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Common Myths About Guitar Playing
By Mike Philippov
There are some common things in the guitar community that are perceived as being true facts and get passed on as advice to beginning players. Of course most people mean well with their suggestions, but it has been my experience that a lot of times that advice gets misinterpreted by the student it is directed to and is applied incorrectly to their practicing and playing. I have selected several things that I consider to be sources of confusion for students and I would like to clear these things up with this article.
1. You need low action and thin strings to play fast. At first glance this seems to make sense. After all, the thinner the strings and the lower the action the less resistance your hands encounter when you play right? Well what about those virtuoso players who play acoustic guitar or a nylon string guitar with VERY thick strings and high action and yet still display amazing technique? If you check out players such as John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Ney Mello and a lot of other jazz guitar players you will notice that they do not rely on thin strings and low action to play the way they do. Having virtuoso technique has EVERYTHING to do with using correct technique in practice and developing the required amounts of strength and control. The players mentioned above simply practiced until they developed the required amount of control.
Many people advise using low action and thin strings do so because they experience an "illusion of speed" when they play with thin strings for example. Their hands are able to move faster due to lessened resistance from the strings, but ACCURACY and CONTROL have still not been trained yet. The player therefore simply ends up making a bunch of sloppy noise. Remember, never sacrifice accuracy for speed!
In addition to the above points, thinner strings also give you a much "thinner" tone with very weak sustain. Moreover the low action makes it a little more difficult to sweep pick arpeggios that require lots of finger rolling without having the notes ring together.
Note: This is not to say however that one cannot play at a virtuoso level using low action and thin strings, but it is important to not use these things as a crutch to create the illusion of speed.
2. You have to use as little tension as possible when playing. We've all heard this advice told to us at one point or another. I don't see a problem with the advice itself but rather with the way it is typically worded resulting in misunderstanding in the student's mind. For example, if you read the above statement about using as little tension as possible, it probably sinks in your brain like so: "I must use as little tension as possible ALL THE TIME, no matter what". This is only one side of the issue however. A better way to understand the "advice" given above would be like this: "You need to use no more tension than is necessary to play a given phrase at the correct tempo, using proper articulation and dynamics." Jamie Andreas wrote a great article on the topic of relaxation which hopefully will clear up a lot of confusion that players typically have on this subject.
3 Metronome is "the secret" to speed. Again, the problem is not really with the advice itself so much as it is with the way its commonly interpreted. A lot of players begin to think that they only need to practice with the metronome and this will make them faster. It may work a little bit in the beginning, but eventually the progress will slow down or disappear. It is important to remember that at its most basic level playing guitar involves directing the hands and fingers to move a certain way to play certain combinations of notes. These movements must be learned by the muscles and this process takes place at EXTREMELY SLOW SPEEDS. A lot of times it is more beneficial to practice without the metronome (even slower than the metronome can go) to make sure that you have the motions down. The metronome is useful after this type of work and then it can become a very valuable tool for gauging your progress. But simply trying to get your fingers to "move faster" is pointless and would be analogous to trying to talk to somebody who speaks in a foreign language and in order to get them to understand you, you start speaking louder! In our example the "foreign language" is the new motions that must be internalized (to the point that they become second nature) and "speaking louder" is an analogy for futile attempts to speed up something your muscles can't even do slowly!
4. You have to have natural talent to get good or great on guitar. We've all heard this at one time or another. If you have read my previous article on the subject of Natural Talent, then you know that I disagree with the above statement. I will not repeat what I already said in my article on this subject, but if you are interested you can check it out.
5. Fast/virtuoso guitar players play with no emotion so you should not spend time working on playing fast. Isn't this the most hotly debated topic on most guitar forums today?! There are countless reasons why this argument has no weight whatsoever. (this topic could take up a whole article in itself). I would like to mention though that speed has a very valuable role in music and it is very much appreciated in other genres in players of other instruments. For some reason, you never hear pianists or violinists get criticized for playing too fast (and an average violinist can play MUCH faster than the average guitar player). So why do guitarists get criticized for playing fast? I believe that most of the "critics" are wannabe virtuosos themselves who criticize great players to make themselves look good. Guitar is a difficult instrument to master therefore those who have above average playing ability often get criticized out of jealousy.
Hopefully this article encouraged you to think more about things that you would commonly accept as the truth and from now on, I would advise you to examine many other things that you hold as facts and I bet you would be surprised that a lot of these things originated more out of tradition rather than logic. Good luck with your playing and practicing!
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org I would be happy to answer any questions you may have. I reply to all e-mails.
Mike Philippov is a professional virtuoso guitarist, music composer and instructor. He is also a co-author of several instructional products, numerous articles and other free instructional resources available on MikePhilippov.com.
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About Mike Philippov
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Mike Philippov is a professional virtuoso guitarist, music composer and instructor. He is currently working on an instrumental CD that will feature music in the virtuoso neo-classical and progressive rock styles. Mike also teaches guitar, both privately as well as through guitar clinics. Mike is also a co-author of several instructional products including: a Backing Tracks CD “Improve Your Improv” as well as instructional courses: “The Ultimate Sweep Picker’s Guide”, and “Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist.”
Currently Mike is busy working on several projects including composing and recording a solo CD featuring music in the neo-classical and progressive rock styles as well as more instructional products that are in the works at this time. Visit www.mikephilippov.com to check out Mike’s playing and sign up for a free newsletter which is sent out periodically and contains helpful tips and advice for guitar players.
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