When you begin your journey on the instrument, it can be quite an exciting time. There is a whole new world that quite literally is available at your fingertips, and since some of the fundamental techniques place less emphasis on speed, they can become quite boring to practice. I can't even begin to tell you how many players I've encountered who can play fast, but not necessarily cleanly. This tells me that a bulk of their practice time was used to increase speed, and, as a consequence, their playing lacks clarity. I often think of music as a language, and the guitar as a means of communicating that language. Even if you have an expanded vocabulary, an impediment to your speech can confuse the message, or, in terms of the guitar, can make it less enjoyable for the listener. This is especially a shame, because music tends to be a language that transcends typical lingual and cultural (and even generational) barriers. It is for this reason that we will discuss muting, bending/vibrato, and playing dynamics - the trifecta of emotive guitar playing (which are often neglected by rock guitarists).
While it may seem simple, muting is a technique that allows for clean, and even fast playing. Because the guitar requires control of six strings, it is imperative to be able to mute the strings that you don't intend to play, especially if its an electric guitar with high distortion, running through a cranked-up amplifier. In the world of rock guitar, we have the option of using palm-muting or pick-muting with the picking hand, and muting with our fretting hand, or any combination thereof. The fretting hand can really be helpful when muting by simply putting the thumb of your fretting hand over the neck (and can of course even work for strumming certain chords as well, more on that in a later post).
Check out this valuable muting lesson from shred metal and rock guitar extraordinaire, Paul Gilbert:
As a hallmark of rock and blues guitar, bending gives the guitar a vocal quality, making it a great technique to practice. It can really be expressive as you can choose what note to bend to, if you're going to bend up to the intended note quickly, or slowly for more a more dramatic feel. What's more, you even have options as to what interval you're going to bend to. Similar to simply just fretting intervals from a scale, you can bend up to a quarter-step, half-step, one-and-a-quarter, one-and-a-half, and if you're strings (and fingertips) can handle it, you can even bend up to two full steps.
*Until suitable callouses form, this technique can wreak havoc on your fingertips. Just be sure to listen to your body and take breaks when appropriate.
With regard to vibrato, this technique really allows the guitar to express a vocal quality - if you listen to any genre of vocalists, you'll notice that they'll belt out phrases in a way that oscillates between two different pitches, and is an excellent way to finish off a bending-note phrase. It may seem like such an easy task to "shake" a note, but believe it or not, I've seen many guitarists who have weak vibrato technique, which is extremely unpleasant to listen to as it sounds shallow and rapid. To make matters worse, it often sounds out-of-tune, because they end up going outside of the key, because they're not able to notice that they've not bent to the correct pitch.
*Although bending and vibrato are two separate techniques, they are so closely related, and since each pretty much requires the other, it seemed easiest to lump the two together.
The following lesson from Rob Chapman is a great lesson on bending and vibrato:
Simply put, dynamics simply means playing with varying force and volume when picking certain notes. In further exploration of the analogy, pay close attention to how people talk and sing, the volume of our phrases tend to vary, even as drastically as a whisper to a scream. In fact, if people spoke without any volume variance, it would seem eerily robotic and unnatural, and the same is true on the instrument - without much variance in pitch and volume, we as listeners would quickly lose interest. Although this technique may seem a bit subtle (or insignificant), it can really add a dramatic flair to your playing.
As always, give yourself some time and enjoy the process, and be sure to spend quality time on these techniques (and don't forget to work on your rock guitar faces!).