We’re music therapists and music therapy students. For many of us, a guitar is in our hands for much of the day. Most of the working world is limited to practicing guitar before and after work, so we are really part of a lucky few.
If we set our minds to it, we can start making small improvements throughout the week, every week. We can get past “functional” guitar and into a more interesting, more pleasing, more musical realm of therapeutic effectiveness.
Sounds pretty good, yeah?
So read on to see my 14 ways to improve your guitar skills. Don’t get overwhelmed – incorporating just a few of these WILL improve your guitar skills! Start by picking two for the upcoming week.
Some require explanation and the rest are self-explanatory.
1. Change your relationship with the guitar. This sounds a bit kooky, but I know for a fact that many of us are intimidated by the guitar. It’s an instrument that becomes a companion in our healing efforts. We should treat it with respect. Having trouble with this? At the risk of sounding real “out there”, I’m going to recommend this strategy: when you pick up the guitar, smile and say, “hello friend”. Or you can name your guitar. When you put it down, say “thank you”. Sidenote: if you’re in a session, I recommend doing this in your head 🙂
2. Practice slower. If something is uncomfortable or unfamiliar, we tend to rush through it. Slow it down and really get the passage/progression/transition under your fingers. Get bonus points by using a metronome!
3. Distribute your practice. For learning fine motor skills, “cramming” just isn’t a good strategy. Little bits of practice here and there will always be more effective than one big chunk of time.
4. Experiment with dynamics. Use dynamics to make songs more interesting. Notice the effects on yourself and with clients/patients. Practicing quietly can also bring needed attention to problem chords.
5. Play one song in a variety of styles. Can you take a pop song and turn it into a lullaby? Can you turn a ballad into a punk rock song? Try it – it’s fun!
6. Perform at an open mic or campfire. This increases the stakes because we are sometimes more nervous to play in front of peers than clients. Increased comfort in this space will translate to increased comfort in the therapeutic space.
7. Listen to and imitate melodies. Guitars aren’t just for chording! Increase your understanding of the fretboard by reproducing melodies.
8. THESE exercises for a warmup and improved finger dexterity. Wow – I recorded this over 5 years ago? I look like a baby.
9. Listen harder Really listen to the sounds you’re producing. Are all the notes coming out? How is the tone? The intonation? Use the voice memo function of your smart phone to make a recording and see what else you notice.
10. Learn at least one song per month for your own enjoyment.
11. If you always play with your fingers, try a pick. If you always play with a pick, try your fingers. Did you know that the “official” name for a pick is “plectrum”?
12. Memorize songs. Memorization is the key to mastery. You will internalize chord progressions like never before and learn to apply your understanding to other songs.
13. Play the song, not the strumming pattern. You don’t have to stick to a single strumming pattern for the entirety of a song. Yes, consistency is nice. But allow chords to hang or rhythmically emphasize climaxes with your strumming.
14. Learn to do your own basic maintenance. Changing guitar strings can be an enjoyable, even meditative, activity. By doing your own string changes, you deepen your connection with and appreciation for the instrument.
If you enjoyed this, please consider sharing on social media channels or with your colleagues and/or classmates! Have any other recommendations? Let me know in the comments.