It’s really exciting when you first pick up and guitar. Fretting your first chords and eventually putting them together to play your first song can sometimes give way to frustration as you become more ambitious. Sometimes it can make you feel like your aren’t progressing quickly enough, which can be very discouraging. I’m here to encourage you to keep going and I hope these tips will help you to form good practice habits. So let me stop procrastinating with the introduction and get on with it! So, what is the best way to practice the guitar?
Find your space…
One important thing to think about before you even pick up your guitar is your environment. You need to be comfortable and able to focus when you’re practicing. I remember when I was at university in halls of residence. It was a really tough to properly practice. The walls were paper thin and there was always something going on with one of the six of us in that flat. That brings me to the first thing. Make sure you won’t be disturbed, or at least minimize chances of distraction.
You also want to make sure you can make a little noise comfortably. I’m lucky enough to live in a detached house these days, but when I was in flats and attached houses I was constantly paranoid about annoying the neighbors. This is particularly a problem if you’re practicing with an acoustic guitar. Electric guitars can usually be plugged into headphones via a jack. See my article on small amps for ideas. It’s also really helpful to have your guitar easily accessible, giving you less excuses to avoid practicing.
Now that we’ve dealt a little with environment, lets look at practicing itself. How you get comfortable will vary from person to person. Here are some idea:
- Posture – do you sit cross legged, propped up against a wall or on a stool?
- Duration – do you prefer to practice for longer periods or in small bursts more often?
- Format – do you like to stick to a rigid routine or let your mood dictate?
If you can answer those questions, you’ll be well on the way to knowing which conditions enable you to practice more effectively. Play around, you’ll eventually find what works best for you.
What to learn?
You can start to feel a bit stifled if you’re just learning the basic chords and putting them together to strum along to songs in a chord book. That’s when you need to branch out. That’s where turning to a little theory can help. I can hear you sighing as you read this, but bear with me. You don’t need to dive right into the rudiments and theory of music, although that is a book I’d recommend. Start with a little fretboard mapping. It pays huge dividends to know your way around a fretboard. It’s reasonably simple to label the fretboard and once you understand the map you can challenge yourself to name notes at each fret.
You already know the open notes when using standard tuning. From the low string it’s E,A,D,G,B,E. Moving up or down two frets is what’s known as a whole-step. Moving one fret is known as a half-step. There’s a whole step between all but two notes. Here’s a quick reference table:
If you start with the A string, the next note is B so you need to move to the second fret. It’s a half-step to the next note, C, so you move up one fret to the third fret. It’s a whole-step to D from here so you move up another two frets to the fifth fret. Once you’ve gone through all the way back to A you’ll arrive on the twelfth fret. That works with all of the strings. Once you reach the twelfth fret, you start again.
Now you can start challenging yourself. Ask yourself questions. What’s the note on the fifth fret of the low or high E string? You might start at the open note and work it out at first. Eventually you’ll name A as the note in seconds. It’ll take some time but if you add a little fretboard mapping to your practice you’ll know the fretboard in no time. This will pay untold dividends in the future.
There’s a bonus to learning the fretboard too. If you fret the note as you’re calling it out, you’ll be improving your dexterity and technique. You see, learning theory is really a great thing!
How to learn?
I’m a big advocate of using technology to help you learn. When I fist started to learn you could print tabs from the internet, but they were really just text documents uploaded to the web. You’d need to buy a metronome if you wanted to pace yourself. That does work, but now most apps and sites allow you to do some much more with the basic tab. For example you can transpose the tab to different keys right there on the page. I used to have to work that out for myself, which could be a little time consuming. Now you can just click a button and the tab is transposed for you.
The other great feature available now is pro tabs. These are basically tabs that have been split into their constituent parts. If you want to learn the lead guitar, you can filter the tab to show the lead guitar part only. Pro tabs enable you to play along with the song, so you can isolate the part that you want to learn, whilst the other parts play along in the background. The real advantage here is that you can speed up and slow down the play speed so you can pick up those tricky parts at your own pace. That’s a real game changer for me. The opportunity to learn new parts at your own speed is basically freely available to anyone, without the need to buy specialist equipment.
That brings us on to the next point. Repetition, repetition, repetition. In order to really learn a piece, you’ve got to practice it over and over again. That means playing incredibly slowly at first. It might sound like you’re not playing the song you’re intending to. But once you’re able to play a little more quickly you’ll start to see it come together. It can be a bit frustrating at first, but hang in there and you’ll nail it.
