Aggregation of Marginal Gains: 55 Ways to Dramatically Improve Your Playing

I stumbled upon this article by James Clear called This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent and Here’s What Happened. In the article the story of Dave Brailsford is laid out. 

Brailsford believed in a concept that he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He explained it as the “1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement….They searched for 1 percent improvements everywhere.
Brailsford believed that if they could successfully execute this strategy, then Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years time.
He was wrong. They won it in three years.

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Now those cyclists looked for any and every area that related to their cycling and tried to make improvements in those areas. I started thinking how this would work out when it came to playing guitar and here are some of my ideas in random order.

50 Ways To Improve Your Playing

  1. SHUT UP AND PLAY YOUR GUITAR, instead of continuously looking at new gear. I know many guitar players that get so caught up in all the sound and equipment technicalities that they have little time left to actually play. I firmly believe that no matter how good your equipment, if your hands are not doing the right thing, you will still not sound good. I don’t care if it is dedicated practice or just noodling; the only way you are going to build a relationship with that instrument is if you actually spend time on it.
  2.  PRACTICE MORE REGULARLY. To my students I always advise to practice but truly concentrated. Instead of wandering of during practice, make it your aim to practice completely focused for say 20 minutes a day and after that feel free to do whatever. But make it daily! (More on practice here >>> ). Guitar playing does not come with long bursts of semi-concentrated practice but by being focused on learning that new thing.
  3. USE A METRONOME OR DRUM MACHINE. No matter what beautiful notes you think you are producing, if they are out of time they will be perceived as meaningless. The metronome is also a great way to improve accuracy and right hand – left hand coordination.
  4. UNPLUG YOUR GUITAR. I realize this is not meant for the acoustic guitar player but for the electric player, just take it out of the amp and pedal rack and make it sound as good as you can, and after that; improve your dry presence. Once you plug in again you will be amazed. The other way around for those involved in heavier music, half of the battle is won if we could just hear the notes you are playing or wanting to play. Try keeping the rest as silent as you can.
  5. USE A CLEAN SOUND. With all the effects around nowadays it is very easy to forget what your actual clean sound was like. Try plugging in to the clean channel of your guitar or take all effects and overdrive off and remember how your actually guitar sounded again. See how clear your fast runs really are if there is no overdrive to cover any weaknesses.
  6. LEARN A NEW SONG EVERY WEEK. Building a repertoire is important if you aim to be a working musician. But besides that there is almost always something to be learned if you sit down to learn a new song, be it song writing ideas, melodic ideas, new riffs or licks, new techniques. Initially focus on melody and harmony (chords and melody) before you delve into riffs and licks. E.g. get to know the song before anything.
  7. SING WHAT YOU PLAY. You’ll be amazed how it will affect your guitar playing.
  8. SING WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO PLAY. The next step forward is that you let your imagination lead your fingers as opposed to the other way around. It is the only way you will ever sound like you and you will find that your imagination is usually well ahead of your technical capabilities. Which brings us to the next point:
  9. MAKE AN EXERCISE OUT OF IT. If your head and ear are ahead of your technique: turn your ideas into exercises. A great way of learning how to do this is to play the melody of existing pop songs, worship songs, hymns, or film melodies or well known melodies from other instruments.
  10. PLAY A PHRASE IN AS MANY DIFFERENT WAYS AS YOU CAN COME UP WITH. You could make slight rhythmic variations, play the same phrase in a different place on the neck, use different techniques such as hammer on and pull off, slides, volume swells, your whammy. You will be amazed how much you can do with just one little phrase.
  11. START A LICK BOOK AND INCORPORATE IT IN YOUR PRACTICE ROUTINE. Licks of your own and others are a great way to improve your technique and to extend your musical vocabulary.
  12. LEARN TO PLAY AND USE CHORD INVERSIONS. The are a great way to open up your sound and when you are a solo accompanist or guitar player, it is a great way to open up songs.
  13. IMPROVE YOUR LEFT AND RIGHT HAND TECHNIQUE. Yes, exercises, etudes can be a drag but they are a sure way of progressing, maybe lick collections are more of your thing.
  14. LEARN A NEW (EXOTIC) SCALE such as the Chromatic Scale, the Whole Tone Scale, the Neapolitan Scale, the Bebob Scales or the Byzantine Scale.
  15. LEARN TO PLAY YOUR SCALES IN ALL POSITIONS. We all know that blues scale starting with the root under your first finger on the low E string. How about you try and learn all the other fingerings. Or do this for the major scale (and this for its modes as well). Here’s a link to get you going >>>>
  16. DEVELOP YOUR OWN SCALE PATTERNS VERTICALLY AND HORIZONTALLY. While you are at that, make conscious choices in terms techniques used such as alternate picking, legato, right and left hand tapping.
