How to Play with Feeling

How do I get better at guitar?

How to play with feeling

Playing guitar with feeling doesn’t come from analysis

Drop the analytical decision making and allow your many hours of practice and repetition to take control.  To play expressively, allow your emotions to choose notes, rhythm, and playing techniques.  Become the passenger instead of the driver.  To play with feeling is “thoughtless.”

This morning I was trying to decide on a topic for this week’s newsletter. Nothing came to mind until I received an email message about my performance playing an exercise in my course.  Here’s the message:

I was watching your picking hand very close to see when you are using a down or up stroke because of my focus on alternate picking and have noticed:

11: 25 The first two open notes (D and A) are down down strokes.
11:31 The same notes but then down up strokes
11:42 again down down
12:08 Open A and B note also down down.

And there are some other moments when the same notes are played down down and sometimes down up.  Please understand, I don’t want to be the “smart ass” 🙂 and I enjoy your lessons, but can you explain to me why you sometimes use down down and on other moments down/up? Because in an earlier lesson you mentioned that we should only use alternate picking.

My reply

First, this is an awesome observation.  I need more questions like this!  About alternate picking, I might have been referring to a particular exercise or playing style.  For example, shred depends on the repetitive up / down style of this technique.  All picking styles have value and contribute to playing with feeling.  Any single style when used repetitively becomes boring.

When I’m playing the exercises in my lessons or playing any phrase, I try to perform without thought.  When I use only down strokes my feeling is staccato with pick attack, choppy sounding.  Alternate picking is less staccato (choppy).  My feelings dictate the technique.  It’s one reason that I seldom designate up or down pick strokes in the tab.  My picking technique isn’t consistent.  It reflects how I feel and what I want to hear at the moment.

I seldom play shred style guitar but when I do, consistency is extremely important.  Feeling becomes secondary to perfect execution.  When I’m finding it difficult to play a section at a fast tempo, I’ll analyze pick movement and through repetition learn to do it the same way every time.  Slow, emotional playing is the opposite.  I don’t have any problem executing so I’m free to play in a way that sounds expressive.

Several years ago, Michael Angelo Batio and I were reviewing video of him playing expressively at a slow tempo.  Before that time, Michael had some very strict rules for playing technique.  Both of us agreed right then, that several of his rules were “off the table” when he plays slow with feeling.  A variety of pick techniques are necessary for emotional expression.  Perfect technique for shred isn’t perfect for da’ blues.

I’m sure that you’ve heard the story about the goose that laid the golden egg.  Here’s a refresher.

There was once a Countryman who possessed the most wonderful Goose you can imagine, for every day when he visited the nest, the Goose had laid a beautiful, glittering, golden egg. The Countryman took the eggs to market and soon began to get rich. But it was not long before he grew impatient with the Goose because she gave him only a single golden egg a day. He was not getting rich fast enough. Then one day, after he had finished counting his money, the idea came to him that he could get all the golden eggs at once by killing the Goose and cutting it open. But when the deed was done, not a single golden egg did he find, and his precious Goose was dead.

The typical interpretation of this fable is, it’s about greed.  My take is different- Analysis to find the source of magic can destroy the magic. The magic of playing guitar is defined by simple, ordinary, fundamental techniques.  It can’t be explained how these techniques create a magical sound.  The very act of trying to explain why something sounds emotional is guaranteed to break the spell.

Analysis to find the source of magic can destroy the magic.

An overview of how to play with feeling

  1. All guitar techniques can be used to express emotions.
  2. Avoid repetition of techniques to keep a lead from sounding boring.
  3. Beware of “paralysis by analysis.”
  4. Play without conscious awareness of note choice and technique.
  5. Efficient picking technique doesn’t equal emotional playing.


Our instructors stress repetition of scales, and phrases to embed these melodies in our subconscious.  This is important and allows you to “let go” while performing.  Still, repetition of technique in a performance is similar to speaking in a monotone.  A sustained note with a nice rhythmic vibrato can say more than 1000 triplets at 200 beats per minute.  Even so, there is a time and place for all techniques.  A series of shred triplets at a fast tempo can convey fire and fury.

Shred guitar expression is speed, not rhythm, or diversity

Much of shred guitar lacks diversity.  This sacrifice of diversity is necessary for blazing speed.  So shred is often a combination of intricate repetitive patterns with the same note values.  Rhythmic diversity, mixing note values in a phrase is expressive but can’t be performed at extreme tempos.  Entire shred passages usually include the same note values.  Speed can be quite expressive but if that’s all you’ve got it’s one dimensional.

Playing perfectly in time with a metronome lacks feeling

One method for expressing emotions is to be slightly behind or ahead of the beat.  Behind the beat creates a laid-back feel.  Ahead of the beat, called pushing the beat, conveys excitement.  Playing exactly on the beat with a metronome conveys the emotion of a ticking clock.  Boring.

Each style of pick attack creates a unique mood.

Sweep picking conveys the emotion of excitement.  Alternate picking is a different feeling and hammer-pulls are smooth instead of staccato.

Each guitar technique should be expressive

Pick attack, vibrato, and shred are the tip of the iceberg.  Every guitar technique from slide to whammy bar can convey feeling and emotions when used properly.

One more time from the top with feeling

My best performances are when I let go of thought and the decision-making process.  In other words, I don’t think, “This is a dreamy sequence of notes, so I’ll play legato.”  I just focus on the feeling and play.  My subconscious makes those decisions for me.

More on playing with feeling: Playing with Feeling – Part 2

The author of this article, Doug Marks is the creator of The Complete Rock Guitar Course