There are countless exercises you can do to increase your dexterity on the guitar. But thats just what they are mindless exercises. They help your fingers develop their own eyes and ears. If you use the exercises in this series all the time and become so fascinated with your own chops, youll sound like an idiot! The objective is to break down barriers between your heart and your fingers.
Set Limitations and Break Em'
One thing you can do to find something new in your playing, and even in your songwriting, is to set up parameters for yourself and work strictly within them. When you set up parameters youll be forced to use your imagination to expand on those parameters. And then you apply the concept of emotional playing to those parameters.
For example, let's say you've got a chord change and you're going to play a solo. Here's your parameter: Play that solo using only two notes. Nothing but those two notes, however you choose to play them. Well, it can get pretty boring after a little while but you're only really limited to your imagination. For starters:
- You can play those two notes as subtely and as softly as possible.
- You can play them as hard as you want.
- You can play one with a bottom vibrato and one without any vibrato.
- You can play one with your pick and another with your finger.
From Boredom to Euphoria
You can chain these techniques together in any order and with whatever variations you want. The key is, when you get bored and you really want to stop, thats when you have to keep doing it. You have to stay focused on it and push passed all the boring barriers. Every time I try little exercises like these and really focus on them, I have a little epiphany of sorts.
Try taking an emotional frame of mind, like anger, and try to express anger with those two notes. Then you take those two notes and try to express tenderness or compassion. This way youre exercising two things: Your fingers and your ability to express emotions on the instrument.
Things will happen. Because you've exercised the expression of those emotions, they're going to come out when you play.
Give those two-note solos a try and then try some of the suggestions below. For exercises like these, its always nice to play along to something, perhaps from a sequencer or just a cassette player with chord progressions on it.
One thing I used to do for, say, an hour at a time was nothing but trills. One hour, nothing but trills. Obviously, if youre stuck with only one kind of a trill, its going to be really boring. But if you keep on it, your mind will start experimenting with different things in the realm of trills. Eventually what will happen is you will come up with some interesting things that will come up in your playing.
"Trill Ex. 1"
1/2-step trill with tempo increasing
"Trill Ex. 2"
Slow whole-step trill with varied picking
"Trill Ex. 3"
Wide trill (1-1/2 steps) with trem bar
Play only on two strings at a time, but skip a string; that is, don't play on adjacent strings. Get through an entire solo using the entire length of the neck but always skipping that string. Do that for a while. You might start out in a span of only four frets, but if you stick to it youll be playing all over the place and youll have an approach that you wouldn't normally have. And youll never panic about breaking a string again!
"String Skipping Ex. 1"
Dm phrase on 5th and 3rd strings
Then you could try skipping two strings. It creates some great intervals and some great melodies.
"String Skipping Ex. 2"
Dm phrase on 4th and 1st strings
What It Takes To Be A Virtuoso
A lot of people ask me, "How do you play fast?" I'm not the best fast player in the world, that's for sure. But the secret to playing fast is playing slow - perfectly - and gradually bringing it up to speed. So let's set a few simple ground rules to apply to any practicing.
1. Use a metronome or another time keeper, like a drum machine, and start off slowly.
2. Always alternate your picking.
3. Here's the bust: You have to do it without making any mistakes. And every note has to have tone to it. Every note has to sound like a good note, and you can't go on until it does!
4. If you make a mistake, go back to the beginning. This is the military, isn't it? If you want to be a virtuoso, this is what it takes.
5. Don't increase the metronome speed until you've gotten through each exercise perfectly at the previous speed.
Sometimes you hear guys bending notes up or down but they don't really seem to be bending to or from anywhere in particular. Be mindful of the notes you're trying to hit, even when they're quarter tones or other notes between the notes. All of these things are ways to create expressional outlets when youre jamming, and bending notes can help your playing become very expressive. If you don't add the emotional element, you're just going to sound like a machine. You might not normally stretch more than a 1/2 of a full step if you're just doing scales all day, and maybe you're in the habit of just stretching up and then releasing back down. Try picking a high D and bending it to an F, and then bend it down to E, pick it again, and then release down to D. Or back up to F. There are a million combinations of notes and options. Its only limited to your imagination.
"Bending Ex. 1"
D (2nd string, 15th fret) bent up to F
Harmonics and the Bar
Just the other day I was doing something with harmonics where I'd hit a harmonic, pull the tremolo bar up, and then hit another harmonic and bring the bar back down. I had to do that for a quite a long time to get it right, with good intonation. But the next thing I know I'm watching myself do this stuff and its like, "wow it's really funky, funny stuff Im doing!"
I've tried this a bunch of ways. For example, I'll hit a harmonic on the G string, 5th fret and pull up on the bar. While Im holding the bar up, Ill hit another harmonic on the 7th fret of the 1st string and bring the bar down two who
"Harmonics Ex. 1"
There's a song I did [on Ultra Zone] called Frank which has a whole solo with harmonics and the whammy bar. The last riff of the song is just what Im describing here. I had to really work on it before I got it, but it sounds almost like a slide. Give it a try.
Note that the audio examples in these columns DO NOT feature Steve Vai performances. They have been provided by our editors to demonstrate the concepts offered by Steve.
This is Part 2 of a 3-part series of Steve Vai guitar lessons. Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 3 of this series.