Economy Of Motion Lesson For Guitar Players

by Mike Philippov

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You’ve heard that it’s important to play guitar without wasted motion, but few people go into detail about what this REALLY means or show you the difference between efficient and inefficient technique on guitar. As a result, most guitarists either completely neglect focusing on this element of their playing (and suffer from sloppy and inefficient guitar technique), or do so incorrectly - creating bad habits that will have to be undone later.

Here are the truths about economy of motion for guitar that you must understand:

1. Your picking and fretting hands each require DIFFERENT motions for everything you play (sometimes one hand needs to move more than the other). You must identify the appropriate amount of motion needed for each hand (for a specific item you are practicing) to develop optimal technique (more on this below).

2. There is a difference between using the smallest motions possible and using optimal motions when it comes to playing guitar. Contrary to popular belief, you do NOT need to play guitar with the least amount of motion (or tension) possible. Doing so will only make your playing sound weak and make it hard to keep your hands in perfect sync at higher tempos. Depending on what you are playing, sometimes very big/exaggerated motions are needed to express yourself fully.

Although the above sounds very obvious (after you read about it just now), guitarists often take the economy of motion idea way too far and try to use the smallest motions possible in each hand while practicing, leading to the problems above.

3. There is a huge difference between economy of motion and tension control. Many guitarists confuse the two concepts (treating them as one and the same), when in reality they are very different aspects of your technique. You can have optimized motions in both hands while playing with too much tension, or you can have optimal tension with inefficient motions. You can also have inefficiency in both elements of your technique at once. Of course, the ultimate goal is to have optimized levels of tension in each hand AND very efficient motions, but the point is that you need to pay attention to each area of technique separately while practicing.

To see an example of what it means to achieve correct economy of motion without sacrificing power and accuracy (using the picking hand as an example), watch the video below:

Notice the following about the video above (in addition to the things I explicitly point out there):

1. My pick sticks quite far into the strings (vs. just grazing the strings with the very tip, like many guitarists try to do). This makes it much easier to have stronger articulation without using excessive amounts of effort to hit the string for each note. Doing this helps to achieve the proper balance between producing loud and articulate notes with the least amount of motion you can get away with.

2. I use quite a lot of power in general to play each note (even at faster speeds) without crippling the arm with too much tension. This is partly made possible due to the point above, and partly due to simply not being afraid to hit the strings hard. As long as the follow through after each note is done in an efficient manner (as you see above) and you relax your arm after each note, you will have no problems with hitting the strings loudly AND playing fast at the same time.

3. I use directional picking - which, as I mention in the video, allows for maximum efficiency in your picking technique, enabling you to play notes with lots of power using the least amount of effort.

How To Apply All Of The Above Into Your Guitar Practicing:

Step 1: Begin analyzing the technique in each hand separately, making sure that you develop totally independent control of each arm when playing.

Step 2: Think logically and use basic rules of physics to your advantage to play the notes with as much power as possible while using the least amount of motion and effort. Don’t put the cart before the horse, thinking that merely playing guitar with smallest motions possible is the goal of good guitar technique - it’s NOT. Instead, the goal is to make your guitar playing sound the way you want, while using the most efficient technique to achieve that goal. There is a huge difference between the above 2 mindsets.

Step 3: Be patient as you develop (or refine) this skill in your guitar technique. Mastery of economy of motion is not something that you will develop overnight or even in a few weeks. However, you absolutely WILL master this area of playing if you persevere and follow the principles described in this article.

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