A few notes about technique

June 24th, 2015

Technique to me has always been more about skill than pure ability.

What is the difference between the two, you may ask.

Let’s take the example of playing arpeggios.

Many people think that to play fast arpeggios, they’ll have to have fast fingers. So they work on increasing the speed of their fingers.

In other words, they’re working on the ability of their fingers to move fast.

To me, however, fast fingers are not that important in playing fast arpeggios.

Much more important is grouping the notes of the arpeggio so that you play them in one motion rather than in many small motions.

This is skill, skill in knowing how to group the notes and how to time their releases so that they occur at a regular even rate.

Knowing the difference between skill and ability is crucial.

I hear of players who focus on ability, they’re under the impression that to play fast, they’ll have to move their fingers fast.

So they theorize, probably inspired by athletes who have to get out of the block in an explosive motion, that they have to work on explosive (sometimes called ballistic) motions in their fingers.

But this is really barking up the wrong tree.

In many ways, the situation is analogous to using brute force and using leverage.

Skill is leveraging your ability. If you depend purely on your physical prowess, you’re using brute force, or as the case is here, brute speed.

As we all know, brute force can only get you so far.

The same is true of other techniques like the tremolo and scales.

Each one of these techniques have specific skills (or tricks) associated with them.

And the key to mastering them is to learn these tricks and internalize them.

Tricks is a good word to describe these skills. But this is not trickery of course. It’s more like special knowledge to achieve what you want to achieve.

Another word might be cheats (as in cheat sheet). You know the routine; cheats enable you to move almost miraculously from one level to another. In the same way, skills enable you to produce technical effects almost miraculously, with almost no effort.

So where do you learn these skills?

Through practice. You practice and practice and over time, these skills will reveal themselves to you. That’s where I have derived most of my techniques.

You can learn them from teachers.

This is really one of the reasons we go to teachers so that they will show us all these shortcuts to techniques.

You can learn them from books, and I have learned my share of skills from different books and magazine articles too.

Where you learn your skills is immaterial.

The important thing is that once you learn them, you’ll have to practice them until they become second nature, until they occur automatically.

The more skills you learn, the more you will realize that playing the guitar is really very simple and easy

It’s all a question of knowing ‘how’ to do it.

A brief history of the AOV

December 20th, 2014

The original idea for the AOV came from my teaching.

As I tried to explain one technique after another to my students, it became apparent to me that the same basic principles are behind all these techniques.

For instance, the tremolo and scale techniques—two seemingly dissimilar techniques and yet, one can see the same basic principles at work in both of them, principles of lightness, economy, rhythm etc.

It led me to a realization—fundamentals are everything.

And for them to work, all of them must be in place. If you miss but one piece of the puzzle, the entire structure would collapse.

For example, I see some players chasing one fancy technique after another and failing to work on their rhythm. They may develop good finger facility, but because they lack rhythm, they have no control and would rush through their playing.

Or some would obsess over how to hold the hand, at what angle etc, and they would force their hands into unnatural positions and end up with tight and tense bodies that are unable to produce the speed and fluidity they’re looking for.

Yes, fundamentals are everything.

It’s something so obvious and yet strangely enough, I could not find anything written about them.

I found many books on technique, from sports to the martial arts, and many of them actually touch on one or more of these fundamentals, but none addressed them as a group, as a set of essential principles that one have to apply to achieve virtuosity.

So I decided that if no one would do it, that I would have to do it myself.

That was 2003.

Over the years, the book went through many evolutions, from pseudo philosophical discourses to rambling essays on techniques. But none of them was satisfactory, I felt that none of them reflected what I wanted in the book.

But what did I want in the book?

I had no clue myself.

Then one day, I had a dream. It was one of those early morning waking dreams when you’re halfway between sleep and wakefulness. You know you’re in a dream but somehow you’re unable to wake up.

I dreamed I was in a bookstore and I saw a book on the shelf titled, “The Art of Virtuosity.”

How strange, I thought to myself, that’s the book I’m trying to write.

Then part of me said, take it down, take a good look, and memorize what you see.

So I took the book down from the shelf and what I saw filled me with wonder and amazement. It was a simple book with only a few chapters but each chapter was filled with powerful words of wisdom and advice.

That’s the book you need to write, I told myself. That’s the book you need to write.

And then I woke up.

I decided to rewrite the book from scratch. Over the next two years, I wrote and rewrote the book several times, all the while trying to recall and re-imagine the book I saw in my dream.

In the process, I pared it down from 120 pages to 46 pages, then to 38 pages and in its current (and I think final) form, 37 pages.

