8 Tips To Better Guitar Practice

member of the month April 2015, The G

8 Tips To Better Guitar Practice

So, you play the guitar and you want to get better at it. You already go to your lesson every week but you feel as though you could be improving faster.  If only you didn’t find guitar practice to be so boring! When a lot of people think of guitar practice, they immediately think of running scales and exercises for hours on end, and that can be a huge turn-off to the idea. Thankfully, guitar practice doesn’t have to be boring – it can actually be fun!

1. Include technical work, but don’t overdo it

Some people love technical exercises. If you don’t like them much at all, that’s no problem. Do one or two, only do them a couple of times, and do them first. Your guitar practice will be much more effective when there is technical work included, and you’re getting that in and getting it out of the way before you can spend as long as you want on the fun stuff. If you’re stuck for which one to do, have a look at your resources checklist on your journal page and see what you did last and what’s next in line.

2.  Play things you like

Enjoy your guitar practice.  If you really like technical work, play more of it. Play as much of it as you want. If you aren’t so keen on the exercises, get your one or two out of the way and get into playing some songs. Pick songs you like. If the one that you’re currently working on is getting you frustrated, have a bit of a go then move on. Play something from a few weeks ago to keep it fresh. Try learning a song that you’ve heard lately or one that you’ve always liked.

guitar practice

3.  Time trials

Time trials are a hugely underrated part of guitar practice. The best way to build up speed on the guitar is to repeat, and repetition often leads to monotony. Instead of endless metronome practice, try timing yourself. Try to see how quickly you can play all the chords in the phrase that’s bothering you, or see how many times you can switch between two irksome chords in 30 seconds or a minute. Not only can they be a real hoot, but they also give you a means to quantify your improvement.

4.  Don’t force it

There are going to be days where you really just don’t feel like picking up the guitar. There are going to be days where you’ve been at work or school and you’re exhausted and guitar is the last thing on your mind. This is life, and that’s okay. You don’t have to practice every day. If playing the guitar at all today is going to be a huge hassle, then don’t do it. You’ll probably achieve negligible gains, and forcing it too often will breed resentment for the guitar and build up a negative predisposition towards practicing, which will impact your ability to enjoy practicing on your good days.

5.  Play with a friend

Guitar practice is that thing you do by yourself, right? Not necessarily! Practising with a partner can be hugely beneficial, and it can be really enjoyable. Not only can you bounce ideas off each other, but you can compare techniques, discuss possible things to learn in the future, and can even compare scores in time trials. Trying to play songs together isn’t just a good way to build ensemble skills and improve your timing, but it’s also the essence of what music is. The social aspect of music is one of its best qualities, and you can’t really benefit from that without playing with others. If you’re not in a band, then practising with a friend is the best way to do that.

6. Make a video or other recording and share it

Recording yourself is becoming easier and easier as technology improves. You can easily record decent video and passable sound on your phone, and can get a decent quality recording setup for your computer quite cheaply. Making a video or a recording can be a really fun experience. Use whatever means you have available and record yourself playing something. It doesn’t really matter what it is – any song that you can play well enough and want to show off will do. How you record it will depend on how you’re going to share it. Think of it this way – Instagram has a 15-second video limit, so you only need to be able to play it convincingly for that amount of time or less. Set your phone up and have a few tries until you get a long enough clip of you playing it flawlessly, cut the video in Instagram, apply a filter, and there you go. It’s surprising how effective this can be for ironing out little issues in particular parts of songs. You will generally want a certain level of perfection for something that you’re going to share – a level that you might not have had the drive to push for otherwise.

7. Do something else while you’re practising

There are traditionalists who would be absolutely mortified that I would even suggest unfocused guitar practice, but it really isn’t such a bad idea, depending on what you’re practising. Mindlessly practising while you watch TV is highly effective for finger fitness exercises (and is probably more interesting than focusing on them), and also for right hand patterns such as strumming and fingerpicking. In these cases it works so well because the distraction of the TV forces you to program your playing into your subconscious, which will make it easier to automate what you are doing.

8. Don’t feel bad if you miss a session

Didn’t practice much this week? Don’t stress. Just go to your lesson and don’t worry about it. Beating yourself up over not practising every day is a negative mindset, which can build up and eventually lead to you giving up to avoid disappointing yourself. (You should read about this here.) They key to avoiding this is to set realistic practice expectations. Don’t forget that you will continue to improve even if you don’t practice at all outside of your weekly guitar lesson.

You continue to play the guitar because you enjoy it. Practising to achieve improvement on the instrument should play into this, rather than be a downside. Think of guitar practice time as an opportunity to continue enjoying your time on the guitar. If you aren’t having a whole lot of fun when you practice, try out a few of these tips to rekindle the spark and have fun whenever you’re holding the guitar – whether you’re on stage, in a lesson, or practising.

Learning Guitar For Beginners

 

Learning to play music, whether it be on a guitar, piano, violin or the sitar; requires the development of a new understanding of sound akin to that of learning a second language.  While this common comparison is often repeated by educators and appreciators of music; far from being a metaphorical analogy it is quite literally true.  The same regions of your brain responsible for determining words and meaning from everyday conversation are also responsible for interpreting music.  This complex neural network that organises and interprets sound is incredibly powerful and is richly interwoven with other regions of the brain such as our motor cortex (which is why we feel compelled to move to music) and the parts of our brain responsible for memory preservation and emotional responses (which explains our emotional response to music).

