10 Tips to Becoming a Better Guitar Player

I finally joined the late 20th century and bought a decent computer. I’ve been working on an Apple Mac LC-475 for 6 or 7 years. Tiny little thing. I was just about to switch over to a PC when I had a good look at the iMac brochure. After due consideration, weighing up all the pros and cons, comparing the two technologies, I decided that having a green computer was the only way to go. Green, to match the philodendrum that sits next to my desk. Seriously though, I’ve always admired the wonderful logic of Macs, and I found a shop here in Brisbane that were doing a good deal on them. What a computer! I took it out of the box, plugged it in, turned it on and there it all was. Ready to go.”Blinding speed”, the ad says, and blinding it is. Comes with the latest Netscape, Explorer, Adobe PageMill etc. etc. etc. The first thing I did was revamp my site. What luxury to have five or six applications open at once, to zoom between them at light speed. It sure makes this Internet thing easier.

I felt the same thing years ago about guitars. I had been playing for Four or five years. I can’t remember the brand of instrument I was playing. It was a nylon string Spanish guitar, the rosette around the sound hole was a decal, it was a piece of crap. My playing had hit a plateau, and my plan to master the instrument was looking shaky. I just couldn’t do the things I wanted to do, and I thought it was something to do with me.

Then I went to a music shop and played a good guitar. It’s still with me, leaning over there against the wall. A nylon string Goya, made in Sweden, a real guitar. Within minutes of buying it my playing ability had doubled, no, tripled. I had been wasting my time on the other thing, limiting myself to it’s mediocre workmanship.

If you’re one of those players — frustrated in your playing by an inferior instrument — do something about it. Either get it fixed up (if that’s possible — some cheap guitars are so poorly made that they can’t be adjusted) or save your money and buy something decent. You won’t regret it.

And how to find the perfect instrument? I’m asked that question all the time. “What kind of guitar should I buy Kirk? What’s a good brand?” My answer is always this: There is no such thing as a good brand. Sure, Gibson, Fender, Ibanez, Gretch etc. are all ‘good’ brands. They meet a certain standard. But there are some great guitars out there of unknown brand, and even out of a hundred seemingly identical ‘good brand’ guitars, there will only be 10 or so which will really be outstanding and only a couple greats. The rest will be good guitars, but I’m talking about upgrading to an instrument YOU LOVE to play.

You’ll know it when it happens. My favorite guitar is still my little Gibson nylon string I bought maybe fifteen years ago. I was in a shop and was intrigued because I didn’t even know Gibson made nylon strings. I picked it up to try it out and was still there plunking away a couple of hours later when the shop was closing. They couldn’t pry it out of my hands so I bought it. I had to have it. It was made for me.

I digress. I titled this article ’10 Golden Rules I just made up’. Here they are:

  1. Get tuned up and stay that way. There’s no excuse these days for being out of tune. You can pick up an electronic tuner for just a few bucks these days. If your guitar doesn’t stay in tune, or is out when you play up the neck, chances are you need new strings. If it’s out of tune with new strings, have the intonation adjusted.
  2. Listen.
  3. Pay as much attention to what you don’t play as to what you do. In other words, let the music breathe, let it be an exercise in contrast. The holes you leave make what you do play sound better. Even if you don’t hear it at the time, your audience will. The great players we know and love wouldn’t be household names if they over-played. They’d be sitting at home wondering why the big break hadn’t arrived for them.
  4. Listen.
  5. Avoid alcohol when playing. It makes you sound bad and look stupid. A few years ago, my band, The Train, was playing in Sydney at a venue where a certain ex-Rolling Stone, had been playing the night before The manager asked if it was alright if he got up with us and had a play. We were thrilled of course. “Yes, by all means”. Unfortunately, he was pissed as a fart, couldn’t play a thing, kept stepping on MY effects pedal, was abusive and I had to ask him to desist. Alcohol. (Mick, if you get to read this, it was at The Bridge in about 1995. I know you won’t remember. I hope you’re feeling better)
  6. Know what you’re playing. Never play anything without knowing its context, how it fits into the tune. By that I mean: know what key you’re in; know what chord is being played (the chord of the moment) and its role within that key; know which notes you’re playing in the context of that chord (is it a I, II, III, flat V, VII) etc. This becomes automatic after a while. It’s hard work at first, but stick at it until it does become automatic. Playing away without knowing what it is you’re doing will get you nowhere fast.
  7. Listen.
  8. Play within your own limitations. We’re all made differently. Some of us have long quick fingers, some of us are getting old and stiff. There is nothing worse than listening to someone trying to play beyond their capability. Much better to make beautiful music with one or two notes than to go for twenty and muff them all. Lucky for all of us. playing guitar was never a contest.
  9. Let the song rule. Guitarists often think they are indispensable. So do drummers and bass players and keyboardists… I won’t even mention singers. The fact is, the piece of music is boss. Let it be so.
  10. Listen.

There. I’m sure many of you have different ideas about the discipline of being a guitarist. These are mine.

Have a look at the new-look PlaneTalk site. All of a sudden, I can do anything I want design-wise. I have so many options, the difficulty has become settling on one. In all the hours I spent changing my pages, this iMac didn’t freeze once. I love it. Don’t forget, if you still haven’t ordered PlaneTalk, the ‘trick’ to keeping track of all music is written in and illustrated in it’s pages. The Guitar Slide Rule that comes with it is so revealing that even I, its inventor, marvel at it. All for the cost of a couple of lessons! And now, you can order it through a secure online shop. How much easier could it be?

Those who have ordered it (thanks) won’t even be reading this. They’ll be playing the guitar. You can read some of their comments on it at the Testimonials page at my site.

Until next time.

– Kirk Lorange (written in 1998)

Kirk Lorange is one of Australia’s best know slide guitarists. He is also the author of PlaneTalk guitar method. Check out his sites: www.KirkLorange.com and www.ThatllTeachYou.com