Learning to blend technique and feel are like having a good balance of “head and heart.”
Both are important!
- If all we use is our head, the feel will be missing
- If all we use is our feelings, we’ll miss out on good musicianship and nice harmonies
I got a question recently from a subscriber that read…
I was wondering what your opinion was on practicing technique, learning scales, chord progressions, and theory in the context of a song versus on their own.
This is really a good – and complex question. Here goes…
Many guitar players are often turned off by the idea of practicing technique and learning theory in an abstract non-musical way.
- It often brings up VERY un musical feelings when we detach and try something new and unfamiliar on guitar. We “run for cover” back to our feel-good zone.
- We hear a very guitar player who is “short on feel” and think the “lack of feel” is due to practicing technique.
- We then think we need to choose one or the other for ourselves – “technique OR feeling”
- And then, the cylcle of frustrations continue when trying to tackle pieces which require more technique. We want to get better, but it feels terrible to detach from “good feel”
Here’s What’s Worked for Me…
Think of Technique as “Good Form”
Just like driving a car and having a conversation can happen at the same time, you can “play with feeling” AND keep an eye on your form – at the same time.
By form I mean hand position, wrists, shoulders, and your touch.
It is VERY valuable and advisable to learn good form from a teacher. When you are learning this it may mean that you have to put music making aside – just a little bit.
When it’s time to make music for people, technique is #2 and music is #1.
Combine Theory Knowledge with You Ears & Voice
Think of theory knowledge as good grammar, running in the background of how you speak.
“Head” theory is meaningless. But if it’s in your ears, voice, eyes and gut – then you have digested the “sound” of the theory. Yes, it is a language – not just an idea.
Attaching a name or label to it is helpful, but the least important step.
I highly suggest taking a course at a community college or lessons for this. It’s like exercise – you may not feel like “keeping it up” on your own and a teacher will really help.
What did Bach do with his students?
Bach knew that working on music ran WAY deeper than technical exercises. All of his activity as a teacher extended beyond technique. My teacher Mike Longo did the same.
Bach wrote easy but musically satisfying preludes for his students, rather than drill them on endless scales.
In my experience, when I have practiced too much technique – it gives me a detached feeling, and I get kicked in the butt when it’s music making time.
Now I only practice “making music” even if I am playing a scale.
In other words, it has to be “spiritually correct” and not just “technically correct.”
What if you want to play a piece that is technically challenging?
Often, I will practice my songs “Rolling With the Ashes” and “Thumbpickers Delight”with focus on the following
- practice slowly for flow, groove, bounce and ease in my hands
- listen for clarity in the parts (melody, bass, accompaniment)
- pay attention to see what fingerings work well, and what needs to change
- be in the music making zone, feel the groove in my gut while eyeballing my technique like a passenger in the backseat of my car
Slow the technique down enough so that you can balance it with “feel” and “depth.”
- Learn as much as you can, knowledge is GOOD. Can never hurt you, only can help.
- Magazines and Videos probably won’t be enough for your to learn theory. They only offer “little” disconnected lessons. For this – you wil need to commit to a teacher or course.
- Remember though – audiences don’t hear knowledge…they hear MUSIC – melody and groove
- Learn correct FORM (hand position, tone you may need help from a teacher)
- Focus on MUSIC, let technique run in the background – but give it a once-in-a-while tune up.
With that in mind, GROOVE ON!
Walter Holokai says
I’m a 61 yr. old retiree from public service. I now find I have time to learn some of those tunes I’ve been hearing on youtube. I’m a big fan of yours along with Gabriella Quevedo, Sunha Jung, Hans Pethig etc. ultimately Tommy Emmanuel. Whom, by the way, should bestow a CGP on all of you. The CGP’s are getting pretty thin these days and it would be a shame to see them go extinct. Anyway, this post was very helpful as are all of you insightful articles. I’ve got 37-songs I’ve compiled over the last 6 or 7 years when I decided to take up fingerstyle exclusively. Some I have technical problems with but I keep forging through. I’ve been trying to clean them up as of late and will definitely use your suggestions. I have a blog which started out as a guitar/effects review site which, due to my lack of euipment, quickly morphed into an everything site. I became involved in the Obama campaign in 2012 and have published a few political essays to boot. It has become a personal collage with fiction and poetry: a little bit of everything. I am a tree hugging libral Democrat and political activist aligned with Robert Reich and Bernie Sanders. I don’t want to scare you which I probably already have. What it all boils down to is that I’d like to do a short article on you. I don’t know what your political persuasion is and I don’t want to know but I am wondering if you even want to be mentioned on a blog where partisan political pieces are sometimes posted. I want to stay on friendly terms because I like you and routinely refer to your posts to further my own guitar agenda. This last one was particularly helpful to me. Let me know if it’s OK and I’ll link this article with my blog at the end of the text. I haven’t even started to work on it so take your time. There is a recent post about a Joe Bonamassa concert you might find interesting. Here it is: https://guitargear.hubpages.com/ Have a Merry Christmas! I hope you will be home to enjoy the lights my cousin Lanny put up at Rockefeller Ctr. I always picture you on a European train sitting by the window wearing a brown leather jacket and newsboy cap with a guitar case on the seat next to you.
