I have been teaching guitar now for quite a long time and as a result I have watched a lot of people try to learn the guitar, seen many different approaches to practice and as a result I have formed a few opinions that I would like to share with you. Take from this what you will, but I would venture to say this is the most important article I will ever give you. The quality of practice you do is the single most important factor determining how you will progress as a guitarist. One thing you will realise about good players is that before they became good players, they became good practicers first. There is a lot to get done so you need to be efficient about it, otherwise you will die before becoming good…..That would be unfortunate.
A common misconception is that if you have a guitar in your hands, and you are making some noise it must be practice, well it isn’t! It might be fun but not practice. Practice is a very scarce, tightly defined and much misunderstood commodity. It has very precise characteristics, one of the most important is that it must be goal oriented. You have to know why you are practicing. What are you trying to achieve? On the subject of goals, I often suggest to people they try having 10 minute goals, something that you can’t fail to achieve in 10 minutes. You could have a 20 year goal to become a guitar god, but on a day to day basis you are going to fail to achieve that, and as a result you are going to become used to a culture of failure, 10 minute goals lead to a culture of success. If you don’t know your goals, it isn’t practice. Fun maybe, not practice though. Another common practice misconception is to say ‘if I play this enough, it MUST get better’. This statement makes superficial sense, however when we delve deeper it’s obviously not true. What matters is what we play, and how we play it. One thing I have noticed is a laziness in people with respect to their practice, they keep playing the same thing, mistakes and all, and they just hope that somehow the mistakes will cure themselves. Unfortunately order rarely emerges spontaneously from chaos, YOU have to do something specific to get rid of errors. I’m not going to do it for you, you have to do it. Practice is an active thing that you do to you yourself, it doesn’t just happen. We would get bored very quickly if all we did was sat in a room doing efficient practice, we have to have ‘fun’ when we play guitar, not like in the old days, so sometimes you have to just plug in, turn up and tune out. The trick is don’t confuse practice with just playing. If you can amalgamate both of them and not see the join, you’re onto a good thing.
One of my favourite phrases is ‘insight’. I use this word to mean the ability to see where you are, where you want to be, then work out a way to get yourself between these two points as quickly as possible. The logical conclusion of this point is to realise that the responsibility for becoming a guitarist lies with you, not me. Just as a baby matures and does more for itself, so must you as maturing musicians. Simply doing what I tell you just isn’t enough, that’s what I call passive or weak practice. The aggressive practicer is always asking why, they will always be looking for connections they will always be looking for ways that I haven’t thought of to improve. They will be looking for the things I haven’t thought of writing in this article. A good approach to take is one I call ‘Incremental Increases’. With any exercise you could simply do it with no understanding, passive practice again. A much better way is to first of all understand exactly what the exercise is at it’s heart and what it is designed to achieve. Usually, an exercise should be describable verbally in a simple, single sentence. If you can’t do this it’s likely that you really don’t understand it fully. Analyse the exercise in question then see if you can think of any aspects of the exercise that could be changed without introducing elements not in the original exercise. The most obvious scale variation would be to play it backwards. The key aspect of this practice technique is that the exercise should become incrementally more difficult without introducing elements not found in the original whilst moving you toward the stated goal.
Guitar playing and music ain’t brain surgery! I mean, c’mon if guitarists can manage it, how difficult can it be? It’s fairly simple to understand, the battle lies in your head and in your hands, how you approach that is the key. Practice is a creative activity tailored to the individual, I will share with you a few techniques I have found to be helpful in my practice, you need to find similar things that are helpful to you, if you don’t do this you will be failing in your practice. A technique that I have found useful I call ‘Salami Slicing’. Many times you will hear me tell you to slow down, get it right 9/10 etc, all good things to do. However, there is another way. With a difficult riff you can start out playing just the 1st note, then when you have that sorted you can add on the 2nd note, then the 3rd and so on. The rule is though that you are not allowed to add on another note until you can play the slices that you already have, perfectly. This technique could be used at a higher tempo that the usual ‘slow and right’ approach.
I am fond of droning on about vertical versus horizontal practice. Horizontal practice is where people learn loads of songs and confuse the fact that they know loads of songs with being better guitarists. They ignore the fact that they play all those songs at the same dire standard. Vertical practice means they learn fewer songs, but work on playing those songs at a higher standard. The indication that someone has been engaged in vertical learning is that when learning a new song they play it at a much higher standard. I don’t expect anyone to be some sort of robo practicer, engaging in only vertical practice, this would become very dreary, very quickly. You have to have some fun, 45 degrees is about right. Figuring how to integrate fun and practice is very important.