In my studio, I have several boxes of notes and scribblings—about seven years worth (and they’re but a fraction of what I really wrote, most of my early drafts ended up in the wastebasket after I had typed them into word documents.)

Three boxes of scribblings and notes and in the end, 37 pages.

I just finished fine-tuning the chapter on rhythm again, and I think with each new revision, I’m finally getting nearer to that vision I saw in my dream.

Some of my friends asked me recently, “Aren’t you tired of writing the same book over and over?”

And I tell them, “How can you get tired of a journey that hasn’t ended yet?”

So how will I know when the book is finally done?

The same way that a good chef knows when the dish is done.


Latest version of the AOV — December 17, 2014:


The hot and cold approach to practicing

December 7th, 2014

My practicing has always been driven by what I call a hot and cold approach as opposed to the slow and steady approach.

The hot and cold approach is based on applying periodic bursts of energy and effort followed by periods of rests.

In other words, maximum effort for a period of time, then relaxing, then maximum effort again, and then relaxing again. And you repeat in cycles.

You might call it the hare approach.

You’ve probably heard the story about the hare and tortoise and how the hare loses the race, and the tortoise wins it.

Well, that’s just propaganda spread by the proponents of the slow and steady approach.

In real life, I find the opposite ending is often true, the tortoise is left in the dust and the hare wins the race.

There’re two reasons why the hot and cold approach works.

First, it’s only by exerting a huge amount of effort that you can achieve breakthroughs in technique.

When you practice, the first few hours is just warming up. It’s only after the fifth or sixth hour that your fingers really begin to loosen up. And after the seventh or eight hour, they begin to be charged with a special kind of energy, as if they’re on fire.

It’s at this time that breakthroughs in technique happen.

Now imagine if you practice and you stop after the third or fourth hour.

Imagine all the breakthroughs that were waiting to happen but didn’t happen because you stopped too early. I’ve made this point before but it’s a crucial part of the virtuoso mindset.

The second reason is that even during the cold period, when you’re not consciously working, your body is still working in the background, unconsciously.

You may not be playing the guitar but your fingers are still working on whatever problem you’re working on, without you being aware of it.

It gives rise to a strange phenomenon where after a period of intense practicing, and a rest period of maybe up to two months, and then you get back to your practice and you find that whatever technical problem you were working on is now suddenly resolved.

Before your hiatus, you couldn’t do it. And now after not practicing for one month, you find yourself suddenly able to do it.

How is this possible?

Our body sometimes works in ways that defy logic. I can’t explain how it works but I know it does. It’s happened to me more than once.

Of course you still have to get your fingers back into shape, but once you get them back, you’ll find that that they’ve actually moved beyond your former technique.

Slow and steady has never appealed to me at another level.

What a boring existence.

If I have had to live life that way, I’d go insane in a minute.

Life is not meant to be lived in that slow, plodding, methodical, half-hearted way.

No, life is to be lived at red-hot fever pitch. And when you need a break, you take it so you can recharge and be ready for the next hot phase

(The break is an essential part of the equation. Nobody can work at fever pitch all the time, you need the rest period or you’ll burn yourself out quickly.)

And the best part is, whatever you do has the hallmark of something that has gone through fire, something that is borne out of red-hot passion rather than cool and calculated determination.

An innovative new approach to evaluations in education

December 4th, 2014

In education industry circles, the current buzz is all about evaluations, mostly evaluating teachers. (Yes, they’ve got to prove that they’re earning their paychecks, these slackers.)

I propose a new innovative approach to evaluation—why not evaluate students as well?

Here’s my matrix for evaluating students.

Imagine two extremes of students, one of maximum receptivity to learning and the other of maximum resistance to learning.

A student of maximum receptivity is like a sponge.

He/she’s completely open to new ideas and to teaching. They’re like the proverbial empty cup.

I’ve had a few of these students. With these students, one hour is usually not enough and the whole hour is given to lively debates and questions and answers.

And whatever you teach them, the next week, it’s all done and it’s moving on to the next piece and the next subject.

Now a student of maximum resistance is a whole different matter.

They’re a little harder to reach.

They’re the proverbial full cup. Whatever you try to pour into them just spills out onto the floor.

You’ll spend a whole hour explaining a concept and the next week, it’s almost as if you’d never said a word about it.

You’ll spend a whole hour helping them through a piece of music and the next week, you’ll have to do the whole thing over again.

The rest of the students fall in between these extremes.

In the words of bureaucrats, evaluating students provides us with measurable and quantifiable data to evaluate their relative receptivity to learning.

Those who are in the category of maximum resistance to learning will be advised of their non-performance and given the appropriate administrative reprimand—either move to the category of maximum receptivity or you’ll be terminated.

