By Duane Hewitt
A virtuoso guitarist will ultimately combine the highest degree of skills in a range of musical abilities that include precision, speed, musicality, technique, knowledge, ear training, listening, discipline, talent and growth. (It is understood that each term used here refers to musical skills.)
And so the road to developing virtuosity as a guitarist will involve the following:
Technique: We must discuss some elementals of technique. As a guitarist, your fingers on the fretboard should press down on the string on the very tips of your fingers; generally, this is immediately behind the nail. Not on the ball of your fingertips, but right at the tip of the fingers, this is, again, right behind the nail. And that part of the fingertip must press the string right behind the fret. You are likely to find yourself practicing this repeatedly throughout your career as a guitarist, because it will be the focal point of speed and precision.
Scales and finger exercises: Practice scale runs up-and-down the fretboard and across the strings using all four fingers of the left hand (right hand for left hand guitarists) aiming for accuracy and precision all the way. At this point, and this could be months or years of practice, do not concern yourself with speed – not yet. Aim for getting good, clean, accurate sound. And by the way, the term “scale runs” might be misleading. It would be more accurate to say “scale walks.” Move with deliberate movement, and remember that even scale walks and patterns should be fundamentally musical. So aspire to create clean, musical, pleasing sounds. If you make a mistake, correct that mistake by understanding how it happened. Did you become inattentive? Did your mind wander? You must focus with laser-sharp concentration. Make different scale walks and patterns in different rhythms and finger patterns for yourself. Down the road, these will become the bedrock of your musical foundation – and will even become the core for many pieces that you play.
Your ear – listening: As a musician and developing guitarist, you must forever be listening attentively to what you play on the guitar as well as to other music and musical ideas. Teach your listening to be critiquing and let your musical ear be always in development. This is because your ear will guide your playing now and into virtuosity. Be musical. Ask yourself questions like, how might that have been better? Was it clean and precise? Did it sound good? How was the phrasing and the softness or loudness of the playing? Your musical ear should always be seeking, learning, and growing.
Reading music: As you learn and play, developing your ear and technique, it is a given that you should learn to read music. This ultimately means learning all the notes up-and-down the entire fretboard. Don’t feel overwhelmed by this. Start by learning the notes across all six strings up to the third or possibly fifth fret. You might need to give it time but reading music is vital to your ultimate brilliance as a musician.
Chords and Riffs and Whatnot: The guitar is structured beautifully and brilliantly with its tuning of four perfect fourths and one major third. As you study and learn chords – including bar chords – you will increasingly discover the wonder of playing chords as well as riffs and patterns that are structured on chords as well as on the design of the fingerboard and tuning of the guitar. By example, try inventing a simple melody that moves along, up-and-down just the sixth string alone. Now play that same pattern on the fifth string; now on the fourth. Pretty cool, huh? The guitar is laid out to allow such musical patterns to be played sequentially across the strings. Learning and memorizing chords and musical patterns (like riffs) is necessary to your success and growth as a musician. Plus, it’s fun because, after all, it is soul central to the guitar.
Concentration: While you are beginning, thoughts of playing hours at a time is likely not realistic. Your fingers, your hands, your body and your mind are all working in tandem to learn the new feelings and sensations of this instrument. Because of how the mind and body process new experiences, this must ultimately take time. Therefore: you might find it more productive and advantageous to practice for 10 or 15 minutes with great concentration and then allow mind and body a chance to rest while these new sensations and experiences are being processed. You’ll see. It can become detrimental to keep kicking yourself if you are not focused on what you are doing. Eventually, and this can differ for each of us, you will find that your practice sessions are getting longer as your skill and your concentration improves.
Time: There is a necessity of time required to learn any new skill. Some views (on the Internet, as well as by other musicians, etc.) will lay claim to the need to practice four hours a day every day for a period of 10 years. Do the math. That amounts to 1,460 hours per 365-day year multiplied by 10 years for an amount of 14,600 hours to become a virtuoso. This assumes things like focus, effort, talent, and so on. But however long it takes you get the idea. You will need to practice and it will take time.
Playing fast: Don’t worry about speed – not yet and not for a long while to come. Focus instead on accuracy and musicality without mistakes. Then, once in a while if you feel so inclined, yes, try going faster but you will probably find yourself playing faster anyway as your skill improves. The irony here is that slow playing will lead to speed.
Mindfulness – A word here about conscious and unconscious thought as it pertains to your musical growth: Something that a great many teachers do not cover (even though they practice this discipline) is ‘thinking’ about playing when you are away from your instrument. Practice thinking very intently about playing your instrument when you are away from it. This kind of thinking should have you actually seeing and feeling your fingers on the fingerboard and the sounds you are making. Think intensely about those scale runs, or chord changes, with your fingers moving up-and-down the fingerboard and across all six strings. This is a key to your ultimate success, and as you develop this laser-focused concentration of ‘practicing in the mind’, such mental discipline will have you advancing even while you are away from your instrument.
To conclude, all instruments have their challenges. With guitar, the tips of your fingers on your left hand (right hand for left-handed guitarists) are likely to get sore, particularly as a beginner on the instrument. The mind, too, can tire. These are the times to stop and rest. You can take that downtime to practice mentally as mentioned in the previous paragraph, and thus you can keep moving forward.
And, to finish, have fun and enjoy the journey to guitar virtuosity.
Copyright 2021 Duane Hewitt.