A how-to on the mental and physical side of practicing.
- Develop an internal sense of rhythm and learn to sync your hands.
- Understand how to subdivide.
- Focus on your mental state while practicing.
Guitar is an unusual instrument, yet somehow we human beings invented it and refined it, both technologically and artistically. There are some days when everything flows, while other days it feels like we’re complete beginners again. This is totally normal. If we really considered how much information our bodies are processing just to be alive in our version of the world, perhaps we’d be a bit kinder to ourselves about our off days and humbler about our good days! I want to share a few perspectives on the core technical aspects of playing that can be helpful to work on and remind ourselves of regularly. Let’s dive in!
The guitar can be a sensitive instrument. The slightest movements can cause sounds that are both wanted and unwanted to come out. Some of these sounds are natural and part of the character of guitar. However, even though we can’t be perfect we can aim to be as clean as possible in our playing with a few simple maneuvers.
Ensuring the picking hand is covering the strings without bearing down on them too hard keeps the lower strings in check. Depending on your picking-hand style, you can also use the 3rd and 4th fingers to lightly mute the upper three strings.
The fretting hand’s index finger takes control over a lot as well. The fingertip can fret a note on the 5th string and tuck under the 6th string at the same time. The flat side of the index finger from the knuckle area towards the hand can also mute higher strings.
It’s important to consider the type of sound we’re using as well. The more gain or compression we use, the more unwanted noise can come flying out of the guitar. Even with the muting techniques above, if we’re too “hard” with them they can start to create noise themselves. So, keep this in mind.
Less gain gives a more dynamic tone, which is harder to play with, but much easier to control dynamically and keep clean. This isn’t to say it’s better or worse, it’s a stylistic choice. But it’s worth considering how much gain we really do need. Noise gates can help, but they can’t fix or hide poor muting and out of sync hands. (More on keeping sync later in this column.
Keep these muting considerations in mind as we go over the areas of technique to address.
Confidence and Subdivisions
Our fretting hand does a lot of work. Picking synchronization is very important. We’ll look at this next. However, I’ve got some working considerations for the fretting hand.
There are many exercises we can do, but ensuring that you’re not pressing down too hard on the fretboard is the first step. We don’t have to press hard unless we have unreasonably high action. If your action is high and it’s slowing you down, I’d suggest going up a string gauge and lowering the action if you want to keep the “resistance” feel. When we lighten up our touch with the fretting hand, we find that our fingers generally stay closer to the fretboard, which helps with economy of movement.The next thing to consider is timing. Timing is everything no matter what technique you’re using. If the pistons in the engine aren’t firing at the right time, they’ll go out of sync, all fire at once, and boom, there’s an explosion. I don’t know anything about cars, but it’s an analogy that might make sense. Being aware of the subdivisions you’re playing and where the downbeat is ensures that both hands are confidently making those maneuvers.
Here's an experiment you can try: Take a simple two-octave scale pattern of your choosing. In Ex. 1 I picked a simple D minor scale. The idea is to change subdivisions in each measure. Here, I started with a measure of eighth-notes then went to triplets, back to eighth-notes, 16th-notes, eighth-notes again, and then I wrapped with quarter-notes. No matter where the “1” of the next measure starts within the scale position, we keep the hands synced up. We can make this more complicated by using a sequence of thirds or triads and doing a similar thing. The goal here isn’t to master every position, sequence, and sub-division. It’s to keep testing different areas out, iron out the errors, and keep it fresh. It’s a great warm up when done slow and bound to get you in sync.
We also need to do similar things for the picking hand. The same idea we discussed above about subdivisions applies to picking as well. The extra thing to consider of course is pick direction and string skipping.
It’s worth practicing alternate picking here, keeping the confidence and control in place even if purely for technical reasons, to ensure the technique is as even as possible. Take a melody pattern like Ex. 2, where I repeat the same two-measure melody, but I change fingerings in the second half. This changes the amount of picked notes on each string, which changes different aspects of how this melody can feel both technically and from an articulation point of view. A simple way of getting more out of this exercise is to start with an upstroke. With practice, it can be quite an effective picking workout.
String Crossing and Skipping
A lot of guitar playing uses one-note-per-string ideas which can sometimes trip us up. In Ex. 3, I wrote an easy chord progression and created a picking patter that I could alternate pick without losing momentum. It’s a practice that can never get old. Just get creative.
In Ex. 4 we take a minor pentatonic shape (here we are using B minor and F# minor) and move through the pattern with string skipping. A super-simple idea, but worth spending time on. Simple skipping patterns like these keep your playing fresh and focused.
You’re training an impersonal organic system, respect it!
