What is the difference between you being an intermediate and an advanced guitarist? If your answer is “play what I know, but better” you have fallen into the trap 90% of intermediate guitarists fall into!
Like beginners, intermediate guitarists need to continue to rapidly develop new skills. Getting “stuck in rut” is often a symptom of a guitarist who isn’t doing this. One of the main causes of this is that intermediate players don’t know the skills they need to develop to make it to an advanced level.
Below are 8 skills that I think you need to nail to consider yourself an advanced guitarist. Having taught thousands of hours of guitar lessons, helping intermediate and advanced guitarists raise the level of their playing, I believe that these are the skills that help to rapidly achieve this. So how many have you got mastered?
A Guest Post by Matthew Rusk – Founder at MGRmusic.com
Matthew Rusk is the guitar teacher behind the mgrmusic.com platform. With a massive database of guitar teachers based across the globe, the platform has helped thousands of guitar students find the right guitar teacher locally or online. It is one of the largest online communities of guitar teachers and students in the UK with over 34,500 students nationally. Find out more by visiting the website.
1 – Chord Extensions
Chord extensions are a great way to spice up your regular chord progressions and take you beyond your usual Maj/Min chords. You can try to substitute some of your usual chord choices for some extended chords to add a new flavor to your playing. There is a great YouTube lesson on this from Garret’s Guitar Lessons on how to build 7th chords, 9th chords, 11th chords and 13th chords.
You will see a lot of chord extensions used in Jazz music, but these voicings also have other uses.
For example – play a 12 bar blues with Dom9 chords for a funky edge or add some Sus2 and Sus4 chords to your acoustic strumming patterns to create tension. Dom11 chords are great for playing funk, combine Dom9 and 11 chords with the same root note for instant James Brown flavor. By really getting to grips with understanding how to use chord extensions you can raise the level of your playing dramatically, a key step in moving to become an advanced guitarist.
2 – Lead Guitar Improvisation
One of the cornerstones of blues and rock playing is improvisation. Improvisation is defined as something that is “created spontaneously or without preparation”. Most of your guitar heroes will be improvisational wizards. Check out any early Led Zeppelin live performances to see Jimmy Page take classics such as Whole Lotta Love or Rock and Roll and turn them into 25 minute jam sessions.
Improvising on guitar is typically thought of as a lead guitar skill. Imagine taking all the scales, techniques and notes you know and throwing them all into play without planning your first move? Imagine a room full of people watching you, you have to play something to impress them all but you don’t know what you’re going to do until you do it… Scary huh?
Here is a great example of Page taking a solo and extending it on the spot. Skip to 3 minutes to see him in action and compare this to the studio version of the track. Look at how many extra sections and movements he’s going through.
When you come to improvise, close your eyes, play from the heart and let it rip! Let yourself get it wrong too and learn from mistakes, it is a skill that has to be developed over time. I have met many intermediate guitarists who have said they can improvise, yet what they play is a collection of riffs that they have memorized and hashed together. I think many guitarists are guilty of this, so ask yourself are you really improvising or just regurgitating some go to riffs?
3 – Using Pedals to Shape Your Tone
The sound of an electric guitar straight into a Marshall stack cracked to 10 is incredible, but when you hear a lot of top players, they don’t have just one color to their sound.
Some players will go through a live set with a wealth of different tones. That’ll be the pedalboard taking over! A lot of players will use a range of different guitar pedals to shape their tone and add things they can’t do with a guitar and amp alone. Pedals come in all shapes and sizes and do a range of things from overdrives and distortions to delays, reverbs, choruses, pitch shifters and everything else you can imagine.
Some players might only use a pedal or two (Look at Jimi Hendrix with his Wah and Dunlop Fuzz Face), but some enjoy a huge array of pedals to shape their sound. Check out Billy Duffy (The Cult) and Josh Klinghoffer (Red Hot Chilli Peppers) displaying some rather impressive boards.
There is no easy way to start out on your pedal quest and there is no right or wrong answer as to what pedals, or how many pedals, you need. It is all about approach and the skill is to develop your understanding of what pedals can do. Think about your tone, think about what you’re trying to do. Does your rig not do a certain thing? Are you missing a specific sound? Start with that and enjoy experimenting!
4 – Legato
Legato is a technique where you use your fretting hand to play multiple notes without picking each one. You would be familiar with this on a smaller scale as hammer ons, pull offs and slides. Yet, many prolific players such as Paul Gilbert and Richie Kotzen use legato to great effect by maximizing its use across full licks. Paul Gilbert’s lesson here really emphasizes why this is more than just learning how to hammer on/pull off.
