May 2013 marked my 10th year in music instruction. At times I’ve taught bass guitar or piano, and I’ve benefited a great deal from that, but my mainstay has always been guitar.
As of 2016, I’ve been working entirely from home and haven’t returned to teach guitar in several years. But I continue to share in my knowledge through blog posts, guest posts, articles and eBooks. You may have seen some of my work over at Music Industry How To, for instance.
I’ve watched a lot of students come and go, and some of that is just turnover, but I think there are a lot of people that start with high expectations only to find it takes real time and effort to develop skill on their instrument. They are surprised to find that they can’t instantly do what other musicians seem to be able to do so effortlessly.
If you were to ask me, I think the following elements represent some of the most important facets of becoming a better instrumentalist. Whether you’re about to get in to lessons or you’re already in lessons, understanding these concepts will help you on your path.
1. Remain Teachable
It’s hard to overstate the importance of staying open to new ideas and concepts. Ultimately, you are capable of what you think you’re capable of.You are capable of what you think you're capable of. Click To Tweet
Only two to three years ago I would watch guitar players like Andy McKee and Don Ross and wonder how in the world they were able to keep several things (a beat, a chord progression, a melody) going all at once. Percussive style guitar blew my mind.
But in the last few months I’ve come to see that in some regard it’s not as complicated as it looks. I still wouldn’t consider myself the next McKee or Ross – they are amazing – but I am starting to see how it all works.
Here’s me playing one of my songs, “Savage Love”, several years ago. It incorporates a bit of percussive style acoustic guitar.
I chalk this up to teachability. I absorb more when I’m open to learning.
It may seem obvious, but sometimes you don’t realize everything that’s on your mind until you’ve freed it up.
Personally, in the past, things like financial struggles have detracted me from being in a place mentally where I could focus on things long enough to figure them out.
So don’t get frustrated. That brings me to my next point.
2. Adopt a Long-Term Mindset
You’ve heard me say this before, perhaps in reference to social media or blogging or building a music career. But there is a logical and rational reason for seeing your musical journey as a long-term commitment.
I know, I know. I’ve heard about them too. The kids who do nothing but play guitar for six months straight and suddenly they can sweep arpeggios like they were Yngwie Malmsteen (I apologize that all my examples are guitarists).
Or, the guy who could suddenly play every song on the radio by ear. Or the girl who learned the entirety of “Stairway to Heaven” in the beginning months of her lessons (one of my colleagues told me about her).
The interesting thing about playing an instrument is that the effort you put in today may not pay off tomorrow. Or in a week. Or in a month. Maybe not even in a year. But at some point the effort you put in will catch up with you. That’s always been my experience.
I think one of the contributing factors in growth is that there is a difference between people and how their muscle memories work. Some people seem to be able to do something once or twice and never have to revisit it again.
Others seem to have to dig their heels in, practice hard and push through. Though it is a personal assumption, I’ve come to believe that proper rest and sleep can also play a part.
Your journey is your journey and you should never compare it with anyone else’s. Some people are just better prepared, more focused, or more naturally gifted at the start. Some people are more ready and open to learning (refer to my first point).Your journey is your journey and you should never compare it with anyone else's. Click To Tweet
Nuno Bettencourt talked about the fact that his brothers were much better players when he got started. But do you hear much about his brothers in the media? No way. Bettencourt kept at it long enough to become one of the best players out there.
Here’s Extreme (with Nuno Bettencourt on guitar) playing “Decadence Dance”. Impressive to say the least.
3. Practice and Persevere
“Practice, practice, practice.”
You’ve heard your favorite musicians say it before, but what exactly does it mean? What should you focus on? How much time should you invest?
Well, that depends on your goals and what setting you intend to play in. I can tell you from experience that the way you prepare for a particular project, band or gig is always a little different. And, you can always approach it your own way.
When I first started playing in a Def Leppard tribute band, no word of a lie I had to immerse myself in the music. I didn’t think it would be difficult (and I don’t think most hopefuls did based on how they prepared for auditions), but keeping up with all the key changes and unorthodox arrangements kept me on my toes.
I probably practiced for a minimum of three hours per day for a month or two to prepare for the gig. I can play the set today with a couple of quick refreshers, but I had a bit of a shaky start.
And, that was quite different from how I approached playing lead guitar on Jonathan Ferguson‘s album. I would set a track on loop and pause it when an idea came to me. Then I would write down the idea, hit play and continue to develop more. I also did quite a bit of improvising in the studio. They had me come in and do a few run-throughs with each track and glued together the best parts in editing.
For most of my working life as a musician, I have aspired to be the best I could be. As result, I developed a versatile approach to guitar that allowed me to adapt to a variety of situations and improvise as necessary. Your goals might be different.
When it comes to practice, I think consistency is important. No matter how much time you choose to put towards practicing your instrument, so long as you can do it every day, you will get better over time. You don’t have to start with three hours, but you will want to invest 15 to 30 minutes daily if you want to improve.When it comes to practice, consistency is important. No matter how much time you choose to put towards practicing your instrument, so long as you can do it every day, you will get better over time. Click To Tweet
The bottom line is that – so long as you’re getting better acquainted with your instrument – any practice is good practice.
