I truly believe that in order to become a better guitar player, one should listen and absorb as much inspiration from guitarists that one personally admires. These men are often kind enough to share with us their unique approach to music and the art. To paraphrase Newton, one should always strive to stand on the shoulders of giants, as that’s the easiest way to see the whole picture.
Steve Vai is one of my favourite guitar virtuosos ever and as such, it certainly makes sense to listen to what he has to say about guitar playing in order to become better oneself. Years ago Steve Vai teamed up with his alma mater, Berklee, in order to share some of his wisdom with the viewers of a stream in which he talked all things related to guitar playing. The video is on YouTube and is a bit over one hour long. It’s amazing how much information or shall I say, wisdom, pours out of Superman (as some like to call Steve Vai) so I figured I’d sum up the main points of this master class in this post by transcribing the bits that stood out the most.
If you’re anything like the average Internet user you’ll be discouraged by the length this post and say to yourself “too long, didn’t read,” so I took special care in grouping Steve‘s statements into several different categories (mentality, vibrato, chords, ear training, etc.) which in turn are grouped into three main groups. I still recommend watching the whole video whenever you have enough time and are able to focus on what Steve is saying. I am sure it will help you realize your potential. Steve Vai‘s tongue-in-cheek style of telling things is also worth the watch. I hope that reading this post will do as much for your playing as it has for mine.
1. The Mentality
- If you feel like you want to learn how to play the guitar, go out there and get it. And believe you can do it. The first step, namely “getting a guitar” is a step many people can’t get past.
- Get a guitar that resonates with you, that sounds nice.
- The most important element to playing the guitar is having a goal. Without it, it’s hard to focus on something. Even if you’re an accomplished player, setting little goals are good.
- Having a wide musical vocabulary is the key to sound more like you when you write a song.
- Know what you want to achieve and feel good about it. If we feel good about playing something, then we will feel inspired and motivated to reach our goals. A lot of times we get overcome with negative thoughts of failure, fear of being criticized (Steve Vai mentions how he is perhaps the most criticized guitar player in the world, yet the constant criticism won’t let him stop). You should have the same attitude: don’t let other’s people negativity stop you.
- It doesn’t matter how good you are. It doesn’t matter how good other people are playing. Any instrument is a personal expression. Even if you’re just playing a few chords you’re still expressing yourself.
- If you’re interested in having a career as a guitarist, there is a lot you can do. The music business is, like any other business, full of challenges and chances. It’s important to find an audience. As far as getting your music recognized goes, it’s about making a story. Jam, get out there and play live. Be kind towards the people you play with.
- Identify your strengths and find out what is it that excites you the most, because that way you’re always going to be interested in it. Do what you feel you can do best. Steve says that the music he makes is what he wants to do and what he is the best at.
- You’re only going to be really good at what’s natural to you and you’re most excited at.
- Remember: only compete with yourself.
- Protect your intellectual property (your music). Learn as much as you can about the music business.
- If you love what you’re doing, you’re doing great.
- The desire to improve in any field (speed, accuracy) is important.
- This is a lesson he learned from the late Frank Zappa: make the music you want to make regardless of what anybody says and regardless of what’s going on in the music industry. Make what’s important to you. Don’t let people tell you that you can’t. Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel comfortable to you just because someone else wants you to do so. There’s a price to pay for doing that.
- Use your inspirations and influences as your launching pad. Strive to do something greater than what your influences have done.
- Try to find those unique parts of your playing, your strengths, and exaggerate them. Don’t focus on the weak parts of your playing. Steve says he is not a great jazz player, but he doesn’t care about it.
- Within your strengths, there will always be weaknesses. Work on improving those.
- Music to him is about serving people. He views the art as a means of providing enjoyment to people.
The Concept of “Music Meditation”
- One of the best things you can do to improve yourself is the mental side of it, as most of what you do is just an expression of what you’re thinking.
- Whatever you achieve on an instrument (and anything) is a reflection of how well you’re able to focus on it.
- Practicing is a great way to leave everything behind and enter a state of meditation. It’s a liberating feel, for you’re creating and it can be quite a thrill.
- Any technique you’re focusing on, anything you want to achieve, is dependent on focus.
- The desire to want to achieve something is crucial.
- Visualize yourself doing whatever you can’t do as of now. This gives you something to work for. See yourself playing in a certain way, pretend you’re hearing it. Fine-tune the vision. If you focus long enough, the picture becomes real.
- Your goal can be anything. It’s important to identify with that goal.
- After a while it becomes easier to find unique things and work on them. This is the result of keeping your mind focused on something.
2. Applied Theory
- Tune the guitar or you’ll sound awful. Use a tuner (this is what Steve Vai would do).
