How to Play Fluid Guitar, with Perfect Tension and Musical Flow
Would you like to play guitar fluidly? Would you like the music to pour out of your hands with ease and comfort? Would you like your music to soar and sound inevitable?
Perhaps we all want these things. This may be the ultimate musical experience – to play complex music with the ease of tying a shoe.
But how to we get there?
How to Play Fluidly on Guitar
Fluidity on guitar has two distinct elements.
First, the sound coming out of the guitar can sound fluid. This means that the notes connect. The volume swells and fades such that the music makes sense and pulls our attention forward.
And the other side of fluid playing is the feeling in our bodies. This is our personal experience. In real-time, this means that our joints are free (not locked or stiff). Our muscles engage with appropriate tension, so we feel buoyant and free in our arms and neck and chest.
Like a shoe that fits well, we may not even be aware of it. A well-fitting shoe feels like not wearing a shoe a all. And moving with the perfect blend of tension and relaxation feels the same.
We encounter a challenge with these two definitions of fluid are in conflict with each other.
Fluid Doesn’t Always FEEL Fluid
Often in music, we need to make quick, robotic movements. This allows us to connect the sound of the notes without breaks or gaps.
But to do these quick, robotic movements, we must fully engage our muscles and joints. There’s work to do, and the music won’t flow without it.
Ironically, this is most needed in slow, tender, melodic music. We find ourselves working quite hard to create softly cascading notes and rhythms.
So there is a difference between the desired sound and the desired feeling. And we need to know how and when in our practice to sacrifice one for the other.
Use All Available Tools to Develop Fluid Guitar-Playing
In our practice, we train our bodies and minds to meet the demands of the music. And we train ourselves to use appropriate tension to do it.
Over the months and years, we learn and develop practice methods and techniques. And we can use these to build both these areas of fluidity (sound and feeling).
We can spend part of our time playing slow scales, arpeggios or exercises. And we can do this with our attention and awareness mainly on our bodies.
When we keep the content (notes) simple, we can check in with our muscles and joints. We can check our posture and form.
Over time, we habitualize good bodily use. We ingrain ease into our playing. Then, in our music, we can release excess tension and play more easefully.
This is especially useful in the first moments of practice, to set the tone and direct our attention.
Listening skills are akin to muscles. They develop with use and training. When we listen to every sound, we can give more precise instructions to the body.
For instance, we can listen to each note connect to the next. The better we hear one note stopping and another starting, we better we can sculpt that moment. Our hands become more synchronized, and we develop better control.
We can also listen for expressive “shaping”. This includes the volume (dynamics) of each note in relation to the notes around it. And it includes the rate of speed-ups and slow-downs (called “rubato”). We can listen for the rhythm and tone quality.
The more accurate and acute our listening, the better we play.
Constructive Feedback (video yourself)
Another tool to aid in both listening and body-awareness is video. We can video ourselves in practice, and gain important information.
We can look for possible improvements in positioning and form. We can watch our movements and spot potential bad habits.
We can listen objectively, without the distraction of actually playing. And this can let us know the reality of how we sound (which can be different than what we hear while playing).
We can also use a teacher for feedback. But video (and even audio) recording is a very powerful practice tool for daily use.
Use Varied Practice Techniques to Build Skills Over Time
To play more fluidly on guitar, it also helps to vary our practice techniques. Part of learning guitar is learning to practice. And this means learning different ways to work through problems and train our hands.
The more ways we know to work with challenging passages, the more able we’ll be to train in ease and freedom. With time and practice, we can maintain a fluid body experience, while meeting the demands of our music.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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