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Practice Triangle III: Technique

The third leg of our practice triangle is something you shouldn’t be surprised to hear a guitar instructor promoting: technique.

What is technique?

Let’s define technique as “a measure of one’s physical ability to execute musical ideas.” The musical ideas part is important: Just being able to play scales and arpeggios quickly is not musical technique. It’s some kind of physical skill, sure, but it doesn’t become musical until you use it in a piece of music.

Having good technique also doesn’t just mean “shredding.” Even a slow, simple rhythm part benefits from good technique. Work on your technique, and everything will sound tighter.

The Backlash of the 80’s and 90’s

When I first began playing in the 80’s, I read a lot of guitar magazines. Back then, way before the advent of blogs, the “Letters to the Editor” section of a magazine was one of the few ways to get a sense of how members of the guitar community felt about current trends. I noticed that every month, a few readers would express disdain for the prevalent shred culture, praising guitarists like Andy Summers and the Edge for their sonic innovation and attacking the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen and Vinnie Moore for apparently stressing virtuosity over sincerity, technique over content.

Any trend is bound to spawn a counter-trend. After shred culture gained the favor of guitar geeks in the early 80’s, a backlash seemed inevitable. At first I figured that critics were simply acting out of jealousy, but I suppose there may have been some legitimacy to their resentment of wanton shredding. There are surely artists who play to impress, more than to express meaningful musical statements; and a person may only need to hear one such artist (or witness their sometimes ludicrous displays of glam behavior) to be convinced that any artist who performs technically challenging music is unworthy of serious appreciation.

I was a defender of the style, for a few reasons:

  • Everyone has different musical ideas to express, and sometimes, heavens forbid, those ideas might be highly technical. In other words, this sort of music is going to exist, and someone’s gotta play it.
  • In many cases, there is sincere and soulful content in the music. Yngwie seems to be the whipping boy of the anti-shred movement, yet I believe his style to contain lyrical phrasing and a pleasant tone. He plays fast because he can, but that doesn’t take away from his musicality. Others, like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, are likewise fine musicians first, guitar shredders second. I have heard plenty of guitarists who cannot match their technical prowess with melodic inventiveness, but their existence doesn’t invalidate those who can.
  • This seems to be exclusively a guitar problem. Do you see debates over the importance of technique among students of the piano or violin? Is John Coltrane lambasted for being a highly technical saxophonist?
  • If you don’t practice to be a better musician, what do you practice for? Is music supposed to be performed only by the unschooled? I recall a documentary in which punk artists whose careers began in the late 70’s lamented the fact that they eventually got better at playing their instruments, which alienated their early fans, who apparently felt that better playing equals lack of artistic integrity.

In the 90’s, while I worked in a music store, a fellow salesperson and I half-jokingly referred to the 80’s as “the time when people could play their instruments,” as we watched one young guitarist after another playing (poorly) riffs from songs by then-popular Marilyn Manson and Kurt Cobain. At the time, my resentment of the decline of “music for musicians” in the 90’s hindered my ability to appreciate the fact that gratuitous technique had given way to craftier songwriting; and eventually I would mellow out. But it’s all about balance. Somehow, thankfully, groups like Dream Theater and Pantera, and solo artists like John 5 kept some kids interested in technical music; and today we have seen a resurgence through the new forms of metal, and soloists like Guthrie Govan and Tosin Abasi.

The Importance of Technique

I have mentioned mostly artists who play heavier styles of music, but no matter what style of music you prefer to play, developing your technique needs to be an essential component of your practice regimen. If you’re an acoustic guitarist, look to flatpickers like Tommy Emmanuel, Tony Rice, and Doc Watson for inspiration. Fingerstylists have access to an impressive range of techniques, thanks at first to Michael Hedges, who began a trend that continues through artists like Andy McKee. Country has its own shredders, like Ricky Skaggs and Brad Paisley. Blues is often a style that many would regard as antithetical to shredding, except in cases like that of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Bonamassa, and (post-90’s) Richie Kotzen. Jazz and classical are both genres for which technical ability is a prerequisite; you can hardly call yourself a jazz or classical guitarist without demonstrating a respectable amount of technique. The most skilled performers in any genre are worthy of our admiration and emulation.

