Whether you’re playing rock and roll, jazz or fingerstyle (or any other kind of music!), playing guitar boils down to the same essential concepts: tone, fluidity, comfortable technique, understanding of chords ( and how they work together) and scales, and polishing a piece to performance-readiness. Behind that are the things that give you the larger context: historical awareness, theoretical understanding of how a piece, solo, or phrase makes a musical statement, and the nuances of playing with other musicians.
I generally try to make music reading a component of all students’ curriculum. It’s really not that hard, and there are simply some things that reading can teach you can’t get otherwise. In addition, it makes available to you a very vast library of printed music – just think: almost any music you can think of, from Black Sabbath to Korean court music of the 17th century, has been transcribed and is published somewhere!
I feel very fortunate to have had teachers that taught me a solid, relaxed technique; so far – knock on a solid spruce top – I haven’t had any problems with tendonitis. At all times, in any genre or repertoire, we should always be striving for as relaxed and comfortable a technique as possible, being conscious of using our whole upper body – forearms, shoulders, torso and back – to play each note.
Composing is an under-appreciated way to learn. A piece of music need not necessarily emerge from your most personal, self-expressive place. It can simply be a bunch of doo-dads and riffs that interest you. Or an amalgamation of things you want to practice (a series of dom. 7 #11 chords, a piece about the rhythm of 5 over 2, a piece that uses Locrian modes, a piece in 7/8). No matter how you come to write a piece, it’s bound to open a door into your musical voice.
For motivated students, particularly those interested in improvising Jazz, singing is invaluable. Learning to sing a solo by Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, or Miles Davis is a tremendous way to improve your “hearing”. Singing songs is also wonderful, even if you never plan to do it in public. Unlike wind players, guitarists don’t have pause to breathe when they play, and so the art of phrasing isn’t “built-in” to what we do. Singing can teach you about melody. Whatever you’re practicing — scales, chord progressions, songs – you should also sing.
Jazz and “Jazz”:
Don’t confuse jazz with music theory. Sure, theory is an inevitable component of the jazz vocabulary, but you don’t learn jazz to learn theory – you learn jazz to play jazz. Unless you have an abiding love for some major jazz musicians (e.g. Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Django Reinhardt) and/or an affection for the Tin Pan Alley/Broadway repertoire (i.e. “Body and Soul”, “All The Things You Are”, “Stardust”), the theory you learn simply isn’t going to stick. Play the music you like to listen to, and that you can envision yourself playing with other people.
The ideal is a regular, inviolable time set aside each day for guitar playing. It can be right before breakfast, right after dinner, etc.; the important thing is to stick to it as much as possible. You will get results with this routine, even if you only play twenty minutes a day! If you do this five days in a row, it will be much easier to keep going than it was to start.
What should I practice?
Scales: although I feel the role of scales is often overrated in improvisation, they are essential to a complete practice regimen. Think of them as meditation. Practice not so much for velocity as cleanness and evenness of tone and volume. Use hammer-ons and pull-offs.
- 7 Major modes x 12 keys = 84 scales
- 12 Melodic minor scales x 7 positions = 84 scales
- 12 Pentatonic scales x 5 positions = 60 scales
- 2 whole tones scales x various fingerings = » 12 scales
A) over songs (chord changes)
B) free improvising (perhaps with a time limit, for focusing)
Play pieces you have worked on before: when pieces are played repeatedly over a period of time, they mature and grow. Keep your repertoire current! Keep a list of pieces you’ve worked on, and play everything on the list once a week.