This is a follow-up lesson to my last article, How to Avoid Sucking as a Self-Taught Guitarist – a simple song-learning strategy designed to help self-taught guitarists find direction, enjoy the learning process and get better results with less cut-and-dry practice.
This article takes the strategy a step further by showing you how to add dimension and musical expression to the songs you learn so you can sound more like your favorite guitarists and apply what they do to your own style of guitar playing.
So more often than I’d like to admit, I’ll find myself at dirty karaoke lounges on late Saturday nights. I enjoy basking in the unshakable musical confidence that spews out of the bar’s regulars and – occasionally – the random bachelorette party at Table 3.
It’s karaoke time! And although I’ve been known to get down to some Queen and Bruce Springsteen in my day, I much more enjoy the spectacle of watching drunk people sing along to obnoxious MIDI backing tracks while lyrics in Comic Sans font scroll across the bar’s TV screens.
Aside from the hilarious spectacle of karaoke and the human capacity to make complete a-ses of ourselves, I’m actually more fascinated by what goes on musically during karaoke jams (and I use that term loosely).
Occasionally you’ll encounter a completely tone-deaf participant, but overall, I’d argue that most people who take a stab at karaoke can generally hit the right pitches at the right time and sing the correct lyrics. Their limited singing abilities allow them to at least carry the tune, just not very well. The result: the audience is able to recognize the song.
Now, general note accuracy aside, it’s not surprising that these temporary Taylor Swifts don’t sound anywhere close to the original song’s performance. What we hear is a simple skeletal imitation of the tune, and what’s lacking are the more subtle musical elements that make for compelling, charismatic, dramatic, dynamic and captivating vocal performances.
I like to call this lack of musicality the “karaoke effect,” and it doesn’t just apply to vocals – I see this effect plague many guitarists. My former self included.
Years ago, I had a hard time emulating the styles of my favorite guitarists. Although I could play their riffs and solos, I’d only sound like a cheap karaoke imitation, absent of any sort of spark or passion in my playing. This was especially frustrating when I knew I could play a particular song note-for-note, but despite its “correctness,” I still didn’t sound like the song’s guitarist at all.
The look of defeat knowing that despite playing correctly, my guitar playing sounded quite “karaoke.”
This lack of musical pizzazz also reared its head in my original material. Often, I’d record a song and lay down a guitar solo that I thought was pretty decent, but going back to listen to my takes, I’d contort my face in disgust at how bland and uninspired my guitar playing sounded.
So I realized that this karaoke effect can find its way into improvisation, which is probably the cringe-worthy equivalent of one of the bachelorette’s from Table 3 rapping freestyle over an 8-bar musical break during “Single Ladies.” Yikes.
If you’re like me, you’ve jammed with musicians and hated the fact that everyone’s improvised solos packed a certain punch or uniqueness, while your leads simply sounded like uninspired scalar noodling.
I first started to realize why my guitar playing sounded so one-dimensional during a group guitar lesson with shred master, Paul Gilbert. Sucking hard in front of Mr. Big himself definitely gave my ego a massive bitch slap, but the lesson showed me the first step in ditching the karaoke effect – listening.
There were about eight students in the class, all seated in a semi circle of chairs around Paul Gilbert. I was giddy like a schoolboy (which was sad considering I was 21 at the time).
Paul wanted to get a sense of everyone’s guitar abilities, so he began vamping on a simple A5 power chord and invited us for a group jam.
The jam’s structure consisted of Paul playing a few bars of A blues licks and then he’d pass the baton off to the first player. Player 1 would play lead for a few bars and then pass it back to Gilbert. He’d shred some balls and pass it onto Player 2. This repeated so on and so forth.
Waiting for my turn was like sitting in class and knowing I would have to speak eventually and all I could do is think about what I was going to say, all the while not listening to anything that’s going on around me.
In this jam, I was way more focused on thinking about what I was going to play when my turn came.
“Should I show him that sweep picking thing I’ve been working on? Or maybe I’ll do one of his string skipping licks so he’ll think I’m kewwwwl.”
I foolishly went with my sweeping lick and totally biffed it. Defeated, I finished my turn by walking up and down the familiar A minor pentatonic box and passed the lead back off to Paul like a weak handshake.
