Guitar Playing Styles to Explore and Master
Committed guitarists know the feeling: You’re developing your technique, you’re internalizing music theory, and you’re gaining confidence as you explore the fretboard. This fundamental set of skills that every guitarist is constantly working to hone—the proficiency, as Berklee’s Guitar Department calls it—is the foundation for your playing in every style. But now you want to gain an understanding of what makes one style of playing distinct from another, so that you can begin to build your repertoire and develop your own distinct voice on the instrument.
This guide will help you understand the different musical approaches a serious guitarist can choose to explore and master at Berklee.
Maybe you've always had a love for the blues, or you've been inspired by lightning-fast metal shredding. Perhaps it's the grooves of funk and R&B that speak to you, or the flow of jazz improvisation, or the intricacies of a classical composition. Maybe you want to explore a new style, or you dream of mixing styles together to create your own approach.
Whatever your direction, this guide will help you understand the different musical approaches a serious guitarist can choose to explore and master at Berklee, home of the largest and most stylistically diverse guitar program in the world. We'll also share wisdom from some of the 52 players on faculty here, each of whom has crafted a unique, versatile personal sound drawing from the traditions below and is dedicated to passing those skills on to their students.
Every guitar style is valued equally here, and of course, new styles are born whenever innovative players decide to bring unfamiliar sounds together. So ultimately, the choice is yours: What kind of guitarist do you want to be?
Take a tour of the guitar styles taught and practiced by Berklee faculty in this YouTube playlist:
Blues guitar is the root of so many styles that flourished over the past century. Rock, jazz, funk, soul, metal, pop, bluegrass, country, and many forms of contemporary guitar playing all draw from blues influences, and the history of blues as its own genre is richly varied. Students of blues guitar at Berklee study the whole range of this history, from the pre-World War II days of ragtime, delta blues, and boogie-woogie, through Chicago and Texas styles, rockabilly, country swing, hard rock, and the style's current innovations.
"I felt an immediate connection with the blues music I was initially exposed to," says Dan Bowden, professor of guitar. "I felt the performers I listened to understood my experience in an exciting and appealing way that left me feeling good and wanting more. As a young guitarist I heard elements of blues guitar in much of the music that appealed to me and that was being played on the radio, so I was well-primed for when 'authentic' blues guitarists came to my attention."
If you're committed to blues guitar, there are a handful of guiding principles all students need to learn: "the development of repertoire, vocabulary for soloing, a musical touch, phrasing, tone, pacing, and groove are all inherent to blues guitar studies at Berklee," says Bowden. There are also a number of specific techniques that blues guitarists are constantly working to perfect, including slide guitar, fingerstyle playing, string bending, double stops, dyads, rhythmic phrasing, and rhythm guitar grooves.
The Next Steps
One of the best ways to dive deeper into any style of music is to join a group of other players dedicated to the same repertoire. At Berklee, blues guitar students can join performance groups dedicated to the music of greats including Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, B. B. King, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and more.
"The guitar has been defined as a small orchestra," explains Berta Rojas, associate professor of guitar. Holding such sonic potential in their hands, it's no wonder that many guitarists find themselves drawn into the world of classical guitar, with all its intricacies and its rich lineage. The classical guitarist uses the little orchestra at their fingertips to interpret and express musical ideas—old and new—in fresh and exciting ways.
"I feel attracted to the complex writing of classical pieces; they open up to you in layers that never seem to end: always refreshing, always challenging," says Rojas. "Classical is a style in which the majority of the pieces, at least those written before the more experimental techniques from newer music, were thoroughly composed. Every note has been thought of. We have the job of giving life to those masterpieces, finding new meanings, new avenues in the search for our own version of them."
All classical players have to be heavily invested in developing their tone and the overall sound of their playing, and to their right-hand and left-hand techniques. "There are countless techniques," says Rojas. "Scales, arpeggios, pizzicati, tremolos, colors that go from dark and obscure sounds you can produce near the sound-hole to the clarity obtained when playing near the bridge, tambora effects when you use the guitar as a percussive instrument... There is so much to explore!"
