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We all want to be better, right? But what exactly does ‘better’ mean for you as a guitar player? The answer depends on your priorities. This blog will help you narrow your focus so you can effectively work towards being the best possible version of yourself.

Where players often go wrong

Younger players are very often preoccupied with technique, speed and flash and there’s definitely a place for that in my heart. I love to hear someone take a room apart with some fierce chops. However, our bodies and nervous systems are all different. In the same way that no matter how hard I trained I could never beat Usain Bolt in a sprint, I could also never have the accuracy and speed on guitar that say Guthrie Govan has. My body isn’t made that way and my nervous system won’t transmit messages or process musical information at the speed Guthrie can, no matter how many hours of practice I put in.

But that’s okay, because this isn’t a competition and, as guitar players, we are all selling our personality as much as anything else. We all have the same notes at our disposal and largely the same harmonic choices, what makes a lick or a song or a part, is the way we make it our own. There’s an awful lot of guitar players out there, but there’s always room for players with a sense of themselves and something to say on the instrument.

I’m going to divide these tips in to two sections: tips 1 and 2 are about improving your craft and honing your skill and 3-5 are centred around refining your own personal style. I’m talking about ‘musical branding’ if you like. Finding your direction on guitar is a very personal journey, everyone has their own path to tread, and by doing so you’ll learn many wider lessons along the way. Understanding guitar is a way to understand life.

So here we go...

Tip 1 - Timing

Ever wondered why an experienced pro player can play something super simple and yet the performance has gravitas and transmits unshakable confidence? I liken this to a comedian telling a joke. It’s all in the timing. And specifically, the level of control the performer has over that.

If you spend 3 months sorting out your timing, then you won’t believe how many compliments you’ll get from people. An average person in a crowd might not be able to describe how you’ve just pulled a lick back behind the beat, or sat right on a groove, but rest assured they will absolutely understand that ‘here is a serious musician’.

So how do we develop great timing?

Play with musicians who are better than you

Don’t edit so much when recording - try for complete usable takes

Spend the majority of your practice time with a click, or drum loops, and devise routines that really test your skills such as dropping the click out for 1, 2 or even 4 bars and see if you can stay in time.

Pay attention to rhythm guitar (all guitar is rhythm guitar!) Nothing downgrades a shredder and makes them sound like a bedroom player more than them getting excited and getting ahead of the beat in an uncontrolled way. Listen to the control top players have even when ripping it up. Listen to the groove masters like Rob Harris or Steve Cropper to understand what ‘simple done well’ sounds like.

Test yourself: Play a slow shuffle at 60 bpm and see if you can sit on the click without rushing - not easy!

Tip 2 - Sort your tone out

There’s basically two sort of guitar sounds, and I’m not talking class A/B or analogue/digital. I am talking about a) real tones with sonic integrity - the sort you hear on great recordings and the sort of sound that will still work next to a live kit and through a big PA - and b) poor approximations of the real thing. Whichever direction you go in devising your own signature tone, try and tune up your ears so you don’t get a nasty shock first time you go into the studio with an experienced producer and engineer.

So how do you develop great tone?

Collect reference tones from great recordings and performances, and really listen hard to what is going on. Try to separate what is coming out of the cab and what elements of the final tone are post speaker eg. room ambience. Research what the ‘raw’ recorded tone was, if you can, as this trips up so many players who think that the sound they hear through the PA or hi-fi speaker is the guitar sound from the cab. The original source tone is often much dryer, has more midrange, has a harmonic richness and has the sonic integrity to hang in there right through it being mix and mastered (and being compressed to bits on some radio station!).

Practice with a bare tone, no reverb or delay and minimal compression and gain. This will do wonders for your tone and you’ll figure out how to get the most tonal response from your guitar. No pedal can save a weak right or left hand, and you can’t boost frequencies that aren’t there. That’s why great amps and pickups often sound awful in the hands of someone inexperienced. They just give you a more detailed sonic picture of what you are putting into it.

Test yourself: Try playing bone dry with a simple lead, no pedals, into something unforgiving like a Hiwatt Custom 50m, a plexi, an AC30, fender twin or a digital version of those amps. This will feel terrible at first as every detail is so ‘in your face’ but stick with this and you’ll discover a whole world of tone in your fingers which will build your confidence. When you revert back to your normal setup, you’ll be amazed at the difference. And so will everyone else.

Tip 3 - Copy great singers to firm up your phrasing

Guitar, as we know it, came from the blues tradition and often in early blues recordings the lead guitar would take over from the vocal, in a similar register. This worked initially on slide and later on standard electric bends and vibrato could mimic vocal delivery. This is a big plus for the instrument. We can make it sing.