I began to listen once my turn was up, and I started to realize that everyone in the class was doing the same thing as me – just trying to show off. Some people’s complicated licks turned out better than others, but overall, the jam had no character and mostly sounded like sloppy technique exercises juxtaposed to Paul Gilbert‘s clean, blazing licks.
Afterward, he addressed the elephant in the room – the blaring fact that none of us were listening to each other at all.
Paul pointed out that during the jam, he built and embellished his solos based off the licks we played. He listened to each player’s solo and responded to their musical ideas.
He added that on top of listening, he played with “feeling.” This included terms I had heard before but hadn’t fully understood, such as phrasing, dynamics and articulation.
The lesson went on and he showed us some cool guitar tricks and mostly dropped our jaws with Racer X riffs.
Despite sucking in his presence, Paul Gilbert must have respected my efforts enough to throw up some metal horns. Always best to learn from the masters!
Overall I was happy with the lesson, but the seed of playing with “feeling” was firmly planted in my head. I wanted to know why some players seemed to effortlessly create soaring and commanding guitar solos, while most guitarists simply sounded boring by comparison (even if they could play with technical accuracy). I tried to answer the question…
Playing with feeling isn’t really a switch you can just flick on and off. It’s not like simply scrunching up your face and looking like you’re constipated will make your guitar sing beautifully and captivate an audience.
Must be hitting him in the feels
Well, maybe it works for Santana…
Playing with great feeling doesn’t seem to be taught or highlighted as much as scales or technique. My guess is that, for one, musical expression is hard to describe.
But playing with expression and character is the other half of the equation that makes a truly outstanding guitar player.
A grand chunk of our early days as guitarists is spent building up the mechanical skills to be able to correctly play what we want. That needs to get done and I won’t try to downplay the importance of it.
But there are a lot of guitarists out there who have been playing for a while and have decent chops, but they have yet to discover a proper awareness of musicality – the icing on the cake that gives music its true voice.
These are the more subtle aspects of guitar playing, and like most subtle things, it’s easy to look over them. But once you become aware and listen for them, you realize how their interplay makes music sound like music.
Think of guitarists who make the guitar … sing! Guitar greats like Jeff Beck or Derek Trucks – these guys seem to have that natural ability to make the guitar’s voice come to life. Their riffs and solos are filled with character, depth, expression, emotion, drama … etc.
You may have heard terms like phrasing, dynamics, articulation, rhythmic push and pull, timbre and tonal colors. Look up the textbook definitions if you’d like, but you’ll likely find it difficult to understand their significance in isolation. Terminology aside, you can just think of these things as the stylistic choices that can be applied a piece of music to make it sound more interesting, unique and expressive.
Simply becoming aware at what great guitarists and musicians do to make their music come alive can open up your world to what’s musically possible and get you on the right track to making your own guitar playing sound more musical.
Let’s get warmed up by listening to a little jam by bass greats Victor Wooten and Anthony Wellington. (Hint – it’s often a good idea to critically listen to music that’s not guitar-based).
Pay attention to how Wooten weaves between soft and loud notes. Notice the difference in tonality between the different phrases he plays (some notes are plucked with more pressure and have a grittier sound, while some notes are played more delicately, sounding sweeter). Notice the space Wooten inserts between notes to add drama and suspense.
Now think about your own playing and ask yourself how you would approach soloing over a track like this?
I’m no Victor Wooten by any means, but once I started paying closer attention to the subtle musical qualities that made players sound more “musical,” I ended up playing less and less like a karaoke brand of guitar player.
There are a few things you can become aware of that will significantly help take your playing from sounding mechanical and uninspired to dynamic and a perfect showcase of your personality.
My goal today is to have you walk away with a new and curious sense about what it means to be musical and of how you can apply these concepts to your own guitar playing.
Below are 3 simple steps you can immediately apply to help you start thinking more musically, sound more like your guitar heroes, and start finding your own voice as a guitarist.
Read on to make your guitar playing come to life!
One way that can really train your ear to identify musical subtlety is to go back and deeply listen to easy songs you learned in your early days as a guitar player.
The experience is kind of like rewatching a movie you used to love as a kid and picking up on jokes/subtle sexual innuendos that completely flew over your innocent child mind (Disney’s gotta keep the parents entertained, right?).