Thanks and Mele Kalikimaka,
Walt thanks! Link away, and fyi I stay out of religion and politics as a general online rule 🙂 Happy New YEar!
Bill Hood says
I agree completely! I took 3 semesters of music theory 30 years ago at a community college, hoping it would make me a better guitar player. It didn’t. Mainly because there was a disconnect that I felt and I couldn’t bridge the gap between playing and theory. I thought I was a decent player but my theory knowledge was far above my playing ability, hence the disconnect. Then one day I figured a way to connect the two. When I’m composing and get stuck, I go back to theory to find possible chords if I can’t “hear” were I want the the melody to go. Kind of a reverse voice leading. So, theory ultimately helped me, but it took years for that connection to happen. BTW… I really enjoy your blogs!
Bill you have to listen to where the melody wanst to go. That’s not reverse – it’s correct!
I am planning some lessons to help bridge the gap!
Charles White says
Thank you Adam- So Cool -so Relevant-so Helpful -as always 🙂 Chaz.
Andrea Mameli says
From you, always good advices and useful ideas to study a little better …
It’s an enjoyable read, every time.
You’re better than wikipedia.
Best Regards and Happy Christmas Holidays.
George Malesky says
Acording to the author John Pishung ( Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance). Technology and art have been speparated in modern times. In the past they were blended together, this is craftsmenship the blending of art and science.
fidenciara orb says
Cognitive grasp, attuned senses, musical feel for enjoyment plus a good music teacher (who is ever-patient and always reaches out to his students)…one is on the right track, i guess.
Clinton Kane says
Always enjoy reading your words of wisdom! I go between fingerstyle and using a pick so I am all over the place right now. I do not have a practise nor study regime. I like to read up on things such as this and go to youtube and other websites. I am at a point to where I know I should develop some routine practise. So we shall see. One question I have is how to play music with others. I have a trio where we get along great and we seem to listen to each other and have a special connection. When playing with others even after playing with the same group for 2 years there is something missing and I feel the lack of evolving in terms of how the music is played. Anyway what are your thoughts when you play with one or more people? Thanks!
David Pike says
I always love your articles, but found this one a bit confused. I say confused rather that confusing, because I was able to translate it into logic, but not sure everyone could.
You seem to have music theory and technique jumbled together. It seems to me that both are necessary learning in order to play or compose better, but to me they’re not the same. Yes theory is best learned on a structured course, but technique has to be taught by a teacher. I know that I am short in both categories, but as I’m getting on, and don’t have too much runway left to get performing, I’m prioritizing learning songs over technique and theory. I make exception for one thing, groove. Without groove, I’m not a real musician. With it, I’ll be better than 80% of players before I play a note. So thank you for your video series on that.
I have lots of study material on theory, and if it doesn’t get me there, I’ll happily take a course. But for me, it’s definitely a lower urgency. I’m not ready to take time away from playing, for a theory course.
I know there’s a long list of techniques I need to master, but for me it doesn’t make sense to set playing aside to train my hands. Maybe if I was 30, but I’m not. Guitar is the “people’s instrument” and lots of folks make great music without a day of training. That gives me the encouragement to bash ahead with what I do know, and deal with technique when I need it for a particular song. There are always ways to get around a weak technique, and I’m going to go ahead and add songs to my repertoire, even if there are better ways to play them. Once I have a repertoire of songs “ready for prime time”, I’ll come back to the ones that I need to play better, and learn the technique in context of that song. First repertoire, then upgrade the quality level and my confidence.
Mike Evans says
I may have spent too much time learning theory at one point, even taking a class in arranging. I will say, however, that it made me a better musician. I think the main reason for this was because I got to understand much better what music is and how it is put together. Before the arranging class I would have to say I had no idea how, for example, Beethoven wrote one of his symphonies but at least now I have a pretty good understanding of the process. That doesn’t mean I would be able to compose something that came anywhere close to music of such a high standard but at least it isn’t a complete mystery to me. For me, this makes the whole process of being involved in music making more interesting and enjoyable. Technical exercises sometimes seem of questionable value as I can’t always see that they are helping to engrain good musical habits. But may be because I’m not practicing properly(?). I enjoy your posts and I’m working on some your Stevie Wonder material.