I remember when I was learning the outro to Hotel California by the Eagles. At first I was playing the first triad of notes and thinking it didn’t sound at all like the song. Then when I started to play the first and second triads more quickly I started to recognize the tune. Once I’d nailed the remaining triads I was confidently playing the whole outro. It’s a great one to pull out around the campfire by the way!
Scheduling practice & duration:
It’s easy to drift through days, week and months without practicing. Think of your skill with the guitar like a calculator. You put rubbish in and you’ll get rubbish out. Equally, if you’re inconsistent with your practice, your results will be inconsistent. That’s where a schedule can come in. I’m a big proponent of setting challenging yet achievable goals. Having a goal makes scheduling practice a lot easier. For example I could schedule to play for thirty minutes a day, seven days a week. Great intentions, but what are you working towards? Without a goal you might get easily bored and start skipping practice sessions. Before you know it you’re an inconsistent guitarist.
Goal setting theory is the culmination of years of works by Latham and Locke (1990). I wrote a lot about this in my dissertation whilst at university. The basis of the theory is that people are more motivated to attain a goal when there’s something specific to aim for. SMART goals are a more modern result of the work by Latham and Locke. In their original study they saw significant productivity increases at a logging company as a result of setting challenging yet achievable goals.
Let’s apply this to learning a new song. I really love the fingerstyle version of Big Love by Fleetwood Mac. Lindsey Buckingham devised this version for their live shows and it’s incredible. It’s not particularly difficult, but it’s reasonably fast and quite complex. In order to succeed we need to break the song down into more manageable chunks. Let’s take the introduction and verse. If we listen to it, it’s all the same. That’s our staring point. If we can nail this riff, we’ll be able to play about a third of the song. We can construct a goal around the intro and verse of the song:
- Clear – We’re going to learn a specific part of the song
- Challenging – I don’t know how to play it right now and it’s fast. It’s going to be a challenge
- Involves commitments – I’m going to have to work at this over a period of time. I’m going to need to slow it right down and build up the speed over time
- Feedback – I can obtain feedback from others, but I can provide feedback for myself. If I record myself practicing, then over time I’ll be able to notice improvement
- Complexity – I’m going to break it down into simple tasks. Once I’ve mastered each part of the song I can put the pieces together
For those interested here’s a version of the song courtesy of YouTube. Enjoy 🙂
Following that brief, yet masterful intermission, let’s get back to goals. You might not be learning a complex piece. The principal still applies. Break your goal down and ensure it meets the criteria outlined above. It’ll keep your practice interesting and you’ll be able to measure your progress. If you want to learn more about goal setting theory, here’s a really interesting explanation.
I think most people are creatures of habit. From an evolutionary perspective adopting habits is a great way to survive. We have a finite amount of energy so we’re programmed to preserve as much as possible. For example you’ll likely follow the same route to work day in day out. That means you don’t have to think about it and expend precious energy. If you work out you probably prefer either early morning or later in the evening. That’s a habit. If you schedule your practice at more or less the same time each session you’ll be reinforcing synaptic pathways that form habits. That’ll make it easier to “get into the zone” as your brain will be prepped due to conditioning. You might even write it down on a weekly schedule. That’s another great way to track your progress too!
Inject Some Fun!
You’ll want to include some fun in your practice. That might mean practicing your favorite song(s) for a while or even jamming along with a backing track. Some of the best practice sessions I’ve had included five or ten minutes of pentatonic scale soloing over backing tracks. Once I even jammed along with an Eagles DVD having picked out the scale the song was using. Including a little fun enables you to relax a little, which is important. If you’re going anywhere near a stage you need to be able to play in a relaxed fashion, rather than stiffly playing the routines you’ve practiced. Trust me, your audience will enjoy it more!
Practicing can be tough. I feel that the words ‘practice’ and ‘frustration’ are almost synonymous. There’s a element of self-discipline to practicing but setting goals, having a routine, picking up some theory and having fun can help you through. Remember, if you’re really having a tough time of it, go for a walk outside for ten minutes. That’ll give your mind and body a break. There have been countless times where I’ve put my guitar down in frustration only to come back following a walk to find that I can play what I was struggling with right off the bat. I hope this helps you to manage your practice. Feel free to leave a comment or alternatively use my contact page to get in touch. Happy practicing!