“How do I practice the guitar”?
It’s an age-old question, one that has been asked by pretty much every beginner out there that ever picked up the instrument. Learning how to play the guitar can seem to be an uphill battle, mostly because there is just so much to comprehend at the start.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The best way to answer this question is to break it into two separate ones: “how should I practice” and “what should I practice”. They may sound similar, but they are entirely different things to consider. Let’s take some time to explore an answer to each, and find out what is the best way to practice the guitar effectively.
How should I practice the guitar?
“How” you practice the guitar is miles away from “what” you should practice. “How” implies developing a process. More accurately, it means creating an approach – a mindset – that works best for you. No two guitar players are the same, so it’s a safe bet to say that no two players should approach their practising regimen in the same way.
“There’ll come a writing phase where you have to defend the time, unplug the phone and put in the hours to get it done.” ~ James Taylor
Sure, there are some basic ideas that all practice plans need to have in them, and that’s what we’ll touch on. What’s important is to keep in mind that each of these points can – and should – be tailored to fit you and your personality as a player. That will ensure that you will be the most benefit out of your practising time.
Before you do anything else, you need to think about what kind of guitar player you want to be. Are you going to be a songwriter? Are you going to be very proficient with playing difficult chord changes and solos?
What you want to do is very important, because that will determine what kind of goals you need to set for yourself. There’s not a lot of sense in learning to be a finger tapping, sweep picking shred master if you’re going to be satisfied with learning some chords and playing a few songs for you and your friends’ enjoyment.
Goals need to be set up, so you challenge yourself, because if they are too easy, then there’s nothing to keep you motivated and reaching for the stars. At the same time, you don’t want to set your sights too high, because if things get tough and frustrating, then it might lead you to lose interest altogether.
And that’s a bad thing.
Best time, place, and frequency?
You should pick a time of day where you’ll be most likely to be alert and have that hunger to learn when that time is different depending on the person. Trying to practice when you’re tired or otherwise not in ‘prime shape’ may defeat your purpose for practising in the first place.
As far as a practising space is concerned, you should find a comfortable location where distractions can be kept to a minimum. Regardless of what some people may say, there is an element of practising that is work; you’ll be best served by being able to hold your concentration as much as possible.
How often do you plan on practising? Every day? Three times a week? Whenever the spirit moves you? Once you lock in on a frequency that is that right balance between too much and too little, then considering how long to practice is your next step. Some players practise for hours, upon hours.every – single – day. Others are more than fine with knocking things out a few hours a week every couple of days.
Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed.
There are two ways to become overwhelmed that you should try to avoid at all costs: mentally and physically. Mentally you just might be biting off more than you can chew, and you may find yourself feeling like you’ll never achieve your goals. If you find yourself getting to that point, the best thing you can do is take a break for a while. Sometimes coming back refreshed is the best cure for what ails you.
Being physically overwhelmed usually occurs more often in the beginner phases. You may have all of the motivation in the world. Still, if your fingers hurt too much (due to calluses not forming yet) or if you find yourself coming on some arm/finger positions that feel uncomfortable, then that’s also a recipe for extinguishing the flame. If things start to hurt (literally), or if some type of motion seems uncomfortable, take it slow and easy. Sometimes trying to move too fast is more detrimental than useful.
What should I practice on the guitar?
OK – so you’re all set with how you’re going to practice. Now what?
Here’s where the rubber meets the road – part of your goal setting is to determine what actual aspects of playing the guitar that you want to get better at. There’s a lifetime of music theory topics and specific techniques that you can master with disciplined guitar practice.
The key is going after the ones that will help you move the fastest to get where you want to be an attempt to spend a certain amount of time on them with each practising session.
Let’s take a look, shall we?
Notes on the fretboard
Music isn’t music without notes, and having a solid knowledge of where the 12 notes in the Western chromatic scale are located on the fretboard is a skill which will always be well worth the time spent.
