How to become a great guitar player quickly?

Have you ever seen some 14 year old girl shred to a Dream Theater song like it’s nothing?

I vaguely remember a headline of an article that went something like this:

“John Petrucci mad that XYZ Youtube persona plays one of his solos 5 bpm faster than him, he immediately went to practice”

Only judging by the information you have up to this point, who do you think is the greater musician?

I sincerely hope you thought to yourself “John Petrucci of course”. But why do you think so?

The answer is: Legacy.

Petrucci dedicate countless of hours refining not only his craft and skills but something WAAY more important:

His musicianship.

He has spent his entire life span and life force to become the great musician he is and writing and composing the music he will now forever leave behind and will be remembered by.

My point is this:

If you want to be recognized as a great musician, It DOESN’T MATTER how good you can play nearly as much as the legacy that you leave behind.

Maybe that 14 year old girl will go far later in life.

But in comparison to what Petrucci has achieved so far, practicing a Dream Theater solo until you can play it 5 bpm faster than the original, really is not that much of a big achievement.

It is simply “just a cover” of a Petrucci solo. Even if played faster.

The ideas and the work originated from someone else’s mind.

This is one of the most ignored part of being a musician.

A lot of guitarists see all those great shredders and aspire to be like them and practice their technique.

But barely any of them work on leaving their legacy.

No creative work whatsoever, only copy cats.

That is why nobody will remember their names a hundred years from now.

If you want a chance for your name to be remembered, I have put together TWO lists of important things you must include into your practice from now on.

The first one is about general musicianship and creativity.

The other one is about guitar specific things to find your own style and play in your own voice.

The next list will help you answer the question what music means to you.

And I don’t mean “I like listening to music, I don’t go anywhere without my headphones”.

I am talking about specific combinations of musical elements.

Chords and note functions, rhythms, dynamics, to name a few.

The more you have that broken down for you, the better you will express yourself.

Most don’t do this and will always randomly piece music together and the results show.

They play something and bang around on their instrument and “hope” it sounds good.

We will take a better and more effective approach:

1. Transcribe music, take small excerpts (only a few seconds at most), write down what they make you feel.

What you associate with them, what images or sounds or sensations do you get in your head when listening?

Doing this will give you insights about how YOU personally perceive music and you should not rush through this process.

So next time you want to start writing some music, you already know what tools you have to use before you even pick up the guitar.

Even if you are not technically super proficient or advanced. You can do this at ANY experience level.

In fact you SHOULD start with this right away. (More about this specific for guitar in the 2nd list)

The next level to this:

2. Play notes over a chord, write down what they make you feel, what you associate with them

I want to emphasize at this point how important it is to really WRITE it down. Just sitting there thinking “Oh this sounds nice, like I’m in a lonely forest” does NOT cut it.

You don’t need to go full on perfectionist about it either, you can always come back and enhance, edit, remove, rewrite your associations later.

The more detailed you get, the closer you get to musical mastery.

The more you take your time and think deeply about how certain music impacts you, the closer you get to decoding for yourself how music works.

This allows you in turn to use the same tools in the same ways as the greatest composers of your time.

This is on some level what they did, either consciously or subconsciously.

The next level:

3. Play 2 chords in sequence, write down what they make you feel, what you associate with them, then 3 chords,…

There are several dimensions to music and how everything influences each other.

The first one I showed you in points 1 and 2, where we looked at sounds in a simultaneous way: Several notes happening at the same time.

Now we look at it in another dimension:

Music progressing over time.

You want to start very minimalistic with this.

You can even go as far as playing only separate notes after another and try to decode for yourself what those note sequences and melodies imply for you.

First without context, later you add more context, like chords to a melody.

4. Write rhythms and determine their meaning to you

This is probably the most overlooked part of music that is taken for granted by virtually every musician who is not a drummer.

Rhythm is another important musical element that affects how you respond to what you hear.

If you have not yet learned how to write rhythms in musical notation, just record yourself playing a rhythm by knocking on something, then listen back on loop and let your mind wander.

Then write down everything that comes to your mind without judging. The last 2 words are important: without judging.

The biggest roadblock aspiring creative musicians experience is self imposed because they judge everything they write waaaay too early in their creative process.

There is a time and place for judging what you have written, but that’s at the END of every creative cycle.

Here is a little blue print for you that you can use to write your music:

Brainstorm ideas (not necessarily musical, but also expressive ideas)

-> Arranging and organizing ideas

-> building the ideas (eg. recording or writing them out and piecing them together)

-> JUDGING

Repeat.

5. Sing, then play. In all different variations, get as creative as you want

This is a big one.

If there is one exercise you can do EVERY day on every musical skill level, it is this one.

It will train you to get to know your instrument AND how to translate the ideas you have in your head to the guitar INSTANTLY.

Here is a process to get started:

Play a note on the guitar for reference.

Sing or hum that note.

Then sing the next note and try to find it on the guitar FIRST TRY.

That is your goal. No second chances.

Then extend the number of notes you play.

You can even incorporate phrasing like slides, vibrato and bendings.

All the technical exercises in the world will never give you the kind of experience this kind of practice gives you.

The next level to this:

6. Record your singing then transcribe it

WITHOUT touching your guitar.

Make up a melody, hum or sing it, record it if you want (especially when you are new to this) and then write down how to play it on the guitar.

Later you can even skip the recording part and do it “on the fly”.

7. Record your playing every day with something self written

My musical development completely changed once I started recording my playing.

My playing got cleaner and tighter because I was now forced to listen to my playing and iron out little inconsistencies.

