Guitar 101: “T” Is For ….

photo courtesy Resonance Records

We’ve all heard of the 3 “R”s and the ABCs , but have you heard of the five “T”s that every guitar player should know ? Well, we’re going to talk about each one.

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There is no excuse for playing out of tune. Even though I always recommend buying a good tuner, you should learn how to tune your guitar without the assistance of a tuner. But unless you have perfect pitch, you need a reference tone. You can get one from a pitch pipe, a tuner, smart phone, or a keyboard. You should practice tuning your guitar by ear until you can do it.  



It’s fairly common for singer-songwriters to have bad timing. Most people tend to “rush,” or get ahead of the beat. Many guitarists have never played with a metronome, drum machine, or a real drummer. Metronomes can be irritating, and it’s not nearly as much fun as playing with a drum machine, because you can hear the whole drum kit and you hear the beat divided in different ways. It’s much easier to keep time listening to whole pattern.

These days, most major recordings are done with a “click” or “click track.” If the drummer cannot play perfectly with a click track, he will not get any studio work. In the old days (here I go again) a musician had to tune without a tuner, and play in time. Nowadays, you can “quantize” everything, so it’s not as essential, technically.


This one is a bit hard to define, but I’ll try. When you’re playing with other musicians, and you’re playing a song,it’s a cooperative effort. It’s more about listeningthan it is about playing. What you play depends on what everybody else is playing. In general, the more people playing, the less each one plays. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule for every genre, but it usually holds true. It is hard to play with taste if you’re focused on technique. If you have no knowledge of a particular genre, you’re not going to play something appropriate, no matter how easy it is.

So it’s not a matter of standing out , it’s a matter of fitting in. Just because you can play something doesn’t means you shouldplay it. You don’t have to be “fluent” in every genre, but there are certain parameters you have to understand. Examples of playing without taste would be just playing too much, not letting the music breathe, stepping on the vocals, etc.


Again, tone is subjective, but you usually know a great guitar tone when you hear it. How hard you play, the type of pick you use (or your fingers), the type of strings you use, how far you play from the bridge all have an effect on your tone.

Acoustic players can get a super-bright tone by using metal fingerpicks. It’s worthwhile to experiment with all of these parameters. Wes Montgomery got his tone by playing with his thumb. A great tone for rock would be a lousy tone for jazz. If you like your tone, that’s fine. If you don’t, there are lots of ways to change it.

Sometimes a touring musician will have to use an unfamiliar amp. That can be a nightmare. Getting a really bad tone can make your playing suck, because you’re used to your guitar and amp responding a certain way, and when that doesn’t happen, it’s like speaking and hearing someone else’s voice come out of your mouth. If you’re touring and flying to a lot of dates and can’t use your own amp, it’s worthwhile to play your guitar through commonly available rental amps and write down all the best settings for that particular amp. For acoustic players, I recommend experimenting with small preamps until you find one you love, then buy it and take it everywhere.

If there’s a player out there whose tone you love, these days it’s not hard to find out exactlywhat kind of gear he uses. For electric players, when you switch from single coils to humbuckers or vice versa, all your settings are probably going to change, so know how to adjust for that.


Technique is sometimes touted as the most important “T.” Never put technique first. You should be able to play cleanly and fluidly if that’s appropriate for the music you like to play. For example, if you want to play bluegrass, you better be able to play clean and fast. In general, you want to avoid sounding sloppy, but sometimes sloppiness is what the music calls for. I don’t think Pat Martino could be Keith Richards, if you know what I mean. Too much emphasis is put on speed sometimes, but that’s just my opinion. Playing scales really fast is impressive, but scales aren’t music. It’s like reciting the alphabet really fast. Try to be musical first.


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