Recently, I had the very common experience of sitting with a student in a lesson, and instructing him in the painstaking process of turning the unfocused and meandering movements of his fingers into the music they were intending to create. The issues raised that were preventing the music from emerging are so pervasive amongst the student population that I feel it is very worthwhile to cover this subject.
The situation was this: student wants to learn a real live rock solo, the student gets the tab off the internet, then the student looks at the series of "numbers" on the tab sheet and dutifully attempts to turn each number into a "note". Unfortunate, the student is not really listening to the sounds which are the result of these efforts, and is certainly not comparing them to the original solo. The result will be that said student will move their fingers around, chasing the numbers on the tab sheet until they get bored, at which point they will dive back into one of the infinite tab collections on the net, pick another solo, and be off and running full speed ahead in order to stay in exactly the same place as a player! This is a summary description of what I have termed "horizontal growth", learning more stuff and playing it as badly as all the old stuff!
I would like to go through the various necessary procedures that enable one to escape this cycle of mediocrity.
First of all, we must have the basics of practice approach down, and a proper foundation to our technique. If we do not know how to teach our fingers anything, and as a result, all of our past efforts in practice have given us a tension filled and handicapped pair of hands, then we are like crippled people trying to run a marathon. If we are in this condition, we had better be smart enough to begin to travel the road to basic "guitar playing health", and that means beginning to study "The Principles". If you are fortunate enough to be reading this newsletter, you have only yourself to blame if you do not avail yourself of the cure for that condition.
Once we do have the necessary foundation, we are in a position to learn whatever we want, if we can fulfill the two conditions of practice "know the right thing to do, and make sure you do it.". It is important to understand that the first requirement "knowing the right thing to do" is very complex, and different for each style of guitar. While knowing how to practice is something that all players, regardless of style, must know, when it comes to specific techniques, a classical player does not have to know many of the things that a blues or rock player must know, and vice versa. So, whatever style we play, we must first of all identify the specific techniques needed for the style, and then strive to gain an understanding of how those techniques are done.
In the lesson I am referring to, the student did not have this requirement fulfilled. We were working on the wonderful solo from "Black Magic Woman" by Carlos Santana. It is not a "difficult" solo, but you certainly need to have the basics down!
Those basics are:
We had to work on all these techniques, getting down to their essentials (this student has had many teachers and lessons through the years, had worked through lots of books, but could not properly bend a string!). The lack of knowing the right way to do these things was making it impossible to achieve the goal of making the music emerge.
The next obstacle to deal with was the lack of understanding of the specific practice approach necessary to use for learning electric guitar solos. This student was completely violating the principle of "knowledge of results" (fully explained in "The Deeper I Go The Deeper It Gets"). The essence of this principle is that we cannot acquire and improve a motor skill if we do not receive some kind of feedback that gives us an awareness of how close our efforts are to the model we are attempting to copy. If we are shooting a basketball we cannot improve if we can't see the hoop, evaluate our effort, and make corrections for the next attempt.
We must respect this fundamental law when we practice, especially electric leads. The right sound is much more elusive in this here than in other styles, because of the highly individual nature of a player's style and sound, and the actual manner of producing sound in this style, which leaves more room for error. By this I mean string bending. The infinite variety of sounds made possible by the technique of bending strings makes it imperative for students to be constantly comparing their efforts during practice to the solo they are learning. It may sound obvious, but I am constantly meeting students who don't do this!
When you sit for practice, you must have far more than the tab to the solo you are working on in front of you. The most important thing to have is some kind of recording of the solo you are working on, so that you can listen to it, bit by bit, as you work on each lick in the solo. The best thing is if it is on some kind of player that will also play it half speed, so you can switch back and forth between the actual speed and half speed. There are many computer programs that will do this (even free ones, such as WinAmp). That is fine if you don't mind practicing in front of your computer. But even a simple micro-cassette player will do, they all have 2 speed recording, so you can record at the higher speed and play back at the lower. It plays back an octave lower, and many people assume that is a bad thing, but I don't think it is. It still allows you to hear each note with its rhythmic placement, and that is the most important thing.
Whatever the means, have a full speed and a half speed version of the solo available. You can even slow it down with software, and then simply record it on to a cassette that you use in lessons.
However you do it, arrange to be able to listen to any part of the solo you are working on while you practice. After that, you need something to record your playing. Again, a simple cassette recorder will do. I keep two recorders near me, one to play the solo, and one to record myself. I play the original, and then I compare mine; back and forth, I "a-b" it, listen to one, immediately followed by the other. And I don't mean the whole solo, I mean lick by lick. Take a little piece of the solo, study it, make sure you are sure of all the notes, fingering, picking, techniques involved, and have gone over the basic movements (using the Basic Practice Approach if you are using The Principles). Then, listen to the original solo, and record yourself playing the same fragment of the solo. Now, listen back and forth from the original, to yours, noticing every detail.
Ask yourself "does my playing sound like the original"? If not (and the answer usually starts out as "NO WAY!"), your job is to close the gap between the two. You must discover exactly how yours is falling short, and then figure out how to fix it. Are the bends in tune? Is the vibrato even? Is the rhythm correct, and how about articulation? Your goal is to sound as good, as polished and professional as the original.
After working on the solo in small pieces, and you feel your playing is reasonably close to the original in quality, it is time to start putting it together. You must do this by actually playing the solo to the rhythm background. This is something most students do not do, and it will prevent you from ever approaching a professional level of ability. You should never consider that you know a solo unless you have listened back to yourself playing it to the recorded rhythm background. For any solo you are working on, you should learn the rhythm as well, and record it at various tempos. Master the whole thing at a slow tempo first, maybe playing it to the background chords played at half tempo. The best idea is to make 4 or 5 versions of the rhythm part at different tempos for your practice sessions.
These days all students should avail themselves of the tremendous resources for study that are available; everyone should have some kind of multi-tracking software available (which can be found for as low as 20 or 30 dollars), and begin their own collection of recorded solos. You will experience great growth as a player if you do.
I am not saying that everything you practice must be swallowed whole, and mastered in its entirety. Sometimes you just might like a small part of a solo, or one lick perhaps. There is nothing wrong with just sitting down and copying a fragment of something you like, but you should still use the same approach of coma paring it, in recorded form, to the original. But along the way, you should master some whole songs, or whole solos, and prove yourself on tape. The next step, of course, is to prove yourself in a live situation by finding people to play with (of course, that means dealing with other real live human beings, and brings about challenges far beyond the scope of what I wish to talk about here!).
At the beginning of this essay, I described the process of nailing a solo as "painstaking". That is a very accurate word, because to go through all the trouble that I am saying is necessary will seem like a real pain when you begin to do it. That is why so many people don't bother. Those people are called "bad players". If you adopt the practice approaches I have described, and hold yourself to these standards as a player, you will rise above the great majority of "players" who surf around the net, hacking their way through the ocean of tabs, and drifting from one mediocre result to the next. You will become a real guitar player.