One of the most important skills in becoming a good musician is the ability to actively listen to and internalize the music you hear. This begins by listening to as much music as you can fit into your life. For me personally, I listen to music while driving, commuting, doing housework, watching sports on TV, playing video games; essentially any time when I don’t have to be listening to something else. Be sure to vary the music you listen to. Don’t only listen to your favourite artists, but branch out and listen to music you’ve never heard before.
The next skill you need to hone is the ability to identify the aspects of the music that you like and being able to replicate that on your instrument. In order to achieve this, a good foundation in music theory is needed; specifically the ability to identify the time signature of a piece of music (4/4, 6/8, etc) and the ability to count along with the music. The majority of popular music is either 4/4 or 3/4 time, so it’s a good habit when listening to consciously identify the time signature and internalize the rhythm. Honing in on the drums (or percussion) is the best way to achieve this. Once you lock in to the 1-2-3-4 beat (or 1-2-3 if ¾ time), try replicating the pulse on your instrument. On the guitar this can be accomplished by muting the strings with your left hand and following the rhythm (or strumming pattern if the music is guitar based) with your right hand. Be conscious of playing correct strumming technique by playing down strokes on the down beats and upstrokes on the off beats. For example, with 4/4 time you would count the rhythm as 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +. On the down beats (the numbered beats) you would play down strokes (away from your body), while on off beats (the + beats), you would play up strokes (toward your chin). Learning to feel and internalize the rhythm of music is an essential skill for any musician.
A Few Additional Tips For Guitar
Play in front of a mirror – Watching yourself play guitar in front of a mirror can help you identify tension in your body that you might not notice otherwise. Always try to minimize unnecessary tension in your fingers/shoulders/back.
Practice Scales – There are many scales in the musical world, but I’d recommend any aspiring musician learn the major and natural minor scales in all 12 keys. On guitar this is not as daunting as it sounds. Once you learn the major and natural minor scales, you simply alter which note you start on.
Learn Riffs – A riff is a short repeated phrase in music. Try learning iconic riffs on whatever instrument you play. For guitar a few iconic riffs include: “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin, “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns n’ Roses, “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes, among many others.
Max Pedley, guitar teacher