In a Slump? Here Are 3 Guitarists to Inspire Creativity

So I’m experiencing a bit of a guitar-playing slump. And it isn’t my first rodeo.

But in times like these, getting out of a guitar-playing slump can simply be solved by accessing someone who inspires your creativity.

Hence, I am sharing guitarists that I’ve observed who can really get my creative juices going.

If I close my eyes and listen to their playing, and forget their faces, I can get other juices flowing, too, like:

Creative juice…wait, I said that already.

  • eye juice
  • inspiration juice
  • motivation juice
  • orange juice
  • love juice
  • and others!

On a more serious note, these guitarists can really get you to think and create sounds that you otherwise didn’t think you could. Seriously.

They either create such a unique style of play that is still relatable to musicians world wide, or embody what it means to build nuance in your guitar play.

So with that said, check these guitarists out if you need one or more of the aforementioned juices — maybe not orange juice — flowing!

Prepare yourself for artsy-fartsy language.

You have been warned.

Ted Greene

Years ago, I had discovered Ted Greene through his book called “Chord Chemistry”. I decided recently to listen to his longer 90’s “lectures” (more like a master musician’s demonstration) on YouTube, and man, I was blown away.

This old dog Ted knows a lot of tricks.

It was thanks to Ted Greene that I now understand that you don’t always need to strictly follow a tonic, or scale, or key.

In his words, you can hide or sneak in notes within chords that “give it color”. That simply means uniqueness in sound.

Rather than play an A minor chord, and strictly following the A minor key, you can play a million different variations of raised 6ths, diminished 5ths, chromatic runs leading to resolution on a major chord, etc.

He has really helped me unlock the neck on the guitar. You see, many people advocate learning scales and modes, and that’s great. When learning alone, we sometimes advocate remaining within that scale.

And though that focus is good, we don’t realize just how pretty chords can sound with dissonant notes.

Here are some things you can try to add some fun and sneaky dissonance in your chords and overall play.

It’s music theory time!

  • in a 4th interval chord sequence (like open A to open D chords), add in a major 7th half a beat before hitting the next chord. It would look like this: A — Daddmaj7 — D
  • when hitting another chord, sneak in a half step pitch right before hitting the chord. It would look like: G# note — A chord
  • in between a chord sequence, play a completely dissonant chord before proceeding to resolve it with a tonic chord. For example, in the key of C major, the chord sequence would look like this (to music theory buffs, it would look like an accidental): Am — Cb — C(major chords)
  • while playing jazz chords, within the sequence, hide a dissonant note in the low E and A strings. So if I’m playing an A dominant 7th (or A7) barred chord, hit the Eb on the A string instead of an E (perfect 5th).

And once you try things like this, and test it within a chord sequence, you’ll notice that you don’t have to follow the tonic at all times.

Playing like Ted Greene helped me develop a sense of adding fun dissonance, on top of my already bluesy play, and resolving that dissonance with a tonic note or chord.

The more you play a scale and purposefully add in dissonance, the more comfortable you get with it.

Then you’ll learn how to truly be creative with chords and scales.

Steve Vai

If you’re a guitar player, chances are you might’ve heard of this guy.

My favorite version of Steve Vai was his character in the movie “Crossroads”, where he has a legendary guitar duel with Daniel-san, the Karate Kid (aka. Ralph Macchio). When Daniel-san started playing Paganini’s 5th Caprice and schooled Steve Vai, that was actually Steve Vai’s playing that was written and recorded.

If there is any creative thing you can take from Steve, it is his absolute monster skill in phrasing. In the guitar world, phrasing just means “how you present your sounds to the audience”.

For example, it might not be your cup of tea, but try listening to “For the Love of God”. Steve Vai, in his interviews, discusses his thought process of writing this song. He primarily does two notable, creative things:

  • He uses his “inner voice”: he sat in silence and imagined what notes would sound cool. When players do that, and replicate the sounds in their heads onto a guitar, it often becomes harder to play than the player thought. That’s what this song is to Steve Vai.
  • He plays the same licks and riffs, all with different phrasing: if you listen carefully to his guitar in the first minute of the song, he changes his vibrato technique from using the whammy bar to bending to extreme vibrato.

