Play a lot – Granted, this does sound obvious but 100% the best way to gain confidence in your own playing and exactly how you will sound when you play is simply to play a lot. Play a lot, write a lot, improvise a lot, gig a lot, and teach a lot. So rest assured that over time your confidence and ability to sound ‘sure’ will naturally build as your playing ages. Now onto something a bit more solid that we can work in developing.
Become familiar with intervals – With this point I mean knowing exactly how it sounds/feels to land on/hold a minor third note over a root note. Each possible interval has its own unique sound too it and it will instil a certain ‘feeling’ of some kind when you hear it. The best thing to do here if you are just developing this is to list each interval on a piece of paper (or list it in word/notepad these days), listen and play each interval in turn, play the two notes together as well as one at a time and try to familiarise yourself with the sound and its name. Jot down anything that comes to mind when you hear this interval, associating it with something like colours, emotions or feelings may be a good place to start. A simple way to achieve this on guitar is to drone the low E string and play the higher note on the A string. Also try each as both simple and compound intervals (that is, within one octave and above I.e. E and F# 2 semitones apart and E and F# 14 semitones apart). Try to listen for the same associations both within and above the octave.
Tension/Release – This is partly what makes up the ‘getting away with horrible notes’ exclamation. This is because the player is not only expecting but planning on playing some tension notes, often with a thought to resolving them afterwards. The notes may sound jarring and unexpected to us but to the player they are confident about how the intervals will sound and because they are aware of how the notes they are about to play will sound, combined with the fact that are planning the dissonance means that they are a lot more confident when they bust out those odd notes.
Know the fretboard – When you’re walking or driving back home you’re not jittery and wondering where the road is going to take you or whether you will make it home safe and sound, instead you confidently stroll the streets or whizz around the roads back to your house with ease, sometimes not even realising that you’ve made some of the turns. You know exactly where you are, where you’re going and you can pretty accurately predict the journey ahead of you. This is akin to playing guitar when you know the fretboard well. You know your chord voicings and the underlying harmony, you know your intervals, or scales and all the varying positions on the neck for each of the previous and as such you can whizz around the fretboard with your head held high and the same ease and confidence you had when you walk back home.
Be in control of the instrument – Play the instrument, rather than letting the instrument play you. You are the dictator here and it’s paramount that you work on being able to control your playing so that everything you play is by choice and intentional rather than because that’s the only way you know how to do it. A key point that will help you gain control is to learn how to mess around with dynamics. Dynamics if you don’t know are how hard/soft or sometimes loud/quietly you play. Being in control of your dynamics in every part of your playing from lead to rhythm and being able to vary your dynamics mid phrase is going to help you sound very much in control of your playing. Another key aspect of being able to control your instrument is intonation and more specifically being able to bend in tune. Knowing the exact amount of force required and the upcoming tension/resistance on the string when you bend is going to help you get to the stage where you can ramp that bend straight up to a pitch perfect note every time. Vibrato is not the only point in control but to save page space it will be the last point we linger on when it comes to control. Learning to control the width, speed and type of vibrato is going to set you apart from others, it’s a very personal aspect to playing guitar and everyone’s approach will be different.
Playing licks (practise) – Although you probably do not want to just reel off licks when it comes time to improvise, playing pre-learnt licks will make you sound more confident purely because of how familiar you are with the lick. This joins onto the knowing the fretboard section and also combines with the familiarity aspect of the knowing the intervals section. You know how to play the lick; you know exactly how it sounds, how it feels to play and hopefully where you can go with it afterwards. This leads to you naturally digging in more and playing the lick with more confidence. The ‘practise’ section of this relates to playing pre-written material such as songs or pre-written sections (this includes licks) and practising them enough to become very familiar with the sound/feel. This combined with muscle memory and the fact that you’ve played it so much without mistakes in practise is going to help you sound confident too.
Start easy – Make life easier for yourself. We all know that those first few notes at the start of a gig are much harder to play than the ones in the middle, you’re more warmed up, the stage fright has subsided, you’re having a lot of fun and concertinaing more on enjoying the moment rather than whether you might screw up while everyone is watching/listening. Nothing makes playing harder than screwing up, once you’ve made that first real clanger then everything else has that dark overhanging cloud and you seize up. So make it easier on yourself and start off with something simpler. Don’t jump out with your hardest climactic super energetic shred licks right off the bat. Start with some of your simpler material to gradually build yourself into it. I’m not advising you should order your set list based on technical difficulty, obviously it should be based off of the song’s content and material but try not to make life too hard for yourself while you’re still acclimatising to your first few minutes on stage. That being said, if you can get through the difficult stuff early on then everything your play after that is (at least to you) considered the ‘easier’ stuff which will also give you a boost in confidence. So it could work either way but give it some thought to decide which way to go.
Mental shift – Some time all you need is a mental change of perspective to gain the confidence you need. Some common trains of thought here are that there really are no ‘wrong notes’ or the rather cocky ‘these are the new RIGHT notes’. You can also remember the Dimebag Darrell quote that if you play a ‘wrong note’ you are only ever a half step bend away from the next ‘right note’. Another approach is to simple ‘blag’ confidence. Try pretending you are playing the coolest, hippest, smoothest most badass playing anyone in the room has ever heard. Be careful not to feed the ego-troll too much but sometimes pretending that you’re confidence actually leads to you coming across as confident. My personal favourite though is the phrase ‘dig in’. You simply need to just dig in more when you play. Dig the pick into the strings, pick harder, pick more dynamic, give it a bit more ‘mojo’ and play those notes like you God-damn mean them!