The Next Steps
At Berklee, classical guitar students explore traditional repertoire across all periods—renaissance, baroque, classical, and romantic, for example—and delve into regional styles such as Spanish and Latin American. They can also go deeper into modern compositions and new music, working with living composers; and they can get comfortable composing their own work and exploring improvisation and writing techniques from the avant-garde. Once you've developed your classical technique, you can also use these skills to branch out into other approaches such as fingerstyle, Latin music, and jazz.
Guitar Department Chair Kim Perlak discusses her approach to classical guitar, as well as her modern improvisation work with the Perlak/Tronzo Duo, on this episode of Sounds of Berklee:
It's impossible to adequately describe the sound of jazz music. The style encompasses so many vantage points, and is guided by a spirit of exploration, improvisation, and discovery. Jazz guitar students at Berklee immerse themselves in the full range of the style's distinctive traditions, which include swing, bebop, menouche, Latin, contemporary, and neo-soul; and they learn from faculty mentors who are masters in each of these approaches.
"Jazz in its essence is a genre-defying genre. It's more a way of life and expression of freedom than a 'style' of music per se," says David Gilmore, associate professor of guitar. And that freedom is especially felt in the guitar's role in a jazz ensemble: "What I love in particular about the role of guitar in jazz is that it is the second most common chordal instrument used, after piano of course. We have an important role to play in the shaping of the rhythm section sound and feel, and the ability to leap out and support the melody and improvise."
"One of the most important techniques to mastering jazz guitar is in the area of good sound production—being able to make your notes sound strong and swinging," explains Gilmore. "Many factors go into this, like studying a variety of picking techniques, working on timing between your fretting and picking hands, and the efficiency of the pathways you choose on the fretboard as you execute certain phrases, melodies, et cetera. We often spend so much time working on just being able to play a musical piece without paying much attention to whether it actually sounds or feels good."
Students here also take labs that explore other jazz techniques including chord voicing, modern approaches to harmony, chord soloing, solo performance, polyrhythm and polymetrics, linear development, and spontaneous composition.
The Next Steps
Jazz guitarists are on a constant journey to discover and develop their own voice and style by immersing themselves in traditions—old and new—of improvisation, tone, groove, and technique. Berklee's origins are rooted in jazz, and its history is woven into the history of jazz music. Jazz guitar students here have access to the whole of this history through generations of faculty wisdom, through small groups dedicated to of specific artists—Django Reinhardt, Freddie Green, Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, John Scofield '73, and more—and through ensembles that delve into the standards, as well as Brazilian, Latin, and contemporary jazz.
Much like jazz, it's tough to pin down one set of sonic qualities that make up "rock music." Rock guitar encompasses much of modern popular music, and its qualities are constantly combining with other styles and sounds. Rock guitar students at Berklee trace this lineage from early rock and roll through rockabilly, country swing, hard rock, metal, progressive rock, jam band, and the multitude of subgenres that continue to emerge.
For Jon Finn, professor of guitar, much of rock guitar comes down to the magic of tone. He describes hearing the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" on the radio for the first time as the moment that sealed his love of rock music: "That guitar tone felt like the earth opened up at the time (even if it sounds a bit cheesy by today's standards)."
For rock guitarists, chasing that perfect tone—beginning with technique, and further sculpting their sound through various pedals, amps, instruments—is part of the art. "You'll spend a lot of time messing with ways to get something to sound a certain way," Finn says. However, he also stresses that mastery of the instrument, work ethic, and good time management are critical. "The whole idea of 'rock guitarist who doesn't practice and is just magically able to play whatever they feel' is a myth." So Berklee rock guitar students work to refine techniques including tapping, hybrid picking, Travis picking, hammer-ons and pull-offs, and they explore various approaches to rhythm guitar, improvisation, transcription, and composition.
