In this article we'll cover a few tips that you can use to practice guitar more effectively. If you're satisfied with your progress, then you can skim the article, but if you are wanting to push your playing to the next level, you may find a few helpful ideas that will help you progress...
Tip 1: Are you practising, or playing?
A lot of guitar players think they are practising, when in fact, they are playing. In order to understand the difference, we need to define our terms:
- Playing guitar: Applying skills you already have. For example, when you play a riff you love.
- Practising guitar: Consciously learning skills that you have not yet mastered. For example, when you sit down to learn a riff for the first time.
Practising guitar is how we improve our playing.
Playing guitar is how we enjoy our playing.
Now, I'm not saying that you need to spend 100% of your guitar time practising. However, the more time you are practising (as opposed to playing), the faster you will improve.
As with a lot of things, it's important we are conscious about what we are doing. Make a decision about how you will split your guitar time into practising vs playing.
If you're happy with your ability, then sitting back and playing through your favourite songs is a great way to spend your guitar time.
If you are wanting to reach the next level with your playing, then you'll want to carefully plan time specifically for practising.
When it comes to planning practice time, one of the best things you can do is sit down with pencil and paper at the start of the week, and schedule some practice time for yourself. Then stick to it!
There are a couple of things to take away from this idea:
- Look at what you are currently doing with your guitar time. Write down, on average, what you think your practising / playing split is.
- Decide how you want to split your time in the future. I would recommend something like 50%/50% practising/playing, or maybe 75%/25% practising/ playing.
- Decide in advance of your practice session what you want to work on. Write it down.
- Keep brief notes from your practice session. Is there something you need to revisit when you practice tomorrow?
Tip 2: Are you using a metronome?
You probably know that you should be using a metronome. Everyone says that you should be using one.
But maybe you're not using one... or if you are, it's only every now and then? So why is it we should be using a metronome?
A metronome gives us an external way to track time.
Can you reliably clap every 1.5 seconds for a minute?
Can you reliably clap every 0.75 seconds for a minute?
Can you do that while trying to hit a tricky chord change?
I think it's fair to say that you can't do that. That's why you need a metronome.
A fundamental part of music is timing, the timing of the notes that you play is just as important as the notes themselves.
A metronome helps you get your timing 100% right, every single time.
If you are not using a metronome, then your timing might be fairly good, but it's not going to be tight. It's just not possible.
Now, using a metronome can be mentally fatiguing. So if you haven't used one before, try using it for 5 minutes a day and build it up from there.
I guarantee that, if you start using a metronome every day, even just for a few minutes, you are going to start seeing real improvements in your playing.
You can use a free metronome on google (just search for "metronome"), or download an app called "Soundbrenner" which is also free. You can get cheap electric metronomes for $15 on Amazon.
If you really hate the sound of a metronome, then use a drum machine / drum loop - it achieves the same thing as a metronome.
Fundamentally, metronomes allow you to not only improve your accuracy (which is the foundation of speed), but they also help your brain "process time" and "think faster" with respect to fast music.
They're a vital tool - start using yours today!
3: Are your eyes letting you down?
Don't worry - I'm not advocating you stop using your eyes! But, they can hinder your progress...
Here is the principle behind this practice tip: The mind can focus on one thing quite easily. Focussing on several things is harder.
This principle is something I hope we can all agree on.
Part of the reason that practising music is challenging is because our brain has to do a lot of things at once. We have to listen to a metronome, use that information to anticipate the next beat of the metronome, and as if that wasn't enough, use that information and play the guitar.
Scientists have done MRI scans of people playing an instrument and the human brain lights up like a Christmas tree - playing an instrument is very taxing on the brain (This is also part of the reason playing music is so emotionally rewarding, but that's a topic for another day).
This is also why it's so important to focus when practising. You wouldn't try and read a book while practising guitar...
... but you're probably reading your exercises... When a lot of guitar players start to practice an exercise, they read the exercise, look at their guitar, play the notes, repeat.
This creates two real problems:
- Looking back and forth between the written music and the guitar. Ideally, your eyes want to be focussed on what your hands are doing.
- The additional mental strain of reading and playing at the same time.
You might be thinking, "But wait, people sightread and play all the time!". Yes, they do, but that is a trained skill. If you want to do that, specifically train that skill.
When it comes to practising exercises, you will find them a lot easier if you memorise them. This removes the mental process of reading completely and also saves you from moving your head all the time.
When using a metronome, make sure you are listening to it and not using your eyes to watch the flashing light. If you struggle with this, turn the metronome upside down so you can't see it.
This allows you to completely focus on playing the exercise, rather than splitting your focus between playing and reading.
This means you can listen to the timing better, be more aware of what your hands are doing and applying your mind to playing the guitar.
Whenever you are learning a song, or working on an exercise, memorise it, and you will be able to play it much better.
Now you might be thinking "that's a great idea, but my memory is rubbish!". Well, it might be. At the moment. Because you haven't trained it!
The more you work on something, the better you get. If memorising a whole exercise is too much, work on memorising the first four notes. Then the next four. Then put them together.
Break it down into tiny chunks that you can manage, then slowly put those chunks together.
You will find that, over time, you get better and better at it.
About the Author
This article was written by Sam Russell. Sam has released two albums, a electric guitar cover of Bach's first two cello sutes, and an album of neoclassical metal songs, guest featuring Doro Pesch. Sam also writes lessons for the website www.study-guitar.com and composes classical music.
Sam recently wrote a book on Guitar Practice, called "How to Practice Guitar and Train Your Creativity". Readers of fachords.com can get 10% off the paperback and PDF version of the book by using the code FACHORDS10 here. Learn more here.