There are many resources on different memorization techniques, and some of them are pretty ingenious. The good thing here is that it’s a simple memorization process – no advanced music theory required!
Having a solid knowledge may seem like a bit much at first. If you want to become a complete master at the guitar, though, then knowing the ins and outs of where each note lies will make your development much easier as your knowledge progresses.
Scales are nothing more than patterns of different intervals, or the distance between notes on the fretboard. Having a solid knowledge of scales and how they work is the cornerstone of having an excellent soloing vocabulary.
There are countless books and lessons on scales, so there’s no lack of information available. You’ll find everything from simple patterns to weaving different types of scales within the same song to significant musical effect.
Knowledge of scales is a natural lead-in to getting some sweet soloing techniques in your toolbox. Playing single notes all of the time will get, well, boring. Practising and learning to execute different skills properly will add a personal element to your playing. It also will let you apply your emotion and ‘stamp’ – which are the building blocks of developing your style.
Techniques which can take your soloing to a whole new level include different picking techniques (alternate, hybrid, and sweep), developing a smooth vibrato, sliding accurately up and down the neck to land on a specific note. Executing hammer-ons and pull-offs, learning flowing legato runs, other types of harmonics (natural, artificial, and tapped), and finger tapping.
In their purest form, chords are nothing more than taking a few particular notes from a scale and playing them all together at the same time.
Chords are the backbone and building blocks for pretty much any song that you’ve ever heard (or ever will hear), so having good chord knowledge is a ‘must-have’ for any guitarist, no matter what kind of guitar player you want to be.
Different types of chords range from what we’ll call the ‘basics’ :(major, minor, dominant 7th, and major 7) to more complex ones that add flavour and style to a composition. Jazz is an excellent example of how these more complicated chords create a unique sonic texture. They can take you to a different place, and are also great catalysts to increasing your creativity.
A critical chord related skill for players looking to become a little more advanced is learning to play them in different positions along the neck, with an emphasis on what are called ‘inversions’. Inversions are merely taking a set of notes and flipping them around to have different ones being played on different strings. The overall sound is relatively the same, but the ‘color’ can be refreshingly different.
One of the best ways to put everything that you’ve learned (and get some real-life application) is to try and learn your favourite songs. There’s a sense of satisfaction when you finally nail your favourite tune, and it’s one of the best ways to keep your motivation up.
Challenge yourself! Learning songs that easily fit in the box as far as your skillset is concerned may get a little boring after a while. If there’s a song where you feel you may have to push yourself a little bit (or even a lot), then great – it’s always a good thing to keep your chops and skillsets as good as they ever can be. There’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had by doing so.
One other benefit of learning to play songs is that it’s one of the most effective ways to work on ear training. Developed guitar players have a sense of ‘hearing’ things, such as recognizing different types of chord progressions to identifying a chord type only by how it sounds. Sometimes it’s a worthy exercise to put the chord charts and guitar tablature to the side, go ‘old school’, and figure out how to play a song by just listening to it.
As you can see, developing a robust, comprehensive plan that you’re comfortable with is the best way to practice the guitar, granting you the fastest pathway to success. That plan needs to have two distinct parts to it – ‘how’ to practice (your schedule and process) along with ‘what’ to practice (skills, techniques, and music theory). It will take some trial and error at the start, but eventually, you’ll land on a mix of the two that’s ‘just right’.
Oh…before we sign off, there’s one other vital thing that you, positively, have to keep in your mind at all times: it’s OK not to be perfect. Practising and putting time in is the only way that you’ll become proficient at playing the guitar, and that means you will make mistakes. Some things will take you longer to grasp and perfect than you thought. So what if they do? Look at them as challenges to overcome, not as roadblocks.
But that’s how you learn. And learning (by practicing) will eventually lead you to your ultimate goal, whether that’s strumming a few tunes with your friends around the campfire, jamming out live on stage, or just being happy with the fact that you did it – you learned how to play the guitar!
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