The Art of Practicing

I’ll tell you something – one of the most common complaints I get from guitarists who have been playing for many years is that they don’t seem to be getting better. Regardless of how much they practice, no real improvements are being made. They have plateaued and whatever they do or practice, nothing seems to get much better.

This is a common trap that many musicians fall into because they make one critical mistake – they don’t understand the difference between practicing and playing.

But, what do you mean – a difference?

Yes, there is a massive difference between practicing and playing, which is why so many players fall into this trap. In a nutshell – you can only practice something that you cannot play. As soon as you can play it, going over and over, it will not improve your abilities on the instrument.

Now, that obviously makes sense, but if you think about your personal practice routine, would I be fair in saying that you can play 95% of the things you are practicing? The answer is usually a resounding yes!

This means that you are not really ‘practicing,’ what you are doing is ‘playing.’ There is obviously nothing wrong with that, it is, after all, the reason that we took up the guitar in the first place. But, that is why you are not continually improving. You can play all day, and maybe you do? But you are not practicing new material that you can’t play and will enhance your skills.

So, how to change…

Now, that we understand the difference between practicing and playing, it’s time to move on to the Art of Practicing.

What I’m about to say may shock you, I’ve already shocked enough people, so why change the habit of a lifetime. But, for effective, continual improvement on the guitar, or any instrument for that matter, all you need to do is practice for 20 minutes a day, five days a week.

That may not seem like much, and you probably think you are doing much more than that already, but the fact is that your probably not, you might be playing for an hour or two a day, but not even practicing for a minute.

To practice effectively takes a lot of concentration and effort, every second of those 20 minutes a day should be spent on perfection and fluidity. That’s why most people can’t cope with any longer.

And, you can’t spend a single second of it playing anything you already know and can play well, it all has to be on learning new skills or absolutely perfecting those you already know. A 20-minute jam over a blues backing track is not practicing I’m afraid.

So, how do I break the time up?

This is where the ‘art’ really comes into it. I always recommend that students do everything in 3-minute sections, so you’ve basically got 6 sections to fill per day with a few minutes of rest and metronome time changing in between to make up the 20-minute session.

Ok, let’s start off with an exercise to get the fingers nicely warmed up, keeping things simple, we’ll start with one of the most basic, the Finger Independence Exercise – or Spider or Crab, as it is also sometimes called.

To play this start with your first finger on the 5th fret of the low E string. Then add your second, third and fourth fingers to the same string one at a time, over the next three frets, without removing any fingers.

Now, move your first finger down one string to the A string on the same fret (5th). Remembering to keep every other finger where it is, then the second finger, third, etc. – again you can only move one finger at a time, all other fingers must remain exactly where they are.

You will probably have noticed by now that this is far harder than it seems. It is, in fact, one of the best exercises to get your fingers working independently, hence the name. It will improve every aspect of your playing.

But, there’s more…

That’s just a basic explanation of the exercise. When you practice it, you need to time yourself for an exact 3 minutes. If you experience pain before that time, obviously just stop playing, there is no point in straining your fingers.

You also need to use a metronome at a speed that you can play the part perfectly, I personally recommend 60 or once per second as a starting point, which can be increased continually as you get better at playing the exercise.

While on that subject, you need to ensure that every note sounds perfectly clear and is sustained until the next note is put in position. There can be no fret buzz or sloppy notes. You are aiming for absolute perfection, nothing less. And of course, you have to use perfect alternate picking (continual down-up-down-up pick strikes).

Think that’s slow, think again…

Plus, if you think a metronome speed of 60 is slow, you need to strike each note on every second metronome beat, not each one! This is far better for you than trying to hit a note on every beat, because if you play slightly ahead or behind the beat, which is normal for most players, you will not get the full benefits this exercise can give you.

Hitting on every beat will not improve your timing, you will continue to play slightly ahead or behind the beat. But, by playing on every other beat, your internal rhythm aligns with the beat that you are not playing on but are listening to, and your timing will improve.

Once, you can do all of the above absolutely perfectly at a speed of 60 playing every two beats, then you increase the metronome setting to 63. And, practice that until you can do it perfectly. Then up to 66, 70, 75, 78, 81, etc. If you get to a speed where you can’t play the exercise perfectly, you have to go back to the previous setting and make sure you can play it at that speed before moving back up again.

Once you get the hang of this exercise and can play it at a high speed, replace it with another exercise such as a finger stretch or number cruncher exercise.

And, that’s just the first 3 minutes of your daily routine. You then do the same with a scale, again keeping it simple, play the first position Minor Pentatonic, using the exact same principles as we used in the Finger Independence Exercise. When you can play it fluidly and perfectly at speed, move to the second position, or a Major Scale, or whatever?

You then fill up your six daily 3-minute slots with anything that you cannot play – exercises, scales, arpeggios, chord shapes, improvising, rhythm exercises, style studies, ear training, sight reading, anything that you cannot already play or do perfectly.

Wrapping it all up

If you follow these very basic steps and concentrate 100% on accuracy, fluidity, and perfection. And, only work on material that you either cannot play or want to play better then you are absolutely guaranteed of continual improvement every time you sit down and practice.

You can still ‘play’ for as long as you like every day – jam with this, play along with your favorite songs, etc. etc. But, that’s playing, not practicing. Do both, and you won’t believe how much better you will be in 3 months’ time.

It’s only 20 minutes a day which is about the time it takes to boil 7 eggs one at a time, so there really is no excuse! If you want to become a better guitarist each and every day you now know the secret!

I’ve gotta admit…this is some good stuff!  But there’s more where that came from.  The problem is you’re going to have to wait until next week for some more guitar goodness.

So, until then…

Peace Out!

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  • Ron
    That makes a lot of sense, but… if I can play a piece smoothly and without mistakes at 66 BPM, and the correct tempo for the piece is 130 BPM, is the amount of time I spend on it trying to increase my tempo to 130 BPM “practice” time or “playing” time?
  • Bob
    Where are the pictures?

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