You can reinforce this even more by recording a riff on two different tracks and then pan one track to the right and one to the left and listen to it over headphones. (NOT Speakers)

You will find many errors that you can now work on and improve to get more control of your playing.

I learned how to apply music theory.

You, too, will learn what works together and what doesn’t.

I got more creative. Meaning: Generating and CATCHING ideas became easier.

You have to branch out into other instruments and find out how they work.

Instead of only focusing only on guitar.

You need to create drum beats and use a piano to put for example string layers to parts of a song.

And lastly:

8. Learn to squeeze out specific emotions out of your playing

That is mostly everything I listed above but IN REVERSE ORDER.

You now start from what you want to express, THEN start writing, instead of asking yourself what some music means to you.

This is where you make the transition from being a listener to becoming a CREATOR of music.

Now let us talk more about guitar specific things that you can do to become a better Guitar Player.

Your new mindset from now on should be:

Application of new learned stuff immediately after learning it on a fundamental level.

Don’t wait until you can play something very well before you start learning how to apply something and combine it with other things.

That way, once your physical skills catch up, your musical skill will have developed already and they are ready to get into action right away.

So here are 9 ways you can start with today:

1. Learn a new scale and start improvising and recording something and never show to anybody

You will never truly understand how a scale works if you don’t take the time to dissect how it sounds over different contexts.

I made that mistake myself for a long time.

I thought simply practicing a scale on a technical level would automatically make me a better player.

I did not even think as far as training myself to APPLY a scale to find out how it works.

Start by playing the scale over a 1 chord backing track, note by note and rest on any note for a while.

Then listen to it carefully to get a sense of what musical color a single note generally adds to the music.

Only after you have some form of answer to that, move on to the next note.

Come back later to the previous notes and refine your ideas.

Once you have laid that out for you, start improvising short simple licks with your new scale.

Then write a little piece of music, like a melody or even chord progressions + melody, with that new scale.

It is best to record your efforts.

You never have to show them to anyone.

They are just a learning experience for you.

2. Learn a new chord, then combine it with other chords, then write a little piece of music with the new chord

Most guitar players never really do this kind of deep-dive into application to learn how ONE single chord works.

It is better to become really good with a few things than just superficially somewhat acceptable with a lot of things.

Whenever you learn a new chord or you encounter a new chord in a piece of music that you like, take that chord and start experimenting around with it.

It is this type of work that you must put in to get the best results for your musicianship as a guitar player.

Play the new chord together with already familiar chords, even if they are not in the same key.

Transpose the chord into other keys and start over.

Explore the possibilities.

3. Play a new chord in many different variations and styles and in many different areas on the fretboard

There are about a million ways to play only the C major chord on the guitar.

And they all have a slightly different character.

You might want to get an awareness of these subtle differences.

Sounds simple, but it will go a long way if you do this for a big enough number of chords.

The next step would be to take a chord progression like C – G and find those variations all over the guitar neck.

Hint:

You can skip strings, leave out notes (play only C and E), turn the chords into 7th chords or add9,…

There are no boundaries.

4. Combine the new variations with different chords

Now that you have found hundreds of new ways to play a chord, match it up with another chord and find elegant connections and voicings between the chords.

5. Combine the scale with a chord

You are ready now to record a little backing track based on your new chord and experiment around with a scale that you think could match well with the chord.

Start improvising, composing, arranging, testing, deleting, rewriting.

6. Learn a new lick and apply it over many different kind of backing tracks

This is one of my favorite ways to practice to play great guitar solos:

Take ONE single lick for a whole practice session and play it over different kinds of backing tracks and try to “make it work”.

You might need to adjust notes, change up the rhythm, move it to a different area on the guitar, add notes, repeat notes,…

Your imagination is your only limitation.

There are no rules in music.

7. Play that new lick in many different variations, you can get as creative as you want

This is different than the previous step:

Instead of playing it over a backing track, you now try to find all the different types of ways you can alter a lick:

Can you play it backwards? Move the first note to the end? Slide into a different scale shape? Change the mode of the lick? (This one is a bit advanced, if you don’t know what it means, either don’t bother or wait for one of my next posts)

HOW else can you change something up?

This is beneficial because all the ways that you discover here can be applied to many other licks that you play.

8. How many ways can you play a string bend, slide, hammer-ons and pull-offs?

Just asking that question will hopefully already give you some ideas.

Bends can be slow or they can be fast, they can be released or bend up higher.

I will not rob you of the opportunity to come up with more ways on your own now 🙂

LAST ONE (but very important nonetheless) :

9. Refine what you play to make it sound exactly how you want it to, spend 1 or 2h just one lick

This is an exercise with an immense pay-off.

But you must stay focused for a long time and not get distracted.

I am talking about taking ONE lick and going through a constant cycle of refinement and asking yourself “what (specifically = which note and how) do I want to change to make this sound better?

Then playing your lick again, you listen, you replay it in your head.

Then you ask yourself again “What do I need to change to make this sound better?”

When you have found something SPECIFIC that you want to change, you try to match what you play to the idea in your head.

That way you will get ULTRA creative.

Not just with that ONE lick but with EVERYTHING you ever play.

Everything I just wrote in this whole post can be summed up like this:

Explore and be curious like a child in a sandbox.

A child spends some time with one shape, then builds something out of it, tears it down, takes a new shape, builds something out of it, takes both shapes and builds more stuff, builds again.

And all that without judging while in the building process.

If you want help from a specialist who has helped thousands of guitar players expand their musical boundaries, I recommend you don’t push your development off any further and get going with this NOW:

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