There are no easy shortcuts, but here are approaches to make you a better guitarist sooner.
The Internet is awash in tricks and shortcuts that promise to give us a pass on the effort usually required to accomplish our goals. As with get rich quick schemes and weight loss without diets or exercise, there’s no shortage of web resources that promise you can be a great guitarist without ever addressing the musical foundations.
From “secret licks” to dumbed-down arrangements of jazz standards, it’s easy to fall into a “get good without trying” mentality. After all, who doesn't want something for nothing right now?
I’ve got bad news and good news on this score. There are no shortcuts. But luckily, it's fairly easy to build a strong foundation as a musician. In this edition on Guitar Notes I'll break down the three fundamentals of music and how mastering them will transform your guitar playing.
Having a great guitar to play like one of these beauties from Gibson Memphis will make practicing the fundamentals of music effortless and fun!
Melody is music’s DNA. It's the element that gets the copyright and separates all of the songs out there that share the same chord progressions. If you're learning jazz or bluegrass, it's tempting to start improvising over the chord changes right away. But learning the melody is essential to not only playing the tune live but also understanding the intention behind the music.
Learn the melody for every song you work on even if it's not the guitar part. If you're learning a jazz standard, considering the lyrics’ meaning can be useful in interpreting the melody. A great resource for jazz standards is the Hal Leonard Real Book Vol 1. (There’s also a CD-ROM version.)
If you don't read music it's not too late! Start slowly and commit to studying a little each day. While you might not read notes with the fluency you read English, you'll soon be able to pick out a melody for learning purposes.
This may seem obvious, but when you write a song, always have a melody! Riffs and chord progressions are great, but no melody means no song. A melody is generally more simple than a guitar solo and often repeats itself throughout the song. Spend some time on this part of your composition and you'll find it has a stronger identity and resonates better with listeners.
Hal Leonard’s Real Book Volume 1 is a great resource for learning melodies and chord progressions to jazz standards.
As guitar players we spend a lot of time playing chords. It's very important to understand how harmony works and that starts with the chords of a major scale. That is the place to start. Every time you learn a new song, take the time to analyze the chord progression. What key is it in?
Most songs begin or at least end on the tonic or root. Once you establish the key, you can number each chord that follows. A basic example is I IV V, which would be C F and G in the key of C. Understanding chord progressions makes improvising over them much easier. When you do improvise over harmony, be sure to play over every chord change. Knowledge of harmony is also a great asset when writing songs. If you compose using chords from the same key, your tunes will have a cohesive and logical sound. Using logical harmony takes a lot of the guess work out of writing chord changes.
Understanding rhythm and having a solid time sense is crucial to making good music. Using different rhythms when improvising and composing music makes everything more interesting and creates variety for the listener. The power of rhythm is so strong that it can make wrong notes sound tolerable. On the other hand, bad time makes even the best notes sound mediocre if not outright bad.
To start building a heightened sensitivity to rhythm you must understand the most common divisions of the beat. Put your metronome on a quarter-note pulse then use your pick to play one, two, three and four equal divisions of the beat. Using these divisions in your guitar solos will inspire both you and the musicians you play with (especially drummers).
Another rhythmic exercise involves swinging the rhythm as opposed to playing it straight. This is a common technique in jazz and hip-hop. Swinging eighth notes takes the straight count of "1 &" and makes the first note longer creating a "doo-ba" sound. Sing those syllables on each quarter note of your metronome to firmly implant that swung eighth note in your head. If you don’t have a metronome, get one. Musician’s Friend has a large selection of metronomes in stock to match any budget.
Lastly, spending time on a drum set is a great way to sharpen rhythmic awareness. Drummers generally don't deal with melody or harmony, so rhythm is where it's at on a drum kit. And playing drums is a blast!
Pairing a metronome with your favorite axe will take your rhythmic awareness to a new level.
So there you have it, take those Internet schemes with a grain of salt and attack the fundamentals to become a complete guitarist. Melody, harmony and rhythm are the building blocks for creating great music. Until next time, keep playing!
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Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing several nights a week in the legendary Kansas City jazz scene. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach and has a book and DVD titled Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard. Find Brian on Facebook and twitter.