Guitar Technique: Less is More

by Metro Music Makers instructor Heath Needham

We have all heard the stereotypes about musicians. They are lazy bums who just want to sit around and play their instruments instead of living in the “real world.” It’s just nonsense. In fact, a college degree in music is considered one of the hardest degrees to get. As a music major, you’ll spend countless hours practicing your instruments, performing tirelessly, and analyzing music. It can be a lot of hard work, so you’ll appreciate every break that is thrown your way. Luckily, when it comes to learning an instrument — any instrument — I can safely say that the greatest techniques are those that enable us to be the laziest.

I have been teaching the guitar for quite some time now. Long enough, in fact, to notice that everyone who begins this journey makes the exact same mistakes. The greatest fault of a new guitar player is that their hands will make ten complicated movements just to get to one note. One of the easiest ways to cut away most of that excess movement and wasted energy is to use every finger when mastering the fretboard. Generally, learning to use all four fingers — especially the pinky — seems like a mountain you will never climb. It takes a lot of practice to teach your fingers to operate this way, but it is definitely much easier than trying to learn that new song with just your index finger. If you use all four fingers, you’ll barely need to move at all to find that next note.

For example, if you were to play a song that only used the first four frets, it would be a great thing to assign each fret a finger. The index finger for fret one, the middle for fret two, and so on. If you commit one finger to each fret, you will not have to move around so much to find those notes. There will always be a finger near to pick it up instead of looking down at the fretboard to reposition your entire hand when changing notes.

Another more advanced technique is to plot your course, so to speak, when learning a new song. This will require some creativity, and is essential to mastering some of those harder songs. Consider this portion of the opening riff of “Stairway to Heaven” below:

e|———-5———————–|
B|——-5————————–|
G|—-5—————————–|
D|-7——————————–|
A|———————————-|
E|———————————-|

Rather than playing this song note-by-note, the greatest strategy to tackling this introduction is to prepare your hand in advance by holding down multiple strings and frets, creating a chord so that you are not frantically searching for each note as it pops up. Below, you’ll see a shape that can be held to make playing the first few notes of the introduction a breeze:

E|—5-|——————5——————————-| Finger: 1
B|—5-|—————5———————————-| Finger: 1
G|—5-|————5————————————-| Finger: 1
D|—7-|———-7—————————————| Finger: 3
A|—x-|————————————————–|
E|—x-|————————————————–|

There are many other incredibly valuable techniques that you can adapt to strengthen your skills as a musician, but the greatest ones are those that allow you to work smarter, not harder. Sure, it may not be popular to be lazy in most things, but in this instance it really is best to work less to achieve more. It is not only beneficial, but essential to being a great musician.

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