With this exercise, you’ll likely hear elements of the guitar parts you missed before.
So go pick a handful of easy tunes, and since you’ve already learned the songs back in the day, it shouldn’t take you long to brush off the cobwebs and start playing them.
Take a listen to these songs and try to identify anything you missed. You might realize you never played the part correctly, or you might notice the strumming pattern is different than you thought.
I’ll give you a fairly obvious example of this is in “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple – a riff most beginner guitarists learn.
I learned this riff – as do most people – by strumming big fat power chords along the sixth, fifth and fourth strings – the root on bottom, the fifth above it and octave on top.
If you really listen to how Richie Blackmore plays the riff on the recording, you’ll realize that bottom note isn’t there.
He’s not playing power chords with the root, fifth and octave. Rather he plays 4ths (the 4th of the root one is on bottom with the root on top).
Also, if you really pay attention, it doesn’t sound like he’s strumming each chord with a pick, rather, he’s plucking each set of 4ths with his fingers. By plucking instead of strumming, you get that sharp and punchy attack because each note is played at the exact same time, versus the slight stagger of strumming a pick across two strings.
This is subtle, but it changes the overall effect of the riff. If you have your guitar handy right now, try playing the riff both ways and see if you can tell the difference. Counterintuitively, it’s heavier this way!
I’ll give you another example that blew my mind.
A few years ago, I was asked to sub in for an ’80s/’90s rock cover band and I had to learn a good 40 songs for the gig. One of those songs was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.
I already knew how to play the song on guitar and most of my teenage bands had covered it at some point in time. It’s a pretty common staple in any pubescent rock band, after all.
Whenever we covered the song, I always told the bass player to simply mirror what the guitar was doing. Being such a simple riff, I just assumed the bass line just followed the guitar, played with straight 8th notes.
Upon re-listening years later, I realized that every single band I was in played it wrong!
If you listen to the isolated bass track below, you’ll immediately notice the rhythms are different between the verse and chorus.
The really interesting part is how the notes slide in and out of each other during the verses. In order to do that, the bass line is needs to be played exclusively along the lowest string instead of switching between the fourth and third string, like I always thought it had.
“Teen Spirit” isn’t all that complicated, but I was quite surprised to when I really listened and had my assumptions shattered. What I thought was just a follow-the-guitar bass line is actually played with a little finesse – the choruses are punchy and loud, while the verses are played with a legato, fluid, almost snakelike movement.
Listening and relearning the bass part helped give my live performance an added spice of authenticity and character.
These examples – although simple – do a good job at illustrating the subtle musical characteristics are often skipped over.
By simply becoming aware and identifying these kind of subtle characteristics will massively improve your ear and guitar playing.
Action Item for You: Go back to one of the first songs you learned how to play and really listen to what the guitar is doing. Afterward, try relearning the song and apply any new discoveries you encountered. Search for isolated guitar tracks on YouTube to magnify the guitar track’s subtleties and let your ears guide you.
Now you’re becoming aware of subtle musical characteristics. You’re already half way there! Next, I’ll show you some exaggerated examples of phrasing and dynamics to open your ears to the array of musical qualities that create vibrant and expressive instrumental performances.
Over time, I started to get a better ear for musical subtleties, but it took me a long time to fully realize and internalize these concepts and hear them in action.
This was probably because a lot of the music I listened to back in the early-mid 2000s wasn’t particularly dynamic (highly-compressed hard rock and metal).
Over time, I started listening to different genres such as blues, jazz and classical, and began to understand what musicality actually meant.
I’ll argue that the best examples of dynamic instrumental performances come through classical music.
Even if classical it’s not your thing, you can learn a lot from observing what different instruments do in regards to instrumental performance. All of these examples are intended to show you what’s possible in the language of music – to expand your musical vocabulary a bit.
Let’s start with an example that’s relatively close to our instrument – classical guitar.
First, we’ll take a look at Andrés Segovia, who is kind of like the Jimi Hendrix of classical guitar. He did a lot to elevate and bring classical guitar to the mainstream and he created many different sounds out of the instrument. In fact, Segovia described the classical guitar’s sonic capabilities as a “little orchestra.”
