Masterful technique isn’t always flashy.
We practice technique so we can be fluent on the guitar. Hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, grace notes—there’s a reason these techniques are called articulations. They’re what Frank Zappa called the “eyebrows” of music. They’re expressive.
When I name modes like phrygian, aeolian, and lydian, some players would accuse me of being pretentious and technical. But though those terms might sound arcane, in truth each of those scales has its own unique mood, its own character. When I say “aeolian,” I’m thinking of that scale’s brooding, dark feel. “Lydian,” meanwhile, is quite happy-sounding for the most part, but with just a touch of twisted dissonance. It sounds like a sunny day gone slightly wrong.
Learning the guitar is like learning any other art: even if you learn masterful control of every extended technique the guitar offers, you’re still just getting started—because the whole point of learning absolute command over your instrument is to use those skills to create something cool.
Guitar Technique Can Be Subtle
Of course since you and I are guitarists, we’re technique connoisseurs. We’re impressed by the techniques of other musicians and guitarists because we know how much sweat, tears, and persistence went into, say, Steve Vai’s command of double-tapping.
But masterful technique isn’t always flashy. In my decade of guitar playing, I’ve encountered plenty of passages that are a real bitch to play—yet they need to sound smooth and fluid. If I play them well, the audience should be moved emotionally by the music itself. I don’t want to impress them with technique; I want to get my songs inside their heads and hearts.
High-end technique doesn’t necessarily mean things sound “perfect,” either. There are times when you want a passage to sound rough. It all depends on what’s right for the song you’re playing. It might even depend on the acoustic properties of the room you’re playing in, the way your bandmates are backing you up, the audience that’s watching, etc. Sometimes you’ll want to play like an immaculate angel, and sometimes you’ll want to play it like a belching drunkard staggering up the stairs to his apartment. Your call.
There Are No Rules, Only Tools
Here’s one example of desirable “imperfections” in a piece of music: I know a songwriter who wrote a really great song about seduction. On her demo tape, she sounds noticeably out of breath while singing it. Generally speaking, singers try not to sound winded—but when you’re singing about spontaneously getting frisky on the kitchen floor, sounding a bit out of breath is perfect.
Berklee professor Pat Pattison tells his songwriting students: “There are no rules, only tools.” He’s right. Just because a technique works well some of the time, or even most of the time, doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate every time. The trick is to be responsive to different musical situations.
So technique isn’t about any one standard of perfection—it’s about having a rich palette to draw from. Memorize your lines like an actor; know them inside and out by all means. But when you take the stage, choose exactly how to recite them, and deviate from the script in any way the moment calls for.