But on top of that, it’s noticeable how many stand out players are also singers. There are the obvious examples with Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green and B.B. King, but also check out the more primitive but effective guitar work of Marc Bolan, Jeff Lynne (ELO etc.) and Neil Young or the lo-fi garage-style work of Kurt Cobain. One thing they all have in common is they have a singer’s approach to note choice and an effective use of space and rhythmic patterns.

How do we develop a more vocal style of phasing?

Copy people speaking and replicate their conversations on guitar using bends, whammy bar etc. Also concentrate on the rhythmic aspects of speech and the nuances of pitch and dynamic in the questions, answers and statements of everyday conversations.

Apply that learning into a solo but limit your note choice. Try entire solos on the root note for example. Notice how singers often bounce around on two or three notes, whereas a guitarist might feel the need to move round the neck more.

Look at your picking hand and copy the dynamics of a few great singers. Amy Winehouse could go from a roar to a whisper and maybe you can too. Go back to a single note and see how many tones you can get from one note by adjusting your pick attack, angle and placement.

Test yourself: Try tremolo picking and change the volume from very quiet to very loud without stopping the flow of the picking. See how consistent and controlled you can be.

Tip 4 - Play less

When I tour and I’m on a bill with load of other guitar bands, I get to listen to a lot of sets. That’s a lot of guitar. After every festival I make a mental note: Play fewer notes. There’s an awful lot of guitar notes already floating around, before we add to that let’s be clear what the purpose and point is. Play less but make sure what you do play counts.

Try the Jimmy Hendrix/Eddie Kramer/Chapman trick of playing lead around your breathing. Stop playing when you inhale. It’s a simple trick that forces you to leave space and make use of silence. If you have a super grainy tone you might want to use a noise gate to nip the feedback in the bud or, better still, learn to control the vol pot like Eddie Van Halen whose little finger was forever on the vol pot - dialling it back and forth like a set of gears as he played.

Tip 5 - Develop your own style

Okay, so this is the big one. In a world full of guitar players, what hope do we have of planting our own flag creatively and doing more than just playing good guitar? Here are some ways you might approach this (but remember, it can take a few years to know what you want so take your time and enjoy the journey):

Listen back to recordings of your own playing and look for small motifs, signatures and techniques that you like. Pick a few of your favourites and try and develop them further. For example, if you have a heavy right hand and favour down strokes, then ask yourself if you could make more of that - could that right hand be even heavier? If you have a big vibrato, could it be even bigger? That sort of line of thought might help you find some exciting lines of stylistic development. The goal is to be ‘more you’.

Identify your three or four main influences and think about why you are drawn to their music. You can take inspiration from aspects of their approach without directly lifting licks. For me, I’ve tried to take a little bit of composition and hot plexi tone from Randy Rhoads, the blues base from Hendrix, a smidge of early Van Halen’s spontaneity and elements of the economy and detail from Peter Green. To that I add in my own personality, my drive for simplicity, and I try to turn limitations into positives. What you don’t do defines you as much as what you do do.

So that’s the Bruce guitar recipe. But more importantly, what’s the ingredients in your guitar… cake? Guitar pie? I think I’ve taken this analogy as far as I can so I think I’ll stop there and go play some guitar!

Take it easy.

Bruce, 2021

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John Henry “Bonzo” Bonham, Viola Clara Smith, Danny Carey, Cindy Blackman and Dave Grohl, what do they all have in common? Is it their age? Is it their race? Or is it their gender? No. It’s something more primal and instinctive, a feeling that they were born with, something so deep and true to them that only people of the same distinction can understand:

The inescapable urge to play the drums.

Do you feel it too? I feel it every day of my life. It’s the one constant I can rely on to push me forward in my career, and ultimately what I was born to do.

Having drive is the first step, but you’ll need more than that to become a professional drummer in today’s industry.

Here’s a five tips that have helped me over the years with my career, I hope you take something positive away from them. Enjoy!

ENGAGEMENT

Turn off your phone!

Now I understand that is quite a statement, but hear me out…

We live in a society that is surrounded and completely engrossed by media and technology, and for the most part it’s great! It helps us to communicate with one another all around the world and learn an abundance of information. But unfortunately there is an underlying issue involved with using technology regularly, it causes us to deviate from spending time practising or improving our abilities, and instead we spend more time watching others online, doing what arguably would be more fulfilling to do ourselves! For me this just isn’t healthy or productive.

So, my advice is when you want to get down and practise (for any amount of time) try and leave your phone on silent and away from your area of practise so you can really engage with your time. This experience without any technological distractions is almost like meditation. I’m not saying it’s easy to do, and it’s definitely something to teach yourself with some commitment and time. But, I can’t express to you enough the feeling when you achieve that complete concentration and engagement with practising, it is truly amazing and very addictive! The moral here is to spend more time focusing on YOU and YOUR journey, not the journey of others!