The only practice that’s bad is the kind that results in bad habits or injury. If you have a good teacher, they will point out any issues they see with the way you hold or play your instrument and help you correct that.
4. Listen to Music Voraciously
If you want to improve as an instrumentalist, you should spend more time listening to a variety of music.
I know you probably have your favorites. Step outside of your comfort zone and listen to jazz, reggae, funk, country, blues or whatever is not within your wheelhouse already.
Within the context of those genres, listen carefully for how each instrument interacts with the other. Listen for the rhythmic patterns and phrasing. Listen for the chord progressions and melodic ideas.
All of this and more can be assimilated. You can make it a part of your own playing.
You don’t necessarily need to sit down and figure it all out by ear, although that is a worthy exercise and I recommend spending plenty of time developing your ear. I’ll talk more about this a little later.
Simply listening to the music can help you make it part of your DNA as an artist.
An often-overlooked part of becoming a skilled instrumentalist is developing your own trademark sound.An often-overlooked part of becoming a skilled instrumentalist is developing your own trademark sound. Click To Tweet
When I think “trademark sound”, I can’t help but think of Eric Johnson. Of course, it doesn’t help that he has a song called “Trademark”.
You can’t find yourself by studying just one genre or artist. You must study broadly and be willing to experiment.
In Johnson’s case, that included people like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Wes Montgomery and Chet Atkins. He put them all in a blender, worked on his own craft and came out on the other end a unique, expressive and exceptionally skilled guitarist.
So, if you’re serious about becoming a better instrumentalist, I challenge you to listen more broadly.
5. Watch Other Musicians Play
In my early days as a guitarist, I spent plenty of time watching the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and Joe Satriani.
As result, I picked up a few tricks and learned to incorporate their playing style into my own.
As instrumentalists, we often forget that in addition to being auditory, music is also visual.
It’s one thing to listen to an incredible instrumental solo – quite another to see someone playing it live.
Watching someone play it could offer some clues into how you might go about approaching it and developing the skills necessary to play it yourself.
Today, it’s easier than ever to jump onto YouTube and watch your favorite player. Spend some time doing this.Today, it’s easier than ever to jump onto YouTube and watch your favorite musicians. Spend some time doing this. Click To Tweet
If you meet other players in real life, watch them play too. Ask questions. Trade licks. See if you can learn something from someone who’s on the same path you are.
And, if you aren’t faint of heart, talk to musicians who play other instruments and do the same. Pique their brain.
6. Attend Jam Sessions
Although going to rehearsals and playing in a band can be fun, occasionally, it’s nice to participate in some free-form jamming.
Jamming with other musicians can give you a better sense of how to fit into a group of players.Jamming with other musicians can give you a better sense of how to fit into a group of players. Click To Tweet
Now, jamming can sometimes be disorganized chaos. But if everyone attending has achieved a certain skill level and is respectful of other players, a beautiful exchange can take place.
There’s a good chance you’ll be jamming on songs you’ve never heard of, or musical genres you don’t typically play, which can also help you improve.
There may also be the opportunity to talk to other musicians in attendance and learn a thing or two from them.
Although some of the most structured and productive practice tends to be done in isolation, spending too much time alone as a musician isn’t good.
After a while, you can “lose your ear”, making you essentially useless in a band situation.
For example, if I was organizing a solo show with a band, and the keyboardist was overplaying and stepping on everyone’s toes, I’d either need to ask her to change her approach or fire her altogether.
A musician who isn’t musical isn’t much good to me. I want to work with people who know how to complement all players in the group. And, I imagine a lot of band leaders feel the same way.
7. Develop Your Ear
I’ve already talked a little bit about this, but I do think it’s important for you to develop your ear.
You could take advantage of something like an ear training app to help make this happen.
Ear training apps will generally take you through a variety of exercises and have you work on recognizing intervals, scales, chords and so forth.
I think it’s worth putting some time into this but oftentimes it’s not terribly exciting, which can affect your motivation level.
There are a couple of things you can do to combat ear training fatigue.
The first is you can pick one of your favorite songs and try to figure it all out by ear.
It doesn’t matter whether you make mistakes or “learn it wrong”. Keep in mind that this is how the greats like Eric Clapton learned – they played along to the same vinyl records repeatedly.
The second method is to work with a teacher.
Now, you should let your teacher know that you’re not just interested in ear training, though it’s one of the main things you want to work on.
That way, you can still work on other things while improving your ear.
A skilled teacher will be happy to take you through a variety of exercises and can help make the process fun.A skilled teacher will be happy to take you through a variety of exercises and can help make the process of ear training fun. Click To Tweet
Conclusion: Becoming a Better Instrumentalist
Now you should be equipped with several action steps you can take to become a better instrumentalist.
But there’s more. Yup. I’m still just scratching the surface.
As someone who’s played guitar and other instruments for nearly 20 years, there are plenty of things I’ve found helpful and beneficial on my journey.
So, what else do you think I should have covered?
Would you find it helpful if I created a more detailed guide on this topic?
Let me know in the comments below.
Get your free newsletter Music Career Tips Weekly