Best Practice Practices – Part 1

The aesthetic grace of its curves and lines stirs covetous tactile longings in a guitarist’s soul.  The Sonance of six-string shamans scratch at our parietal and frontal lobes…, and calls to us.  But by what conditions are mortal hands deemed worthy to take up the ax and carve forth a unique sonic pathway through the forest of guitar tedium?  No, seriously.  How do we practice effectively and get wicked good?

In this series of articles I’m going to discuss what I teach my students about practice;  what is it, hopefully beyond the obvious, and what elements you should think about as you are creating your guitar workout regime?

As a guitarist who genuinely loves listening to and playing a wide variety of musical styles, I firmly believe that the guitar is the ultimate instrument of self-expression.  At the risk of exposing my extreme bias, I, and many, many others, feel it’s emotive range is unparalleled.  As a guitar teacher I feel that I’m responsible for promoting the concept of ‘more education, equals more possibilities for expressive freedom, but realize that such possibilities aren’t required by everyone.  It’s deeply personal.

Your required level of education on the instrument is directly linked to what you feel you need to express yourself.  Musical education, and practice, however, are separate entities.  You won’t need much in the line of professional music lessons to get down a few chords and a pentatonic scale if that’s what you feel you require to fulfill your own personal guitar aspirations.  But you will need practice.  You want to be able to control those chords and tone, and you want to be able to use that scale to do your bidding.  That comes from practice, and not just any practice, proper practice.

The first practice concept to consider is consistency, and how it works hand in hand with developing proper form. The word itself is broad in the scope of its meaning in terms of practice, but in this instance, consistency means setting time aside every day and practicing a specific exercise or skill you want to improve in.  Sporadic practice is not enough to maximize the development of muscle memory, and that is our end goal.  When a movement is repeated over a period of time, motor learning takes place.  Without getting too neuroanatomy on you, there are two stages; a short-term memory encoding stage and a long-term memory consolidation stage.  The short-term memory encoding stage is thought to be delicate and easily susceptible to damage, and the long-term is much sturdier.  The long-term memory consolidation is what is needed in order that the task may be performed without conscious effort.  What this means in terms of consistency, is this; long periods of time between practice sessions poses a greater risk of loss of the motor-learning gains acquired and thus results in a lesser chance of the skill advancing to the long-term memory consolidation stage.  After a technique has been committed to long-term memory consolidation you can move on to the next without fear of losing those gains.  So, sporadic practice bad, consistent practice good.

The second concept is goals.  Earlier I mentioned practicing a specific exercise or skill, and this is where goals come in.  This part is pretty easy.  Like most things, guitar skills build off each other.  The mastering of one technique sets you up to learn another more advanced technique and so on and so on until you become a Vai, Segovia, or Petrucci.  But it begins with a single note or chord and builds from there.  When selecting your practice goals, begin with something achievable based on your current level of playing.  A good guitar teacher can be an asset at this point, as they will be constantly analytical of your playing and observant of where you require strengthening in your technique.  But let’s say you are having trouble with a certain chord change in a song you are learning.  Your goal for a particular practice session would simply be that chord change.  

Start with analysis.  What is it about that chord change that is making it more difficult than other chord changes you already have down?  If you have a good teacher, they will offer suggestions in hand and arm positioning and maybe some exercises to practice.  If not, try watching some videos of other guitarists making that change and watch carefully what they do and try to imitate it exactly.  You can also simply check your fingering and experiment with small changes in your hand position until the change feels the most comfortable.  Then very slowly and cleanly play the first chord, then the second.  Repeat slowly at first paying careful attention to how it sounds and how it feels.  This slow motion playing can be a little frustrating and will test your patience, but trust me it will pay off.  If the guitar was easy, everyone would be a Guthrie Govan.  Don’t let yourself be distracted.  Make sure any fingers that require movement are moving simultaneously during the change to their new position.  You want small precise movements.  As you repeat the process muscle memory forms and eventually the movement will become a non-conscious movement.  Now speed it up a bit and continue to repeat.  Next thing you know, it’s down.  Funny huh?  There’s no real trick to it other than that.  Consistency in practice, repetitive motion, patience and focus, and you can learn to play anything.

Let’s summarize.  Before creating a practice routine, think about how much practice is right for you.  The more you practice the more technique you can master.  But this is art.  How much technique do you need to express yourself, and more importantly, really love the simple act of playing guitar?  Next, you need to understand that it’s better to practice 1/2 hour every day than to practice 2 hours and then not play for a week.  That’s the consistency thing we were talking about.  Lastly is goals.  You need goals in order to progress and stay on track.

With these concepts in mind, you begin to develop your practice routine.  In the next article, ‘Best Practice Practices – part 2’, we will dive deeper into defining productive approaches to practice, including some tips and tricks I teach my students to help with some of the common guitar perils, such as hand strength and picking speed and precision.  Thanks for reading!  See you in the next article.