The Importance of Having Fun

What’s the use of practicing guitar if you’re headed toward burnout? Whenever you’re working on something–a song, as skill, and exercise–you should be listening to your gut, asking yourself if what you’re doing is inspiring you.

I mention this because in yesterday’s post How To Practice, I listed some principles for practicing that some of you might consider a bit anal (as the psychotherapists put it). We guitarists are generally more laid-back than your average, say, oboe player. We like to break the rules, make weird noises, and occasionally smash our instruments for thousands of screaming fans. (Maybe oboe players would smash their instruments too if it didn’t look so silly, I don’t know.)

So whenever I teach a finger exercise or use the metronome with my students, I tell them that they shouldn’t use it if it’s making them reach for the lighter fluid (you young folks may not be aware of the famous story of Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire). The most important thing you can do to get better at the guitar is to practice a lot, so whatever you’re doing needs to keep you motivated.

For example, I learned the principles in How to Practice when my guitar teacher Jay taught me a highly structured practice routine that was too rigid for my tastes. It involved using an egg timer and practicing in 5-minute intervals, counting correct repetitions, and starting over when a mistake is made. It was cool to try out, but eventually the egg timer got on my nerves. That’s when I knew that I needed to adapt the technique to match my personality. Now I still try to avoid mistakes, but there’s no egg timer, and no counting. I repeat a passage until I think I’ve got it. And I’m loving it the whole time.

Comments 13

  1. I have two practicing techniques depending on my mood. One, I’ll practice the C G combination. Even to this day I have a problem with that. Then I go through all the chords up and down the neck. Two, I pick chords and major/minor pentatonic scales in different melodies and rhythms. I just make up stuff as I go along. I’ve found that using a metronome (which I have) only makes me trip up more. Since I’m not out to be a professional stage performer, I shelved my metronome. It took all the fun out of practicing for me. I practice new songs very slowly, until eventually I can play with a recording. When I’m learning a new song, I always read the sheet music first. If there are tabs for it I usually stick with them because they are easier to read, or I’ll transcribe sheet music to tabs. But I have friends who only use tabs, and I ask them if they know what they are playing. Most times they don’t care, they just want to play. I like both ways. I learned how to read music when I was little, so it’s important for me to know what notes I’m playing. This helps me find other songs on the guitar without looking up the music. Knowing music is very important as far as I’m concerned. It also helps when you move to another instrument. I know how to play piano and guitar, and I’m in the middle of learning violin and flute. Once you learn how to play a specific instrument, the music is the foundation and it transfers easily to other instruments. Now that is even more powerful. But still requires loads of practice 🙂

  2. Yeah, a guy who takes lessons from my teacher says “there’s a big difference between practising and playing ” practising needs to be fun too! Also: Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire??!! wow… Anyway, this is an awesome blog and I’ll be sure to visit it again!

  3. Here’s what Steve Vai had to say.

    What It Takes To Be A Virtuoso by Steve Vai
    A lot of people ask me, “How do you play fast?” I’m not the best fast player in the world, that’s for sure. But the secret to playing fast is playing slow – perfectly – and gradually bringing it up to speed. So let’s set a few simple ground rules to apply to any practicing.

    1. Use a metronome or another time-keeper, like a drum machine, and start off slowly.

    2. Always alternate your picking.

    3. Here’s the bust: You have to do it without making any mistakes. And every note has to have tone to it. Every note has to sound like a good note, and you can’t go on until it does!

    4. If you make a mistake, go back to the beginning. This is the military, isn’t it? If you want to be a virtuoso, this is what it takes.

    5. Don’t increase the metronome speed until you’ve gotten through each exercise perfectly at the previous speed.

    So for those who really want to excel, I think Steve is worth listening to.

    Another reason why the metornome is important I think is that to really be able to play, there are slow songs and fast songs and everything in between. So if you are playing a slow song, and tempo is a problem – guess what! It won’t be slow for very long. Just food for thought. No, we don’t want to be slaves to the click, but it sure does help.

    Oh yeah, and another thing. If you end up doing studio work, everybody uses click tracks now. I used to ge really ticked when they tried to put that click in my ear. I would say – get that away from me! It’s the drummers job! Then I found out that if I practice at the right tempo with the click, sessions went lots smoother.

