help though. I have definitely been using more of an “every joint involved, jabbing motion” to compensate for the weakness of my pinky. I think more focus is needed on keeping it relaxed and using the same motion I use for my other fingers, and just letting it develop.
I guess it’s similar playing barre chords. At first they won’t sound cleanly, until the muscles in your fingers adapt to the new demands through consistent repetition. Does that sound about right to you?
I have a couple of mentions of it in various posts – but here’s a short but for you.
Put your palm on a flat surface like a table top.
Tap your fingertips (very important – finger tips not finger pads) on the surface. You’ll notice that your fingers all curl and that the tapping comes from the large knuckle. That’s more of the motion that you want whenever possible.
It’s not just practice – it’s proper practice with proper technique.
I hope that helps!