How to practice guitar: tips and tricks

Learning how to learn to play guitar

learning how to learn play the guitar

Seems like a funny title right? Well, in this day in age neuroscience has advanced tremendously, in the past few decades we have gotten closer to cracking many secrets in the brain especially when it comes to behavior and learning. Believe it or not we can take some of these newly discovered ideas and use them to learn how to practice guitar in the most effective way. Unfortunately, we cannot take a pill or purchase an item that will make us more intelligent or more talented musicians, but we can take some basic ideas on how our brains learn and apply it to our daily practice habits, for an effective guitar practice. In writing this post I was really inspired by the work of professor Barbara Oakley at Oakland University.

Procrastination and focus

pomodoro technique for guitar practice

No matter what you are trying to learn almost everybody suffers from procrastination. Our brains are amazing at tuning out anything we do not want to do. Of course we all want to be great guitarists, but the work we have to do to get there? Ugh.. who wants to do that! And then in steps the procrastination, one of the leading causes of failed musicians. When you feel weary or nervous about a task, your brain moves you onto something happier, which leads to the procrastination. The key to changing your habits is to train your brain that you will be rewarded for the task. Set a timer for 25 minutes, turn off all distractions, and work on guitar scales, chords, or songs for the entire time. Do not stray or stop your practice, when the timer goes off give yourself a reward. Something that you enjoy and will look forward too. A famous example of this time management technique is the Pomodoro, a method invented by the italian Francesco Cirillo. It may seem simple but if you do this every time you practice, pretty soon your brain will associate the practice time with a rewarding experience and you will no longer wish to procrastinate, soon you will look forward to it!

  • Turn off all distractions
  • 25 min short focused sessions (Pomodoro timer)
  • Reward yourself at the end of the session

Practice

guitar practice

They say practice makes perfect, and of course they are right. However, we have to remember that the practice has to be as perfect as possible to do us any good. Practice is a learning method of repetition, so what ever we are repeating, it must be done correctly. Of course when you start playing a scale the first time you will make mistakes, but the key is to aim for perfection. When a mistake is made you need to stop and start over until you are doing it right. For guitarists this applies to how you hold the instrument, your right and left hand technique, and that the correct sound is being played. If you do not correct mistakes as they are made, the practice will not lead to much advancement in the learning of guitar. Each time you sit down to play the guitar, strive for perfection. Even if you do not achieve it, by keeping your brain focused on the correct method, your practice will be far more productive. Fewer practices done correctly outweigh the benefits of many practices done incorrectly.

  • Be aware of mistakes and correct them
  • Strive for perfection
  • Go slow

Memory

guitar memorization

When you are playing guitar you are relying on your working or short term memory and long term memory. Your brain is using what it has learned in the past and at the same time applying it to the new task at hand. If you have spent hours playing scales, when it comes time to improvise a solo you will take your past knowledge and use it to create something new. That is why it is so important to practice correctly, that way the new task is pulling from information that was properly obtained. The key to having a good working memory is repetition , that is why a musician will play pieces over and over. Of course guitar players also rely on muscle memory, which is a long term memory. At first it may be hard to make barre chords, but if you keep working at it with the proper technique, eventually the process will come naturally without much thought or effort. If the solo you played above was worth playing again, be sure to practice it the same way over the course of a few days and it will be readily available in your long term memory! This technique is very effective and is called spaced repetition. Basically you practice your scales, chords or theory, but you put a day between repetitions. Research has shown that repeating an exercise 30 times in one single day is far less effective than practice the same exercise once a day for several weeks.

  • Repetition is the key
  • Spaced repetition for long term memory

Sleep and Rest

sleep and rest for better guitar practice

One of the more important factors overlooked while learning anything new is getting sleep. Those students who study and cram all night for an exam, usually end up doing worse than they should have. That is because the brain needs rest to store any new information learned. Without proper sleep and rest even learned tasks become difficult, let alone something new that you are trying to retain. As for muscle memory, it can be quite surprising how well it is maintained after proper practice and rest. It is very possible to over practice, which doesn’t lead to any gains in the long run. For most beginning guitar players, it is wise to practice about 25 minutes a night and to take at least two days off during the week (just be sure they are not consecutive days). Sleep and rest are essential to the learning process, let your brain use that time to tidy up and reinforce the connections you have taught yourself during practice.

  • During sleep your brain elaborates what you have practiced
  • Sleep and rest are essential to the learning process

Change Your Practice Routine

change routine

Every now and then it is good to change how you practice, it will not only help your brain learn new tasks, it also trains you to play in more stressful situations. Different methods of change include; play standing up if you are often sitting down, try playing completely different genres, time signatures, and styles that you are not used to (at this link you'll find a great site with plenty of video lessons on different genres and styles), try silent rehearsing (playing the left hand scales without actually making any sound, perhaps while watching TV or engaging in another activity), and most of all practice with others. The last one is very important even if you never plan to play in a band. By practicing with others you train your ears to listen , which is very important in the world of guitar playing. At the same time that disciplined practice is very important, don't be afraid to try new and difficult techniques. Even if you fail this is an important step in advancing your brain to higher levels. Just remember if you fail to figure out why you failed, and start over until you can do it correctly.

How to practice guitar: conclusions

If you use these scientific learning techniques correctly, not only will you become a great guitar player , it will stay with you for a long time. I once had a period of 4 months where I was not able to play guitar, surprisingly after I started again it only took a few minutes to shake off the rust and get back into the groove. When you learn how to learn.. what you learn stays with you!

For more information and insights, check out the "Learning how to learn" class on Coursera at this link.
And you? Do you have some guitar practice tips that you'd like to share? Drop a comment below!

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