To understand the important function of these neural links, imagine a time in the past when you have heard someone speaking in a foreign language.  Since the language is foreign to you, understanding exactly what is being communicated is impossible; however, through the variation of their tone of voice and their dynamics, we can pick up clues as to how they are feeling or what kind of a mental state are they in.  Do they sound worried, happy, uncertain, excited?  We use our ears to pick up on these non-verbal cues, through subtle variations in their vocal pitch, the rhythm with which they speak along with their dynamics.  It is through this same mechanism in our brains that we determine emotion and meaning through music.

So even in a language that is foreign to us, there are still certain messages that can be conveyed even if we do not understand a word that has been said.  The same can be said for the way most of us appreciate music.  The vast majority of the population would have no idea what a I – V – vi – IV progression is, and yet it is used in a tremendous amount of pop music and is a familiar progression to anyone that hears it.  It can spark memories of your favourite song, and then take you back to the first time you heard it.  A great example of the use of this progression is by comedy group The Axis of Awesome in a song they called “4 Chords.” (click link to view)

It is perfectly possible to understand the emotion conveyed through music without being fluent in its “language,” in fact this is how most of us appreciate music.  However, with an understanding of its dialect an artist is able to manipulate it for their own creative endeavours as this comedy act demonstrates.

So how does one become fluent in the language of music?  The answer to that is “the same way we learn any other kind of language.” We start with speaking simple words – mimicking the sounds of others – which then form sentences that we understand and can recite. We begin to assign meaning to these sounds and start to understand the context in which they are spoken.  After a certain degree of proficiency is reached in the fundamentals of our new dialect through basic conversation, one can more intuitively begin to understand how to read and write.  Eventually with time conversing with other speakers of your new language you can begin to think in that language; you intuitively understand it to such a degree that it begins to represent your inner thoughts.

So what does this mean in regards to musical education?

Music has its own language; it has its own set of formulas to construct sentences, phrases and paragraphs, as well as rules for grammar, punctuation and of course courtesy.  However, unlike learning a new language where we already have an instinctive mastery over our vocal chords – in learning the language of music, we need to learn to communicate through our instrument.  This carries alongside it some practical difficulties many of which we all have to face.  Our brains are optimised and hardwired from birth to acquire language through our vocal chords and this is how we intuitively communicate.  Playing guitar though is a less natural task for our brains to perform.  While musical instruments are designed for our bodies to be as easy as possible to play and express ourselves on, our brain is not specifically designed for it.  We need to rewire them – our new instrument needs to become our vocal chords.

This is where practice comes into the equation, but perhaps not in the way you might expect it.  In order to change the way our brain behaves we need to start making it behave differently.  It seems obvious, but this crucial understanding is often under appreciated amongst students and parents.  Learning music isn’t about learning notes on a page and then attributing them to positions on a guitar and the reciting them, this would be no different to playing Guitar Hero on the Xbox.  It is about moulding your understanding of musical sounds in order to manipulate them and converse with others.  In order to begin manipulating these sounds we need to first learn how to create them using our new vocal chords, this is the crucial first step.  This is where playing becomes involved.

Playing the guitar and practicing the guitar are two different things.  We are less interested in how much a beginner has practiced and much more interested in how much they played.  What is the difference though? We can teach a student how to play a chord and show them the correct fingering and how to strum the chord.  Armed with this knowledge, they can go home and practice exactly as they have been shown, returning the following week with some degree of mastery of that specific strumming pattern and chord. But unless the student goes home and owns that chord, and starts playing around with it, exploring it, playing it loudly or softly, taking some notes away or adding some more, experimenting with the boundaries of the instrument, practice begins to feel a bit like Guitar Hero – endlessly striving for some vague goal of perfection without really learning anything fulfilling along the way.

Unlike Guitar Hero where you lose points for hitting the wrong note, in the real world, every single note you play earns you points, even the wrong ones.  Every time you make a mistake on the guitar you earn valuable experience, even recognising you made a mistake is a tremendous learning curve.  Just experimenting with simple things like bending the strings to change the pitch of a note, or playing chords in different positions, or playing with different notes on the guitar to make your own melodies is much more valuable than endlessly trying to perfect one specific technique. That is not to say it isn’t important to learn correct technique; this is what will enable you to progress – but unless you experiment with those new techniques and explore them using your own curiosity, you might as well play just Guitar Hero instead.

By using your own creative instincts to guide your exploration of the guitar, you begin actively rewiring your brain to use it instinctively as your voice. Rather than learning a set of patterns and techniques to be copied and performed perfectly, you learn how to interact with your instrument so that the sounds you wish to create begin to represent your inner thoughts to which you outwardly communicate through your instrument.  It is the freedom to experiment and play with different sounds on the instrument that differentiates a “natural” musician from someone that considers themselves untalented. The truth is, we can all be natural musicians if we free ourselves from the expectation of playing the right notes, and just simply play notes. This is where the joy of music comes from; the ability to manipulate sound to your desires, to outwardly express yourself in a new medium of sounds and understanding. This joy does not come from learning repetitive patterns and chord shapes but from personal experience and understanding of the sounds you can create, and how to create them. We encourage all of our students to take this approach to learning. We can show the student the tools and the techniques, but the student must explore them using their own creativity.

© The Guitar Gym Pty Ltd, 2012.  Except as provided by the Copyright Act 1968, no part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.  Links to this article are permitted.

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