As we concluded Part 1 of this series, we were looking at different areas you might want to include in your rehearsal plan. Let’s look at some more focus points:
Efficiency – Steve Lukather was one of my favorite players when I was a kid. When he played fast it was like something exploded inside him! But he still had incredible control of his phrasing and his bends sounded like they were crying. One night at an LA showcase gig, I was lucky enough to be invited to play in a group jam at the end of the night, right there on the same stage with Steve! Paying close attention as he began to solo, I immediately realized he was using some kind of magic- his fingers didn’t even move! Well okay, they really were moving, but they were so close to the neck it was more like they were vibrating. Not only that, but he wasn’t breaking a sweat. Instead he seemed to be gliding along the neck. I watched my own fingers flying inches off the fingerboard and I knew what I had to master. It’s taken about 20 years and I’m still playing catch up, but my left hand is much smoother. The less energy you waste, the more you can do and the more control you are going to have. A good way to practice a light touch on the left hand is to press so softly the notes actually start buzzing, and then add just enough additional pressure to get them to ring cleanly. Years later I was filling in on bass at a show, and a bassist came up chiding me, “I can tell you’re a guitarist! Bass players keep all their plucking fingers close together right by the strings.” And guess what you have to do to get your alternate picking to really cook? That’s right, keep the pick close to the strings.
Technique of the Week – Each week pick one technique, scale or phrase you want to focus on and stick it into everything you play all week long. By the end of the week it will not only be a new skill, it will be a standard option in your repertoire. When you move on to the next technique you won’t forget it because you have made it a habit.
Now that you have created your plan, consider how you should implement it physically and mentally in order to get the results you want.
Keep Out of Your Own Way
The idea here is to eliminate anything that could roadblock your success. Even if you are a student or enthusiast, make sure your instrument is set up to professional standards. Get a great sounding guitar amp that compliments your style, so you aren’t fighting your equipment [Carvin Audio has a really nice selection here, btw]. You won’t catch “Luke” if his guitar is faster than yours! Keep healthy and hydrated and stretch out both your body and hands before playing- tension is the enemy. Remember to breathe because if you’re holding your breath you’re also holding in tension. I won’t go into the details, but you need to adjust your body and hand position as well as the orientation of your guitar so your hands, arms and wrists are straight and relaxed (hint: try pushing the neck of the guitar out in front of you at a 45 degree angle to get the kink out of your left wrist and lose the thumb wrapped around the neck). And don’t push too hard. Take a break once in a while and let your body relax, or that paralyzing tension will creep in and sabotage your efforts. Get an experienced player or a massage therapist to show you how to work the knots out of your arm muscles and do it every time you notice soreness or tension there. This is your best defense against tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Carvin Audio's Steve Vai Legacy VL300 Guitar Amp Head in VL Green
Instead of worrying about how fast you can play something, just focus on executing each part of your routine with the best possible tone, technique and phrasing, just like a Kung Fu master’s forms. While you’re at it, listen carefully for any noises you didn’t intend to make, and adjust your technique to mute or avoid them. Next time you play a gig watch all the other guitarists trying to figure out your ‘Black Lotus’ technique! But seriously, once you teach your hands an entire phrase your speed will no longer be limited. You can just tell them, “Play ____ at this tempo,” and you might be surprised to find out they really do know the way. One thought, 30 notes. Now you’re making it effortless!
Pay Attention to the Details Not the Numbers
The great classical master Andrés Segovia is said to have once stopped a student and said, “You rush past many beautiful things in a great hurry.” Music shouldn’t be a competition, and unless you are Steve Vai there will always be somebody faster. If you make every note sound amazing, nobody will be pulling out their stopwatch.
When school let out my senior year of high school, I locked myself in my room for three months, and played guitar all day. Somewhere I had read an interview where Eddie Van Halen said that’s what he did. But sadly, nobody becomes a master in a single summer. When my dad came knocking in September to ask what I planned to do with my life, I knew I still had a long way to go. I told him I was practicing and he said, “You’re more than a good enough guitar player. Go out and start learning how to be a complete musician.” It’s a good thing that I listened to him. After 30 years as a professional musician and thousands of gigs, plus unimaginable hours of practice, I still can’t play the 3rd stanza of “Eruption” as fast as Eddie could when he was 23. But I can play anything I want to, because I’ve mastered being myself.
Good luck and remember – it’s really perfect practice that makes perfect.