  4. It’s great to hear this from Speedy Steve. And I’ve had the same experience with recording, Dave–I had a hell of a time playing with a click track when I started. Now it’s second nature (well, OK, maybe third or fourth, but definately one of my top ten natures).

  5. Just wanted once again to say thanks for such a fantastic website. I’m the one living on a remote tropical island between the northernmost tip of Australia and Papua New Guinea, and I might have gone seriously mental due to lack of happening up here if it hadn’t been for your website. Love the songs, love the tips, love the videos. Still can’t work out – is that really the correct strum pattern for Warning Sign by Coldplay? Cheers, Meg

  6. Hi Meg! I remember you—you live on an island my dad visited during WW II. Kerama Retto? Good to hear from you!

    Yep, that’s the right strum pattern for Warning Sign. The early chord change makes it tricky.

    Enjoy the music!

  7. Is that right that your did visited here? That’s interesting. The Japanese bombed Horn Island (which is the next door island where the airstrip is) but they left Thursday Island perfectly intact. No one has ever found out why. There are lots of rumours that it might have been because of a large Japanese pearl diver presence here on Thursday Island, but by the time the war came the pearl divers were all in POW camps down on the Australian mainland. I never knew there were American troops here too!

  8. Hi Rob, let me introduce myself, this is the first time talking to you, I have visited your web about three times, in desperation for help, I’m new to the guitar, been taking lessons since Sept.06, I thought it always looked like a relaxing instrument, WOW! was I off, finding your web has helped to realize I wasn’t the only one out there having a hard time. I have a young teacher in a local music store, (mostly kids there)he’s great, he plays wonderfully, but I’m lost, as a kid I played trumpet and as an adult I dappled in piano, but nothing was as hard as this, I have trouble fingering cords, I change cords easy at all, and I’m having trouble figuring out how to strum. Some of your music and strumming patterns have helped me. But as soon as I look at music (I did manage to learn how to read a tab)I start to think of the words and I don’t know where the strum comes and goes. Right now I’m working on American Pie, I got off your web, I get it in some places and in other spots I’m not sure how do you fit the entire strum in before the next cord change? I realize now that compared to the other instruments I played the guitar has no rhym or reason, there are too many things you can do, and it seems everyone does something different, it took me this long just to establish this concept. I don’t want to give up I need music in my life, I also love country music and all kinds. I know its harder when your older, please don’t make me say my age, but I’m from the British Invasion and beyond, ha ha. Still working full time I don’t have as much time to practice as I know I need to but I do the best I can. I do see an improvement since Sept. but I guess I thought it would be much faster like other instruments. I jump from playing notes for melody just to here a song to trying to strum. I am playing on an acoustic guitar, not electric, I just love the sound of it, just think of some of the sixty greats, Paul Simon etc. Anyway, any tips you have for me I greatly appreciate, by reading your comments to others with same problems has at least put my mind to rest that I wasn’t loosing it! Thanks for a great Website, and I will be looking forward to hearing from you.

  9. Hi Mary!

    Learning how to strum and sing at the same time is tough! The basic approach is to learn the pattern so well that you could hold a conversation while playing. And that just takes tons of repetition.

    In songs like American Pie, one of the big problem spots is what to do when there’s a chord change in the middle of the pattern (i.e. the pattern’s a whole measure long, but the chords only last two beats each). There are two options. The most common is to play the first half of the pattern twice, once for each chord. The other is to play the first half of the pattern for the first chord, and the second half for the second chord. It all depends on what rhythm sounds best.

    American Pie is a pretty tough song–it’s fast, with lots of unpredictable chord changes. You might have more fun learning easier songs first. At least don’t get discouraged thinking you’re too old to learn or something. I have a beginner in his 70’s and he’s doing great.

    Good luck,


  10. nothing NOTHING is as annoying as my Korg digital metronome. “DINK-donk-donk-donk-DINK-donk…”

    Give me that old fashioned, wind up that looked like the Washington Monument.

    I hate digital anything. Hell must be digital.

Leave a Reply