If you’re a budding guitarist looking to add interest and variety to your playing, you’ve come to the right place! Here are 7 actionable tips for making your guitar playing more interesting:
1. Spice Up Your Chords
Spicing up your chords is a fantastic way of livening up your rhythm parts. I’d recommend implementing the following two techniques:
This is where you re-order the notes of a chord. Here’s a quick example:
- C major triad (root position): C / E / G
- C major triad (1st inversion): E / G / C
- C major triad (2nd inversion): G / C / E
Inversions add a great deal of richness and variety to your playing. If you’re playing a song that uses the same chord progression throughout, you might consider using inverted chords in the verses and root position chords in the chorus.
Here’s a great video tutorial on guitar chord inversions from fretjam on YouTube:
Extended chords are essentially triads with additional notes beyond the seventh degree of the scale. These are most-commonly 9ths, 11ths and 13ths. Whilst commonly used in jazz music, they’re becoming increasingly-popular amongst rock and pop guitarists due to their interesting and unique character. They can also be used to pivot from one section of a song to another; this not only makes your guitar playing more interesting, but the entire arrangement more interesting.
Here’s a great video tutorial on extended chords from Garrett’s Guitar Lessons on YouTube:
2. Use Effects Pedals
Effects pedals can add a substantial amount of depth and variety to even the most simple of guitar parts. Similarly, they seem to be the thing that audience members are most-impressed by in a live setting. As a typical ‘plug in and play’ type-guitarist myself, I was hesitant to dive into the world of effects pedals for many years. However, once I did, my playing was absolutely transformed.
Here are a few essential pedals I’d recommend looking into:
- Overdrive + distortion: I’m a big advocate of having both an overdrive and a distortion pedal on your pedalboard. This will allow you to quickly switch between different distorted sounds, adding significant variety to your set.
- Reverb: A reverb pedal simulates natural reverberation (sound being reflected off of a physical object). It can add a phenomenal sense of definition and depth to your sound, resulting in a much more rounded and convincing tone. If you’re playing live on a regular basis, I’d recommend getting a reverb pedal with a wide range of different reverb models; this’ll allow you to quickly match the tone of your reverb to the room you’re playing in. I was surprised at how cost-effective the Behringer DR600 was on Amazon.
- Delay: A delay pedal can add body, color and space to your lead parts. If you’d like to thicken up a part, try a tighter delay setting. If you’d like to add ambience to a section, try a longer delay setting.
- Boost: A boost pedal amplifies the signal from a guitar before it reaches the amplifier. Therefore, it creates a crystal-clear volume boost without any unwanted distortion. If you’re playing any form of lead guitar, you’ll want a boost pedal to cut through the mix and grab the crowd’s attention.
- Chorus: A chorus pedal replicates the sound of string sections and large choirs by splitting the signal in two and delaying/detuning one of them. It can really thicken up a part whilst adding substantial variety.
N.B. Whilst effects pedals can certainly add interest to your guitar playing, it’s important that you don’t over-do it. Getting too trigger-happy with your pedals can quickly cause the novelty to wear off and take away from the rest of the arrangement.
3. Listen To A Wide Range Of Different Music
Listening to a wide range of different music has two distinct effects on your guitar playing:
- It introduces you to new ideas: Listening to different styles of music on a regular basis introduces you to ideas that you haven’t come across before. Even though you might be listening to a style of music that’s the polar opposite of what you usually play, there will likely be something that you can pick up and run with.
- It keeps you inspired: When you’re constantly being introduced to new ideas, it’s likely you’ll see a direct correlation with your motivation to progress your playing. This will naturally tighten things up and increase your arsenal of techniques.
Whilst it might sound strange, I’d encourage you to listen to music that doesn’t even feature any guitar. This’ll force you to dig deeper and be as resourceful as possible with the material, causing you to pick up significantly different and interesting ideas.
Another great method of picking up new ideas is to play ‘song roulette’. Here’s a quick breakdown of how to play:
- Find a playlist of songs that you aren’t familiar with (preferably in a range of different genres).
