Climbing The Next Hill

The other night I was out with some friends who I hadn't seen in a long time. In a decidedly non-guitar crowd the talk somehow turned to guitars (I guess the know me well). One of them expressed an interest in taking the instrument more seriously and asked me "how do I get better?" I thought about it for a moment and answered, "find something hard and conquer it".

I think they expected a recommendation of a specific book or video series. Instead I gave them  the kind of heady advice that's very easy to dispense but difficult to implement. It may not have been the answer they were looking for, but when I think of everything that's every helped my playing it has always come back to this essential truth.

This approach works because, by definition, you're directly addressing your self-identified deficiencies. There are lots of things about the guitar that we may not be good at, but many of them are things we don't particularly care about. The ones we do care about stand out like a sore to us and those are the things to tackle head-on.

If you sit down and start writing a list of all things you want to get better at, you may quickly find yourself quite discouraged. For just about everyone the set of things they want to get better at is much larger than the set of things they're happy with. To avoid getting completely overwhelmed it helps to pick one or two things and then ignore the rest. With enough time you'll get to the others and you'll also start coming to terms with the fact that you'll never truly master all of them.

Once you've picked out a target or two, how do you get started? The best thing you can do is just jump in and get the sucking out of the way. For something technical, you can start with a simple mechanical exercise. Once you have the gist of it, relegate it to your bag of warmups and start figuring out how to apply it musically.

In the past year I've been very focused on improving my alternate-picking. When I first started playing I developed my chops exclusively on sweep/economy-picking. It works well in a lot of situations, but I wanted to add alternate picking to my arsenal. When I decided to focus on that I identified string-crossing as my biggest technical hurdle. So I cooked up a little exercise that focused just on the mechanics of string-crossing:

It isn't the most pleasant thing to listen to, but it does give your fingers a workout

It isn't the most pleasant thing to listen to, but it does give your fingers a workout

It isn't a particularly musical-sounding thing to play. So once I got the basic idea down I wanted to move away from it and figure out how to apply in a more musical way.

At the same time I've been studying jazz and was given the task of learning several new drop-2 chord voicings. I love tackling several things at once when I can, so I took the task of learning these new voicings and combined it with the cross-picking exercise to come up with this:

Gmaj7 drop-2 voicings played with cross-picking

Gmaj7 drop-2 voicings played with cross-picking

At the moment I'm terrible at this. It feels so awkward it's like picking up the guitar for the first time again. But even after a few days I can feel some progress. Not only am I seeing the shapes on the fretboard better, but I'm also looking at them in a new way. Whereas before they were just for chords, now they are becoming interesting arpeggios to work into my improvisation.

After a few weeks of this I'll probably have a pretty good handle on this and then it will be time to find a way to make this difficult again, or a different exercise altogether. The key is to keep finding the next challenge.

So here's your to-do list:

  1. Brainstorm a list of things you want to get better at
  2. Pick one or two items on that list to focus
  3. Find a way to start working on them
  4. When it gets easy, find a way to make it hard again
  5. Repeat steps 2-5