Even if you’re a hobbyist, intent on merely strumming accompaniment for campfire songs or playing in a bar band, there is no downside to working on your technique. At all levels, in all circumstances, we want to sound better. If your preference is an unschooled, lo-fi style of music, exemplified by alt rock artists like The White Stripes or Beck, let your “sloppier” moments be the product of choice, not necessity. You may be surprised how many grunge and alternative artists have masked the extent of their skills.

What and How to Practice

There is so much material in print and on the internet pertaining to technical exercises that any recommendations made here would be superfluous. What matters most is that you find something to work on, and dedicate some time to it. I can, however, provide some tips for getting the most out of your practice:

  • Remember that technique is only one third of a complete practice triangle. Dedicate equal time to technique, improvisation, and repertoire.
  • Use a metronome! It is going to frustrate you, and you will often be tempted to leave it alone; but it is one of the best tools you have for developing your technique.
  • Play slow to play fast. If you can’t nail a passage at a ridiculously slow tempo, why would you practice it at a higher tempo? Don’t bump up the beats per minute until you can perform the passage effortlessly and with almost no concentration.
  • Be patient. Don’t expect to see results within hours, days, or even weeks. But sometime, a year or more down the road, you’ll play something and suddenly realize with pride that you couldn’t have done it so well a year before.
  • There are four categories of technical exercises: scales, arpeggios, musical phrases (discussed below), and for lack of a better term, other stuff. The other stuff might be a clever sustained chord arpeggio you came across in an Al DiMeola tune, or an extended performance technique, like two-handed tapping or whammy divebombs, that you feel you could use some work on.
  • Write your own drills, using musical ideas as inspiration. This is one of the best pieces of advice I can give a student. If you encounter a passage that gives you trouble, turn it into a sequence; loop it, pass it through multiple keys or across different strings, or in some other way make it a repeatable drill that is more challenging than the original phrase. Having trouble with a string crossing? Come up with a drill that includes even more challenging string crossings. Is a phrase containing a six-fret left hand stretch giving you trouble? Write an exercise that calls for a seven-fret stretch. Here’s an example from a recent lesson: I was working with a student who was having trouble with a couple of consecutive double-stops. My prescription was for him to come up with a way of harmonizing the major scale with double-stops. I played an example so he could get an idea of what it would sound like, then challenged him to figure out how it’s done, and practice the resulting exercise with a metronome. After that, just two double-stops in a row becomes trivially easy.

That last tip, coming up with exercises that use musical patterns, and not just stepwise motion through a scale or arpeggios, is so powerfully important. Jazz students are very familiar with this approach. When a saxophonist or pianist learns a new lick, they are sure to practice it in all twelve keys. Thanks to the CAGED system, guitarists only need to learn a lick in five positions rather than twelve keys, but the concept applies. Rehearse a lick through all the changes of a chord progression, through the circle of keys, upwards or downwards chromatically or in whole-steps. Be inventive.

The benefits of crafting your own technical exercises go beyond merely playing more expertly. Doing so also develops your ear, and enhances your composing skills. Write down what you come up with, and you’re also building your engraving and transcription skills. There is more to technique than playing notes; every musical act is an expression of technique.

Recommended Resources

Like I said earlier, there are plenty of resources out there for anyone who spends a few minutes with Google. But here is a short list of some of my favorites:

  • For those beginner through intermediate students (many of my own included) learning from Mel Bay’s Mastering the Guitar, there is a nice supplemental series that contains technical exercises corresponding to the main lesson material. Check it out at Amazon.
  • Jazz educator Jamey Aebersold offers an impressive catalog of materials at jazzbooks.com. Even if you aren’t a jazz musician, you’ll find some great texts there.
  • Jack Zucker’s Sheets of Sound for Guitar is a ridiculously vast collection of exercises that can easily last a lifetime of practice. I personally have barely scratched the surface. Just a heads-up, though — there is less of an emphasis on alternate picking than there is on economy picking.
  • I have gotten a lot of mileage out of Oliver Nelson’s Patterns for Improvisation. There’s some very challenging stuff in there, and much of it conforms to my recommended approach of practicing musically interesting phrases.
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