Holistic Guitar

by Kevin De Souza


For many guitarists the connection between technique and self expression is something that happens as if by magic, and can often take the player by surprise, like they where watching themselves from a third party prospective. This space has very strong Zen qualities and can be as rewarding as other forms of deep meditation. Unfortunately for many guitarists these times are few and far between.

In this article we will attempt to look at what brings us to that point, and how to develop our awareness so we are closer to that jump point.

Many Zen masters talk about developing multi levels of awareness simultaneously, being comfortable with them so they become autonomous, (clearing them out of the conscious mind and into the subconscious) , at that point an extra level of awareness floods into the conscious mind.

We need to engage physical, mental and emotional energies. before a higher sense of awareness comes through. These energies require points of focus. For this exercise we are going to divide those energies into four levels of technique and allow emotion to drive variations in them, bringing this up to five levels in all:

a) Clean/Accurate picking and fingering of the strings.

b) Rich tone & amp; amp; Dynamic's (via vibrato , finger pressure etc.)

c) Consistent rhythm (locking into grooves)

d) Melodic construction (knowing your frettboard & amp; amp; Calculating key's/scales boundaries)

e) Emotional content (via slides, bends, vibrato, finger pressure, plus the right mental attention).

Being aware of these levels SIMULTANEOUSLY in practice will hopefully allow us to make them autonomous, so that we don't have to be aware of them when we jam or gig.

Not only will this help your 'sound', but it should also help you express yourself with more honesty and depth.

Finnally in sub routine f) Wind Down and Store (We pack away and store the gathered energy and skills).


Learn to forget

While computers are still struggling with multi-tasking, the human brain can handle this with ease, all we have to do to is instigate a task then leave it to autonomy. As the human brain works from a neuron network the autonomy is not just a set of fixed automated tasks, but is constantly changing in relation to other factors such as, other autonomous procedures that are happening simultaneously, conscious thought, personal experience, emotion, environment, etc.

Generally the 'back burners' / subconscious is capable of far more power and depth then the conscious mind.

A lot of guitarist make the mistake of trying to control their playing from the conscious mind and end up working asynchronously, that is to say they flit quickly from one task to another giving the impression that they are carrying out the tasks simultaneously. One of the problems with this is that if you lose concentration, you can start to drop some tasks from the list (i.e. Your tone, accuracy, rhythm or melodic content can suffer).

The other problem is that filling your conscious mind with technique, tends to override/block the flow from the subconscious resulting in a lack of 'feel'. Many of the great jazz players who are credited as having large amounts of 'feel', and great improvisational skills even with complicated key changes, often (at least in the 1950's) had their conscious minds obliterated with various drugs and had to rely on playing from their 'back burners' / subconscious.

We need to autonomies technique and free the conscious mind to wonder where it will.


In order to achieve this we must concentrate on each level of awareness separately, pass it to our minds 'back burners' (subconscious ) so that it becomes autonomous, then add a new level by the same method. This way we keep building up levels while maintaining awareness of previous levels.

Before we can start any exercise for building up the simultaneous levels we should have a closer look at each level separately, and what our goals are in each level, then build up some sub routines.


A) Clean/Accurate Notes

Here we want to get clean and accurate notes, this means only hitting the strings that we want to sound with the pick, and landing your fingers cleanly on the frettboard whilst being aware of adjacent string and either letting them ring freely (without them being muffled) or intentionally dampening them.

It is very important to use all four fingers, try and get the weaker fingers (i.e. your little finger and ring finger) to sound the notes as cleanly as your index and second finger.

You should also use alternate picking (i.e. pick the strings downwards then upwards alternatively ).

We will need around ten minuets of this sub routine for the main exercise. I would suggest a set of four repetitive scales or (musical) finger patterns that move from one end of the frettboard to the other. (REMEMBER THIS AS SUB ROUTINE A)


B) Rich tone & Dynamic's

The tone of each note is often the first level that's sacrificed by a player under pressure, when push comes to shove players often prioritize rhythm or speed above the tone. Building awareness of tone is very important if it is to become second nature.

Experiment with vibrato to get a range of sound from the same lick (set of note's), i.e. play the lick softly and creamily (via vibrato, etc. also try leaning in heavily with the frettboard hand and pick lightly but firmly with the pick hand) then play the same lick boldly, more up tempo, this time picking harder with the pick hand, sliding into notes and adding vibrato just at the ends of the notes.

Remember that the pressure you apply to the frettboard alters the tone as much as the pressure that you pick the string at, also remember that you can change the pressure used to hold the string against the frettboard at any time during the length of the note to subtly change the tone of the note (i.e. you can start the note by pressing the string down hard then release it slowly, or you can lean in harder towards the end of the note, etc.).