The Next Steps
Taking the time to learn the works of the greats can help a rock guitarist gain an understanding of the sonic and compositional approaches that transform good ideas into classic songs. That's why rock guitar students at Berklee study artists ranging from the Beatles, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and the Allman Brothers to Joni Mitchell, Jeff Beck, Steve Vai, Tosin Abasi, and System of a Down.
Funk and R&B Guitar
Rooted in catchy hooks, with harmony grounded in jazz, gospel, and blues, funk and R&B are "the people's music," explains Thaddeus Hogarth, professor of guitar. "Everyone knows the music—the Isley Brothers, Motown, EWF [Earth, Wind & Fire], Stevie, Aretha, Prince.... You can play it with an acoustic guitar, or you can play it in the context of a large band. If you sit on a park bench and start singing and playing R&B tunes, you have an instant audience.... It was the soundtrack for the African American experience and the American experience at large."
As Hogarth tells it, it's all about community, even down to the way that funk and R&B music is built, with various instrumental parts coming together to form the final arrangement, and with every player working to sustain the groove and respect the song. And as in jazz, funk and R&B guitarists are often in a privileged position to influence the band's harmony and its rhythm, while also having opportunities to express themselves as soloists.
"Having a solid sense of time and good right-hand rhythm technique (keep the right hand moving, whether or not you’re hitting the strings on a strum) is a good foundation for someone interested in playing R&B/funk," says Hogarth. "It is essential to learn how to listen to the rest of the band and be aware of the contribution that your part is making to the song. That will help you 'lock in' to the groove." These guitarists also need to focus on developing rhythm section techniques including rhythm guitar grooves, single-note rhythms, and improvisation.
The Next Steps
In their studies at Berklee, funk and R&B guitarists learn by studying the foundational techniques of genre pioneers such as Jimmy Nolen, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Eddie Hazel, Nile Rodgers, Prince, and Isaiah Sharkey. They also work in small ensembles, learning the essential repertoire—James Brown, Michael Jackson, Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, the Meters, Eryka Badu, D'Angelo, and many more. Funk and R&B guitarists at Berklee can also explore the related genres of neo-soul, hip-hop, and jam band.
Hard Rock and Metal Guitar
Hard rock and metal guitar styles offer a blend of power and precision that can double as a way of life. "I've been immersed in metal guitar for as long as I can remember. I eat, breathe, and sleep it," says Joe Stump, associate professor of guitar. "I love the fact that it's extremely technically demanding; the high-speed, high-volume aspects of it; and that it takes a daily commitment to excellence to make a career out of it."
Approaches to hard rock and metal at Berklee cover a wide range of subgenres, including shred, neoclassical, heavy metal, prog metal, death metal, black metal, and math rock.
Heavy rock guitar styles often require specific techniques, such as tapping and sweep picking, which you can learn to play at slower speeds, and then speed up until they sound like the mesmerizing hallmarks of metal riffs and solos. Mastering these and other right- and left-hand techniques demands hours upon hours of practice. "It's not a style of playing you just dabble in," says Stump, "you're either completely committed or you're not. To play at a high technical level requires total discipline and dedication, and a true love of craft. While metal has many different subgenres, just about all of them require strong command of the instrument and extreme technical proficiency."
The Next Steps
Of course, heavy guitar styles aren't only about technique. Through private lessons, labs, and ensembles, guitar students at Berklee learn how to apply their technical skills in ways that express their personal style and voice. They develop their sound by exploring new combinations of pedals and amps; they learn to transcribe guitar parts, to compose their own, to improvise confidently, and to interpret even the most daring and technical pieces with feeling.
You can check out Berklee faculty members Shaun Michaud and Joe Stump to learn more about hard rock and metal guitar styles.
Drawing from both classical and folk influences, fingerstyle guitar describes less a specific genre of music and more an approach to playing the instrument with your fingers instead of with a pick. It's identifiable in musics as varied as Latin, Nashville, jazz, modern songwriting, blues, Brazilian, and Afro-pop, and can be heard in solo and ensemble approaches.
