The three easiest ways to sound great on guitar are also the easiest to overlook. At any skill level, even if it’s your first day, pay attention to these elements of your playing, and you’ll immediately stand out.
Tune your guitar every time you play. This is the easiest of the three. You don’t have to be an expert, and it’s not a lifelong pursuit. Just remember to do it. You can tune by ear, from a pitch reference, or with an electronic tuner. The more accurate, the better. Even if you have no clue what you’re playing, an in-tune guitar sounds worlds better than an out-of-tune guitar.
Poor intonation can undermine your tuning efforts, so check on that once in a while by tuning at the 12th fret instead of the open strings. (With proper intonation, all the fretted notes on a guitar are in tune, not just the open strings.)
If your guitar is perfectly in tune every time you play, you’ll avoid conditioning your ear to ignore out-of-tune sounds. This is essential long-term ear training, and it really pays off.
Honing your tone is an endless process which no guitarist abandons before death. Begin this process early, and the results will astound you and your audiences. How do you begin? Simply pay attention. Listen critically to your own playing. Record yourself whenever possible. Notice how your tone differs from that of your favorite players.
Learn what makes a difference in a guitar’s tone. And do it with your own ears; don’t just accept someone else’s judgment. If you have an electric guitar and an amp, you probably have 5-10 different knobs at your disposal already. Experiment with every one of them and take mental notes on what they do to your guitar’s sound.
I’m referring here to your fundamental tone, whether it’s straight out of an acoustic guitar or an electric through a clean amp. Saturating your signal with effects pedals contributes to your overall sound, but it obscures what’s underneath.
Here are a few more items to experiment with:
- pick vs. fingers
- type/gauge/brand of pick
- how you hold the pick
- type/gauge/brand of strings
- type of wood
Don’t fall for the myth that “good tone” actually exists. Tone is subjective, and when a guitarist is said to have “good tone,” it really means that he/she has paid close attention to his/her tone and is keenly aware of all the elements that affect it.
Of these three elements, your sense of time (or rhythm) is the most difficult to master. Like your tone, it requires constant careful listening, and you’ll spend your life working on it. Unlike your tone, your time is about ability rather than knowledge. You need the mental ability to grasp the timing you’re after and the physical ability to execute it.
The first step toward improving your time is to use a metronome. Buy one now if you don’t own one; it’s as essential to your musical progress as your guitar. Use it daily, but don’t stop there. Play along with recordings, tap rhythms on your steering wheel, dance if you’re into that kind of thing. The physical aspect of rhythm is in your whole body. (If you think you don’t have it, just listen to James Brown until you get it. You will.)
Your sense of time goes beyond correctly playing notes or chords that last a fraction of a second. There is a whole spectrum to consider, from the micro (i.e. playing a tiny bit behind the beat on a jazz ballad) to the macro (i.e. feeling, not counting, that you’re currently playing the fourth chorus, not the third).
Like a résumé without typos or a penchant for punctuality, these three elements will lend credibility and professionalism to your playing, even if you’re short on other skills. If you take them seriously and cultivate them to the best of your ability, you will always sound great.