It’s that time of year again—time to focus on the arbitrary “end” of a year and think about all of your good ideas and intentions that went unfulfilled. This means it’s time to make hollow promises about how much harder you’ll try and better you will be in the next year (never mind the fact that you can decide to change at any minute, on any day, of any week or month of the year). Editorial calendars demand resolution lists and I’m here to deliver. I’ll leave you to your own devices for the major life goals, but I’m happy to help on your guitar-related resolutions.
The first thing you can do to improve your playing and break out of ruts is to play spontaneously. The easiest way to do this is to leave a guitar out and ready to play at all times. Sure this might annoy your spouse and isn’t the safest option if you have toddlers or wild pets, but picking up a guitar as you are crossing the room can lead to some really fun discoveries. I try to leave an acoustic out on our main living level and I keep an electric out in my “guitar room.” I’ll pick them up randomly and strum a chord or play a riff. Usually, it’s something I’ve played or heard a million times, but sometimes, the spark of creativity will strike and I’ll be graced with a new song idea. At worst, I played guitar for a few minutes and as a result, my day was better.
A healthy guitar is a happy guitar. And a healthy guitar is one that is clean, professionally setup, and always wearing a fresh set of strings. Think of a setup as the guitar equivalent of physical fitness. You wouldn’t run a marathon (or a lowly 5K) without training. A professional (or amateur) setup is the equivalent of training for your guitar. Comfortable (to you) action and accurate intonation are imperative to playing well. A good setup can make the difference between a guitar that you can’t stand to put down and one that you can’t stand to play. Cleanliness is next to godliness and every guitar enjoys good hygiene. Yes, the look of a well-worn guitar is cool but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wipe your guitar and strings down (especially after gigs and rehearsals). Oils and dead skin have a way of collecting on strings and hardware and can be harmful to the finish and just plain disgusting. Speaking of strings, for the love of God, man, change them at least quarterly (every few weeks for a guitar that is seeing more than a few hours of playing time per week).
Learn Basic Maintenance
No, I don’t change the oil in my car myself. Time is money, and my time is better spent playing guitar than working on a car. I learned that lesson years ago when I saved a few hundred dollars and lost an entire weekend replacing the water pump in a Ford Taurus. I’m not suggesting you learn to do everything needed to maintain your guitar (unless you want to). But some basic maintenance will help you better understand how your guitar works and can save you on a gig. You can learn just about everything you need from The Guitar Player Repair Guide by Dan Erlewine. You can learn to do a full setup, perform fretwork, and replace pickups and other electronics, and more. Or you can also learn to do basic intonation, properly adjust pickup height, or tighten a loose jack or tuning peg. Even if you only read the book and never perform any of the work, you’ll be able to better communicate your needs to your local luthier.
We all know that you have impeccable rhythm and that it’s the drummer, bassist, or whomever else that is always rushing the beat. No one has ever become a lesser musician by honing their rhythmic skills so it can’t hurt to focus more on your timing. The first step is to spend some time each week practicing with a metronome. Sure, it’s boring, but so were the flash cards you had to practice in elementary school. Quick, what’s six multiplied by seven? Don’t be tempted to use a drum machine with a more elaborate beat (at least not all of the time). The monotonous tick-tock of the metronome is exactly what the doctor ordered to build your computer-perfect timing. Practice at a range of tempos and with both rhythm and lead playing. Also, record yourself playing along with the metronome and listen back. I’ve found that for rhythm playing, my timing is pretty damn good. When it comes to leads though, I rush the beat like a six year-old careening down the stairs on Christmas morning. Once you’ve done the metronome routine for a while, you can reward yourself and practice playing in rhythm with tap tempo delays, trems, and other effects. But again, record yourself and listen back with an open mind.
Clean-up Your Act
I have a thing for low-wattage tube combos and I rarely have the urge to play acoustic guitar. There is no doubt that I use the distortion and compression from the aforementioned amps as a crutch in my playing. If you have the same kind of amp preferences or always play dirty or with a compressor, you are equally guilty. There’s nothing wrong with playing like this, but if you ever have to switch to acoustic or play through a higher headroom or (God forbid) a solid-state amp, you are going to be in for a rude awakening. To stay on your toes and vary your technique, I recommend spending a few hours a month playing acoustic or running direct into a PA. It will force you to pay closer attention to your pick attack, your vibrato, and even your note choice.
Don’t be a Space Cadet
Not unlike compression and distortion, reverb is common security blanket for the electric guitarist. There’s nothing like a good wash of reverb to hide sloppy playing and make you sound better than you are. But that same spatial goodness can hide intricate playing and make your carefully crafted guitar parts fade into the background. I’m not telling you not to use reverb. I’m sure as hell not going to quit using reverb. Not while my Caroline Météore or Catalinbread Talisman are still kicking. But it’s important to know when to use reverb and when to lay off. I recently had the displeasure of playing in a long, narrow bar with a polished concrete floor and sparingly adorned brick walls. I never once engaged the reverb on my Princeton Reverb and used my Météore for only a few distinct passages. That’s an extreme case. Even under normal playing circumstances there are times to lay off the verb. For example, on fast songs, heavy reverb can make things sound mushy and ill-defined. And when trying to make a solo or lead stand out in a crowded mix, reducing the reverb can help. In short, listen to the room, pay attention to tempo, and adjust your reverbs accordingly.
So there you have it, a few easy resolutions to improve your playing in the coming year. And don’t worry, if you end up reading this in May or June, a new year is starting every second. Don’t wait until the next January 1st to make changes to your playing. Start now!