New Year, New Habits. 10 Tips and Tricks to Transform Your Playing in New 2024 - Brian Quinn

Posted: December 28, 2023
After six straight months on the road and traveling internationally, I can say that taking care of physical and emotional health are some of the most important things you can do for yourself.
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Photo cover by: Michelle Kott. 

This is Brian Quinn. I am currently the guitarist for the multi-platinum, Seattle, WA rock band, Candlebox. I am honored to be part of the Guitar Thrills team and even more excited to present you with my inaugural article.

I’m looking forward to sharing my insight and experience with all of you devoted readers and I hope that you find some usefulness in my articles to help make you a better player. 

The start of every new year brings about a sense of renewal, a chance to construct a new set of goals, and devise a plan to implement said changes. As with anything that requires self discipline, concentration, and unwavering enthusiasm, there are always going to be challenges, trials, and tribulations. 

Regardless of all the bumps in the road, I feel it is true that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to with a little forethought and a lot of “go get ‘em” attitude. Remember, you will only get out of something what you put into it. 

Here are some suggestions for new year habits for my fellow guitar players and songwriters:

Set Goals and Intentions for the Year:

Define specific, achievable goals for the year ahead. I try to make sure these are realistic but stretch me musically and as a professional player. Examples of this, for intermediate and master level players, could be setting a specific bpm goal on your metronome for three note per string runs, Pentatonic fives (a la Eric Johnson, Joe Bonamassa), sweep arpeggios staring on different strings, six over four runs, etc. 

For a beginner learner, try committing to memory every note on every string over the entire fretboard. By the way, for all you just starting out, that last suggestion is a BIGGIE.

This year, a few of my goals are leaning a little more into the songwriting realm of things. I am planning to not just work on writing songs, but work on thought-provoking melodies when writing “guitarmonies” (guitar harmonies) and vocal melodies. The parts that convey the “song within a song.”

Also, I’m always pushing myself to up my metronome accuracy with three note per string runs. Although there’s not much practical use for something like that in the songs I write for certain artists, it keeps my brain sharp and my fingers limber. Not to mention, your basic sense of rhythm is getting a great workout as well.

Establish a Consistent Practice Schedule:

I can’t stress this enough – consistency is the key to improvement. Even though I play professionally and tour constantly, I still carve out time each day to practice.  Not just on show days, but every single day, I will run the entire set for the upcoming night’s show.

I try to learn something new every day. Just like you, I scour YouTube and the rest of the internet to find players I know, and more often players that I don’t, for a different take on the same theme. Keep your eyes and mind open to learning from other players. They may not be as good as you, or they may be WAY better. It doesn’t matter. This journey is yours. Take what you find and mold into something all your own. I spent my early career surrounding myself with outstanding players…I still do. It will only make you better in the long run.

Maintain Physical and Emotional Health:

After six straight months on the road and traveling internationally, I can say that taking care of physical and emotional health are some of the most important things you can do for yourself. Simple things like maintaining good posture while playing, stretching regularly, and being mindful of any signs of strain or discomfort are essential. If you’re practicing and your hand or wrist is really starting to hurt. Take a breath, shake it out, and re-start…SLOW. You’re no good to yourself injured.

Also, it can be easy to fall into bad eating and/or sleeping habits when on the road. This only attributes to stress on the body and leads to poor performance and mental fatigue. I always strive to eat healthy and get as much rest as possible. If you are fortunate to be on a bus or van, stock up on healthy snacks and water.

As you know, being a musician can take its toll on all of us emotionally. Long periods of time away from family and friends, long hours, tough crowds, rejection… the list goes on. Try to maintain a healthy mindset by speaking with others, journaling, meditating, or talking to a professional if needed. Remember, we are all in this together!

Focus on Technique:

While you’re focusing on health, make sure to also concentrate on specific aspects of your technique, such as posture, dexterity, speed, and accuracy. For the master players out there, you know what I’m going to say. The metronome, and it’s never ending challenging, is best for this. For the beginners, resting your elbow on your knee when learning new chords? Bad technique. Fretting your wrist up in the air playing a first position G chord or D chord? Bad technique. Remember, wrist down, play on your fingertips, not pads. I know it hurts, but remember, every single one of us has gone through it. You’re not alone. Use exercises and drills to target areas that need improvement. YouTube videos are great for this, and I am happy to upload some content to exemplify it.

Explore Different Genres:

Use this year to venture into new genres and sometimes genres within genres. This not only broadens your musical horizons but also enhances your skills and techniques. I love and listen to everything from jazz crooner Johnny Hartman to grind core stalwarts Cannibal Corpse. Back in my college days, I was a classical guitar major, and was making money playing in a classic rock cover band to pay for touring with my hardcore band Burial Ground. There’s no book on it and even fewer rules.

Continually Learn a New Song:

Challenge yourself by learning a new song regularly. This can expose you to different styles and techniques, keeping your playing fresh and exciting. This goes hand-in-hand with being a non-discriminatory listener. I can’t stress to the songwriters out there how important this actually is. Lots of people out there jaw about how lame cover bands are, that they don’t write their own stuff, etc. I’m thankful for having the fill in experiences with loads of bands, and my solo acoustic gigs. Here’s the two main reasons: 1.) Stage time. The hardest audience you will ever play in front of is in a bar or small club. Period. You’re under a microscope, and certainly in my case, I gig alone 90% of the time I’m not touring with the band. I have a far easier time playing in front of 130,000 people in a foreign country than I do at my local bar.

2.) You have unmitigated access to a journey into a master songwriter’s head. It’s a golden opportunity to incorporate something they do into one of your own songs. Every hit song came from someone else’s hit song.

Ear Training:

Don’t forget about ear training. Work on recognizing and playing back melodies, chords, and solos by ear. This skill will greatly benefit your ability to play by ear and improvise. You’ll be astonished at how fast you will be able to pick out chord changes and songwriting arrangement ideas by just hearing a song on the radio.

Record Yourself:

Regularly record your playing and solo along to your chord changes. This is one of my main practice routines. I’ll throw something down on Pro Tools or sometimes just on my phone voice memos and solo over it. I recently got a Positive Grid SPARK Go. The built in amps and access to endless backing tracks in all different keys has been a game changer for me. Obviously, there’s a lot on YouTube as well.  This is a great way to get out of the dreaded “playing rut.” Doing this will allow you to track your progress, identify areas for improvement, and gain a better understanding of your playing style.

Experiment with Gear:

This tip is probably my favorite! After all, who doesn’t love trying out new pedals, amps, or different guitar setups. Experimenting with gear can inspire creativity and help you discover new tones and textures. Picking up a new guitar, or a different model than you normally play, will make you approach the instrument from a different angle, and that makes the creative side of your brain super happy.

Educational Resources:

Lastly, remember we never stop learning. Invest time in educational materials such as online courses, instructional books, tablature books, or tutorials. Learning new concepts and techniques can provide fresh ideas and perspectives. I am constantly on the lookout for resources like this. I’m a huge fan of Rick Graham and his online courses and always look forward to the content that Ben Eller puts out on YouTube and his accompanying Patreon.  

As we venture into the new year, remember, the key to success is creating – and sticking with – good habits. These not only help us improve professionally but also personally as they help challenge, inspire, excite, and invigorate us. After all, as the great B.B. King once said, “The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.”

Happy New Year! Hope you have a healthy, safe, and successful year. Looking forward to sharing more insights with you this year.

For more information and/or to ask questions, visit ~Brian Quinn

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