Let your pick hand move closer to the frettboard for a mellow sound and back to the bridge for a harsher sound and try to make a mental note of the difference in tone when you pick over different areas.

More ambitious players might want to experiment with selecting different pick-ups and/or twiddling the tone pot (with your little finger) as you play.

For this sub routine we will need a set of around five of your favorite lick's/riff's that incorporate the points mentioned above. These would be played repetitively for around five to ten minuets, improving on the tone with each repeat. Pick a cross section of licks that use the whole frettboard and all the strings. (REMEMBER THIS AS SUB ROUTINE B )


C) Consistent Rhythm

Locking into a groove is very important for autonomy, this really does let you leap out into the dark, knowing that you will land on a stepping stone instead of splashing into the river of embarrassment :) .

Playing to metronome, drum machine or sequenced drums will definitely improve your rhythm.


Bear in mind that having a good sense of rhythm doesn't mean playing dead on every beat, but being able to weave in and out of the beat whilst remaining in sync. To increase awareness of this try playing phrases on just the second and fourth bar (in a four bar beat) and scat (sing a line) in the first and third bar (if you don't like the sound of your voice you can just imagine the melodies in-between :). Then try the same thing this time just playing on the first and third bar, then on just the half of all four bars, scatting in-between.

A lot of guitarists over look string bending, slides hammer-on's and pull-off's as not having rhythmic qualities, and allow their timing to get sloppy at those points. A few exercises can really help to tighten that up. For instance try bending the string up a tone on the first beat, hold it up for two bars then mute it dead on the start of the third bar. Or pick it again on the start of the third bar, whilst still holding it up, then let it start to come back down a tone, reaching the right note on the last beat of the fourth bar. There are lot's of different variations that you can try, the important thing is to not allow yourself to fall out of sync. Remember to keep your hammer-ons and pull-off's in double time or triplets etc. to the metronome, even slides should start and end on a count. Being very tight in practice will not make your playing regimental but will actually increase the rhythmic feel in your playing.

For this sub routine we will need a set of around five to ten riff's and licks that incorporate the points mentioned above. These would be repeated approx. three times each , keeping them as tight as possible. (REMEMBER THIS AS SUB ROUTINE C)


D) Melodic Construction

(knowing your frettboard & Calculating key's/scales boundaries)

The main goal here is to get to know your frettboard well enough to be able to play anything that is in your head or that suddenly comes to you. There are many methods and exercises on how to achieve this, but here we are only going to remind ourselves of what scales and melodies sound like on different areas of the frettboard.

You should run through the different modes at different positions on the frettboard. i.e. start with the ascending dorian mode in the third position, then play the descending in the third position , then play the same mode ascending in the fifth position, then descending in the fifth position, then ascending in the seventh position etc. etc.

I would also suggest learning a couple of intricate melodies (i.e. a Charley Parker, or Mingus melody that uses the full frett board and has strong key changes. Remember speed is not important in this sub routine).

You can also try to pick out melodies that you know (from records or theme tunes THAT YOU LIKE!) but have never played before.

Another method is to scat (sing a melody) on the first and third bar and try to play the same thing in the second and fourth bar (again as in sub routine C you can just imagine a melody if you don't like scatting). This will help you to be aware of other musicians that you play with.


So for this sub routine we will need to

1) Run through the seven modes (in at least three positions each i.e. the third, seventh and twelfth position).

2) Spend a few minuets scatting and playing what you scat.

3) Memorize a COUPLE of intricate melodies that you can run through (you can also run through a couple of your favorite melodic lead breaks). (REMEMBER THIS AS SUB ROUTINE D)


E) Emotional Content / Awareness

There are many methods of increasing emotional content/'feel' in your playing. Most of these methods rely on technique. Subroutine 'B' Rich tone & Dynamic's will sort out the vocabulary that you will need, so if you already have sub routines A to D running autonomously you only need to create enough 'head space' to be 'aware' and what you feel will translate into what you play. In this sense being aware of what you feel doesn't mean analysing what you feel, but simply letting your mind 'interact', and 'wonder where it will'.

One thing that you can count on is that what you feel is never static but in constant flux, some times in finite degrees and some times in huge leaps, This is perhaps the 'human' quality that makes each performance unique. In other words keep it flowing don't allow your conscious mind to 'attach' it self to any thoughts/emotions. It is vital that you do not 'ATTACH' to what you are feeling, .......keep it flowing, dwelling on an emotion will stem the flow. The mind really try's to analyse the emotion AFTER it has come and GONE, so really when dwelling on an emotion your are analysing the past (be it in split seconds), and your momentum is stalled.

Think of 'Man on a river bank', many wondrous, strange and alluring things might pass by, but he mustn't jump in the river to reach it or he will drown, just watch it pass by and some thing new will come along.