This is one of my favorite tracks by Segovia, recorded in 1931 (!). Aside from being a musically and technically challenging composition, listen to how the music breathes and changes throughout the piece. Listen for fluctuations in volume and tone (warms sounds, tinny sounds), rhythmic variations (playing on, behind or ahead of the beat), and overall expression.
Let’s zoom in on a few particular moments that stand out.
Consider 0:37 seconds into into the song. Segovia starts an extended sequence where the bass line (bottom voice) descends, while a top voice plays a repeating series of notes.
Take a listen at the top voice line and you might notice this is where a lot of the dynamic variations come in. There’s a slight rhythmic variation at 0:42. Segovia starts out playing the phrase ponticello (a tinnier sound played closer to the bridge), and eventually begins playing closer to the guitar’s sound hole for a more dolce, or sweeter sound. He slightly gets warmer and then hits you with dramatic tonal shift at 0:57 that also drops in volume.
Now listen to the same sequence again and focus on the bass line. It keeps a consistent rhythm and stays at relatively the same volume and tone. But it joins the top voice at 0:57 as Segovia moves his thumb closer to the sound hole, giving it a dramatic shift into a warmer, sweeter sound.
It would be a lot less interesting if the entire section was played straight without any variation in dynamics, rhythm, or tone.
This is kind of an extreme example highlighting a very intimate instrument and what kind of phrasing choices classical musicians might make when they interpret a piece of music.
You can get a much better sense of musicality by listening to other instruments as well.
Check out this Bach piece by pianist Glenn Gould:
Glenn Gould was a beast! I love this video because you can hear Gould humming along with the music and see the expressions on his face and his exaggerated body movements that are directly related to the musical phrases he’s playing.
His mannerisms are certainly animated (you don’t necessarily have to act out your expression quite like this), but I wanted to show some extreme examples so you can see the “human” quality that can be applied to music.
And of course, you can hear fantastic examples of dynamic playing with orchestral instruments playing off each other.
Check out this piece from Beethoven‘s “4th Piano Concerto.”
The piece as a whole tells the story of Orpheus’s descent into Hell (how metal is that?!). The deep strings represent hell beings, while the sweet, triumphant, and brave-sounding piano represents the hero Orpheus.
For the most part, it’s a call and response piece – the strings play and the piano responds. The piece has dark, ominous moments. It also has sweet, tender moments. And how eerie and chilling is it when the piano and strings finally join together at the end? I like to envision that it signifies Orpheus finally being swallowed into hell. Gooosebumps! And undeniably metal.
Listening to classical music like this is kind of like sipping on a fine wine and noting its subtle flavors and complexities. The more you sample, the more refined your palate gets.
“But I don’t want fine wine!” you might be scoffing.
That’s totally fine. It’s not to say this kind of music is inherently better. Sometimes you don’t want a $300 bottle of wine. Sometimes you just want some Two-Buck-Chuck to pair with some gritty blues rock!
Even if you’re not going to be blasting Beethoven on your way to work or dedicating yourself to the classical guitar, you can still check out to these examples simply expose yourself to what’s possible from a musicality standpoint.
Action Item for You: Make a point to expose yourself to more genres. Give yourself 30 minutes today and go crazy on YouTube. Watch live videos of guitarists, pianists, cellists, whoever – and try to note the differences in each performance and see what you can observe about their instrumental performances that make them come alive.
Now you have more colors to paint your music with. Now I’ll show you how to apply these to your own guitar playing so you can play more expressively and start sounding more like your guitar heroes.
This is probably the single most important skill you want to develop that will not only help you identify the subtle characteristics of your favorite players, but also help you become a better listener in general.
Over time, my ear has gotten better at detecting the musical nuances in the songs I learn. This skill has not only helped internalize what it means to play with feeling and expression, but it also helped me become a better listener overall. Once that happened, a whole new musical world opened up.
I want to give you a few tips based on how I approached improving my critical ear. These strategies helped me not only accurately transcribe and figure out my favorite songs, but also recognize and apply the musical characteristics of my favorite guitarists.
This attention to detail will help take your guitar playing from simply hitting the right notes at the right time to commanding the instrument and finding your own voice on guitar.