Vai is the epitome of presenting the same notes in fresh, new ways.

Try and walk through that thought process when playing guitar. Thanks to him, I realized we don’t even need to add vibrato to just one string; we can add vibrato to 2 strings or more.

I’ve even started to add vibrato to chords!

So try a few creative things:

  • instead of bending a note, trying sliding and adding light vibrato
  • instead of strumming a chord, try sweep picking, or if finger picking, pick each string in sequence instead of strumming
  • to soften the sound, try turning down the gain and picking the string closer to the fretting hand; the vibration should be picked up like a harp would sound
  • try the pinch harmonic on different distances away from the bridge; you’ll find that the harmonic you get changes in different positions
  • Note on pinch harmonics: Joe Satriani explains in his interviews that, picking toward the neck, you get a root pitch, minor 3rd, 5th, root again I believe, and 7th

And that’s just to give you an idea of what’s possible.

Here’s a cool Steve Vai inspired exercise: Try messing with a note, and move it a whole step (2 frets) up, then back down. How many ways can you phrase that sequence differently? You can bend, whammy bar, slide, etc.

Presentation of notes and pitches is Steve Vai’s greatest asset.

T** H***** (see below)

Thanks to my Steve Vai binge, I was recommended a video of a song featuring Vai called “Ego Death” (fans of this song know where I’m going with this).

It started with this person who played between full-fretted notes and harmonics, threw in slapped strings, finger picked most sequences, and switched constantly between positions across the guitar neck.

I was like: “who is this chick?”

That, my friends, was no chick. In fact, it’s a pretty handsome dude in Korean standards (I thought he was Korean).

That was Tim Henson, one of the guitarists of the band Polyphia. And man, he’s a really good player.

Admittedly, the music isn’t my style. To me, it sounds like it belongs in a Gatorade sports drink or Hyundai EV commercial. But, hey, personal tastes (or lack thereof) aside, this dude is very precise and creative. I definitely learned a lot watching him play.

[Edit: this band is growing on me. Still not exactly my taste, but dang they’re good. Their song “Playing God” is full of interesting transitions and mode changes. The YouTube comments for “Ego Death” are hilarious! One person said “I’m glad they’re collaborating with fresh new talent like this Steve Vai guy”. That’s how good Polyphia is.]

Here are some key takeaways listening to Tim Henson from Polyphia:

  • Natural harmonics: mess with these. He sprinkles them between his fretted notes and tapping sequences. In standard tuning, I find natural harmonics are easy to play for E and B minor keys (among others).
  • Octaves, octaves, octaves: across the neck, you can play open E and A strings, and rise all the way up to a D6 octave on a 22 fret guitar (E6 if you bend). Some really creative work can be done in playing a sequence on a lower octave, and completing the sequence on a higher octave, which is what Henson does quite a bit. In fact, he plays the same note often, just on different octaves.
  • Pitch > scales: scale runs? What’s that? What I found Henson is really proficient at is playing pitches that work with the music. But the result is it sounds like he plays cool pitches all over the place. If you write music, I think that you could easily learn a thing or two from this dude.
  • Phrasing is second nature: beyond playing cool pitches, he’ll throw in a natural harmonic, follow with a lick, and a short tapping sequence. All within the same passage. So building on the Steve Vai section, putting it all together at higher speeds would sound like Tim Henson.
  • Visualize the fret board: imagine being able to play any note anywhere on the fret board. Watching Henson’s hands made me realize how important it is, long term, to study pitches. If you know where notes are, and practice moving across the fret board at speed, you can really develop your play beyond limitation.

If you have a key in mind, learn these three things for each note you play: what scale degree it is (root, 2nd, 3rd, minor 3rd, etc.), position (fret and string), and note (A, A#, B, C, etc).

For what it’s worth, though not my style, I admire artists like Henson.

When watching guitarists like these, don’t be intimidated. Try to mimic the things you like. And the deeper you understand music, the more you can pick up from their play.

So try listening to guitarists you otherwise would not listen to at a party. They may have a thing or two to teach you.

With that said, thanks for reading!

Follow me here on Medium if you want to see more content like this. Cheers!

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Gil the Guitar Guy

Guitarist, TEFL certified English teacher, writer, freelancer, and a dude with experience in many careers.