Friday, 8 May 2009

Restriction as the basis of development

I was recently asked to be “task master” for the guitarist collective forum. This is a great forum where each month a contributor nominates a taskmaster to give each of the forum regulars a challenge in the form of a composition which must be completed within the parameters of a given framework. This could be anything from using a slide, a strange time signature, only one position on a guitar fingerboard etc… something to make a guitar player think about what they are doing, and really ‘craft’ a piece instead of getting stuck in ruts by relying on familiar shapes and patterns. These monthly tasks are very useful challenges because they force people to think and react creatively and find new ideas on the guitar which they may not have had without thinking beyond their own ideas.

The task I proposed for May 2009 is based on an exercise I give my students all the time:

“Compose a piece for solo guitar, in any style (but so that it stands on it's own without any backing track or other instruments filling out sonic space) which uses only the inner 4 strings. Strings 2,3,4, and 5 are the boundaries, no notes to be played on either string 6, or string 1.”

When I give my students this exercise, it’s not just for composing. I use this exercise for improvising, technical exercises, everything! Because every technique you would use is ‘gated in’ with a string either side of the one you are playing on, it can't help but to develop your playing. Spending long periods of practice time working on the outer strings (1st and 6th) can actually develop a lot of bad habits because of the technical laziness which it is possible to get away with playing on these strings. For example, there is all the room anyone would possibly need to execute a picked down-stroke on the first string, and similarly, there is all the room anyone would possibly need to execute a picked up-stroke on the sixth string. These techniques require a new level of refinement when played on any of the other strings so to my mind, it makes sense that the inner four strings (2,3,4, and 5) are the strings on which technical skills should be practiced for the most productive and refined results. In my experience, when you move back to using all six strings after doing this kind of practice for any length of time, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for your guitar playing.

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