How To Practice Guitar

One of my hopes for this notebook is to collect lesson ideas. Here is my first entry along that line.

When you practice a difficult piece of music, do you repeat the whole thing again and again, stumbling the whole way through, until the music eventually surfaces from under the mess of wrong notes, halting rhythm, and curses? That’s how I used to practice.

I started playing guitar when I was in the seventh grade, learning mostly from my friends Justin, a Jimmy Buffet fanatic, and Matt, a hair band shredder. While it was a varied education, one thing I didn’t learn was how to practice. I would attempt long passages of music—like Jimi Hendrix’s Castles Made of Sand—at top speed, again and again. I thought that was how everyone did it. The approach went something like this: make 50 mistakes on my first try, 48 on my second, 47 on my third, and in another decade, I’ll be able to play the whole thing with no mistakes! Now how the heck do I sing along?

The process was so slow and frustrating, I’m surprised I stuck with it at all. And I never did get Castles down.

Over the years, I got rid of a lot of those bad habits, but things really came together for me during lessons with Jay Roberts a few years ago. Here are the principles I distilled from those lessons:

  • We Repeat Musical Phrases to Build Muscle Memory Muscle memory is a mental record of repeated movements that enable us to move with no thought. When Hendrix sings “Castles Made of Sand” while playing all those gorgeous embellishments on his guitar, he’s not thinking much about his playing—his fingers just remember what they’ve played before. Most of his thought is probably going to singing, making those embellishments sound expressive, and impressing that cute girl in the front row.
  • Muscles Remember Mistakes The process of building muscle memory is simple: The body moves, and the mind records the movement. It records with no judgment, like a security camera filming a bank lobby or a stenographer typing testimony in a courtroom. So when you perform mistakes, your muscle memory records those movements just as it records correct movements. When you mess up, you might think, “Shoot, that’s the fifth time I hit that wrong note!” but your muscle memory is diligently recording the incorrect movement all the same.
  • Avoid Mistakes by Simplifying and Slowing Down When I was practicing “Castles Made of Sand,” I’d try a big musical phrase, and play it as fast as I could. Of course, it sounded like the cat was playing the guitar, and I was digging myself into a hole because my muscle memory was recording all those mistakes. What I should have done was simplify the music by just choosing a couple notes to work on at a time. Once I had those down, I could either try a few different notes, or add a few notes to the notes I’d already learned. Also, I should have slowed down enough to make correct playing easy. This is actually really hard to do—I’m constantly telling my students to slow down. It’s not just impatience, it’s that people don’t realize how slow slow is. Slow is however slow you need to go to play without mistakes. For beginners learning a lick, this could mean one note every three or five seconds. As Jay put it, “The slower you go, the faster you’ll get there.”
  • Simplifying Also Means Isolating the Skill You’re Learning Say you’re learning to strum a new song that has a new strum pattern and new chords. Your job is to build muscle memory both with your left hand (fretting the new chords) and your right arm (strumming the new pattern). The problem is, until you build muscle memory, you have to exert all your focus on the skill you’re learning, making sure you don’t make mistakes. So how do you focus on fretting those new chord shapes while making sure you strum correctly? You can’t. So instead, you practice the two skills separately. Fret the new chords and just strum once to make sure they sound good. Repeat. Then practice the strum pattern while fretting just one chord. Repeat. Once you have both skills in your muscle memory, you can practice them together.
  • Repeat Until You’ve Really Got It Jay said that it takes between 20 and 80 correct repetitions of a musical phrase—with no mistakes—to build muscle memory. If you make a mistake, simplify or slow down, and then start counting from one again. Whether it takes 20 or 80 depends on your natural aptitude. Eddie Van Halen is probably one of those 20-reps guys. I am closer to being in the 80 club, and proud of it. Go 80’s!
  • Learning Strum Patterns Is A Little Different I’ve found that you don’t have to be quite so militant about avoiding mistakes when you’re learning new rhythms, like a new strum pattern. While simplifying and slowing down is helpful, learning rhythms also involves the mysterious process of “getting into the groove.” It demands that you loosen up, stop worrying about sounding bad, and try to feel the music. So don’t worry as much about mistakes. Once you get the strum pattern down, you’ll have plenty of time to obliterate the mistakes from your muscle memory as you strum that pattern over and over and over and over.