Listen and practice with headphones – this will help your ear tune into musical nuances you might not hear over external speakers. Your ears get more intimate with the music you learn and you start to magnify what you’re actually playing. Personally, I like to have my guitar plugged into my laptop through an audio interface when I’m in learning mode. Find a good audio balance between the track you’re learning and your guitar’s signal coming out of your computer. Do that and you’ll be set to hear all those tasty musical subtleties!
Use software to slow down/isolate guitars – this step becomes important for figuring out difficult passages that are hard to decipher at speed. There are a lot of great programs out there, but I wanted to give you my favorites to make it easy for you. Most of these come with a free trial so try them out and see which one you like best. They’re all pretty intuitive as well.
QuickTime Player (7)
Ask yourself questions as you listen and figure out parts – consult tabs and music notation while you learn, but trust your ears when figuring out your parts. As you mimic the phrases you’re learning, ask yourself questions like:
Overall, by paying attention to detail like this, you’ll listen to the same parts over and over again and your ears will start to get better at noticing musical nuances.
I happen to be studying Led Zeppelin‘s “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” And since I’ve been learning it (heh-heh), I figured I’ll show you a basic “straight” way to play the song’s intro, and compare it to the way Jimmy Page plays it – nuances and all.
Listen to the first minute of the song and notice how dynamic his playing is. Listen to his vibrato. It sounds like he’s using a very light touch during some phrases in the beginning. He emphasizes certain notes within his licks. It’s not the cleanest solo, but it’s expressive to say the least.
In the audio clip below, I’ll play the intro straight without any expression… Purposefully applying the “karaoke effect.” (FYI – my guitar track is much louder in the mix so you can really hear the guitar).
Press “Play” for “Since I’ve Been Playing Straight.”
Meh, not great. It’s pretty dull and more representative of how I would play it when I first learn and stitch the licks together. I’m playing the right notes for the most part, but it’s pretty dull. I tell myself to listen more.
[Listens intently… ]
First off, I realized that in the original track, Jimmy Page‘s guitar is tuned slightly sharp on by about +5 cents. How’s that for subtle?
I made slight tuning adjustments and spent some time really digging into the subtle aspects of these blues licks. This required applying a lighter touch in the soft parts and really digging into the bends during the louder, distorted section.
Let’s check it out.
Press “Play” for “Since I’ve Been FEEEEELING You”
Although examples aren’t perfect by any means, I think we can agree that the second one is much more interesting than the straightforward execution.
Aside from the sound coming from my guitar, while I played the more expressive version, my body felt the vibe more. My eyes were closed, and I got that “guitar face.” My body rocked back and forth… I really felt the music. Paying attention to Jimmy‘s phrasing and subtleties even gave me a few ideas of how I might approach an original minor blues solo in the future.
Now, it’s likely impossible to completely 100% imitate a guitarist’s nuances in a particular song, but aiming to can help your ears get more in tune with musical qualities like dynamics, phrasing, articulation and tone.
This awareness; this attention to detail – these are the elements that will add dimension to your guitar playing and help it come alive.
Action Item for You: Pick a song with particularly expressive guitar playing that’s in your general skill level (i.e. Don’t bite off more than you can chew – pick a manageable song). Use one of the learning tools I provided to pay close attention to the phrasing. Listen over and over and use your ears to mimic the phrasing and expression as you learn the song.
So now we’ve reached the end of this long post! There are a lot of ideas covered here, but I wanted to give you all the info you need in one place so you can easily reference it later. Take your time with each action step and refer back to the article whenever you need to.
For those who don’t like to read:
TL; DR: Playing with “feeling” and expression can be elusive to many guitarists, even skilled ones. By observing the masters and closely listening to heavily dynamic music, you can train your ears to pick up on musical subtleties and nuances, apply them to your own playing and sound more like your guitar heroes.
Thanks for reading and keep shredding!
About the Author:
By Zach Pino. If you like this approach and want to get a little more specific with how you can apply it to your own playing, I have something extra for you (free of charge). Head over to zachpinoguitar.com and enter your email address in the top form to get access to my free e-guide, The Zach Pino Guitar Game-Changing Guide to Learning Songs as Quickly as Possible. The guide gives detailed step-by-step instructions on how to get organized and how to learn songs faster and more accurately so you can really start seeing the results you want.