When we’re practicing, we can get quite contracted and tense. There can be a pushiness and anxiety about the process, forcing ourselves through the practice session. We have a lot of internal commentary about how it’s all going, often quite unfair.
“This lick should be fast by now!”
“I don’t have the technique or natural ability to do this.”
“Steve Vai practiced for 10 hours a day, so should I.”“I’ll never make it as a guitarist.”
All of these thoughts are abstractions as they are not based in reality. What is happening in the moment is practice. Our attention gets divided between these thought patterns and our feeling of anxiety. Very little attention gets spent on really listening and feeling what we’re practicing with no internal commentary. Because of this we become aversive to practice, we feel that practice doesn’t work or that we don’t have a natural ability or talent.
Therefore, wise practice sessions that are simplified and put into short time frames are most effective. It can be helpful to calm ourselves down before practicing so that our practice is effective.
Why do we practice? We practice because it helps us achieve results. We want to play a riff, we listen carefully, we learn the riff, and then we then practice the riff. Generally, that gets results. However, we are impatient. Humans believe that our thoughts can speed up our bodies and brains. This is a misplaced belief. We can set the conditions to get results, but we can’t control the speed at which our body learns. Practicing trains our bodies, our nervous system, our consciousness.
Our bodies are not separate from the world around us; we are what we eat and breathe. Our thoughts are the thoughts we are exposed to, our feelings are consciously and unconsciously triggered by the world around us. We are no different from nature, we are no different from a tree. We don’t will our fingernails to grow, we don’t will our heart and lungs to keeping going. We have no control over our senses, we can’t choose not to hear sounds around us, we can’t choose not to see when we open our eyes. And in the same way, we can’t force our body to speed up.
We must be grateful for the fact we’re alive before we practice, that there’s a body and mind to practice with. Rather than fighting our fingers and our thoughts, we must approach them with compassion. As you’re practicing, your body is busy programming all this information. Just like growing a plant or vegetable, you can set the right conditions, get the soil right, and water it. But you can’t force it to grow immediately, you must treat it with compassion and trust that you’re doing the right process. You can’t plant the seed then as soon as you see any sprouting, start pulling on the sprouts, that will stop growth all together.
In summary: Appreciate your body, your mind, the fact your conscious to even play guitar. Make sure you set reasonable goals in your practice, make your sessions simple and effective. Then, let the practice happen, trust that you’re programming the right information.
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Kick off the holiday season by shopping for the guitar player in your life at Guitar Center! Now through December 24th 2022, save on exclusive instruments, accessories, apparel, and more with hundreds of items at their lowest prices of the year.
We’ve compiled this year’s best deals in the 2022 Holiday Gift Guide presented by Guitar Center.
DiMarzio, Inc. announces the Relentless P (DP299), the Relentless J Bridge (DP301), Relentless J Neck (DP300), and the Relentless J Pair (DP302) for 4 string basses.
DiMarzio, Inc. announces the release of the Relentless P (DP299), the Relentless J Bridge (DP301), Relentless J Neck (DP300), and the Relentless J Pair (DP302) for 4 string basses. The new Relentless P and Relentless J series pickups feature the Relentless cover designed in collaboration with Billy Sheehan.
As with the Relentless pickups, we removed all the hard edges from the standard P Bass and standard J Basspickups, and added an arch to the top of the pickups to bring the sensing coils and pole pieces closer to the strings. These improvements increase the dynamic range and make active circuitry unnecessary.
The Relentless P and Relentless J pickups incorporate Neodymium magnets and produce 70 percent more output than traditional passive pickups, and they’re dead quiet due to the incorporation of metal covers and foil-shielded cables. To dial in (or fine-tune) the individual string output, the Relentless P and Relentless J include eight adjustable pole pieces. These pickups also have a broad magnetic field so you can even bend notes without volume dropout.
DiMarzio’s extra shielding makes the Relentless P and Relentless J better for both recording and stage performances. We’ve mounted them onto robust .09375” thick circuit board base plates to eliminate the annoying protruding mounting screws — ultimately creating a more comfortable and consistent foundation to rest your fingers on.
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Relentless P and Relentless J pickups will breathe new life into any bass, increase playability, and work well for any style of music from Motown to metal.
DiMarzio’s Relentless P, Relentless J Bridge, Relentless J Neck, and Relentless J pair are made in the U.S.A. and may now be ordered for immediate delivery.
Suggested List Price for the Relentless P is $169.00 (MAP $119.99).
Suggested List Price for the Relentless J Bridge and Relentless J neck is $155.00 (MAP $109.99).
Suggested List Price for the Relentless J Pair is $296.00 (MAP 209.99).
For more information, please visit our website at dimarzio.com.
Mystery Stocking is coming soon! Sign up for PG Perks below so you don't miss it.
