Play Guitar – What To Do Before You Go To A Pro Music School

Is it time to get serious about playing guitar? Could I make a living as a ‘pro’ guitarist? Music school is a lot more than I can afford right now, but perhaps something I ultimately want to do–how can I get ready for it? If you’re in your late teens or early twenties and playing music for fun, you might be asking yourself these sorts of questions.

Young guitar players seem to fall into one of two camps. There’s the ‘I want to play in a band on the Van’s tour and that’s all I really care about’ crowd. And then there’s the, ‘I’d like to be a studio musician making a good living recording records for people and doing the occasional tour if the money’s right’ group. If you fall into the second category, you’re going to need another level of skills than you can get reading tab and learning tunes off records– you’re going to have to get serious about studying music.

But before you take out loans or talk your parents into shelling out upwards of $18k a year for a pro music school, I advise acquiring a strong set of basic skills. Before you arrive at school you should be able read and write 1/4 and 1/8th note rhythms. You should be able to recognize by ear major scale intervals up and down. You should have at least a beginning understanding of music theory and have memorized the order of sharps and flats and key signatures. That may sound daunting, but actually, a few months practice with the right private instructor, community college class, or home/internet guitar course is all it will take to master those skills.

Most community colleges will offer a fundamentals of music course, sometimes combined with fundamentals of piano. Larger schools will also have guitar classes. If you have the time this is a great way to get started acquiring theory basics.
A private instructor is another way to go, but it can get expensive–with the average guitar lesson now costing around $40 an hour. If you can afford it AND you can find an instructor who’s a good match, this is a terrific way to advance your guitar playing. One problem you’ll run into though is that it’s hard to maintain the discipline it takes to plod through the music theory and reading part of the lesson when you’re having so much fun learning licks and tunes.
Of course these days you can find a lot of information online for free. Perhaps my favorite free music instruction site is Ricci Adam’s Ricci’s online lessons in music theory are excellent. But the ear trainers are my favorite. Like playing a game, the trainers keep score. You can turn intervals on and off in order to focus on the ones you’re having trouble with (i.e. turn everything except the 4ths and 5ths off). You can have the intervals played low to high, high to low or harmonically. There are also chord and scale ear trainers.

However you decide to master guitar and theory basics before heading off to music school, you’ll be glad you did– with that out of the way, you’ll be able to concentrate on the playing (fun) part.

Finding a Private Guitar Instructor

Do you ever teach long-distance private lessons via webcam, emailing files, or anything along those lines? I’ve been frustrated by a few recent experiences with teachers in my area whose method or temperament didn’t suit me.

This is just my opinion, but in spite of your difficulty in finding a satisfactory instructor, I still think a few one-on-one lessons are the way to go. If you live near any medium-to-large-sized city, there must be a teacher with whom you would get along. Maybe it’s just a matter of looking in the right place. Try asking around at your local music stores.

Especially for working on rhythm guitar playing, as you mentioned, you need immediate feedback from the instructor—saying “No! That’s not it! Stop rushing! Tap your foot, damn it!” or “Yes! That’s it!”—as he watches your hands, feet, and body, and plays along with you in real time. It’s hard to make that happen online.

Look for somebody who has most of these things:
-is formally educated in music with at least a year at Berklee, MI, or a university,
-is articulate and a good listener,
-is drug-free,
-has played lots of different kinds of gigs,
-is commercially published, or has some charts and/or handouts that he’s accumulated for teaching purposes. This shows a commitment to teaching.
-keeps track of your lesson activities
-gives homework, especially when he sees you lack focus.

It’s not really necessary that he’s an astounding player, unless you’re desperate for that kind of inspiration.

Lots more tips at Barrett’s

Electric Guitar – Playing With Distortion

Can you guide me a little regarding controlling distortion?

Actually I find it almost impossible to play with distortion, except when playing power chords. When I try to play a few lead notes (melody) the distortion just becomes uncontrollable and it sounds really very bad. It’s like the notes sound bad together with each other (when they mix or sound together).

I really want to practice a few leads, scales, etc., with distortion to learn to play a bit of rock and metal, but I just can’t figure out what to do. I tried to mute every note before going to the next note, but it sounds very ‘broken” and non-continuous.

How do people play such beautiful and smooth solos with distortion ? Thanks.

Try this experiment. On your distorted electric guitar I want you to wrap a soft hand towel or a big tube sock around the first few frets of the neck. It should be tightened just enough to completely damp the sound of the strings. If you strum this guitar, it will just go “thunk” and then stop.

Now try playing on the frets above this “damper.” If your playing sounds much better than it did before, then you need to work on damping the unwanted noises with your fretting-hand fingers and your picking-hand palm. Instead of completely damping each note before moving on, you should practice an overall mentality of keeping a close grip in either hand, where you are almost muting the note that you are actually playing (or maybe even so that you are muting it, a little) so that all the other strings are definitely damped.

If, on the other hand, it still sounds pretty messy even with the cloth there, then you may have a problem with the number of strings you are pressing down at the same time, or picking accuracy. Practice slowly, making sure that you’re lifting your finger off one string just as you depress another, and that you’re only picking the one string at a time that you want. Eventually this will become a habit, and you’ll have cleaner execution without thinking too much about it.

It is also possible that you are simply using too much distortion. Many beginning players use more than is needed. Try setting it so that a cleanly played note stays at the same apparent volume for about 3 or 4 seconds before it starts to decay; in other words, about twice the subjective amount of sustain as your clean tone.

Try turning down the tone control on the guitar itself. The more “in your face” (bright and trebly) the tone is, the more details in the guitar’s sound will be heard, including finger noise, fret noise, and incidentally-sounding strings.

I often play leads with my tone control set at nearly zero when I’m forced to use a solid state amp with a built-in lead channel. There are also many possibilities for improving the tone by turning down the volume knob on the guitar itself. It does many more things than just make it quieter or louder. Depending on the pickups you are using, restricting the guitar’s dynamic range by lowering the volume knob can act as a sort of compressor, again smoothing out the sound. Compensate by adding a little more gain at a later stage, like on your distortion pedal.

Finally, consider that your guitar sound is going to be eventually fit into an overall mix that includes drums, bass, and maybe another guitar or keyboard part. While I do recommend learning to play cleanly as possible, a _small_ amount of extraneous guitar noise will not stick out as much in that situation as it does when the guitar is listened to alone.

Barrett’s extensive performing experience includes tours of Asia and Europe. In Los Angeles, Barrett has appeared on every stage from the Whiskey-a-Go-Go to the Viper Room.

Barrett has written four instructional books: The Guitar Fretboard Workbook, Chord Tone Soloing, (both MI Press/Hal Leonard), Music Theory: A Practical Guide for All Musicians, and Play Ukulele Today! (Hal Leonard). Classic Rock Guitar Soloing is his DVD, also available from the Hal Leonard Corporation.

Lots more tips at Barrett’s