I hope this revolutionizes the way you practice. It’s made my own practice so much more enjoyable and productive. Let me know if you’ve found it helpful, have any other tips, or if you’re interested in guitar lessons in Seattle.

Heartwood Hoedown

Today I had the opportunity to teach some fiddle tunes to my student R. and his sister K. I’m not a great old-time-country player, and most of my students play rock music anyway, so I don’t teach fiddle tunes much. But I like them, and learned a few when I played in the short-lived World’s Worst, Friendliest Bluegrass Band (which is another story). So when R.’s mother told me last week that she’d like to bring R.’s sister, a violin player, to the next lesson, I was excited.

R. was less enthusiastic. He’s eleven, and has been my student for almost a year now. I’ve taken him through Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” (a great beginner’s song if you play it in Em instead of F#m), and Green Day’s “Good Riddance,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and “Holiday.” So he’s not exactly a huge country music fan.

But R. is also diplomatic, so he went along with it. We first tried a slow waltz, which was very pretty, but it had a few new chords in it (dominants mostly) that Ryan hadn’t encountered playing his punk tunes. We finally settled on a 12-bar blues song called “Stinky’s Blues.” R. substituted the A, D, and E7 chords with power chords, and I showed him a little shuffle rhythm he could strum. K. sounded great on the fiddle, and by the time mom got back at the end of the hour, we had a little hoedown going on. Mom was delighted, and K. said she had a good time too. It was hard to tell if R. had much fun, though he did seem to take some pride in showing his older sister his guitar skills.

It’s always interesting to see how parents balance their children’s desires with their own dreams of who they’d like their children to be. Many parents dream of their families playing music together, but the kids are usually not as excited about it. How hard do you push?

On the one hand, I don’t think kids should be forced to do any kind of musical activity that they really don’t want to do. Music is a form of play–it’s highly structured and requires skill and discipline to do it well, but its goal is still simple pleasure, unless you’re one of those people who thinks that learning to play the piano under duress will boost SAT scores. I personally don’t think it’s worth it. Forcing people to play music is like forcing people to smile.

On the other hand, kids often need guidance and encouragement. R. would never have played fiddle tunes with his sister had his mom not encouraged him, and I think he got something out of it.

As R. was leaving, I joked that maybe, some day, he’d fall in love with a woman who’s crazy about fiddle tunes. He’s just eleven years old, but he seemed encouraged by the idea.

A Guitar Lesson From Ray

Today I was introducing a student to the minor pentatonic scale. I was about to show the student the whole scale when I recalled the scene from Ray where an old piano player teaches the young Ray Charles to improvise using three notes. I remembered thinking, as I watched the movie, “Three is the perfect number to start with. Easy to remember, but varied enough to allow plenty of expression.”

I taught my student the three notes (the same three little Ray used), launched into a blues boogie-woogie rhythm, and two minutes later my student was telling me how fun and easy blues improvising was.

A year ago I introduced the minor pentatonic scale using the whole finger pattern–twelve notes–and students often stumbled and got frustrated before they caught on. Up until today, I would teach an octave–six notes–with good results. But after today, I’m convinced three notes is the perfect place to start.

I wonder if Ray would have stuck with the piano if his first lesson had been on reading music notation….

Teacher's Notebook Launched!

So much can happen in an hour’s guitar lesson–it seems like every day I learn something new about teaching or playing. I want this blog to be a place to share these moments with my students and anyone else who comes along.

I hope you’ll join in on the conversation if you like.