Tone and posture
- Listen very carefully because your tone is in really your fingers. It is the product of what you’re hearing in your head. It’s not about the amps of effects you’re using. Remember the guitar is a very dynamic instrument.
- The way you hold your pick will have a great influence on your tone. Whatever your picking technique looks like, the most important you feel comfortable. Experiment with different pick placements along the strings, as it will give you a different tone every time.
- Pay attention to your wrist’s position. You want your fingers to come down on the notes. The wrong wrist position can have a negative impact on your tone.
- Take chord charts and memorize as many shapes as possible.
- Listen carefully and make sure every note come out clearly. Make sure every note rings like “it’s got its own postcode.” Don’t feel frustrated if at the beginning notes don’t sound clearly. Focus and results will come.
- Even if you just learn three chords, you can discover the universe! With just three chords there is a plethora of things you can do.
- Make an exercise out of anything you can’t do. Make a little exercise (etude) out of your technical issue.
- If you’re feeling frustrated: relaxing is one of your best friends. It helps getting past a plateau. It’s hard to do sometimes. Pushing a 90 percent is what gives you control. Do hold back a little bit.
- Whenever you learn anything. Don’t just memorize the fingering. Listen to the chord. Every scale, every chord tells a story. And that story is what you hear in your head. Play a chord, listen carefully and memorize the sound or atmosphere of the chord.
- Create a story based on the chord and take a mental snapshot.*
*Plays a BbMaj 6/9#11 chord with an added major 7th and describes a magic scenery he sees in his head… a beach, waves crashing on the shore, pleasant smells and sounds.
- Listen to what you’re playing and make sure it sounds as best as it can. You can know all of the music theory and all techniques. If you don’t develop your ear, you can’t play what you hear inside. Every time you play is in fact a chance to develop your ear.
- Listen to music and try to figure it out. Sing melodies. Sit with the guitar and sing things that you play. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a good voice or not.
Timing and Rhythm
- It’s important to know how to lock in with the groove. Grooving is an inner thing, as it happens within you. It’s a good idea to always play with a drum-machine or a click.
- Whenever I’m jamming with somebody or on my own, you should lissssteeen. And not just listen to the music, “marry” it. Let it get into your ear and DNA.
- There is a difference between playing to the click and playing “in the pocket.” You might have been playing for years and still not know about this concept.
- Don’t be afraid to come up with your own exercises.
- Exercises will help you improve your technique, but there’s more to guitar playing than mastering exercises. Exercises won’t help you develop your inner ear.
- Practice every scale in any position, in every key, at every speed. (Steve: “Boy I guess I had a lot of time back then. I guess I didn’t have Internet porn”).
- The main scale I’d suggest is the pentatonic blues scale. Jam along to a backing track until you develop cool ideas based around that scale.
- You bend with your hand, not with your fingers. That said, practice bends with every finger. Practice different kinds of bends on every string.
- Broscience alert!: “The face has to move with the notes. It makes the notes sound better, as the mouth is connected to the finger muscles.”
By the way, I find it peculiar that Steve refers to bending as “stretching”…
- A surefire sign of untrained technique is poor intonation. Don’t press too hard. Hitting the note and having the right note come out is everything.
- Vibrato is the soul of a note. It’s a very crucial aspect.
- Beginners tend to go overboard with vibrato by using a “mosquito”-like vibrato and it’s OK if that’s what you want. But even then, experimenting with different sorts of vibrato and mastering them is worth the effort, as it changes who you are because your vibrato actually comes from your soul, not just from your fingers.
*Assistant wrongly chooses a jazzy backing track*
Steve: “Not Jazz, please!”
- Steve likes using circular vibrato because it makes the note go both sharp and flat (regular vibrato just makes the note go sharp).
- Having a command over your vibrato can help you make the note speak. Practice every kind of vibrato (slow, fast, wide, narrow) with every finger, on every string, in every position.
- Mix bends and vibrato.
- Having control over your vibrato gives your musical vocabulary a bigger range.
Steve: “There’s nothing more sensual than a nice, slow vibrato.”
As you see, Steve has an unique approach to music, an approach that is both artistic and spiritual. He doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the deeper aspects of musicianship, such as those related to the player’s mentality and spirituality. It seems to me that he doesn’t really want you to learn all scales or chords out there before he can see you as a musician, for all he wants is you to be able to express yourself by using whatever it is you already know. That is not to say that you shouldn’t aim at becoming a better player. In my personal opinion you definitely should, but not because you want to be better than someone else, but because you love music, and you want to become a better version of yourself.
About the Author:
By Miguel Marquez.
Don’t hesitate to subscribe to my YouTube channel, as more lessons on applying music theory are in the planning stage. Also follow me on Facebook to stay up to date on lessons and music: facebook.com/MiguelMarquezMusic.