No matter how good you are, you are always looking for ways to improve your guitar playing. Sometimes you get in a rut or you are busy in other parts of your life.
Every so often it is a good idea to ask yourself – have I learned anything new lately?
7 Exciting Ways to Improve Your Guitar Playing
The thirty day challenge is a popular motivational tool in many genres. We know that habits form after 21 consecutive days and 30 days fits in nicely with most months.
For our sake, we are not really trying to form a habit as much as bring our playing up a notch. So how can a 30 day challenge help improve your guitar playing? Well, first let’s understand what the challenge involves.
You’re going to pick a social media platform – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, it doesn’t matter. Once you choose your site, you are going to record yourself and post everyday. This does not have to be complicated, you can play a chord progression, improvise around a theme or whatever else comes to your mind.
Don’t want to be on camera? Focus your phone on your guitar. Don’t want your friends to know? Create a fresh account just for this purpose.
The benefits are plenty: you will have a timeline that will force you to play. With recording, you will hear things that you may not hear while you’re playing – some good, some bad. You will also be able to look back at your recordings and hear how you have grown. Finally, all of the sites mentioned above have some type of feedback loop – likes, comments, etc. Even though you are doing it for yourself, hearing some positive comments never helps.
2. Radio Play Along
This is one of my favorite guitar challenges. Set up the amp, bring out the boombox and tune in to the local classic rock radio station and try to play along.
This is particularly great to develop your ear. There is no pausing or rewinding, so you have to figure the songs out quickly. If you don’t, oh well another song is starting!
Not only is this a good exercise for playing by ear, it will also force you to play songs that you may have never chosen to play. I have discovered some really interesting chord progressions, riffs and licks by doing this. While my go to artists may be the Stones or Led Zeppelin, when a Cars song comes on, it can really be refreshing.
3. Change the Key
Take three of your favorite songs to play and change their key. Not just a half or whole step but as far away as possible. Going from the key of E to the key of C# can be challenging. All of those open strings are not available anymore. If you are a newer guitarist, you may even struggle finding all of the chords.
Struggles and challenges will make you better at the guitar. It is also good practice for when you are playing with a vocalist that needs the key changed. In a live situation sometimes keys are shouted out and the musicians are expected to transpose on the spot. This exercise will have you more prepared for a live situation.
4. Learn Another Stringed Instrument
Whether it is the ukulele, bass, violin, mandolin, banjo or one of the many other stringed instruments out there, they can all give you a new appreciation for the guitar. All of the stringed instruments have fewer strings than a guitar*. There are two ways to look at this – the guitar has the burden of having more strings or he has the benefit of having more strings.
Tuning wise, the ukulele is probably the most similar to the guitar. This can help the guitarist learn the neck better, especially on the higher strings. On ukulele, you often play chords where the lowest note is not the root note.
A banjo is basically an open G chord. Banjo licks can be easily transferred over to the guitar. With the banjo, it is not the fret hand as much as the picking hand. Banjo players, particularly bluegrass and old time, have ways of picking that most guitarists never learn. Just transferring some of these styles can add to your guitar playing greatly.
Every guitarist figures they can easily play bass to the chagrin of any bass player! Think about it though – a bass player can’t stop in the middle of a song and rarely plays chords but most good bass players understand chord structure as much, if not better than any guitarist. When I first learned some bass lines, I was surprised at what notes I was using. A good bass line does not just stick to notes in the blues scale or chord – this was a great lesson for me and I never looked at bass as “easy” again.
*(While the mandolin has eight strings, they are actually four pairs.)
5. One String Wonder
When we learn scales, we generally learn patterns that can easily be shifted to another fret to change keys. Generally, we play two or three notes on a string and the next note in the scale on the next string. What if you only have one string to play?
While it is often not practical to play a solo on one string, it can also be a fun challenge. You may be surprised by what you come up with. You will also be surprised at how looking at the scale in a different pattern can change your thought process. It is like looking at an upside down map.
6. Try A New Genre
As guitarists we love the instrument and the musical art form it creates but often our playing is limited to the repertoire of our current bands or our favorite songs.
Assuming you play rock and roll, you can try a different genre of rock – metal, acoustic, surf, grunge. Players in these different genres all have their own tricks. Metal players know speed, acoustic players usually have a good ability to add some great harmony notes, grunge players take distortion to a whole new level, often with few notes and nobody knows more about reverb than a surf guitarist!
Expand even further – try jazz, country or even flamenco. Guitarists who don’t read well are often intimidated by jazz and classical because they often require sheet music. But with YouTube, you can find someone to teach you a jazz standard on screen. Maybe you become the next Wes Montgomery, but you will learn some chords you never used before. By the way, Wes Montgomery couldn’t read music and is considered one the best guitarists in jazz.
7. Experiment with Different Tunings
The first rule about guitar tunings is: there are no rules. We usually think of open tunings for slide guitar and weird acoustic Led Zeppelin songs. Many acoustic guitarists experiment with different tunings – check out Stephen Stills on CSNY’s DejaVu Album playing Carry On. All of his strings are tuned either to a D or G. It’s crazy – no chord form you are familiar with will sound the same – but the possibilities are endless.
Ever hear of the Nashville Tuning? The lower four strings are tuned an octave higher. Generally, this is used when multiple guitars are playing. Two guitars can play together to sound like a twelve string but then can mix it up throughout the song.
I hope you try some of these techniques to help you improve your guitar playing. The guitar is an amazing instrument with endless possibilities.
Keep on Picking!