Practicing is the boost and the bane of all musicians. It’s the only way any of us become one, in the first place. You can read all the articles and watch all the videos but nothing is going to transform you from a non-playing plebe into a righteous member in good standing of this thing of ours other than time in the practice chair. The more you play, the better you will become.
There are as many methods of practicing as there are guitarists. Each of us is on our own journey with the instrument and wants something different out of it. That being said, practice time often feels like punishment time for those who have not yet figured out how to make the most of their sessions. They do endless repetitions of something for few gains or bounce from topic to topic and never master any of them. My goal with this article is to wise you up to some ways to make sure you are getting the most out of your practice routine and seeing the improvements you so badly want. Ready to hit the shed?
1. BE CONSISTENT!
No matter your age, stage, or level, the best thing you can do for your playing is to practice consistently each day. You can do shorter sessions and get more out of them because it’s the daily aspect that matters. You will see improvements faster this way than not practicing all week and trying to cram it all in on your day off. This takes some discipline and the willingness to turn off the TV but the payoff is worth it. You have to live it if you want it to come out of your amp.
2. STAY SET UP AND ORGANIZED!
You should have a place in your domain where your practice gear is always set up so you can just walk in, sit down, and get to work. You should also keep this place organized and clean, so all your learning material is accessible, easily found, and doesn’t get lost. Set yourself up to be successful. Eliminate the roadblocks that get between you and the practice routine you know you want. I guarantee this one simple thing will get you practicing better because it will make it easy to get started. If you have to pull all your gear out and put it away every time, little practicing will likely occur.
3. DON’T SPEND MORE THAN AN HOUR ON ANY ONE TOPIC!
Even if you are super-determined to learn something, you will hit a point of diminishing returns if you work on it for too long in a single practice session. I’ve found that an hour is about the most I can spend on one idea before my mind and intentions begin to wander. Past that point, I’m just moving fingers, not making music. You need to keep your head in the game at all times and doing this will help achieve that. Besides, studies have shown that we will play something better if we practice, sleep on it, and then go back to it the next day. Don’t expect yourself to learn like a machine. If you get tired, rest.
4. DON’T SKIP YOUR EAR TRAINING!
Even though we live in an golden age of Internet guitar tabs, you still need to develop your ear. Music is sound, not numbers on paper, and you need to be able to identify what you hear. Ear training makes music seem more real and bonds you more tightly to it. At the minimum, you want to be able to distinguish Major from Minor while blindfolded and learn simple three and four-chord songs by ear. If you play rock, start with the Ramones and work up to Sabbath. If you play country, start with Johnny Cash. Of course, reading tablature and notation are great skills to attain and have their place in all our lives but great ears are essential. Ear training will be a process, make your head hurt, and probably make you angry. Do it anyway. It matters.
5. LEARN THE VOCAL MELODIES, NOT JUST THE GUITAR PARTS!
This is some super-secret insider G13 Classified guitar player info right here. One of the biggest things you can work on to supercharge your phrasing and general musicality is to figure out the vocal parts to the songs you’re learning. Yes, by ear. This is something piano students do from the beginning. The piano naturally plays melodies with the right hand and accompaniment with the left. Guitar players often learn by playing chords and riffs that someone sings over and soloing with memorized repetitive patterns. This is all well and good but it doesn’t do much for your phrasing and often leads to criminal levels of overplaying. This happens because guitarists don’t have to think about breathing. We can play endless streams of notes with ease. Spend some time shadow-boxing with great singers, however, and you will gain much knowledge about breath, human feel, rhythmic displacement, and all the other intangibles that make us love music. We want to be able to play and think melodically off the cuff. This practice technique is where that begins.
6. BONUS TIP – WRITE STUFF DOWN!
Get in the habit of writing your own tabs down when you learn a new song, scale, or pattern. Get used to writing chords and scales on neck diagrams, too. Physically putting pencil to paper helps seat what you’re learning into your mind and makes you a better memorizer. It’s an old-school tactic that is still 100% valid. Many of us have gotten lazy in the modern age. I did this daily for twenty years learning songs and ideas with students and reaped huge benefits from it. Every time I taught “Iron Man,” I wrote it down for the student. After a while, I became a tab-writing and song-learning dynamo. I would also have students write their own reference book of scales and chords. To play well, you need to get your basic skills into that good deep-learning part of your brain where your noun/verb agreement and shoe-tying skills live. Writing down what you learn will make that happen.
Anyway, I should stop here because it’s coming up on my time to practice. I hope you learned something from this article that helps you move forward. See you next time with a new lesson!