If you're visiting this site, chances are that you're a fan of some variety of shred guitar, and are aiming to achieve a certain degree of virtuosity. This can be achieved with time and effort, but what you practice and how you practice can greatly affect the outcome. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to the art of lead guitar, one that seduces players into focusing entirely on fretboard athleticism, resulting in an undervaluation of the true purpose of the instrument - musicality. By heeding the following lessons, you will become a well-rounded guitar Jedi.
If you're like me, chances are you're encountering the subject expecting to rip through sequences that span the length of the guitar neck. This desire may have struck you after coming across a YouTube clip of Yngwie Malmsteen dominating his fretboard with blistering speed and precision, and may have caused you to fixate your attention on speed alone. Such achievements can certainly inspire a player, and impress an audience, but if left unmitigated, it can hamper a player's ability to phrase in a way that is expressive. It may be tempting to invest a bulk of your on time working on speed, but be sure to spend quality time with scales, modes, and especially phrasing. Remember: playing fast is simply a means to an end - not an end unto itself.
Learning songs by ear:
Exercise your musical ear by learning your favorite songs. Since some phrases can be too fast to decipher by ear alone, transcription software can aid the process by slowing down tracks without lowering pitch. If you're left puzzled, you can always fall back on tablature.
Understand that there is no right or wrong way to play a riff or solo, as it is merely an artist's expression. Nailing your favorite solo note-for-note can be satisfying, but don't be afraid to play solos and riffs in the spirit of, as this allows you to incorporate your own personality.
Improvisation and exploration:
While it takes some getting used to, improvisation is fertile territory for musical discovery. Ideally, you'll want to jam with other musicians, but if you don't have access to any, you can find countless backing tracks on YouTube. In fact, this is one of my favorite tracks to practice to. If you're a shredder, you may be thinking: "How can Blues playing help my shred chops?" Improvising to blues allows you explore more rhythmic and dynamic options, and can profoundly improve upon your shred licks. Admittedly, it took me some time to warm up to this style of playing, but thanks to the shred guitar Jedi master that is Paul Gilbert (who can be found in a galaxy not so far, far away at Artistworks), I quickly changed my attitude - bringing us to our next item.
Approaching with the right attitude:
Many players approach rock guitar with a degree of egocentricity (I'm of course no exception). When I was around the age of 16, I was able to play Metallica solos note-for-note, leading to an increased sense of pride. But because my music world view was so limited, my skill level remained stagnant for about 15 years. Thanks to a random discovery, my understanding of the instrument forever changed when I stumbled upon Paul Gilbert's "Intense Rock Vol. 1." Subsequently, I had discovered that Professor Gilbert himself had confessed to doing "years of damage" with that instructional video, and has worked ever since to "atone" for his "musical sins" by emphasizing the importance of musicality. And in a similar vein, I wish to atone for musical misdeeds of my own - hubris.
Hubris also seems to be prevalent amongst rock guitarists, and is, at its core, shortsighted. By believing that there is no room for improvement, you disallow yourself to grow as a player. This emotion is often times mistaken for confidence (and vice versa), and while the distinction is subtle, it is important. In my view, confidence comes with relentless practice, while also understanding that there is always room for improvement. Whereas hubris is an overvaluation of one's own ability. No matter how well you play, remember that there will always be someone better. Remember: nobody likes a braggart (they do, however, love an underdog).
Choose your own adventure:
It is important not to compare any form of musical success with another player's, because we all have our own abilities and limitations, for example, I happen to have small girly hands (yeah, yeah - I know). Whether it's playing 3 chord pop punk songs, or face-melting shred metal, both are expressive art forms, and while you may have a preference, one is no better than the other. Ultimately, your relationship with the instrument is yours and yours alone. Whatever adventure you choose, make the most of it, and enjoy the process.
Now, go you must, young Padawan. Make many musical discoveries, you will.