To get fretting hand legato smooth, it requires practice and strength. There are some great resources out their for improving Legato, including Leigh’s Left Hand Legato Workout that is worth checking out.
5 – Making a Guitar not Sound Like a Guitar
A guitar is made of wood, electrical components and strings so therefore it will only sound like a guitar right? Wrong.
You can use your electric guitar to create a world of new sounds. If you have a guitar with a volume for each pickup, try to set the volume on one of those pickups on 0 and the other pickup on 10. Play tapped noted with your fretting hand and use your picking hand to flick the pickup selector switch. You will get some great, rhythmic choppy guitar parts, reminiscent of Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine).
Also, why not try to use your whammy bar (If you have one), detach it from the guitar and rub it along the strings to make noises that sound like a 1980’s games console or strike the string above the nut of the guitar for a horror movie sound. In many ways, this is a shift in mental approach to playing, enabling you to use and explore sounds on the guitar that you never thought were possible.
6 – Percussive Guitar and Alternate Tunings
Skills that are invaluable to acoustic guitarists, giving them more rhythmic and melodic freedom. After all, who says you need a band? There are some incredible players around the globe that are their own backing band.
Check out guys like Jon Gomm and Newton Faulkner for a masterclass in how to be your own rhythm section and lead guitar in one go. A great example is to watch Jon Gomm deploying these skills in his live performance of the piece “Passionflower”.
Mastering this aspect of playing takes a wealth of skill, coordination and knowledge. For example, you need to be familiar with alternate tunings. The above link is played in D# G A# F G A# tuning, and other guitarists in this style, such as Newtown Faulkner, will use tunings such as Open E, Open D and many more. The ability to tune your open strings to a chord allows more freedom when playing rhythmic parts and tapping lead lines. By mastering these skills you unlock the acoustic guitar’s full potential.
7 – Two Hand Tapping
For both electric and acoustic guitarists, one of the most visually impressive techniques a guitar player can learn is two handed tapping. Since the track Eruption appeared on Van Halen’s 1978 debut album, two handed tapping has been a mainstay in the guitar world.
Eddie Van Halen did not invent this technique, he simply brought it to the worlds attention. There are sources stating Eddie performed this track as a live guitar solo as early as 1975 while turning his back on the audience in all important tapping section. While no one truly knows the origin of two handed tapping, there are players such as Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Steve Hackett (Genesis) and Brian May (Queen) that used this technique in small effect in the early 1970s.
Check this out – (Skip to 9min 51 sec to see the famous two handed tapping part Van Halen popularized). The studio version was under 2 minutes in length, this live version contains other additions to the solo)
Two handed tapping was taken a step further in the 1990s by Nuno Bettencourt (Himself a huge Van Halen fan). On Extremes 1991 hit “Get the Funk Out” from their second album Pornograffiti, Nuno took Eddie’s two handed tapping approach and applied it to arpeggios (Skip to 4min 3sec to see). This is a very challenging way of tapping with takes patience and practice to master.
It is a skill that will open up new opportunities for your own solo compositions and significantly improve finger speed and coordination. Two Hand Tapping is more than just learning Eruption, so minus Eruption how many songs can you play where you use Two Hand Tapping?
8 – Hybrid Picking – Pedal Steel Licks for Guitar
If you’re a fan of country music, you may notice that some of the lead players could match any shredder for speed (Check out Johnny Hiland if you don’t believe me!). One skill in country playing that has driven me crazy for years but has been an amazing addition to my playing, is a hybrid picking approach to pedal steel licks on the electric guitar. This is something that I have been keen to pass onto intermediate and advanced guitarists alike to improve their playing.
If you’re familiar with a pedal steel guitar, it’s typically played with a bar (similar to a guitar slide), and the notes are bent via a series of foot pedals under the instrument. This gives a very unique sound, but this can be somewhat recreated on an electric guitar. You’ll want to use a very clean tone for best results. It involves playing 2 or more notes at once, while bending specific notes in that grouping to various chord tones and intervals. Watch this video by Joe Pesce on Advanced Pedal Steel Licks for Guitar to see how this works in action.
You will also use a hybrid of your pick and fingers to play multiple notes at once in this style. By developing your hybrid picking skill it unlocks a new approach to playing the guitar, as well as the sounds that you can produce. Like the previous 7 skills it will take your guitar playing to a new level. When you master one new skill it will help to improve all the other aspects of your playing.
So how many of these skills have you mastered? Comment below with your score out of 8 and where you are at with your guitar playing. Think we have missed a key skill out that is a must have for an advanced guitarist, let us know!
-Matthew (Founder – MGRmusic.com)