Four WaysTo Play With Your Guitar

I see a lot of students asking how they can improve their playing, what they should be working on or which books to study. What many seem to forget is that we don't work the guitar; we play it, and we should just play with it sometimes.

This is tougher than it sounds. Adults know how to work at the guitar because that's similar to other things we do in life already: working at the guitar is comfortable for us because working is what we do. Yet trying to regress to childhood isn't going to be very successful, first because it's not really possible and second because your goal isn't, probably, to actually play like a child.

So what to do? Here are some assignments.

1: Noodle

Take something that you know how to play but don't feel confident with, or haven't really integrated into your playing. A good one might be the Whole Tone Scale: most intermediate guitarists know one or two fingerings for this scale but very few even at an advanced stage make use of it in improvisations. It could equally well be another scale, a lick or even just a rhythm.

OK, now with this thing just aimlessly noodle around. Don't try to play it fast or to run through patterns. Just find your way around it. And do this for at least twenty minutes. As you get it under your fingers, begin to play it more quickly and to combine it (briefly) with more familiar material such as other scales, arpeggios or licks you already know well.

Like all the assignments in this post, noodling is fun. See it as a self-indulgence that you know most teachers will tell you not to allow yourself. But this twenty minutes is your time to do with what you like, so don't feel guilty about it.

Like all the assignments in this post, noodling can also be educational. Fingerings you thought you knew will be more secure afterwards. You'll have more ideas about what the scale (or whatever) can do and you may have solved -- or at least discovered -- a few technical challenges. You'll have seen how it relates to material you already use, and perhaps begun to discover how it "fits in" with that material. Most importantly, you'll have listened to it intensely, indeed been saturated in it, for an extended period of time.

2: Space Out

This is kind of an extreme version of (1), but the experience and benefits will be rather different.

To begin you need to get yourself into a relaxed state that isn't focussed on your instrument or your fingers. If you meditate or do self-hypnosis, you know what to do. If not, just spend some time sitting in a chair with your eyes closed, relaxing as much as possible. The point is to forget about the details of playing entirely.

Now pick up the guitar and just put your finger down somewhere. Keeping your eyes closed and your body as relaxed as possible, start to play very familiar material but try not to focus on it at all. This is the stuff you know well enough to just let your fingers play it by themselves. Don't concern yourself at all with bum notes, clams, bad tone or anything else. If you catch yourself thinking about what to play, or trying to do something more complex, try to stop doing that.

What you're doing here is three things. First, you're discovering what you can do on the guitar automatically, without thinking. This is interesting in itself. Second, you're practicing playing with complete confidence, and that's an important skill. Third, you're having fun just enjoying the skills you have rather than constantly trying to develop new ones. The experience of playing without any agenda -- or the anxiety that goes with it -- can be pretty nice.

3: Invent

Many improvisors feel as if they're stuck in a rut, playing the same old things over and over. They need something new. One way is to go to a book or website, another is to invent something for yourself. The first is more like work, the second more like play.

To invent something new, put on a backing track and just start trying out random notes. Do not think in terms of patterns you already know: pick individual notes and select the ones that sound good to you. A good way to do this is to put on a track whose key you don't know or -- even better -- ask a friend to play a chord but not tell you what it is. Don't try to figure it out, try instead to invent something new that you'll add to your playing. Don't be anxious about having to find something perfect, just keep trying things out, remembering the parts you like and adding new parts until you have a lick or pattern.

When you have something, noodle with it for a bit. If you still like it, find out what that chord or backing track was and do some analysis to find out how it works. Then continue to noodle with it in your practice sessions until it "sticks". Well done: you've created something entirely yours, and had fun doing it.

4: Experiment

I always hated the term "experimental music", but some play can be experimental. This category is for radical experiments in how you play the guitar. After all, music is just sound, and there are many ways to get a sound out of a guitar. In fact, how many can you find? Maybe you know about harmonics, slides, vibrato... but what else can you come up with using just your fingers?

We already use objects to play the guitar -- plectrums and slides, for example. Pick up something nearby and try using it to make sound with; you might surprise yourself. We also sometimes attach objects like capos to the instrument: try "preparing" the guitar with objects before playing it.

The sounds you get may be initially unappealing. Stay with each technique for a while and tinker around with it. Can you find a sound you might use on a recording, or as a gimmick on stage? Or might you stumble across something more serious than that, like a way of articulating notes that adds expression or texture to your playing?

You may well discover nothing that you want to keep. Was the time wasted? Not if you had fun. Go back to playing the guitar in your usual way and see if the experience hasn't made you more sensitive to the relationship between its physical construction, your interaction with it and the sound that comes out.