The best thing you can do for yourself in learning how to play the guitar, the #1 thing that will help you improve quickly, is having a good practice strategy.
Now, before we get into this, I want you to understand something important… Playing the guitar is not the same as practicing guitar. There are three different scenarios in which you might be picking up the ‘ol axe and plunking some strings:
– You’re doing serious practice time to improve your skills.
– You’re on stage using what you’ve learned to impress and entertain and audience.
– You’re playing for fun.
Fun? Remember that? This is all supposed to be fun! Improving your skills is great, but remember to leave yourself some time to just play whatever you want and enjoy playing music just for the sake of doing so. If all your playing time in spent pushing pushing pushing for that next level of skill, you’re going to burn out. Spend some time just making noise and screwing around on the strings. You’ll be amazed at the new ideas you’ll find and how much more engaged you’ll be when you actually practice.
So, when you’re really in the game and trying to get better, here are my best tips for actually doing so.
1. Work on small chunks at a time. Whatever song or exercise you’re working on, don’t try and learn the whole thing at once. Break it down into small chunks that you can accomplish quickly and easily. If the piece isn’t that complex you might work out 2 or 4 measures at a time. If it’s a tougher tune, maybe 2 beats at a time. I’ve dealt with pieces where I had to work on one beat at a time just because there were so many notes involved.
By working on these little chunks, you’re allowing your brain to go back over the material and strengthen the neural connections instead of trying to absorb so much that you’ve forgotten the beginning by the time you get to the end.
2. Slow down. If you were playing something and I said, “Ok, no play it faster”, that would be harder, right? So why make it hard on yourself by playing faster than you can? Take your chunk and play it slowly and cleanly. When you’ve got it down, crank up for your tempo just a little bit at a time until you reach your target tempo. Which leads to my next point…
3. Use a metronome. “Argghhhhh! Not the metronome!”, I hear you scream. Here’s the thing… If you can’t play along with a metronome, then playing with a drummer and keeping any sort of solid groove is going to be like trying to hitchhike to the moon. No doubt, playing with a metronome can be frustrating at first, but doing so can only make your rhythm better. As mentioned above, start your chunk slow and as you get comfortable with it, kick up the tempo on your metronome one notch a at a time. Be sure to play the passage multiple times at each tempo. Which leads to my next point…
4. Here’s the magic bullet. You should be able to play the chunk 5 times in a row perfectly before moving on to the next chunk. Not just 5 times, but in a row, and perfectly. It could take 25 or 30 times through to get that five times in a row, but when you get it, you know you’ve got it. This gives you a solid benchmark to hit so you’re not having to guess whether you’ve done it enough or not.
That’s not to say that when you go back to it the next day, or even a half hour later, that it’ll still be perfect. You may have to go through that sequence a few times before it really sticks. And sometimes it’s going to feel really tedious when you’re on try #40 and still missing that one awkward note. However I guarantee that you can learn any song faster by doing it this way.
If you want to be super
anal diligent about your practice you can take that up to 10 times in a row perfect. Tough to fail when you can pull that off.
Bonus Trick: Whenever you have a repeated phrase that needs to be played a certain number of times, practice playing it twice as many times as you actually need. I learned this years ago when learning “For Whom The Bell Tolls” by Metallica. There’s that lead lick that Kirk plays near the beginning that repeats 32 times while the chords change underneath. I couldn’t playing it 32 times without screwing up. So I practiced playing it until I could do 64 in a row. Then 32 felt like no big deal.
You can see by these tips that your practice time will involve way more focus and concentration that you might currently be giving it. There’s a reason performers are exhausted after an hour on stage. All the more important to have your fun play time too. Make some time to play when you’re just enjoying it and not trying to get better. If it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth doing. 🙂
These tips are my best guitar practice strategy and the same ones I give you private students.
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