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About Mystery Stocking
Each year, Premier Guitar likes to put out these mystery boxes as a part of bringing some fun to the holiday season. Remember, this is supposed to be a fun holiday treat! If the contents of this box will ruin your holiday, deplete the last of your bank account, or end your ability to see the good in humanity, it may not be for you.
- This year's Mystery Stocking will cost $44.95. ($39.95 + $5 Flat shipping)
- Each box will be guaranteed to contain $40 or more in value.
- US only. (Sorry World.)
- Make sure your shipping address is correct.
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- There will be NO REFUNDS given.
- There has been a huge demand for these in the past. We really did sell out in less than 4 minutes last year. When they are gone, they are gone.
- One per household, one per person.
Q: What's in the Mystery Stocking?
A: It wouldn't be much of a surprise if we told you, now would it?
Q: Will I definitely get my money worth?
Q: Can I return it if I don't like it?
A: Nope. All sales final.
Q: What if I live outside the US?
A: Sorry, US only.
Q. How much is it?
A. $39.95 Plus $5 shipping
Q. When will it ship?
A. On or before December 10, 2022.
Q. What form of payment do you accept?
A. Credit cards only. Sorry, no Paypal for this.
Q. Can I ship to a different location than my billing address?
Q. I tried last year and didn't get one. Will I get one this year?
A. There is an overwhelming demand for Mystery Stocking. Be sure you have a fast internet connection and be ready when they go on sale. Last year we sold out in 3 min 33 seconds.
Q. I want to buy 5. How can I buy 5?
A. You can't. This year, we're limiting to one per household, so more people can get in on the fun!
For part two of our crash course in harmony for bassists, we’re talkin’ triads.
As bass players, our job is often to indicate and support what is happening rhythmically and harmonically in the music we’re playing. And to do that, it’s important for us to understand the basics of tonality and how it works. In fact, every bass player must have a strong knowledge of harmony to do their job correctly. This month, we’ll continue last month’s harmony crash course with some more ways to brush up on your ear skills, in italics below, so you can do your low-end job effectively.
The basic building block of harmony is the dyad, which gives us our basic intervals. But the basic building block of tonality is the triad, a grouping of three or more tones (root, 3rd, and 5th) that give us the four chord qualities—major, minor, diminished, and augmented—which you’re probably already familiar with.
Just as with intervals, we should train our ears to recognize chord qualities instantly. Start with two qualities (major and minor). Once you can identify those two correctly about 95 percent of the time, add another. Keep going until you can identify all four qualities consistently.
Another great exercise is to take a melody (either major or minor) and convert it to the opposite quality. Start out with something you know well, like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” This may take a while at first, but the goal is to keep on doing these until you can convert most stuff on the fly instantly.
“This feeling of resolution, in some ways, is the whole point.”
Each chord quality has its own distinct sound, but major and minor are related, and both feel very grounded. Because of the 5th in each, our ears can easily hear which note in the chord is strongest (the root), which gives major and minor a sense of gravity. This feeling persists even if we change the order of the notes (invert the chord).
Have a friend or an app play inversions of major or minor triads. Find the root of each chord by singing it. Work towards being able to identify these triads in root position (root in the bass), first inversion (3rd in the bass), or second inversion (5th in the bass).
Pay attention to bass lines that land on a root, 3rd, or 5th on the first beat of the bar and then practice coming up with your own examples.
Diminished and augmented triads are much more ambiguous. Without a perfect fifth (diminished has a b5 and augmented has a #5), no tone in particular sounds strongest. Thus, both chords lack gravity. In fact, to most of us, every tone sounds equal, like being lost in the woods where every direction appears the same. Both seem to want to move towards something else more stable. When this occurs, it gives a sense of release, or resolution. This feeling of resolution, in some ways, is the whole point.
The top part of a dominant seventh or V7 chord is a diminished triad. For example, a C7 consists of the notes C–E–G–Bb. If you remove the C, we’re left with an E diminished triad. This is where the moving sound, or the desire to resolve, comes from. The important takeaway is that we’re making something very stable—a major chord—and making it less stable when we add the b7, because of the diminished sound, which in turn sets up the need to resolve.
Listening for V–I: On a guitar or keyboard play any major chord, then add a b7 (transforming I to V7) and try to hear where the progression “wants” to go next. Move to the new key (a fifth down) and repeat. After twelve V–I progressions you’ll arrive back at the original key.
The Dominant Gateway: On bass, try playing a walking bass pattern over the cycle of fifths, strategically using a b7 to move to the next key. This foreshadowing is a great voice-leading skill.
That's all for our crash course in harmony. If you take your time with these exercises, you should notice not only your ears improving, but your bass playing too!