  17. IMPROVE YOUR ARPEGGIO PLAYING, both for the purpose of rhythm guitar and lead guitar.
  18. LEAN ABOUT CHORD SUBSTITUTIONS. It is a great way to open up and re-harmonize existing songs, make you a better accompanist and in your lead playing it opens you up to more creative use of your arpeggios.
  19. PLAY A SONG YOU KNOW BUT USE DIFFERENT CHORD SHAPES. Try the same song using bar chords, small shapes on the top three strings, power chords, drop 2 / 3 chords insist on a drone. Some of my most joyful chord discoveries were when I forced myself to play all chords of a certain song with an open G and e string, it is a great way of discovering new possibilities.
  20. PLAY OR REARRANGE A SONG IN A DIFFERENT STYLE. With some of my students we have done this with the worship song How Great is Our God, ranging from traditional pop-rock to R&B, to power rock ballad, to latin (bossa nova) to jazz. It is a great way to get really in depth with a song and realize the wide range of possibilities.
  21. PLAY A SONG IN A DIFFERENT KEY OR MAINTAIN THE SAME KEY BUT USE A CAPO. As an example of a different key: the chord progression C, F, Am, G, could be transposed to A, D, F#m, E. If I’d play this chord progression with a Capo on III it would be back to the original key again. I could put the capo on V and in order to play in the original key I would play G, C, Em, D.
  22. IMPROVE YOUR POSTURE AND BREATHING. Straighten that back even if it means that you cannot see what you are doing. Try and breath regularly and when you sing, sing from your gut not from your breast. Practice standing up just like on most of your gigs.
  23. SHORTEN THAT STRAP. It may look cool having your guitar hanging down low, but it is bad for your posture and hand positioning. Try hanging that strap higher up and be in there for the long haul without risking injuries and it is better for articulation.
  24. LEARN TO READ MUSIC NOTATION IN BOTH TREBLE AND BASS CLEF. You immediately open yourself up to a world of great material by doing just that.
  25. IMPROVE YOUR SIGHT READING. Open up a chord sheet, real book, lead sheet, tab and try to play through it as good as you can without stopping for mistakes.
  26. LEARN ABOUT A STYLE YOU ARE UNFAMILIAR WITH. I have had great joy using the Guitar Atlas Series and have really started to enjoy playing and arranging Irish music (fiddle and flute tunes). Another great resource are the PLAY GUITAR NOW instruction videos and books which cover a wide range of styles and there are by now also two ukulele volumes.
  27. EXPERIMENT WITH DIFFERENT PICKS. It is a great way to extend your sound palette without having to buy yet another new stomp box.
  28. LEARN A NEW TECHNIQUE OR IMPROVE EXISTING TECHNIQUES such as hybrid picking, or if you are a pick only player give finger style a go, and the other way around if you are a finger style player only try making things work with a pick, or give right hand tapping and sweep picking a go if you have not already done so. Magazines like GUITAR TECHNIQUES may well be your best friend to get going.
  29. IMPROVE YOUR THEORY AND AURAL SKILLS. It really helps your playing a lot if you understand what you are doing and hearing.
  30. RECORD YOURSELF AND LISTEN CRITICALLY TO FIND AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT.
  31. PLAY A SCALE OR PHRASE ON ONE STRING.
  32. PLAY A SONG BUT AVOID USING ONE PARTICULAR STRING (pretend it is broken or actually take it off).
  33. PLAY IT BACKWARDS. Try playing your scales, licks, phrases, songs backwards.
  34. PRACTICE DYNAMICS when you play scales, riffs, licks, songs, use dynamics (soft to loud and the other way around, dynamic jumps).
  35. SET YOURSELF MEASURABLE GOALS AND TARGETS IN TRYING TO IMPROVE.  In all this: failing to plan how you are going to improve in specific areas is like planning to fail.
  36. LEARN TO PLAY IN DIFFERENT TIME SIGNATURES. If you usually play in 4/4 , 6/8 or 12/8, how about learning to play in uneven time signatures like 3/4, 5/4, 7/8, 9/8, 11/8 etc. I remember well back in the Netherlands playing with people from the Middle East doing all these strange time signatures and scales, it really helped me to grow musically.
  37. LEARN TO PLAY IN ALTERNATE TUNING. It is a great way to find new sounds, ways of playing the same old songs, explore new techniques or discover new material. Ty Drop D, DADGAD, ORKNEY (CGCGCD), C tuning (CGCGCE), and others.
  38. SOLO OVER ONE CHORD, and experiment with different scales and modes over the same chord to really hear what the nature of the scale/mode or the sound of the scale/mode is in relation to that chord.
  39.  SET SPECIFIC BOUNDARIES TO THE LENGTH OF YOUR SOLO. It is a great way to learn how to leave a powerful message in a limited amount of time and to avoid senseless noodling. You don’t want to be that guy or girl of whom
  40. BECOME A GREAT RHYTHM GUITAR PLAYER/ACCOMPANIST. Many guitar players end up spending 90% of their time on soloing skills and improvement and 10% on Rhythm Guitar. Now look at your actual situation, it’s exactly the other way around, 90% of the time you play rhythm. Does is not make sense to get better at that? I know for sure that it is the guys and girls that can lock into the groove that will see their telephone ringing for the next gig. And where it comes to soloing:
  41. START FOCUSING ON TELLING A STORY. With my students we practice playing improvisations and (semi-)composed solos and focus on telling a story. A story is in broad terms build like this: introduction – body – closure. Bestselling authors use page turners in the body, events or sub plots that make you want to keep on reading. Try to translate that to your guitar solo. Listen to people like Steve Vai, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Carlos Santana and you will recognize that.