Hopefully, this will provide them with the necessary incentives to get their act together.

Evaluating students of course, does not give us teachers an excuse for poor performance on our part (yes, there are slackers in every industry).

But at least, it does not put the entire burden of education on our shoulders.

In other words, it does not turn us into natural punching bags for politicians and administrative bureaucrats looking for a few scapegoats to blame for society’s failings.

Locking your notes onto the groove

November 28th, 2014

As a teacher, one of my concerns over the years has been rhythm.

I don’t mean keeping time—that’s the easy part.

My concern has been, how do you teach students how to lock in their playing to the groove so that it’s perfectly in time?

The other day, I had a sudden epiphany.

The answer is to let rhythm do your playing for you.

Don’t try to force your playing, don’t be too aggressive. Let go and let rhythm do the playing for you.

On the surface, this may sound like a simple concept but it’s not so easy to implement.

To be able to do this, you’ll first have to develop an impeccable sense of time, then you’ll have to develop good finger control, and when you’ve achieved mastery over these two areas, you’ll have to have the confidence to let go and let rhythm and your fingers do your playing for you.

You’re probably aware of the quick-finger syndrome of inexperienced players when they first attempt to do pull-offs.

In their anxiety to perform the technique, and perhaps through lack of finger control, they usually pull off too quickly, resulting in rushed slurred notes.

That’s an extreme example of what can happen when we become too aggressive in our playing.

But the problem is not confined to beginner players.

I’ve found that a similar problem exists even in advanced players, although to a lesser degree.

Instead of rushing through slurs, many players have small rhythmic inaccuracies in their playing either because they’re too anxious to perform the notes or because they lack rhythmic precision, or simply because they don’t know how to lock their notes onto the groove.

These inaccuracies are so subtle that sometimes not even the players are aware of it themselves.

So how do you lock your notes into the groove?

First, become deeply aware of rhythm, feel it in every part of your being. It has to become second nature, you don’t even have to think about it and yet it’s there, burned into your sub-consciousness.

Then, relinquish control and let rhythm take over.

Practice this first with slurs—hammer-ons and pull-offs. Villa Lobos’ Etude #3 is a good piece to practice this on.

As you play the slurs, imagine that your fingers are totally under the control of your rhythm. They’re no longer independent entities with a will of their own. Feel the eighth note subdivisions and let them play the slurs for you.

When you master rhythmic playing with slurs, do it with regular notes. Make sure you lock in your notes onto the groove so that the notes are perfectly aligned with the beat.

As an aside, this is not to suggest that you playing should be rhythmically strict and stiff. Your groove can be free and flexible. The important thing is that no matter how free your groove is, your notes are always locked onto it.

When you do this, it will seem as if your fingers are driven by some unseen energy, as if they’re self driven. And the amazing thing is they will be totally in time, locked onto the groove.

AOV update 2014

November 10th, 2014

Latest version of AOV: November 9, 2014.

The only change is the chapter on rhythm, which has been rewritten.

Please download it here.


To open the book, you’ll need a password which is your email address, the same one you use to download the book.

Pepe Romero’s tremolo masterclass

August 2nd, 2014

My good friend, Bob Wooldridge, just sent me this video link of Pepe Romero teaching a tremolo masterclass.

In Bob’s words:

“About three minutes in he describes making circles with his A finger. It’s crystal clear and a confirmation of the technique you have been discussing for a while.”

Here’s the video:



Nothing like having a great maestro like Pepe to show us how it’s done.

Many thanks, Bob, for the link.


Late Night Guitar

July 3rd, 2014

One of my favorite albums is Early Klugh’s “Late Night Guitar.”

I first heard the CD in a departmental store and immediately went to find out who the artist was. It took me a few years before I could find the cassette, and a few more years before the CD came out.

These days, of course, you don’t have to go to all that trouble.

Here’s part of the album, uploaded to youtube.

The first track is my favorite, “Smoke Gets in My Eyes.”

The best way to listen to this recording is to cast aside all biases and focus on Mr. Klugh’s phrasing and expression which is impeccable. He sings on the guitar like a great jazz singer.

Listen to his dynamics and how fluid they are. Listen to the highs and lows, especially to the high point at 1:19. It literally is a cry from the heart.

That’s one thing about popular players, they have to go straight for the heart, the soul. They can’t take cover under some fuzzy academic considerations to justify why they play the way they do (in that stiff pedantic way).

Bottom line for popular artists is, if they can’t touch your heart, they’re not going to sell any CDs.

And that should be our bottom line too.

Because if we’re not touching people’s hearts, it’s all an exercise in futility.