Updated: Jun 20, 2022
Putting plenty of time in, but not getting better?
For me, the greatest myth concerning how to practice guitar is that if you "keep doing it, you'll keep getting better". Most of us are confronted with the prospect at some point, that this is simply not the case. I learned this lesson the hard way, when I realised after a 10 year period of gigging, playing and "practising" lots, I was still staring at the same old problems, from the same viewpoint.
If you suspect you may be in this situation, here are the three principles of practice to help you smash through your barriers ...
SLOW DOWN! BREAK DOWN! EXAGGERATE!
Chances are, if you're not involving at least one of these three in your practice routine, you aren't practising, you're playing, and the likelihood of it working, ie. improving you, is slim at best. Why do they work?
1) Slow Down!
Everyone knows this one, but it's often overlooked what "slow" can actually mean. "Slow", as far as guitar practice is concerned, is most beneficial to interpret as the speed at which you know something is perfect, even if that means dropping to zero miles per hour! At very slow speeds, you'll spot things that were hidden at higher speeds, and more importantly, be able to correct them! This idea applies equally to both mental and physical challenges and ties in well with the next two.
2) Break Down!
Again, this is probably nothing you haven't heard before. It's universally recommended to pull out and examine in isolation, the hardest sections of the music you're working on. Never underestimate however, how much smaller you can chop those sections, to increase your focus, understanding and execution, and hence the benefit you'll get from them.
Even when focusing on a single troublesome beat of music, there are still many ways to chop that smaller too. The aim is to keep your practice away from things you can't do perfectly, and move it into things that you can. When breaking down, we simplify our problems, making that aim easier to achieve.
You can see a fairly in depth example of how to break down an exceptionally complex pattern all the way to what I call the "micro-mechanics" here in the video for my blog post on the chromatic octave pattern. It's rare to find discussion of this sort of thing, but it's also vital to understand it if you want to keep improving at the skills that are tough for you.
Practice should feel a lot tougher than playing! This way, when we play, we're doing something that's a lot easier than when we practice! Here's an example of using this idea.
A common piece of accepted wisdom is "Don't press any harder than you need to." While this certainly makes sense when talking about playing, I'd suggest that for practice purposes, doing the opposite can be a powerful tool in your search for improvement.
Pressing harder with the left hand fingers, (or picking harder with the right) will work muscles more than usual, offering the opportunity to strengthen relevant movements. It will likely also slow you down a notch or many. Try playing something that's fairly easy for you, but aiming (this works well on an unamplified electric) to make twice the volume! This should give you some great starting points for further investigation.
Prove that what you're doing is working!
These 3 principles are the tools you'll need to tackle your challenges on guitar. I'll highlight as ever the need for an all-encompassing hidden 4th principle, the underlying foundation of this blog ... Measure! If you're not doing this, then at many points you'll struggle to understand whether your practice is paying off and this can cost you a serious amount of time and improvement. See BPM, A Universal Method for Guitar for more on this.
To sum up; in layman's terms, when you're practising, go slow, go small, go hard! When you're playing, ditch those ideas completely! Or ... as a friend of mine once told me, "Practise like a trooper, play like a hippy!"
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