The more musically you play, the more you will touch your listener’s hearts. But what does it mean to play “more musically”? Music is essentially a flow of melody and groove. Whether you’re playing rock, jazz, bossa-nova, classical, or funk, a flow of melody and groove is always present. So, playing more musically just means going with the flow.
First, rid yourself of a couple of fallacies. Playing musically is often confused with playing with emotion or feeling. If all you needed were feelings, everyone on the planet would be a musical genius. What you want is to play with intuition, rather than intellect. To hone your musical intuition, you must play slowly, paying close attention to specific details. In time, those details will settle and become automatic.
Another fallacy is that more gear will get you there. New guitars, pedals, pickups, strings, effects, alternate tunings, faster technique, special picks, crazy capos—all make little difference in how musical you sound. On the other hand, the following will make a huge difference: your sense of melody and groove; your ability to listen and incorporate the real “blue” part of the blues into your playing; your touch and tone; and your patience for practicing slowly.
Try these six tips to make your playing more musical:
1. Develop a sense of melody
The simple test for figuring out your sense of melody is to ask yourself: Can I sing what I am playing? The great jazz player George Benson can play an entire improvised solo and sing along with it note-for-note. His fingers are not just “doing the walking.”
Whether it’s a blues solo, jazz solo, or fingerstyle arrangement, you should always be able to sing the melody you are playing. It’s a special connection.
Play and sing the melody in Ex. 1 at the same time.
2. Develop your groove
Whether it’s rock, country, techno, blues, jazz, funk, or some crazy subgenre, most music today is influenced by African rhythm. I practice a 12/8 African groove on a hand drum and have a specific way to count different time signatures. By practicing on a drum, you will notice that your touch and tone on the guitar will start to “sparkle” in a new way.
Play the 12/8 rhythm in Ex. 2 on a hand drum or djembe. (You can do it on your legs if you have no drum.) The hands always alternate right-left-right-left, and so on—count “1-2-3-4” out loud (where shown) as you play. For fun, practice this along with the original recording of “Higher Ground” or “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder. This will help you develop body rhythm.
3. Hone your listening
Have you ever heard your own speaking voice on a recording and been surprised at how it sounds? The same is true for your guitar playing. Often you know exactly what you’re playing, but when you hear it back—whoa! It sounds different.
In Ex. 3, do the following experiment to activate your “listening” while you play. Fret a G note—the high E string at third fret. Play the note and let it fade to silence, and follow the sound with full concentration. Next, strum up a G chord very slowly with your bare thumb. Can you make the top note pop out like a melody, and just a tad louder and more bell-like than the rest of the chord?
If you have a smartphone, use the voice memo app to record yourself practicing, then listen back. It’s a super tool.
The simple test for figuring out your sense of melody is to ask yourself: Can I sing what I am playing?
4. Develop your blues feel
The blues is more than a style, scale, or set of licks. It’s a whole set of musical physics. Being “plugged in” to the blues will make any type of pop, rock, country, jazz, funk, and other genres sound better. Even modern pop singers, such as Justin Timberlake and Adele, have a sense of the blues in the way they sing, although you don’t think of them as blues artists.
Ex. 4a and Ex. 4b will help you realize your blues feel. Ultimately, you’ll have to use your ears and guts and go more deeply than what you see in the written example. Play both melodies and compare. Can you get really bluesy with the second one?
5. Develop your touch and tone in the higher register
It’s easy to get a good sound on lower strings, but when you play single notes in the higher register, the sound can be weak, thin, quiet, or scratchy. The reason for this is simple: It’s easy to play faster with a thin sound, and most guitarists like ease and speed. But classical and jazz players pay a lot of attention to getting high notes on the guitar to sound bell-like, with a satisfying, rounded front-end attack and tone.
Play the melody in Ex. 5 first with the flesh of your thumb, which is your fattest sound. Then play it with your pick-hand fingers or a flatpick. How do the sounds compare? Can you improve the tone of the fingers or pick to get it more like the thumb sound?
6. Practice slowly
“Practice makes permanent, not perfect.” With that in mind, practice slowly. Every time you try to play too fast, it’s like opening the oven to see if the cake is finished yet.
The remedy? Allow yourself to get to the place where you enjoy practicing slowly. By doing that, you’ll be repeating only the correct motions and not reinforcing the wrong motions. After that, playing fast and accurately will feel much easier.
Now, rock on, and get to work!
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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