Want to know the secrets behind Steve Vai's great guitar playing (and use them to make yourself a much better guitarist)? Hint: looking for tab of his music or mindlessly memorizing the notes of his guitar solos won't help you do this, since you are only observing the "result" of his greatness, instead of the "reasons" for it.
Here are the true reasons for Vai's world-class guitar playing and the lessons each one holds for you.
When talking about Steve Vai's guitar playing, most people focus on individual musical elements he has mastered, such as guitar technique, phrasing or creativity. Although Vai has mastered those things, his musical greatness is really due to "the whole being greater than the sum of its parts". Vai's unique and recognizable musical style is the result of his ability to creatively combine his guitar skills together.
Next time you listen to a Steve Vai album, instead of focusing only on one or two elements of his guitar playing, pay attention to:
* His ability to combine crystal-clear sweep picking arpeggios, scale sequences, bends, pre-bends, slides, vibrato bar tricks, legato and other techniques together while making them sound totally fluent.
* His creative use of a variety of scales ranging from standard pentatonic blues scales to Lydian to harmonic minor to whole tone and other exotic scales.
* His attention to detail when it comes to making his guitar playing sound musical and dynamic. For example, sometimes he plays very soft, using the volume knob with a clean tone, while other times he picks very hard to create maximum intensity (all in the same song or guitar solo!)
* His ability to seamlessly shift between rhythm and lead guitar playing while still playing accurately, cleanly and in time.
Note: the specific skills that are being integrated are actually very common to all guitar players. Anyone can easily learn the same scales, arpeggios, licks, and techniques that Steve Vai knows. Yet it is the process of becoming fluent at combining (integrating) these skills together that results in one's unique guitar playing style. This is why great guitarists such as Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen and John Petrucci (among other world-class guitarists) are great at what they do, yet sound nothing alike.
1. Stop practicing your guitar playing skills in isolation only. Of course when you learn "brand new" skills, you must do some initial isolation practice - but do not get "stuck" there indefinitely. Unfortunately, this is what most guitarists do and that's why they never reach the great guitar playing level of someone such as Steve Vai. Here are some symptoms to tell you when you are not on track with developing fluency in your guitar playing:
2. Schedule specific time to work on fluency and integration of your guitar playing skills. Here are some examples of actions you can take:
If you have ever seen Steve Vai play live, you know that he expresses his passion for the music he plays with every ounce of his being, in every note he plays. You can literally see the emotional effects by watching how his facial expressions and body language change as he plays. These are not some cheesy, theatrical grimaces that he does to entertain the audience - these are real emotions coming through his guitar / amplifier that everyone in the audience can easily feel.
To reach the Holy Grail of guitar playing mastery (being able to create emotion and literally choose what your listeners will feel when you play guitar), you must:
1. Understand exactly how every note you play will feel before you play it. Without doing this, you will only be able to imitate emotion while performing, rather than actually creating it and feeling it yourself! Study this to learn how to create intense emotions in your guitar playing.
2. Use all guitar techniques as "tools" to enhance the emotion being expressed - not as a way to show off your skills. For example, when playing guitar solos, imagine how a singer would sing a slow vocal melody (with tons of emotion and passion) and use faster guitar runs to fill in the gaps. Watch this video on playing guitar solos with feeling to see an example of this, featuring a world-class singer Fabio Lione.
3. Stop only focusing on what notes to play and master guitar phrasing nuances, such as bends, legato, vibrato, slides, double stops, different levels of pick attack, etc. This will not only make your guitar playing sound more expressive, but will also help you develop your own musical style.
Check out the massive difference that the above nuances can make to turn a "pretty good" guitar solo into a great one in this guitar solo video lesson.
During Vai's live performances, he often improvises long, expressive guitar solos that can last several minutes or longer. In fact, he will often create entire musical sections by simply recording his own rhythm parts on stage and looping them to create a backing track to solo over. His ability to come up with seemingly endless guitar solo and song ideas is the result of two things:
1. Vai's extremely high level of guitar playing fluency (as explained earlier in this article).
2. Vai's mastery of "motivic development" - taking a very short motive (a 3-4 note guitar lick), creating endless variations from it and developing it into longer and longer "themes" that evolve into entire improvised compositions.
Although Steve Vai has been playing guitar for decades, it doesn't have to take you that long to become great at improvising. To speed up the process of becoming a more fluent, self-expressive and prolific improviser, do the following:
1. Learn to create guitar phrasing variations out of very short guitar licks and phrases. Watch this rock guitar improvisation video to learn how to do this.
2. Work on your guitar playing fluency and guitar phrasing (as explained above).
3. Study improvising from a great guitar teacher (one who has already taught thousands of students how to improvise and taught other guitar teachers how to teach improvising to their students). Doing this will help you learn how to creatively integrate your guitar skills and improvise using tons of unique approaches (to keep you from repeating the same phrases over and over).
As you implement the ideas of this article into your guitar playing, you will get on the path towards becoming a much better guitarist and musician. To make even more progress and push your guitar playing to the level of greatness Steve Vai has reached, work with a great guitar teacher who can help you master all skills that go into reaching your musical goals.
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.
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