Honestly, it’s so simple that you might wonder why it wasn’t obvious, but it’s not. The first step to playing better is to start noticing why you can’t.
Everything we do on any instrument has two elements, mental (intentional) and physical (mechanical). On guitar, we direct the hand to the notes we want to play. We develop technical control – “chops” – so the hands can respond accurately. But we also learn about the instrument – and about music – so we can give better direction.
I don’t mean to say you should always be thinking when you play – for me, a good night is when I play well WITHOUT having to think about it. But when you’re trying to solve a problem, you want to shine a light on it. Take a good look at the details: not just where the fingers go but how you’re using them. Is there a difficult reach? Are notes being choked or muted? Which fingers are you using, and is there another way? Is the problem in the mechanics of following direction, or are the directions fuzzy?
The way most of us learned guitar from the beginning actually sets us up for a disconnect down the road. Think about how you learned your first chords: probably as visual formations or shapes. Memorize the shapes and learn to apply a strumming or picking pattern, and you can play a song. We do it this way because it’s effective and is the quickest way to get a student to a functional level. The problem that creates is that it teaches us to hold static shapes, so all we’re thinking about is where the fingers LAND – but not how they get there.
So if the fingers aren’t landing where they need to, pay closer attention and see if you can identify exactly what isn’t working. Maybe one finger is consistently missing the mark. Maybe the fingers are moving too far away from the strings too allow you to get back in time for the next chord. Or maybe the fingers can’t comfortably reach and you need to adjust your hand position. These are all details you can observe if you take the time to.
Take a step further back and think about the bigger picture. Are you sitting or standing? Is holding the guitar comfortable or awkward? Is there something you can change that would help make you more comfortable? How do your shoulders and neck feel? (Many people hold tension in their upper body that limits both the free movement of the fingers and the ability to swing the strumming hand or pluck). I hear over and over again from students that they never even thought to consider these things. One of the biggest things that allows me to help them is that I have the experience to know what to look for when I see and hear particular problems. This is something you can learn to do as well.
I have a playing ritual I call “checking in”. Over the course of a set or practice session I’ll do a quick mental check of my body to see if I’m gripping too hard, tensing up, slouching too much, or holding my breath (to name a few common issues). This is a great habit to get into when practicing and performing. Essentially it’s a big-picture evaluation of what’s happening, and when I react to the feedback my body gives me I immediately start playing better.
When we “check in” on specific details like reaching a chord, the information you’ll get is more detailed: for example, the amount of bend in your wrist or curl in your finger. These details make a big difference, and as you learn more about mechanics you become more and more able to solve problems based on what you observe. If you can’t yet, you’ll at least have a clearer picture of what your challenges are.
I’m not looking to oversimplify: practice is essential and it takes work, time, and repetition. Focused, thoughtful practice is the most powerful approach. So the first step in effective practicing is a very simple one…when you pick up your guitar, pay attention. Notice what is and isn’t working, as specifically as you can. You can’t solve a problem that you can’t articulate, so seeing the problem in detail is the first step in solving it. I’ve been playing guitar for 35 years now, and the area I’ve improved most over the last 25 is in my ability to see and solve problems both in my own playing and in my students. My primary goal is to help you develop that same skill, and over 30 years of teaching have shown me that it can be done regardless of your technical ability or experience.
So open your eyes and ears…next time you play, just observe. That’s the first and most important step. We’ll work through specific issues in more detail as I continue to add to this blog.