I was recently talking with one of our up and coming advanced students, Ryan, about a challenge he's been trying to overcome in his playing.
"I'm having a really hard time trying to figure out what I want to be as a musician and what I want to achieve. Like, what are my goals? Do I want to fingerpick or use a pick? What genre and style? I know these are things only I can answer but I'm not sure how to work it out. I'm practicing 3 hours a day and feel like I have a lot of fundamental things down and I should start thinking about how to go to the next level." - Ryan
To put his into perspective, Ryan's recently starting working on singing and piano as well as guitar, so for someone with his diverse skill set and interests, it's a very important question, and I'm sure it's one that many of you have asked yourselves once you've mastered the basics of guitar playing too.
In my career, I can remember having to tackle this problem personally 3 times:
- When I was choosing my VCE music subject, I had to choose between classical or 'contemporary'
- When I first started teaching guitar and actually had to explain to students what I play
- When splitting up guitar responsibilities within Hybrid Nightmares with Gummaz
To help you find your own voice and style as a guitarist, I'll share the advice I gave to Ryan (and also reveal what my choices were at each of these 3 points).
Go for Mastery, not Specialty
Everyone's a little different in their musical tastes, but instead of looking for a set genre or style to specialise in, focus more on mastery.
Mastery occurs when you can do something effortlessly, not just do it at a basic level.
So, take the three things you're working on at the moment - in Ryan's case, this was improv using the major scale, Mine by Five Finger Death Punch as a rock/metal song and Blackbird as a fingerstyle song, but you will get a lot more out of this exercise if you apply this advice to the 3 things you are currently working on for yourself.
There are 3 broad stages on the road to mastery, no matter what it is:
- The Learning Stage - where you'll work on the concepts and techniques
- The Application Stage - where you'll apply what you've learnt in your regular playing
- The Mastery Stage - where you'll work on getting whatever you're working on to that flawless, effortless level where it's almost subconscious.
Think about the 3 things you're currently working on and try to categorise which stage they're at. Ideally, you want each of the 3 things you're working on to be at a different stage, as that will give you a nice level of variety in your practice routine.
Anything on top of these 3 things is really just fun experimental stuff - good to have a play with, but it shouldn't really be the core of your practice (unless, of course, it's something you or your teacher decide is going to help you master any of the 3 things you're doing, such as a similar song, additional licks in a certain key etc)
That's nice, but how does it help me choose a genre?
Ok, ok, getting back to genres, my opinion is: you don't need to go for full specialisation in one genre.
It's the addition of multiple styles that make us the guitarists we are, not the specialisation in any one.
You'll likely end up favouring certain styles over others as a player and a listener, and I encourage you to explore the styles that interest you.
I am in no way recommending you try and do everything you possibly can on the guitar, I'm just trying to make it clear that the path to true mastery is often a windy one.
I definitely have certain genres I enjoy more and have naturally mastered more than others (specifically, metal, with a side of classical, jazz, rock and acoustic styles), but I don't think of myself as a purely metal player.
Without going too zen on you, I am a master of playing in the style of Ben Plant.
Everything you master will get you one step closer to becoming the guitarist you want to be, even if you don't know what that is on a conscious level at this point.
But what if I choose the wrong things to work on?
There is not a single aspect of guitar playing I regret learning.
Whilst my second teacher was showing me songs like Private Investigations and a bunch of crazy chord shapes from jazz-land, I was blasting Metallica riffs on the weekends and after school.
Now I combine those crazy chords with metal riffs for part of my unique sound!
When I was learning pop chords for songs I would never listen to in a million years, just because a singer wanted someone to play along with them, I was learning how to make music with other musicians, something no book or tab can ever teach you.
In fact, there's not a single aspect of anything I regret learning (that's probably a topic for another day!), so don't waste your energy stressing about this too much.
A better question is: how do you know if the 3 things you're working on are the best 3 things to be working on right now?
First, when in doubt, trust your teacher, as we can help you filter out all the bullshit (it's a pretty easy conversation - show your teacher what you are thinking of working on, explain why you're thinking of doing it, and then get their feedback/amendments/thoughts).
But the other way to tell is by measuring your enjoyment of each thing you're working on.
If you're loving all 3 things you're working on, that's awesome! If you're enjoying 1 out of 3, and the other 2 are a challenge, that's still fine - it likely means you're exploring new territory.
If, however, you're not enjoying any of the 3 things, that means either it's too challenging, you need to know why it's relevant to give yourself the motivation to do it (again, ask your teacher or guitar mates for advice if this is the case) or it's just not the right thing for you as a guitarist at the moment.
Working towards goals
If you have very specific guitar goals (ie get into a course, start a band etc), always try to have at least one of these 3 things working towards that end goal.
For example, if you know you have to do your VCE music exam, then you're going to have to work on the required material for that as 1 (if not 2 or 3) of the things you're working on at the moment.
If you know you want to start a band, start working on playing with others as 1 of your things to master.
Just don't let your over-arching goal kill your sense of curiosity and exploration. Become the guitarist you want to be, not the guitarist you (or others) think you should be.
So, to summarise:
- don't worry about specialising - let it happen naturally
- always have 3 things on the go that you're trying to master (not just play ok), with at least 1 of these things aligned with your ultimate end goals
- stick with each thing until it's as mastered as you can possibly get it (ie it feels effortless) and
- if you're dreading your practice time, review the 3 things you're doing and consider dropping some of them
P.S. For anyone wondering what choices I made at those interesting 3 points in my career:
- I asked my teacher which one he thought I should do, and he bluntly told me I hadn't ever played a single classical song for him in the 5 years he taught me. I chose contemporary - and then began teaching myself classical once VCE was over.
- I tell the truth - I perform metal, I enjoy playing classical on my own for fun, I have studied jazz and I grew up playing rock, pop and a bit of every genre I came across.
- Our unofficial rule is I tend to take the slower, more melodic solos, whereas your more traditional shred solos tend to go to Gummaz. That said, the times where we break that rule often result in the best solos for both of us! For rhythm stuff, I guess I take the more physically demanding stuff whilst Gummaz takes the more interesting chordal arrangements, initially because he was recovering from arm surgery but nowadays because he's soft :)