  42. WRITE YOUR OWN SONGS, MELODIES AND HARMONIES. It is a great way to put into creative practice what you are learning.
  43. FINISH THE SONGS YOU STARTED. It is very easy to put ideas aside and have them wait until the next burst of inspiration comes. Don’t do it, finish the song even if it means it is not a great song.
  44. IMPROVE YOUR VIBRATO, BENDS, COMBINATIONS. Your vibrato is key in expressing emotion while playing. Master it! Not just the one trick pony idea of the fast metal type of vibrato but also the slow haunting ones, the wide vibratos (Gary Moore), circular vibratos, and it is the same with bends, practice them with a tuner on the neck and see how accurate you are.
  45. IMPROVE YOUR PRE-BENDS. Learn to be accurate with your pre-bends which is basically learning to recognize the required tension under your fingers. Again do it with a tuner on the neck.
  46. PLAY WITHOUT VIBRATO.  Try playing your stuff and force yourself to do it without vibrato at all. It will help you to become more conscious and deliberate where you do use a vibrato.
  47. LISTEN TO A WIDER VARIETY OF MUSIC. It will definitely help your musical growth
  48. IMPROVE YOUR SKILLS WITH ACTIVE EFFECTS SUCH AS VOLUME PEDAL/KNOBS, WAH PEDAL AND WHAMMY BAR. Listen to Jeff Beck playing Somewhere over the Rainbow.
  49. LEARN TO PLAY WITH A SLIDE OR EXPERIMENT WITH DIFFERENT TYPES OF SLIDES. When used skilfully slides are a great way to add another dimension to your playing. It is good to remember that there are many different types that will all produce a different characters to your sound. I use a brass and a thick glass one.
  50. LEAVE THE GHOST NOTES OUT. Been to those bands or jam sessions where the guitarist plays a funky rhythm but where there is no chord there are all those chucks? It get’s boring doesn’t it? Try playing to funk patterns leaving all the ghost notes out. Make the ghost notes a conscious choice.
  51. LEARN A DIFFERENT INSTRUMENT. I really enjoyed picking up the ukulele. The limitations of the instrument really helped me to expand my use of the guitar on do more with less. Likewise for picking up the bass. But you could also think of a mandolin, a banjo, or a bouzouki even. Piano might be a great new instrument on the side and is helpful to improve theory and aural. Drums or percussion are great to develop rhythmically. 
  52. EXTEND YOUR GENERAL KNOWLEDGE ON MUSIC. Read books on the history of music, biographies of artists, books about specific subjects, magazines that are a bit more in depth such a MOJO, DOWN BEAT. Here in New Zealand you can get the NZ Musician for free in most music stores.  It has good articles and lessons (also read the lessons that are not about your instrument).
  53. GET A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF YOUR GUITAR EFFECTS. Guitar effects are a great way to expand your sound palette and an inevitable part of being a working musician. Get to know your effects and how they affect your sound, how to gear them up, order of effects and experiment what happens if you against the grain.
  54. GO OUT AND PLAY WITH OTHERS. Form a band, go to jam sessions, become a member of your local church’ music team, jam with a friend, jam with more experienced musicians. Music is supposed to be shared and nothing will help you to improve more than playing with others. Listening to what you are doing and how it ties in with the rest of the musicians, experiencing how not playing may be a better idea than playing (space is just as important, locking into the groove with the drummer and bass player, create great harmonic stricture and groove with the keyboard player/pianist it all helps in your growth as a player and it is so enjoyable to learn like this.
  55. FIND A GOOD TEACHER, A MENTOR OR COACH. Despite all the great resources available, nothing beats  one on one time with an experienced teacher, mentor or coach and this applies to all aspects of your playing. He or she can help you with posture, technique, creativity, song writing, and will be able to map out a path towards the goals and targets you have set. He or she may be able to take you along to gigs and jam sessions, may be able to introduce you to other musicians and thus help you to grow faster than you would have on your own.
    If you feel that urge straight away, contact me >>> even when you are far away: skype or google video chat lessons can be arranged as well.

 

Now these are just some off the cuff ideas in random order. Remember that we are aiming for a one percent improvement only. I would really appreciate it if you could add some additional ideas as a comment.

Bass: An Interview with Jaco Pastorius

Jaco Pastorius is one of those amazing bass players in history, that set the bar and in fact still does for many players today.

On youtube I found this series of videos comprising an interview with this grandmaster of the bass, where he talks about modern electric bass. There is such good advise in there, for bass players but also for guitar players that I decided to put it out here for you.

So things that particularly struck me is his way of approaching things analytically (like I teach) , how he uses classical music and scale patterns to get proficient, and in fact some of the things he showed on the bass are not to dissimilar to what one might be taught on the guitar by the likes of Paul Gilbert.

So, sit back with a coffee, a notebook and  perhaps your bass to try things out.

Did you enjoy that as much as I did?