It's all about the song
Chops vs technique
When you think about “technique” or technical playing, you probably think of what musicians call “chops”. It’s a general term but it’s almost always used to refer to difficult or physically challenging music. Using your chops means playing fast, intricate parts, beyond the reach of players that don’t work to develop that ability.
This isn’t inaccurate, but it’s unhelpful to the average guitar student or even the average guitarist. There’s no question that developing good technique is important. If you develop your technique properly, speed comes as a natural result. But a focus on the “chops” aspect of technique can be a misleading distraction from finer points that are essential to really playing well.
Let’s define playing “well” as the ability to play deliberately with confidence.
That means you have enough fine control to execute what you need to consistently without mistakes. It also means that your playing isn’t automatic. You need to know the music with your mind and not just your fingers. The more subtle aspects of technique are often applied more intuitively than consciously, but a good player can choose to zero in on one of those aspects just by paying attention to it.
When you first learn how to play, it’s easy to downplay some of the technical aspects as you simply try to memorize what to do. But since any action on an instrument calls for good technique, paying attention to mechanics early on is helpful and powerful. Ultimately, it will make it easier to get your hands to do what you want them to.
Good technique isn’t difficult, per se, in fact it’s the most natural approach. It takes time to be able to apply good technique on command in the moment, but that’s a separate point. Relaxed, mechanically sound movement are the most fluid and natural, and easiest to control deliberately when you take the time to build the coordination.
A focus on flashy playing and “chops” makes it tempting to rush ahead and play things faster but less controlled.
Odds are, you can move your hands faster than you can fully control the movement. So it’s possible to be able to hit most of the notes quickly, but without enough fine coordination to make sure you can hit them all. Because of this, the lure of speed becomes a distraction for many people.
That’s not to say that the pursuit of accurate speed and obvious “chops” isn’t a worthwhile goal. First of all, it’s not necessarily gratuitous: you ultimately want to have more ability on the instrument than your music demands most of the time. So the more demanding the music is to play, the higher your bar needs to be in order to keep a solid comfort zone for performing. Consistency breeds confidence, so you want to be able to play the part well every time. That’s challenging when the part is at the edge of your ability. So there’s a strong imperative to be able to play more difficult parts than you generally have to. And even so, there’s really nothing wrong with developing virtuosity for its own sake. It’s nice to have power under the hood even on an easy Sunday drive.
Why does this matter to the player with modest musical needs and goals?
The details of expression that make a good player great are not obvious, and sometimes practically invisible. You might not even be able to articulate what was different if they were missing, other than that the music is somehow less dynamic and compelling. But that’s exactly the point: the subtleties that really make music speak are also technical. They require greater attention to detail and greater fine control. We develop this kind of ability the same way we acquire speed and fluidity, through deliberate technical practice.
The player with more modest goals might find it easy to dismiss the importance of technical practice once a basic comfort zone develops. If you can basically to what you need to do, what’s the point of putting in more effort? But that additional effort makes your playing more accurate, more controlled, and more confident. Finer control allows for greater subtlety of things like articulation and phrasing: not just what notes you play but the way they sound.
Think of an actor’s ability to change the impact of a line by changing the way they say the words. You have the same ability as a musician, and giving yourself more expressive power is a worthwhile goal no matter what kind of music you play. More expressive power means better ability to communicate and connect, which should be every player’s ultimate mission.
So if your music doesn’t require speed and flash, don’t fall into the trap of thinking “chops” aren’t important to you.
If it does, don’t let the pursuit of speed distract you from developing real accuracy. ALL technical practice builds your control, consistency, and confidence. And any virtuoso will tell you that even highly advanced technique operates in the service of the music, enhancing your ability to speak to your audience.
by David Isaacs