This section/sub routine is really about assigning the 'right' amount of attention to the layers. Remaining unattached while playing with FULL passion can be much harder then it sounds, it's really a VERY profound Zen meditative state, but if we have done the previous sub routines well and have been walking the circle we should be ready to drift into this section / state well.

After having concentrated on individual levels we need to restore a balance really technique should only take up 25% of your attention, with the other percentages divided are up into 25% remains relaxed/clear, 25% to 'relating to others and oneself, and the remaining 25% connects with expectation.

This method of splitting the attention is mentioned in the 'samadhiraja-sutra' (Tibetan Buddhist text) and is refereed to as the 'four wheels of the chariot'. The four wheels/techniques of meditation are: 1)Concentration, 2)Openness, 3)Awareness, 4)Expectation.

So what does it mean in relation to music ? Lets look at some parallels to drive this point home:

1)Concentration 25%:

This refers to all the levels of technique.

2)Openness 25%:

This refers to 'staying relaxed', not letting the mind/emotions etc consume more then 25% of you attention and to not let the body get stiff. This is also important for flexibility. This doesn't mean that you don't 'commit' to long riff or licks, but that you maintain a flexibility of being able to change direction half way through.

3)Awareness 25%:

This refers to being aware of your own sound, what others in band are playing, and the audience reaction.

4)Expectation 25%:

This refers basically to a (subconsciously) calculated guess. In this case expectation is not waiting for some thing to happen out of the blue, but based on what has happened, what is happening etc we can (and DO) predict the next moment. This is NOT done consciously but by feel, i.e. bands that work well together will naturally change key etc together even on improvised jamming.

You do need all four wheels (no more and no less) for it all to be synchronised, these parallels also exist of other art's, i.e. any good internal Martial artist will tell you that technique on it's own is no good, even a perfect block executed at the wrong time (e.g. out of sync with your opponent) is useless. You have to stay relaxed (the second wheel) to maintain flexibility, and only use the right amount of of force where needed at the right time. You also have to be aware of the what the opponent is doing and your position (the third wheel). Plus you HAVE to connect with expectation simply reacting after the opponents every move would be to slow (the fourth wheel).

For this sub routine (e) we will need a set of around five to ten lick's and riff's .These would be played repetitively for around five to ten minuets, pick a cross section of licks that use the whole frettboard and all the strings. Again use a lot of string bends slides etc, and keep a mixture of fast and slow riffs, stay relaxed, be aware of the sound you get and notice the amount of emotion in the vibrato etc 'let it move you' but don't let emotion/passion dominate your attention. (REMEMBER THIS AS SUB ROUTINE E)


F) Wind down and store

In the first part of the wind down exercises we really want to burn off any stress and negative energy that we have built up. I would recommend a bold strumming riff and some uplifting, fast and aggressive scales or riff's (you still need to keep it sounding GOOD! with cleanly struck notes that are rich in tone with a strong sense of rhythm for both the strumming and the scales/riff's). Play the scales in several positions slowly the first time around, then play them as fast as possible without loosing clarity or tone (also try to keep the notes equally spaced). Keep this up until your fingers start to get fatigued, remember to work all four fingers equally on the frettboard hand and to pick alternatively (i.e. pick the strings downwards then upwards alternatively ).

Finally end with around five to fifteen minuets of playing something that isn't to demanding, a simple repetitive bit of 'flat top' or 'folk' picking is ideal as it will re-align co-ordination between the right and left hand. (Don't forget you still need to keep it sounding GOOD! with cleanly struck notes etc.). Again it is important to remain neutral/'spaced' in this section, a it like when you turn the engine of on a car but it keeps going until it come slows down on it own.

All you need to do here is to stay 'spaced', while maintaining the previous levels, and percentages of attention. You may find yourself drift into thoughts about your day or into your expectations or worries about tomorrow, remembering something that pissed you off or moved you recently, avoid these thoughts (remember 'Man at the river bank', think about the steps, your breath, the sound of the guitar, the feel of your hands, fingers tips, then try and let go of those thoughts to. Let the momentum of the walking etc carry you like you are watching the river flow. (REMEMBER THIS AS SUB ROUTINE F )

I have not given any set exercises for the sub routines as they are really quite flexible. This way you can choose riff's and scales that you feel comfortable with and that match your musical taste and direction. This also allows you to add more bit's to each sub routine as your needs grow, or to change the sub routines to match changes in your own musical direction when needed.

So you need to gather the required riff's, licks etc for each subroutine before moving on to part two where you put it all together.

Part Two of the article

By Kevin De Souza

Scapetrace - The language of jazz, mixing the contemporary with world influences Mark Wingfield contemporary jazz guitarist and composer. "One of the most striking and original voices on the guitar today" Richard Newman - Noted U.K. author and music journalist.

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