FUNDAMENTALS

Fundamentals can be understood in a plethora of ways; rudiments, grooves, techniques or drum sounds etc - and I like to consider them as the building blocks of your own development as a drummer.

Utilising them in a way that works for you and your abilities is key to the fundamental understanding of the drums, they will unlock doors to help you on your own journey with the instrument.

To this day, I still regularly practise basic rudiment exercises, for example: singles, doubles, paradiddles and six stroke rolls. They may seem boring at first, but over time with the correct application, they will open up your technique, stamina and most importantly your own voice on the drums! Never underestimate the importance of fundamentals.

ATTITUDE

Your attitude towards others in the music industry is of paramount importance. The industry is a small place and the way you are within it will ultimately determine how far you will go.

Especially when starting out, once you get the opportunity to tour for yourself and support bands, it’s very important to treat everyone with the respect and courtesy they deserve, no matter their job role. Whether they be front of house, monitoring or light technicians, tour or production managers, roadies or catering staff, they are just as important to your show as you are.

If you show up either as a headliner, or arguably more importantly as a support act, with a bad or demanding attitude….trust me you’re going to have a bad time and those people will forever remember you for that experience. Act professionally and learn to work with and adapt to the inevitable last minute changes and disasters that can and will happen on tour. A big one is to always get on and off stage as quickly and respectfully as you can.

As drummers, we have a hard enough time as it is with the amount of gear to carry and set up, so make sure the team is on your side from the start, it’ll make your life so much easier.

Introduce yourself and remember their names, it goes a long way when you’re touring to get to know everyone, including the band.

Be respectful. Be kind. Be understanding.

PRACTISE TIME AND TECHNIQUES

Practise time and techniques are very important to our development as professional musicians. The amount of time you practise and what you practise is very important. I find that warming up for at least 15-30 minutes before my practise routine at home, or playing a live show is really noticeable. Our bodies work much more efficiently when we’re warmed up and you’re less likely to injure yourself. You can do this either on a practise pad, electric kit, real drum kit, snare drum, pillow or arm of a chair, whatever you can find.

Make sure you’re setting yourself goals for your practise routine, whether that be working through one of the many incredible rudiment or drumming books available today (I will reference some at the bottom of this post), practising dynamics, learning how to swing, playing with ‘feel’ or perhaps trying to sit in the ‘pocket’ of a groove. Whatever it is you’re aiming for, try and give yourself achievable tasks that can be reflected on throughout your journey such as:

Using tempo charts for exercises, start slow and build up to a comfortable level that sounds and feels good, then over time you will soon notice the difference.

Explore the avenues between all of the limbs at your disposal, if you have mastered something with your right hand, what about your left? Or your feet? How do they hold up together or individually from one another. These are just some of the many thought processes and practises that can elevate your drumming to the next level!

JUST PLAY!

My final bit of advice is to just play! Play with every fibre of your being, early on in your career join many bands until you find the right fit, and explore the many different musical genres at your disposal. Be THAT drummer that people remember, play up to your unique strengths, and put yourself forward for as many opportunities as you can. Learn as much about your chosen skillset, explore other genres and styles of music that you may not like personally, but professionally will have a greater impact on your abilities throughout your career. You will only get as much out of the instrument as you put in, and that certainly goes for the people you surround yourself with. Music is a people’s industry, make sure you’re part of that industry in every way.

You could film your practise routines or live shows to critique your technique, and perhaps even share your progress online. This is such an amazing commodity that the aforementioned legends of drumming never had in their time – but beware - use it to your advantage and try not to get distracted, save it for downtime after your practise.

Lastly, my most important bit of advice is to make sure you always stay true to who you are and what you want to achieve. Follow your own path, as it’s the only one you can truly rely on.

DRUM BOOK REFERENCES

The New Breed – Gary Chester

Syncopation – Ted Reed

Future Sounds – David Garibaldi

The ‘PATTERNS’ series – Gary Chaffee

Stick Control – George Lawrence Stone

GREAT ALBUMS FOR DRUMMERS

Songs For the Deaf – Queens Of The Stoneage (Dave Grohl)

Led Zeppelin IV – Led Zeppelin (John Henry “Bonzo” Bonham)

10,000 Days – TOOL (Danny Carey)

Crack The Skye – Mastodon (Brann Dailor)

Deloused in the Comatorium – The Mars Volta (Jon Theodore)

Inner Mountain Flame – Mahavishnu Orchestra (Billy Cobham)

Magma – Gojira (Mario Duplantier)

Thirteenth Step – A Perfect Circle (Josh Freese)

Sound Awake – Karnivool (Steve Judd)

The Joy of Motion – Animals as Leaders (Matt Garstka)

Diamond eyes – Deftones (Abe Cunningham)

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