10 Free or Dirt Cheap Ways To Freshen Up Your Guitar Playing

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday, 11 March 2015
Fender Esquire

We all get stuck in a rut at some time or other, and let’s face it, there’s a lot of advice on how to dig yourself out. Unfortunately though, many of the people giving out this advice are essentially in the business of selling, so they commonly include expensive (and for some people impractical) suggestions like: “Buy a new effect”, “Buy new pickups”, “Buy a new guitar”… Easy to suggest. Not always so easy to do. This post, then, offers suggestions to those who want a change, but who would prefer not to blow a load of cash on new equipment…

Play to the radio. Find a radio station that’s roughly in keeping with your tastes, balance the volume with your guitar, and challenge yourself to play along to everything you hear. It’s amazing how quickly this can take you out of your usual noodling zone, make you think, prompt you to learn things and encourage new ideas. Having no control over what’s coming next makes the challenge much greater than playing along to selected tracks from your own collection.

Alternative tunings. This can be almost like starting again from scratch, in that it prevents you from regurgitating deeply ingrained habits. You more or less have to think differently when the tuning changes. And in fact, even if you do lapse back into patterns you’re used to, they won’t sound the same. Try some set piece, widely-acknowledged alternative tunings, but don’t be afraid to make up your own too. Some of the most distinctive guitar work on record has been the result of newly invented or accidentally misinterpreted tunings. You can even try out some ‘detuning’ effects by tuning a pair (or more than one pair) of strings to the same pitch, but with a little ‘drift’ in the accuracy, creating a sort of 12-string-type ‘ring’ on a 6-string instrument.

Use a significantly different string gauge. Much thicker strings will give a fuller and more substantial tone, as well as encouraging you to be more selective and basic with your playing. Sometimes, we noodle away at 100mph because we can. When we can’t, we start to think more musically, melodically or expressively. If thick strings prove too tough a proposition as is, tune them down a semitone or a full tone to slacken the aggressive feel. Conversely, switching from thick strings to a much lighter gauge can prompt more ambitious playing and encourage technical flashiness. That can be a useful, surprise ingredient if it’s something you’re not known for.

Add space. It’s tempting to play each track ‘wall-to-wall’, filling every space with guitar. But an extraordinarily high number of successful guitarists heavily punctuate their work with spaces – often long ones where they drop right out of the track for a while. So don't feel obliged to fill every beat of every bar with sound. Even if you’re a solo artist, limited silent gaps, vocal only bars, deliberately missed beats or stabs can capture the listener’s imagination. The maxim "absence makes the heart grow fond" has endured for a reason.

Use your gear more fully. The vast majority of guitarists buy their gear, arrive at settings they’re happy with, and then never change anything or explore any further. Have you really experimented with your FX processor lately? Have you used the other channel on your amp, re-imagined the EQ, reduced the reverb, cut out the reverb altogether? Have you even backed off the tone or volume on your guitar itself? Don’t ditch a great sound, obviously, but equally, don’t assume it’s the ONLY great sound. There are bound to be untapped delights in even the simplest of setups.

Try using a capo. A capo allows open chords to be played further up the neck than usual, which creates a rich and quite different sound. It also facilitates the integration of higher pitched open strings into lead or picked patterns, which, again, takes the output away from the norm and refreshes your style.

Employ a custom setup. A ‘custom setup’ is best suited to a spare guitar, if you have one, as it typically limits the instrument’s versatility or ease of use. The idea is to move away from the convention of low action, optimised pickup heights and such like, to create a different feel and orientate the guitar towards a different type of performance. The classic example of a ‘custom setup’ put to good use would be slide playing, where the action is raised up higher than would normally be tolerated, and it’s the slide rather than the frets which creates the notes. But raising the action in itself changes the tone and feel, even with conventional fretted playing. And you can create unusual imbalances by setting the pickups to drastically diferrent heights and then using them combined. With many guitars, if you're prepared to go 'under the hood' you can also reverse the hookup wires or the magnet for one of the pickups (only do this if you know what you're doing,  as the components are easily damaged). This throws combination selections out of phase and creates an unusual tone. As is, out of phase sounds can be thin, but you can compensate with EQ settings and/or by adjusting the pickup heights.

Use fewer strings. This is not as silly as it sounds. Some guitar-like instruments (like a ukulele) only have four strings, and that simplifies the structure of chords for a lighter aura. Particularly in combination with alternative tunings and use of a capo to drastically shorten the active area of the strings, this can make your guitar sound like a totally different instrument. You don’t have to have four strings either. Lots of guitarists have used five strings, and three strings have been used to great effect too. Don’t rule anything out, and next time you break a string, consider it an opportunity.

Right hand changes (or left hand, if you play left handed). A lot of guitarists get sucked into a routine of strumming or picking and don’t consider the changes they can make with their hand of attack. Dramatically changing the thickness of a plectrum, or losing the plectrum and using the fingers, or changing the hand position… All of these simple ideas and more can not only significantly change the sound of the guitar’s output, but also encourage different ways of playing.

Use your mouth. I’m not suggesting here that you start plucking strings with your teeth, a la Hendrix. What I’m suggesting is that instead of letting your fingers dictate what you’re going to play, you sing your ideas first. The influence of habit on guitar playing, especially with solos, is exceptionally high – and it’s habit that pushes us into a rut. Creating ideas in your head, without the guitar, and working on them vocally until they sound good, should sidestep the mechanical force of habit. Try to put the guitar completely out of mind until your idea is finished. Then pick up the guitar and translate your idea to the fretboard. Don’t be tempted to change anything so it feels more comfortable – that’s exactly what you’re trying to avoid. Stick with what came out of your mouth.