"I feel I can be more expressive when I am in direct contact with the instrument," says fingerstyle guitarist Abigail Aronson, professor of guitar. "Changes in nuance, inflection, volume, tone...are right at my fingertips." In addition to the sense control fingerstyle playing can foster, Aronson says she's also drawn to the aesthetic possibilities of the style for songwriting: "Fingerstyle textures—arpeggios, patterns, counterpoint—make a beautiful base for a vocal melody. Music for voice and guitar—from John Dowland to Benjamin Britten to James Taylor—speaks to me like nothing else."
"Tone is probably the most important and essential technical issue to explore and master," says Aronson. "I come at it from a classical approach, but with any style, the greater issues—things like beautiful round sound, expressiveness and nuance, volume without tension—are the same. What you are able to get just from your hands, aside from amplification or other super imposed effects, is key."
With any style, the greater issues—things like beautiful round sound, expressiveness and nuance, volume without tension—are the same.—Abigail Aronson, professor of guitar
The Next Steps
The world of fingerstyle guitar playing is vast and varied, and fingerstyle guitar students at Berklee are encouraged to explore the genres and artists listed above, as well as the fingerstyle work of artists such as the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Chet Atkins, Lenny Breau, and Jerry Reed. Many fingerstyle guitarists will also want to learn to arrange and compose their own pieces in private lessons and labs, or to develop their improvisation skills in solo and ensemble contexts.
Berklee has been a center of the fusion scene since the style's emergence in the late ’60s—when alumni such as John Abercrombie ’67 and then–faculty member Pat Metheny were helping to shape the genre's early sound—and the campus remains at the forefront of this ever-evolving style today. As the name implies, fusion combines elements of blues, rock, jazz, funk, Latin, Afro-pop, pop, and world influences into sonic palettes as varied as the players themselves.
"The term 'fusion' is very broad," says Tim Miller, professor of guitar, explaining the style's appeal. "In this general genre of music I am able to incorporate virtually any element that I choose, in any way that I like. I am free to create."
Because fusion is such a fluid style with roots in so many other traditions, fusion guitarists need to be curious and versatile players. Fusion guitar students at Berklee might choose to develop their grasp of advanced jazz harmony and modal innovations, Brazilian and Latin comping and solo styles, improvising and composing in variable meters, and using electronic effects to shape their tone.
"The music that I choose to play involves a great deal of improvisation," says Miller. "Improvised music provides endless pathways for musical interaction that evolves in real time. This demands that the musician be an active listener in the moment."
The Next Steps
As with many styles, but particularly with one as varied as fusion, guitarists can learn a great deal by learning the music of the genre's innovators. This is why Berklee offers ensembles that perform the work of artists from Mahavishnu Orchestra, Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, and Allan Holdsworth to Jeff Beck, Animals as Leaders, and Snarky Puppy.
Modern Improvisation, Microtonal, and Avant-Garde Guitar
All guitarists share a common love of creation: They're excited by the sound, and are interested in learning the techniques and strategies that will allow them to move music forward. All players can find inspiration in avant-garde music and spontaneous composition, and will benefit from studying approaches to improvisation, writing, arranging based on musical systems that include atonal (music without a tonal center, where any note can be followed by any other note), polytonal (music that employs more than one tonal center), and microtonal (music that uses intervals smaller than a semitone—notes that fall between the notes of a traditional 12-tone Western scale), in addition to elements of traditional Western diatonic systems and the authenticities of all styles mentioned above.
As David Tronzo, professor of guitar, explains, the appeal for a player such as himself is not in experimentation for its own sake: "The avant-garde per se is not the attraction; my investment is in spontaneously composed music of any type, whether solo, duo, or ensemble.... All of the players involved are functioning as leaders, collectively building the aggregate piece in real time, no eraser.... When done with great skill and care, the audience is treated to new music, powerfully wrought and freshly minted; it likely took them to places that they did not know how to request to go, and they experienced the true power of music, the deep power beyond emotion and excitement."