Some common characteristics of good practice are: Using a rhythm, if you can’t play in time, nothing else matters. You must avoid coasting when using drums, some people pick a tempo and seem to say to themselves ‘OK, this is the tempo I can play it at, I’ll just stay right here, nice and safe’. It should be your goal every time you use drums to move to the next tempo up without sacrificing quality for quantity. Make sure it’s right 9 times out of 10, I can’t stress this one enough. When I say right, I mean PERFECT in every way. This is one of the single most important characteristics of a good student. If it’s only perfect 1 in 10, do you really think you are going to be a guitarist? It won’t become 2 in 10 until you make it happen. If you only get it right 1 in 10, you play the correct version so infrequently, you will never master it. See my ‘Tree Of Error’ diagram below:
One mistake gives you two versions and so on, exponentially. Twelve mistakes will give you 4096 different versions. If you can’t get 9 out of 10 then you are doing it too fast. Slow is the new fast, slowness is the one problem that, strangely enough, does cure itself. It’s vital that you understand on an intellectual level what you are trying to do. You might have seen me look at what my fingers are playing on the guitar, then tab it out for you to try. What has happened is that I know the piece so well, it has vanished from my conscious memory and it lies in my muscle memory only now. Don’t be fooled by this. You need to do a lot of playing for this to happen and when learning a piece you need to be able to describe to me or yourself exactly what it is you are trying to do. If you can’t say to me that you are about to put your 1st finger on fret 5 of string 4 and play it with a downstroke, what exactly are you going to do when you get to that point? Get the performance chain the right way round, the head tells fingers what to do. Remember kids, fingers know nothing, say it 10 times every day before bed.
Reviewing how it should sound regularly is vital, that’s why I record the lesson, it’s also why I like to use the alternating technique. I have found that students who say ‘Oh, I never listen to the lesson.’ or ‘I just can’t stand listening to myself.’ often are my worst students. You are shown how it should sound then you try it. A lot. If you don’t listen to what you are trying to copy, you won’t get it right. The habit of fixing mistakes in your own playing is another key skill. So often I have seen people play the same thing and they tolerate the same mistake endlessly so when are you going to fix it? This week? Next month? The 12th of never?
Efficient aggressive students always know what they should be doing, there is a lot to do and it’s very easy to forget that you were working on something recently. The very next time you pick up your guitar to play something, foremost in your mind must be whatever aspects of the piece you were working on last time, and you must make sure that you address those points the very first and every time you play it until they are cured. If you have, like me, the memory of a goldfish, make a list! Complete with tempo, problems to fix etc, anything you think should be there. I enforce a strict ‘no paper’ rule. If you saw someone reading a book while they were driving you would think it unwise. Similarly, if you are reading bits of paper while you are supposed to be playing guitar, you are not concentrating on the task in hand. Reading tab or music is difficult, playing the guitar is difficult too, doing two tricky things at once is four times as difficult. You must separate the two phases. We have the learning phase where we learn what it is we are about to do, then we put the paper away and we start the execution phase where we play it. Don’t let the two phases overlap or worse, merge into one. If you come to a lesson and the first thing you do is pull out last week’s lesson and place it on the music stand I’ll obviously conclude that you have been doing it all wrong. You have probably seen musicians reading music while they play, this is called sight reading, we are not doing that right now and it takes a lot of practice. Having said all that, I find it easier to learn what I’m trying to do if I have a guitar in my hands and find the frets, see the shapes and movements etc. You may well find that too, just don’t get the 2 phases confused into one. Learn, then play. I remember when I was keen and green, I wrote out hundreds of arpeggios, scales and chords on these neck diagrams, thinking that I would learn them all. It took me hours. I never learnt any of them, maybe I know some now,, I’ve no idea. I find that often people use paper as a diversion from practice, however, it’s a good tool if you are using it to understand something.
If I had taken those wasted hours and just learnt a few of those shapes that would have been much more useful! For the last 20 years I have written nothing down for myself. As soon as I started this approach I found I learned a lot more quickly. If you have to learn something from TAB, when is the best time to commit it to memory? The answer to that question is ‘right now’. You have to learn it sometime, the sooner you learn it, the sooner you can bin the paper and get on with playing.
You are not an empty jar into which I pour knowledge. Teaching is not something you have done to you, learning is something you do yourself. An analogy I like to use is one of driving: Imagine that the guitar teacher is in the car in front of you and is going to show you the way to somewhere. The bad student will follow out of the car park but will soon give up and stop and the first easy place. The good student will follow the guitar teacher, his eyes fixed to the rear of the teacher’s car, matching each turn exactly and he will arrive at the destination a few seconds after the teacher every time. The student who is destined to succeed however, will be looking up the road, past the teacher’s car, he will see side roads and wonder why they weren’t chosen and might even come back later to check them out. He will be curious about why this particular route was chosen and may have an alternate route in mind. The only difference between him and the teacher is that the teacher can see a little further down the road only because he IS a little further on down the road. Do you get it?
Time and time again people come for lessons, they say all the right things, about how keen they are, how they want to be guitarists and yet they simply don’t do what I tell them to do! How can they hold these two apparently contradictory positions? If I say you need to do something…hold on….NEWS FLASH: YOU NEED TO DO IT! Not only do you need to do it, you need to believe you need to do it, you need to know why you need to do it and you need to apply yourself to doing it with all the ability you can muster. People often say ‘It’s too hard’ or ‘I just can’t do it’. What do they expect me to say in reply? ‘It’s ok, you can be a bad guitarist’? Some of the stuff we will do is hard, that’s why most people aren’t guitar players. If you find yourself only doing the things I say when I remind you or when you think I’m watching, well, the future isn’t looking good for you, I hear Lidl is hiring….
A final task for you: Write a few more paragraphs for this article, when you find you can add something meaningful you are probably on your way. I don’t hold a monopoly on what is right!