Shortcuts to Guitar Mastery, Part 1

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Guitar mastery is a lifetime commitment.

For a guitarist, the challenge is considerable. The hands need to be perfectly coordinated so that the notes can be sounded as intended. The role of the brain is a whole other ball game.

In directing the hands to play in time and in tonal context, the brain needs to be both driver and passenger. It needs to act decisively in pre-emptive fashion but it also needs to be an alert listener, ready to respond to the surrounding harmonies and rhythms.

Failure to achieve this amazing synchronicity will result in musical or non-musical accidents, some of them train-wrecks.

Don’t let this scenario put the fear into you. It’s not rocket science. The human brain is more than capable. And, as the heading promises, there are tricks to keep up your sleeves.

First and foremost, you should aim to gain a better than nodding acquaintance with the fingerboard. Either learn your scales and modes (never a bad thing) or use the CAGED system to reduce the fingerboard to easily retained grid patterns.

Watching your hands in a mirror as you practise, helps engage visual memory.

You’ll know when fingerboard mastery is within reach because you’ll be able to see the patterns in your mind’s eye and you’ll be more comfortable reaching for the next note or two without having to look at your strings.

Ideally, you’ll be able to readily name the note under your finger and/or quickly determine that note’s relationship to the root note of the key you’re in. Is it a fifth or a flatted-third?

That knowledge will set you free. You’ll be able to express yourself in all musical situations.

But wait. We’re getting ahead of ourselves. What if the tempo is fast? The only way we can play the right notes at the right times is to not get fazed. And yes, there’s a trick to this.

There are two options in order to play fast – playing physically or playing holistically. By playing physically, I mean learning a movement pattern that allows your muscles to do your thinking. Your brain can decide when to start and stop the physical expression. Beyond that the muscles take over.

The holistic choice, by comparison, would probably not be as impressive in terms of sheer speed. But it will likely be musically more adventurous, more inspired, and more rewarding.

The trick to playing well at speed? Believe it or not, to go faster you need to slow down.

Sure, we’ve all heard “play the passage slowly and correctly, over and over without mistake… then, and not before, increase the tempo”. Well, I’m not disagreeing. But there is another approach.

When we first hear a fast passage, what we’re impressed by is the explosion of notes. The more we hear it (or if we use technology to slow down the piece), the better we can grasp what is actually being played.

An alternative approach is to listen less excitedly… listen more passively. And listen to a variety of cleanly articulated fast passages. (Distorted guitar will often confuse you as notes blur into others.)

In your own playing, quite often the real trick is to do what you do with less effort.

Trying too hard makes your playing technique tense. Being relaxed offers better muscle performance, less muscle and tendon problems, and better focus with your musical choices.

Using, as an example, picking technique – the more you focus your mind on the small action necessary to move the pick up and down, the better controlled that action will be.

The result: less wasted motion, more accuracy and increased speed.

Likewise, when you are relaxed, your brain will recognise the underlying harmonies.

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