One of my favorite guitarists these days is the mind-bogglingly amazing Guthrie Govan. While poking around the internet for some inspiring videos of Mr. Govan (and there are many) I came across this one that really got me thinking:
Several months ago I remember coming across some interview or video in which he pointed out how important the strength of the fretting hand is. Over the last few years my picking hand technique has improved a lot, but on the days when it isn't all coming together I realized that the problem is usually with my fretting hand.
In this next gem of Govan-wisdom he talks about how the fretting hand "feeds" the picking hand. If you can't fret the notes right, there's nothing in the world your picking hand can do to fix it.
Now I'm not here to simply regurgitate Mr Govan's lessons. Instead I wanted to share a couple of interesting observations and tips in this little left-hand-only experiment I've been working on.
As a tool for getting warmed-up, a fretting-hand-only run through a number of scale patterns is surprisingly effective. The patterns you choose aren't nearly as important as your tempo. Rather than try to race through things as fast as you can to warm up, try playing each note as cleanly and deliberately as possible at a slow tempo. I don't even bother to work up to higher tempos. Just the simple act of making my fretting-hand sound each and every note clearly and cleanly is enough to get the muscles warmed up and, more importantly, get my body in-sync to play.
One counter-intuitive benefit I've noticed is that warming up with these fretting-hand only exercises at a painfully slow tempo makes speedy playing much easier. After a solid ten or fifteen minutes of these warmups I'm immediately ready to kick into higher tempos if needed—all without actually having to do a bunch of high-speed warmups!
While I love the playing of legato-style players like Allan Holdsworth, I've never wanted to play exclusively with that technique. I don't want to lose the picking techniques I've worked so hard for. What surprised me is how this focus on the fretting-hand actually improved my alternate-picking. This has to do with Govan's fretting-feeds-the-picking theory stated earlier.
By virtue of making the fretting-hand have to do all the work of sounding a note and keeping the other strings silent, my fretting-hand accuracy has seen major improvements over the last few months. This has paid-off handsomely in all of my playing, regardless of speed.
This plays nicely with the idea of developing these skills and muscles at a slow tempo. The speed will come, but it's not the goal. The goal is accuracy and strength, both of which are related. An accurate hammer-on or pull-off is a focused one. No energy is wasted inadvertently hitting the wrong strings. As a result, with better accuracy you can get by with less brute force, which feeds back into improved accuracy. When it's harmonious, it's amazing.
Keeping It Clean
One of the most impressive things about Guthrie's playing (and there are so damn many to choose from) is how well he can play completely clean, with no distortion. As I've been working on developing the fretting-hand, I've replicated his approach of a simple clean amp (or simulated amp tone). Sometimes I'll even just play acoustically. The point is to prevent myself from relying on the inherent compression that comes from high-gain amplifier sounds.
I'll be honest with you—it sounded pretty awful at first. Lots of string noise, fretting fingers hammering down on the wrong strings, weak tones, the whole gamut of cringe-worthy sounds. But there's a zen-like peace that comes over you when you simply keep going and just pay attention to every nuance without judgement. You can enter an almost trance-like state with enough concentration.
It Ain't Easy
Concentration and focused attention is the name of the game here. There is some physical difficulty, but that's simply muscle-development. The harder part is giving enough sustained, focused attention to what you're doing. You can always play a few notes pretty well, but playing a long pattern up and down the neck cleanly and consistently takes a lot more concentration. This is hard. It's supposed to be hard. That's why you do it.
Want to make it more challenging? Try putting a noise gate on the front with a pretty high threshold setting. You'll be forced to make the volume of your hammer-ons and pull-offs loud enough to "break through".
Now try the opposite. How little force can you get away with and still hear a note? Can you vary the dynamics while you're playing? The list goes on and on.
Feeding The Picking Hand
When you gain enough proficiency to sound notes purely with your fretting hand, the role of your picking hand changes. It's no longer the only catalyst for sounding notes (you can now do that with your fretting hand). Once you've developed the strength and accuracy you can balance the role of initiating notes between your hands. This variation is what we would typically call "articulation". Now the pick has changed from the device that must be used to sound a note to one that shapes the tone of the note.
For really fast alternate-picked passages this can mean that pick simply puts a harder edge on the sound of the notes your fretting-hand is already playing. Put another way, the string will already vibrate and produce notes by virtue of your new-found fretting-hand strength. The pick's role is to more clearly define the edges of the notes. In a sense your mentality switches from a "picking-hand first" approach to a "fretting-hand first" technique.
So after all this pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo what, you may be asking, do you actually do to get started with this?
I could give you the exercises I came up with, but I'm not convinced it really matters. Honestly I think you could play whatever you want. Scales are probably a good starting point since you're trying to focus on sounding one (and only one) note at a time. Using this technique is also a good way to get a "two-for-one" and solidify your fretboard knowledge while developing the fretting-hand.
As for me, I've been on a Melodic Minor kick for the past couple of years. It's my new go-to scale and I've focused a lot of attention on it to make it as comfortable to play as the well-worn diatonic and pentatonic scales that have been under my fingers for years. I typically work the patterns up and back in linear fashion. Then in groups of 3s, 4s, 5s and 6s. Finally I have a few "spidery" patterns I came up with that I like to finish with. Here's an example of one in G major:
This won't be an easy task. It takes time and a lot of patience. Get your head into a place where it's okay to suck mightily at this. With time and focused attention you will be amazed at the results.