I started playing on an acoustic guitar; the same acoustic I played for years. I didn’t get my first electric guitar until I was about forty years old. Guitar playing was pretty much on hold for the better part of my early adult life due to career and family constraints.
My first electric was a Godin Exit 22. I liked it a lot, but I ended up trading up to the electric guitar I have today: my beloved Fender Stratocaster Player Series, Made in Mexico. The American Strats are of course, the ultimate but too expensive for my budget.
The first thing I noticed when playing electric is that your mistakes get amplified really loudly. I joined a band soon after I bought that guitar, and my inexperience was really highlighted by the number of mistakes and blunders I made. Playing in a band and performing in a band are skills unto themselves, requiring a whole different learning curve to master. Those who start out young, playing in high school bands, definitely have an advantage in that regard.
I took lessons to learn how to play my new electric and one of the first things I remember my teacher, Greg, telling me is to not play myself out of tune. At first, I didn’t understand what he meant; but I soon realized that all the years I had spent playing an old acoustic had trained me to press really hard on the strings just to make any discernable sound without buzzing the strings. The action on an electric is quite different, even when unplugged so if you press too hard on the strings over the fretboard, you will temporarily cause them to go out of tune. You will also cause your strings to go out of tune prematurely by repeatedly pressing so hard on them.
One evening last week, I wanted to practice playing on my Stratocaster. Once I got it in tune, I decided to keep my Snark tuner turned on so I could see the notes that I was playing on the guitar represented on the tuner. I also did a bit of an experiment by adjusting the force I was applying with my left-hand fingers on the strings. I wanted to gauge the effect on how much pressure was required to change the pitch of the note I was playing. It turns out that it doesn’t take much force at all. Applying just the right amount of force on the fretboard is also a skill that needs to be mastered when playing guitar. And I wasn’t even plugged in to make a noticeable effect.
The same holds true – but to a lesser degree – when playing acoustic. I also try to avoid making the strings squeak when sliding up and down the fretboard. It was actually a non-musician that pointed that out to me a while back. He told me that the squeaking I was making was bothering him, something that never occurred to me before. Wisdom, advice, and inspiration can come from any source so always keep an open mind to comments and criticisms.
As with most guitar players who end up playing electric, you will try to solo and play lead, which usually involves bending the strings up and down. The amount you bend the strings affects the pitch of the note being played. Really good guitar players instinctively know how to bend them just the right amount to get the right pitch. Less experienced players tend to bend their strings without putting much thought into it. Therefore, learning how to bend just enough is a skill that will really help to improve your soloing.
To better get the hang of bending the strings just enough, try keeping your tuner on, whether it’s the clip-on type or the pedal type. The only problem with trying to do this with a pedal tuner is that they usually cut the sound output to your signal so you might have to do this experiment with an unplugged sound. Just practice bending the string until you get the note you are looking for – it will be displayed on the LCD readout. Use technology to your advantage.
A half bend up should only produce a sharp (half step up) of the original note and a full bend should bring it two steps higher. Also see how long you can sustain that bent note. You may also want to try to get that bluesy trill sound of bending it up and down repeatedly. It’s trickier than it sounds but it is a really cool effect when done properly. Playing while using your tuner will help you perfect that trick.
The other big difference between electric and acoustic is strumming. Strumming too aggressively on an acoustic, to me, sounds like crap. Doing it on an electric is even worse. Getting the hang of not making too much noise by playing with adequate strum control takes practice and truthfully, lots of honest self-reflection (Mea culpa). Cameras never lie so record yourself – not necessarily to post online but as a training tool. What you thought in your mind sounded great, may not sound so good when you play it back. Playing it back the next day adds even more objectivity into your self-reflection because it allows you to listen with less emotion. In other words, sleep on it before you play it back to get the real picture.
Playing in control makes for great sounding playing. Joe Perry of Aerosmith I think epitomizes playing with control, especially on their earlier hits such as Walk This Way and Sweet Emotion. He plays with just the right amount of flare and showmanship. Just like a good chef knows to add just the right amount of spice, Perry has the same ability when playing guitar. Joe Satriani also comes to mind for a guitarist that plays with great control. It really does make a world of difference.
What do I mean by playing in control? It comes down to knowing what to do and what not do. With open chords, only emphasizing the notes that need to be heard. And as mentioned before, applying the right amount of force on the fretboard. It also means knowing how to strum just enough without making unnecessary noise. Little things like palm muting are good too, so you don’t hit strings that aren’t meant to be heard. Knowing how to play loud enough to get good tone, but not so loud that you drown the rest of your band is also good practice.
Playing guitar well takes lots of thoughtful and careful practice, as well as continual study. Playing with friends who are willing to offer constructive feedback also helps. Taking lessons from a more advanced teacher is probably one of the best investments you can make as guitarist striving to perfect your craft.