If you want to learn how to play guitar well, and especially if you’re doing it online, without a teacher to keep a close eye on your progress, you need to understand and follow good practice habits.
Here are my five rules for practicing effectively:
1) Watch Yourself
2) The slower you go, the faster you’ll get there
3) Mistakes are warning signs
4) Keep things simple
5) Repeat until you’ve really got it
You might think of me as your teacher, but obviously I can’t see what you’re doing. As soon as you turn off this video and pick up your guitar, you’re your own teacher. So you need to be aware of how you’re practicing as you’re practicing. It’s as if there’s two versions of you: One is sitting in a chair, practicing the guitar. The other is looking over your shoulder, watching what you’re doing, thinking, “Hmmm. Am I going about this the right way?” Really, any good musician will do this as they practice, but it’s especially important that you step up, because there’s no one else around to correct your course if you start veering off the path.
I speak from experience here, because for the first fifteen years of playing guitar, I was mostly self-taught: I learned from books and tried to imitate what I heard in my favorite recordings. It really wasn’t until I started gigging as an adult that I learned how to practice properly. Back in high school I’d sit hunched over my tape player, listening to “The Ocean” by Led Zeppelin, and trying the same lick over and over, trying to play it at the same speed as the recording, and it was a total mess; but I figured that if I kept working on it over and over, I’d eventually wear down the rough edges until the song was perfect. Looking back on it, I wished I’d just stepped back for a moment and thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t be practicing at full speed.” I could have avoided learning a lot of bad habits.
And really, this is a natural mistake to make. Think about how we learn to walk, or ride a bike, or play a sport when we’re kids. It’s trial and error. We pedal down the sidewalk, we wipe out, we slap on a band-aid and get back on the bike. It makes sense that we’d approach practicing the guitar the same way. But it’s not the right way. Don’t practice the guitar by trial and error. Which brings us to...
The Slower You Go, The Faster You’ll Get There
One will be ~20 reps perfectly played at slow tempo. The other will be faster tempo and have some mistakes. I’ll loop these reps over “It’s like a camera” line”, overlapping video and using transparency to create a double-exposure effect.]
Instead of trial and error, your goal should be to avoid errors. This is because you’re trying to build muscle memory. Muscle memory is what gives you the ability to do complex movements without thinking about them. Once you’ve repeated a movement enough, your muscle memory can just take over and perform it more or less automatically. The problem is, when you’re developing muscle memory, your brain records each movement you make--the correct ones, but also the mistakes. It’s like a camera, dutifully taking snapshots of your movements. If you consistently make correct movements, your muscle memory will be like a long exposure photo where everything kept nice and still. Your mind will have a clear picture of how to successfully repeat the movement. But if 50% or 20% or even 10% of your repetitions is wrong, how will that long exposure photo look? Like a mess.
Mistakes are Warning Signs
When you make a mistake while you’re practicing, you should stop and ask yourself, “What should I change to avoid making that mistake in the future?” Sometimes you just need to pay more attention. But usually, the solution is to slow down more. So don’t just blow by your mistakes. A mistake is a little voice telling you, “Change the way you’re practicing.”
Keep Things Simple
Inexperienced students typically tackle a challenging piece of music by trying to play the whole thing at once, start to finish. Instead, they should simplify their task by just choosing a couple notes to work on at a time. Once they have those down, they can either try the next
few notes, or add a few notes to the ones they’ve already learned.
Simplifying also means working on just one skill at a time. Say you're learning how to play “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, and you don’t know any of the chords or the strum pattern. Your job is to build muscle memory in both your fretting hand (fretting the new chords) and your strumming arm (strumming the new pattern). So how do you focus on fretting those new chord shapes while making sure you strum correctly?
You can't. Despite the vehement claims of 99% of teenagers, who insist that they can do homework while watching TV, the human brain cannot multitask. The best it can do is switch its focus quickly between two tasks, though both tasks usually end up a mess: The homework is shoddy, and you miss half the TV show.
So when you’re trying to learn Brown-Eyed Girl, practice the two skills separately. Learn the chord changes by strumming once per chord (just to make sure they sounds good). Then practice the strum pattern while fretting an easy chord or just muting the strings. Once you
have both skills in you muscle memory, then you can try doing them simultaneously.
Repeat Until You’ve Really Got It
My teacher Jay Roberts, son of legendary guitarist Howard Roberts, taught me that it takes between 20 and 80 correct repetitions of a movement—-with no mistakes—-to build muscle memory. He had me set an egg timer for four minutes, and then try to make 80 correct repetitions of a phrase of music in those four minutes. If I made a mistake, I adjusted by simplifying or slowing down, and then started counting from one again.
Whether it takes 20 or 80 depends on your skill level and natural aptitude. Eddie Van Halen is probably one of those 20-reps guys. You and I are probably closer to being in the 80 club. Go 80's!
Disclaimer: Learning Rhythms 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.
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