This approach to music values tone as a structural element in itself, so it’s up to players themselves to cultivate sound through development of their individual technique. "I was devoted to developing a new set of sounds and techniques in my approach to the guitar involving the slide," says Tronzo, for example, "and I alone had to work these out as they did not exist in any form prior. They are of no use to anyone else, of course!"
However, Tronzo also stresses the importance of "the super-fundamentals: all of the scales, arpeggios, dyads, triads, right- and left-hand techniques, control of sound, compositional strategies, and familiarity with a huge range of global musics...I have to know my instrument thoroughly."
The Next Steps
Guitar students at Berklee might join the Guitar Department’s Spontaneous Composition Club, or go deep into the creative and performative possibilities of microtonal music by exploring the college's microtonal music institute, Planet Microjam. They can also use experiments in this area to help cultivate their personal sound; the lessons and innovations from the avant-garde can be applied to all other styles.
To hear some of the sounds possible with help from this playing style, you can listen to Berklee faculty projects from David Fiuczynski, David Tronzo, and the Perlak/Tronzo Duo (Kim Perlak and David Tronzo).
Watch Planet Microjam, led by guitarist David Fiuczynzki, professor of guitar, take a microtonal approach to Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir":
Studio and Session Guitar
Other players are drawn to the variety and challenge of session work, where the style, genre, and medium may change dramatically from one project to the next. Session guitarists write and arrange music for television, film, songs, and any other work they choose to take on. This allows them to wear any number of different musical hats, and to make their mark on a number of different projects.
"The guitar has an incredibly wide range, sonically and stylistically, that can be useful in a huge variety of settings," says Randy Roos, professor of guitar. "As the owner of a small recording studio, I often play various guitars on a client's projects. This could be anything from a simple folk song to an abstract soundscape...I've played on major artists' records, advertising jingles, film and TV scores, songs for children's records.... I also spent years composing and producing scores for PBS documentaries, many of which featured my guitar.... In the end it's wonderfully satisfying to walk out of a session knowing that you've contributed something beautiful to a project, regardless of the musical direction."
Session work requires both real technical aptitude and the right attitude. As Roos says, "The mindset we need...is to be completely free of any agenda, any desire to feature a particular musical strength we may have, and instead do everything we can to serve the project, at all costs to our own ego."
On a concrete level, Berklee students interested in session work need to learn to be versatile, adaptive, and quick to react. They focus on developing their reading and interpretation of notation and charts; they work to expand their sonic palette—the depth and breadth of their tone and the techniques for creating sounds; they hone their improvising chops; and they learn to arrange, write, and spontaneously compose parts for a variety of settings.
The Next Steps
Berklee students motivated to build their session work portfolio might collaborate on projects with the Film Scoring or Music Production and Engineering departments. They also learn to engineer, record, and produce their own sessions—an especially important set of skills in an era when remote recording is becoming even more commonplace. And they look to other styles to expand their range. "In addition to being a player," Roos says, "you also have to be an orchestrator. It's very common for a project leader to be unsure of specifically what they want you to do. It's up to you to come up with a concept and a texture that will work.... So it's logical that an understanding of a wide spectrum of musical genres would be quite beneficial to a studio musician."
Numerous guitar faculty at Berklee have lent their abilities to studio projects, including Nate Radley, David Tronzo, Jane Miller, Abigail Aronson, and Randy Roos.
The Choice Is Yours
Every guitarist has to find their own way toward a sound that's authentically theirs. In this sense, there are as many guitar styles as there are guitarists. The excitement of what comes next is this: choosing from each of these traditions and genres what you want to incorporate into your playing, seeking out the mentors and resources to ground you in a deep instrumental proficiency and in the specific techniques and authenticities of your chosen styles, and putting in the years of work to make that sound your own.
Visit the Guitar Department's page to learn more about studying guitar at Berklee and explore their virtual guitar campus for performances, lessons, updates, and more. You can also connect with Berklee’s guitar community on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube; and you can find the department's podcast, Coffee Talk, on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.