Once I heard the singer Jai Uttal respond to a fan who had said “I want to learn to sing like you.” Jai said (paraphrasing) “oh that’s too bad, I think you should learn to sing like yourself.” How do you teach guitarists to sound like themselves? How can you help them find their own musical voice?
The recent student concert we had was, as usual, a ton of fun and really showcased each student’s musical personality. We had everything from original compositions to famous rock/pop songs to jazz to heavy rock. As head teacher, I personally love this type of variety and self-expression in our students, so I gave them 100% leeway in choosing their pieces.
As I usually do every year, I made a montage that featured clips of each student who played the student concert and used it in a Facebook ad. And, also as usual, we received lots of likes as well as a small percentage of comments that were critical. One said: “Great. So you can play like everybody else. And sound like everybody else. Doodleydoodleydoo. Oh wow!, just like crapton!”
What this commentor was referring to, most likely, was that one student in particular chose “Layla” as their performance piece, and had learned the solo note for note. I chose not engage with the commenter on the thread because there are always nay-sayers with whom exchanges are rarely productive or useful.
However, I thought it was good that he brought up this question that is very important to me. I believe that everyone has a voice and it’s the job of a music teacher or school to help the student find it & let it shine in his or her own unique way for the benefit of the world. So how should teachers do it?
Starting by Imitation is OK
When you first start learning to play (any instrument, not just guitar), it’s completely normal and even recommended that you should try to imitate your favorite players. I did this, and so does everyone who ever achieves any significant level of personal expression on the guitar. If you don’t believe me, just ask your heroes whether they started out ignoring or deeply exploring the licks, solos, or songs of favorite players.
The irony of the commenter criticizing the School (Guitar Lessons Ithaca) for doing this is that we didn’t teach the student the solo at all; he learned it via YouTube videos and Ultimate Guitar tablature. I wouldn’t have had a problem with teaching the student the solo note for note, it’s just that they had already done it by the time they signed up for lessons.
Although I have to add that teaching guitar is so much easier and fun now because we have such technology. Back in the day, the teacher would have to transcribe every note in standard notation or tablature while the student just sat there and waited during the lesson; then you’d hand them the sheet at the end and say “here, go practice it!” Nowadays, we can concentrate more on the theory & musicianship principles to be gleaned from the piece without having to get stuck in the weeds with teaching every single note.
Phrasing and Technique Skills Come to the Forefront
When you learn the individual notes of a solo, most likely it still won’t sound like the piece you are imitating. This is because the phrasing isn’t exactly right. There are many aspects of phrasing that you need to master on guitar in order to sound like your heroes, and those aspects are both rhythmic and technical in nature.
Are you bending the string at the right moment? Are you bending it to the correct pitch? Can you integrate the bend with the vibrato that comes upon its release? These are examples of some of the technical aspects of phrasing that learning a solo note for note can bring up. And it’s a good thing that they’ve come up, because now you, the student, is much more motivated to learn the techniques than if they just showed up to a lesson and out of the blue I said “today we’re going to work on your phrasing.”
Here are some more specific aspects of Rhythm and Technique.
Varied Strumming Patterns: Guitarists must be able to execute various strumming patterns accurately and consistently. This includes downstrokes, upstrokes, and different combinations of both to create rhythmic patterns.
Making Smooth Chord Changes: Smooth and timely transitions between chords are crucial for maintaining a steady rhythm during song accompaniment.
Keeping Time: Guitarists should develop a strong sense of timing to stay in sync with other musicians or backing tracks. They must be able to play at a steady tempo without rushing or slowing down.
Playing with a Metronome: Practicing with a metronome helps guitarists improve their sense of timing and develop a solid internal pulse.
Rhythmic Accuracy in Melodies: For fingerstyle players or those who play single-note melodies, maintaining rhythmic accuracy while playing different note durations is essential.
Understanding Time Signatures: Familiarity with common time signatures like 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, and others is important for interpreting music correctly.
Syncopation: Guitarists should practice incorporating syncopated rhythms (off-beat accents) into their playing to add interest and variety to their performances.
Reading Rhythm Notation: Being able to read and interpret rhythm notation from sheet music or tablature is vital for learning new songs and exercises accurately.
Playing in Different Styles: Developing rhythm skills in various musical genres (e.g., blues, rock, jazz, country) allows guitarists to adapt their playing to different styles and grooves.
Playing in Different Time Signatures: Expanding beyond the common time signatures helps guitarists handle diverse musical pieces and challenges their rhythmic abilities.
Playing with Percussive Elements: Incorporating percussive techniques (e.g., palm muting, tapping on the guitar body) adds rhythmic interest to acoustic guitar playing.
Finger Placement and Hand Positioning: Proper hand positioning and finger placement on the fretboard are essential for playing with accuracy and efficiency.
Strumming: Developing a variety of strumming patterns, including downstrokes, upstrokes, and combinations, is fundamental for rhythm guitar playing.
Fretting and Pressing Down: Learning to press down on the strings cleanly and with enough pressure to produce clear notes and chords is vital.
Barre Chords: Barre chords (using one finger to press down multiple strings) expand the guitarist’s chord vocabulary and are essential for playing in different keys.
Picking Techniques: Developing a solid picking technique, whether using alternate picking, hybrid picking, economy picking, directional picking or fingerstyle, is crucial for clear and articulate note production.
Legato: Learning to execute hammer-ons and pull-offs allows guitarists to create legato lines and smoother transitions between notes.
Slides: Slides add expressiveness to guitar playing and can be used to connect notes and create interesting musical phrases.
Bending: Developing control over bending strings to reach specific pitches is important for adding emotion and character to guitar solos.
Vibrato: Mastering vibrato techniques allows guitarists to add warmth and sustain to their notes, enhancing their musical expression.
Palm Muting: Learning to palm mute effectively adds a percussive quality to guitar playing and is commonly used in various styles.
Pinch harmonics are produced by lightly touching the string with your picking hand’s thumb while picking. This creates high-pitched harmonics for a unique, squealing sound. Popular in rock and metal.
Sweep picking involves smoothly “sweeping” the pick across strings while playing arpeggios. Used in shred and metal, it creates flowing, rapid notes.
Tapping uses fingers to tap frets for quick, expressive notes. Pioneered by Eddie Van Halen, it’s common in rock, metal, and experimental genres.
In part 2, we will discuss some of the other ways teachers can help students find their own voice, like learning the theory behind the piece and developing their overall musicianship.
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