By Derk Stiepelman
If you have been playing guitar for any length of time, I am sure you had times when you felt stuck at the same stage of your playing year after year. When we are in that spot, we often wonder: is it really that hard to play guitar well?
If this is you, I understand how you feel because I have been in the exact same spot many times, and I know from talking to many professional players that we all feel like that in certain periods of our musical lives.
Your motivation to get better on the guitar is directly tied to your progress. In turn, this is bound to how good you are in solving your guitar playing problems.
I often find that it is not a lack of motivation or an unwillingness to work on our challenges, but a feeling of total confusion and overwhelm that keeps us from progressing. We often face this undefined mountain of guitar problems, and if we don't take the time to clearly define what the actual problem is, we can't solve it and keep spinning our wheels.
So the first step is to gain clarity. Guitar playing consists of many areas that can pose different challenges, so the first thing you need to do is define what area the actual problem lies by asking ourselves questions that clearly define what is going on:
- Is the problem that I am facing a physical(technical) challenge?
- Is the problem that I am facing a mental processing challenge?
- Is the problem that I am facing a cognitive challenge?
- Is the problem that I am facing a mindset challenge?
- Is the problem that I am facing an artistic challenge?
Not all challenges fall into one category, of course, and you will often find a mix of various problems. If that is the case, you break them down and find solutions for each of them.
Let's take an example:
A guitarist knows various scales and sequences, but it does not sound like music when he plays a solo.
To gain clarity, we would start by asking questions to find out what challenge areas contribute to his problem:
- Is the problem that he is facing a physical(technical) challenge? Maybe the guitarist has poor phrasing and lacks the technique to execute vibrato, bends, and other expressive techniques that make his phrases sound "alive".
- Is the problem that he is facing a mental processing challenge? This would be the case if he plays fast notes, but nothing is really in time with the music, because his brain can't keep up with the music.
- Is the problem that he is facing a cognitive challenge? Maybe, if the notes he plays in his solo have no relation to the chords playing in the background.
- Is the problem that he is facing a mindset challenge? Maybe, if the guitarist has a negative belief about creativity, that implies that one is either creative or not.
- Is the problem that he is facing an artistic challenge? Maybe the guitarist is thinking too much when he is playing. So his music sounds like he's trying to solve a mathematical problem instead of letting go and playing music.
List The Challenges
By asking these questions, we have gained clarity on where the actual problem lies.
Let's say we find that the guitarist has no idea what chords he is playing over and does not really have a good ear to make note choices. This leads to his solo sounding like separate notes that are not connected to the music.
We also find several problems in the guitarist's phrasing technique: The bends are not in tune, the vibrato is hesitant and inconsistent.
Once we have clearly identified where the problem areas lie, we can solve each problem and list possible solutions to fix it.
Example: The guitarist has developed his vibrato by merely copying the vibrato of a famous guitarist by ear.
It would be better to break down the vibrato technique into its three components: speed, pitch, contour, and work on those in isolation before bringing them all together.
If you don't know how to fix the guitar problems you are having, I recommend finding a highly experienced teacher to help you with this.
About the author
Derk Stiepelmann is a professional guitar instructor, teaching Gitarrenunterricht in Dortmund, helping his students reach their musical potential at the Songwriter's Shed guitar school.
He is probably one of the most dedicated persons I have ever met and continues to deliver exceptional results for his students by his relentless approach to teaching, music, fitness and life itself.
Go check him out if you are in the area, he certainly is a guy you'd love to be your teacher and mentor!