- Start playing along to the playlist, figuring out each song by ear in real-time.
- Once you’re halfway through the playlist, start adding your own improvised sections.
Song roulette forces you to derive and practically implement new ideas from different styles of music, allowing you to progress at an accelerated rate.
4. Emulate The Human Voice
Emulating the human voice is a technique that’s been used ever since musical instruments were created. This is because it can transform a dull, lifeless phrase into a character-filled and lively one. There are three main ways of emulating the human voice on guitar:
Vibrato consists of small, yet rapid fluctuations to the pitch of a note. Each guitarist’s vibrato is generally unique to them, which adds a real sense of interest to their playing. Many well-known guitarists such as B.B. King and Slash are renowned purely for their vibrato technique.
Here’s a great video tutorial on vibrato from JustinGuitar on YouTube:
As the name suggests, this is where you ‘slide’ between notes by keeping your finger on the string(s). This can be used with both single notes and chords, adding a significant level of character to a phrase.
Additionally, you might consider using a dedicated glass slide such as this one. Glass slides are capable of creating strong vibrato and glissando effects, often coming off as extremely impressive in a live setting. Here’s a great video tutorial on using a glass slide from swiftlessons on YouTube:
Bends are exactly what they sound like; fretting a note and then ‘bending’ the string in order to change the pitch. They can truly bring a phrase to life, especially when combined with vibrato. Here’s an all-encompassing video tutorial on bends from Your Guitar Academy on YouTube:
If you want a technique that really grabs the attention of a crowd, look no further. Tapping is where you use both hands to perform a series of hammer-ons and pull-offs. Whilst commonly used in metal music, it generally works across most rock genres. Whilst this is an incredibly flashy technique, you don’t want to over-do it. The novelty quickly wears off if it’s over-used or placed out-of-context.
Here’s a great video tutorial on tapping from swiftessons on YouTube:
5. Use A Strong Dynamic Range
A strong dynamic range is essential to creating variety and interest throughout your playing. Ideally, you’ll want to feature everything from really, really quiet to really, really loud. Dynamic variety creates a strong sense of contrast, allowing your loud parts to appear truly loud and your quiet parts to appear truly quiet.
If you’re playing covers, you might consider changing up the dynamics as a way of putting your own spin on the material. This can effectively draw an audience in by providing them with a new take on a song they’re already familiar with.
6. Change Up Your Picking Style
Many guitarists think that the only way to spice up their guitar playing is by changing their fretting technique. However, picking technique is just as significant as fretting technique. Here are a couple of different picking styles you might consider implementing:
Fingerpicking (picking with the fingers instead of a plectrum) produces a softer and more-intimate sound than flatpicking (playing with a plectrum). It’s also a very visual style of picking, which often appeases an audience. Here’s a great video tutorial on fingerpicking from Marty Music on YouTube:
Sweep picking consists of ‘sweeping’ the pick across two or more strings to play a series of notes (usually an arpeggio) in quick-succession. It looks and sounds awesome, adding a whole new sense of interest to your playing. Whilst generally used in metal music, it works great across all genres of rock music. Here’s a great video tutorial on sweep picking from Alfred Potter Guitar on YouTube:
7. Choose Your Moments Wisely
When trying to liven up your guitar playing, it’s all-too-tempting to blindly play every lick under the sun in an attempt to add variety. However, doing so will only make your playing seem overbearing and distasteful. Much like with dynamics, you can’t create interesting parts unless you directly contrast them with not-so-interesting parts.
When playing in a band, I’m a huge advocate of playing the song instead of the instrument. Playing a part that’s well-suited to the arrangement will come off as much-more-convincing than trying to show off with unnecessary fills and licks. Remember, you can still add interest to a simple part by using subtle techniques such as chord inversions and extensions. Once you have your moment in the spotlight (i.e. a solo or extended jam session), you can add that extra bit of flare with a snappy lick or a few stomps on your pedalboard.