If your eyes are looking over these very words right now, chances are that you're on a quest to make your mark as a musician. You have drive, ambition, and discipline out the you-know-what. Possessing those virtues, you're probably able to outplay many a player -- a big fish in a small pond, but yet you're still unable to write your magnum opus that you've been obsessing over for quite some time. At this point, you're probably thinking: "all right, wisenheimer, then what's is that we focus too much on as players?" My response: TECHNIQUE . (I know, pretty bold statement, right?) But fear not, you are not alone, as many battle this very thing (present company included). Below we will discuss some of the tips that I've discovered to help you to become a master of your own destiny -- or at least master over your technical abilities, anyway.
TECHNIQUE vs songwriting:
My remark, as incendiary as it is, is not to suggest that technique isn't crucial (because it most certainly is), but rather to say that skimping on writing and musical exploration is the equivalent of a bodybuilder skimping on leg day (do you even write, bro?). In the name of self-revelation, let's conduct a little experiment -- and be brutally honest with yourself -- in the past week, approximately how much time have you invested in cleaning up or acquiring various techniques? Now how much time have you put into composing? Chances are that your practice time far outweighs the time you've spent collecting and working on your musical ideas. The truth is, because of our high degree of adaptability as humans, we tend to become best at that which we work on most. There are so (SO) many players who are proficient at sweep picking, alternate picking, economy picking, legato, tapping... the list can go on-and-on. But when it comes to applying any one of those techniques that are at their disposal, the result ends up being less musical and much less interesting for the listener. This is due to the fact that their improvisational/ writing abilities have atrophied, to continue with the "leg day" analogy.
If I'm being honest, I know this all to well, as I, myself, struggle with this very thing (the struggle is real, brother/sister). In fact, to help correct this imbalance, I've begun designating certain days of the week for my various guitar related goals. It is also important to note that some skills come easier to players than others, so be sure to be cognizant of your level of proficiency at any given technique, altering your practice regimen as necessary to focus on your weaknesses. Whether you decide on "Theory Thursday" (borrowed from one of my mates) or "Sweeping Saturday", just remember to find a combination that best serves you and your goals.
TECHNIQUE: the lead guitarist's nagging backseat driver
Another problem with a technique-centric practice regimen is that the techniques that you're strongest in will begin to dictate your compositions. When this is the case, it is completely obvious to the savvy listener, as it tends to lack any playing dynamics. In fact, if you peruse YouTube, you'll find example after example of players sweep picking up and down without much rhythmic or dynamic variation. To be completely honest, as a player, that is one of my absolute favorite guilty pleasure, because I can really appreciate the technicality it, but just remember: guitar athleticism, as incredible as it is, does not necessarily make it music.
The good news is that this is a simple fix (simple, not easy, as old habits die hard). To better mitigate this issue, begin the writing process in your head, then adapt it to the guitar. Not only will this serve the music much better, but it will also expand the amount of time that you can spend composing, as this can be done practically anywhere. Just download an audio recording application onto your smartphone and you can then tap into your creative potential during your morning and evening commutes, your lunch break, or even during your exercise routine. By tapping into the creative part of your mind, you'll have produced more interesting material than if you let technique and muscle memory control the musical conversation.
The nagging backseat driver: creativity's frenemy
As a player's player -- as I'd like to think of my self -- I feel that It is also important to note that that there is some use to a technique-centric approach to writing. In fact, one of my favorite examples of this is Paul Gilbert's étude entitled "Metal Dog", from his instructional video Paul Gilbert's Terrifying Guitar Trip, as shown below:
The reason that this is my favorite example (besides the obvious sheer awesomeness of his performance) is that this study was eventually adapted into one of Pablo Gilberto's most popular works to date (at least in guitar circles), appropriately titled Technical Difficulties (I mean, this is legendary stuff, a player's right of passage, if you will). By making a side-by-side comparison of both works, you can hear how technique-driven riffs are masterfully and tastefully combined with musical creativity to create a more interesting piece of music that possesses a quality of persistent ebb and flow of tension and resolution.
To reiterate the point, while composing by transferring to the guitar what you hear in your head is the ultimate goal as a songwriter, a technique-driven approach to writing can be tremendously helpful if used in a way that serves the song, as opposed to the song serving the technique. Remember, techniques are intended to be nothing but tools for use of your artistic vision.
Often times, players begin to learn playing techniques in the hopes that it will help them write material, which becomes a bit of a comfort blanket to them, as they tend to believe that their lack of material can be traced to their insufficiency in one technique or another, as opposed to practicing their own musical creativity; because, well, focusing on technique is a lot easier than the frustration that accompanies working out your musical mind.
Ultimately, however, your relationship with your instrument and your material is yours alone -- if you find that your interests lie solely in acquiring playing techniques in a rather Pokémon, "gotta catch them all" sort of way, there certainly is nothing at all wrong with that. But if your true passion lies in musical creation and exploration, focusing too narrowly on technique won't produce the results you desire.