Practice Tips Part One: Are You A Good Guitar Player?

Practice Tips Part One

A big part of my job as a guitar teacher is to evaluate each student's playing ability and understanding of music on the guitar. When I know where students are at and where they want to go, I can create a plan to help them reach their goals. I thought it would be beneficial to create a short quiz to help guitarists see where their strengths and weaknesses are, and I thought I'd start with something fun.

A. How well can you play music from reading standard music notation?
  • What are all the golf clubs doing on the fences?
  • I can play it at home just fine, but not in front of other people.
  • I want to spend my time debating if guitarists should learn to read music.
B. How many chords do you know?
  • I can play some, but I don't know what 7 means.
  • My hands are too big/small/fat/skinny to play any chords clearly.
  • I have a book of 10,000 guitar chords and I am learning all of them, in order.
C. Do you know and understand music theory?
  • I don't know where to start, there's too much information online.
  • I love reading theory books but I haven't applied any of it to my guitar yet.
  • If I learn too much about music theory, it will inhibit my creativity.
D. What do you know about scales?
  • The modes are all Greek to me.
  • I know the pentatonic and major scales, but all my solos sound the same.
  • I've memorized all the patterns, therefore I know everything.
E. How good is your ear?
  • I don't understand how some musicians can play together without music.
  • Augmented fourth, diminished fifth; they're the same, right?
  • Everything I play is original and I don't want to learn from anyone else.
F. How would you describe your guitar playing technique?
  • Is it bad that my thumb comes over the top of the guitar neck?
  • If Jimi Hendrix played with his teeth, that means it's ok.
  • The faster I play, the better my technique gets.
Results: If the first or second answers to each question resonated with you, you are in good shape to become a great guitar player. You have valid questions and are driven by a curiosity which will make you an excellent guitar student. You might not know everything, you are aware of that, and you are ready to get on a solid track of learning guitar.

Many guitarists tell me they practice every day but they are not satisfied with their rate of improvement. Most of those people just don't understand what a good practice plan should look and feel like. Once you have a good plan in place and a good teacher to help you, you will be shocked at how much you can accomplish in a short amount of time. (If you want to jump ahead to learn how to create an effective practice plan, check out Practice Tips: Part Two.)

Practicing Vs. Playing
It's important to understand the difference between practicing and playing. You play what you know, you practice what you don't know. When you perform a song all the way through, you are playing. When you learn new chords, rhythms, or scales in order to play a song, you are practicing. Because practice takes so much energy, mental focus, and determination, I encourage most of my students to practice with full concentration for about 10-40 minutes a day, and play music for about 30-90 minutes a day. More practice doesn't necessarily lead to better playing; better practice leads to better playing. Good guitarists spend quality time addressing their weaknesses, and a lot of time playing music and having fun. (Remember, you wanted to be a guitarist so you could play the guitar.)

Practice (Perfectly) and Play Every Day
ou just can't cram for your guitar lessons like you can do for other classes. It takes time on your instrument and time away from your instrument for your hands to learn the skills. When you practice, your body builds pathways for the signals to travel from your brain to the muscles in your hands. Those pathways need time to set, which means that you need time between practice sessions. You'll be much better off if you practice 20 minutes each day than if you practice for two hours right before your lesson.
If you want to improve at the fastest rate, practice for short amounts of time, several times a day. Have you ever driven to a new place and taken a wrong turn and then noticed that the next time you drive there, you feel pulled to take that wrong turn again because it feels so familiar? Something similar happens when you practice. If you practice something incorrectly, you are likely to repeat the same mistake because it feels familiar. That's why it's so important to pay attention when you practice. To ensure that your body creates the correct muscle memories, practice correctly, no matter how slow. You can speed up when your body knows the way.
Too Busy to Practice?
On the days when you are busy and/or tired, practice for 5 or 10 minutes, but make it quality practice. Pick one "trouble spot" and work it out as much as you can in the limited time frame. It could be a difficult chord change, a technique exerciseor running a new scale. Everything helps you progress and it feels awesome to know that you make time to practice every day.
Practicing involves working on something that does not come easily, and many students tell me they feel frustrated when they practice. It actually makes me happy when students feel a little frustrated because it tells me they really want to learn how to play the guitar. Know that it's normal to feel frustrated and talk to your teacher about it. The learning process involves feelings of frustration from time to time, but if you feel overwhelmed, you may need to explore those feelings a bit further.
Feeling Stuck?
It's important for students to keep learning new and challenging material. A lot of guitar players become comfortable with a handful of chords, a few scale patterns, and some popular riffs. These players forget what it was like when they were first learning how to play the guitar. It was not all fun and it sure didn't come easy. There were sore fingers, complex diagrams, and the fear that no matter how much time they spent at it, they had no idea if they would ever be able to play anything at all. But they worked at it anyway and it was awesome when they got it. For serious students of the guitar, this process of noticing frustration and then overcoming new challenges becomes an addictive habit. Need some new concepts to work into your playing? Check out Must Know Guitar Skills.
You Are So Talented, You Don't Need to Practice
Some students think they are fooling their teacher, or they must be very talented musicians if their teacher doesn’t notice they have not practiced their assignments. What it really means is that the teacher doesn't care, as long as tuition is paid. I have seen guitar teachers laugh at their students who keep coming back when absolutely nothing is being accomplished. "I just keep wondering when they'll notice," one teacher told me. Ugh! These students think they are fooling the teacher, but really, the teacher is fooling the students. Stop taking lessons or find a teacher who will hold you accountable to your assignments and you will accomplish your goals and feel good about the time and money you devote to you guitar lessons.

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