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How to be efficient when practicing playing guitar

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In this tutorial, you will learn the essential bases allowing you to be efficient when practicing playing guitar.

Basics required for this lesson : None
Practice this lesson : None

Many beginners (and some not so beginners) often wonder "what should I practice?". Even though this is a relevant question (which will be addressed in other tutorials), it is equally important to ask yourself "how should I practice?”. As a matter of fact, even the best exercises in the world won't help you improve much if you are not using an appropriate practice method. Therefore, this tutorial will cover the basics of practicing playing the guitar, with two parts:

  • the first part will deal with some important points and will try to answer questions often faced by beginners;

  • the second part will explain two golden rules to be applied almost all of time when practicing, to make sure you don't waste your time and you do not pick up bad habits.

Later on, other tutorials will tackle some methodological issues, because there is a lot to say on this matter and it will depend a lot on you. So take advantage of this tutorial and keep in mind what's being said, as it is useful in 99% of the situations.

The basics

Let's jump in and be straight-forward about a fact to remember: if you want to improve on the guitar, you need to practice. If you don't, you will not improve.

What do is practicing?

Rest assured that when I use the word practice, I don't mean spending eight hours a day on your guitar on boring and tiring exercises that are not so musical. Even though it's a good way to develop your technique, there are other ways to practice. But in any case, regardless of the method you use, the goal of this tutorial is to help you get the most out of it.

To simplify a bit the matter of guitar practice, one could say that improving depends on how much time you practice and on the quality of your practice session. Or, for maths lovers: improvement = time x quality.

Therefore, if you practice a lot, but you’re doing it the wrong way, you will not necessarily improce much. If you do not practice much, but you do it well, you will probably improve more. So for all of those who do not have much time to spend on the guitar, it's better to try and enjoy it to the max!

A broad subject

Please be aware that many things could be said about practicing playing the guitar. Topics such as time management, methodology being used, methods being followed, etc... are all subject to discussion, and they all depend very much on your preferences: a jazz soloist will not practice the same things or in the same way as a rythm guitarist will. It is therefore impossible to define a entire method that may apply to everyone.

So, instead of wasting a lot of time figuring out all of the possible scenarios, let's just see for now two basic rules that will apply in 99% of the situations. Two simple things you should always keep in mind if you really want to practice, and not just waste your time.

Frequent questions

Before seeing these two golden rules (which are explained in the next section for those who are in a hurry), let me answer a couple of questions that beginners usually have. These questions are a little outside of the scope of this tutorial but I prefer to avoid any confusion here.

First question: should I practice on exercises or on songs?

In the case of songs, should I practice full songs or just bits? Unfortunately, there is no answer to that. It will depend on each guitar player, on your level, on what you feel like, etc... and this issue will be further discussed in another tutorial. But in the meantime, so that you're not left alone and helpless wondering, I recommend to you either practice on both of them (exercises and songs) or you do what you feel like doing and practice whatever you want. Both approaches are interesting and both approaches have pros and cons, but when in doubt, just do what you feel like doing.

Second question: how long should I practice on the guitar?

I will tell you that the more time you spend, the better. But keep in mind, what we’re talking about is practice time. Spending hours on your guitar without practicing the right way will not help you improve much!

But let’s go back to the basic question and slightly rephrase it so that it's closer to the beginner's question: what's the minimum amount of time I should be practicing? At the very least, I advise you do no less than 10 or 15 minutes every day. If you want to improve well, it is very important that you practice every day. If you practice less than 10 minutes per day, or if you do not practice every day, it's not a lost cause, it's just that you will improve much more slowly.

Still part of the answer to this question is that you should remember that there is a very big difference between playing the guitar and practicing. If you play guitar, you play things that you already know, you are not practicng. If you practice, you are learning new things or you are improving in areas you already know and this is when you improve. Of course, you're quite right to play the guitar in addition to practicing, it is not forbidden at all (and it actually is the purpose of it all!), but know that when it comes to practice time, this is not playing time!

To wrap it up, one last tip on practice time: do not force yourself to practicing too much. Forced labor is less productive and may turn you off. You have to find your pace of work, the balance between practice and play, so that you improve without getting frustrated, and make sure you still enjoy it. And if you find that you are not improving enough, feel free to practice more if you feel you can do it, or just own your current improvement.

Let's now stop with all of this because it could go on for hours as there is so much to say. Let's immediately move on to the second part and see what these two pieces of advice are about.

The two golden rules

Well, before seeing these two rules, here’s a little wakeup call: I highly recommend that you always apply them! If you do not apply them, you may improve anyway but not as fast.

Let's see these two golden rules right away:

  • Rule # 1: repetition

  • Rule # 2: be thorough.

Repetition

So the first rule is quite simple: when it comes to guitar playing, if you want to learn something, you rehearse it many, many times.

And this does not only apply to the guitar: all nands and body movements one learns are repeated over and over again until reaching perfection. When you learn how to write in school, you don't manage to write a letter of the alphabet on your first time. You do it time and again, you write pages of it, until it comes out correctly. Another good example of this is tying shoelaces. At first you have a hard time doing it, you need to think about where each end goes. But once you've done it multiple times, you manage do it without even thinking, in a completely automatic way.

Almost everything you will do on the guitar works the same way: when you want to learn chords, finger movements, special techniques, you must repeat them many times.

In order to understand why this is, and so you especially understand the scope of this advice, you need to take a look at what goes on inside the brain. To make it simple, when a movement is repeated several times, the brain memorizes the movement. This is called reflex or muscle memory. And once this movement is memorized, when it is performed again, it doesn’t have to be thought of anymore, nor is it required to be broken down in a several actions, because the brain does everything on its own.

Unfortunately, some people are more gifted at this than others. For some, repeating 6 or 7 times will be enough for them to memorize a chord or a movement, for others it will take 30 or 40 repetitions. It will also depend on the complexity of the movement. But in any case, one eventually gets there, if one repeats the movement enough times.

Speaking of the brain, it is important to stress that sleeping plays a significant role in learning. So if you really want to learn a movement or acquire a reflex, you must repeat it day after day. It is better to repeat it 10 times every day for a week rather than repeating it 100 times in one day and stop. Hence, the advice in the first part: you have to practice daily.

However, this repetition thing has a major drawbackt. Imagine you learn a new chord, you repeat it 20 to 30 times every day for a week but unfortunately, without realizing, you make a mistake every time by placing a finger on the wrong spot. Then the brain memorizes a chord that is wrong. And then it becomes very serious, because it takes a long time to get rid of this reflex and re-learn the correct chord.

So, in order to avoid this kind of problem and such a huge waste of time, one must practice without making any mistake by all means. This leads us to the second golden rule.

Be thorough

So now you understood that when you practice, it is very important not to make any mistake because otherwise you waste a lot of time. The problem is that when you practice, you are learning movements that don't know yet, otherwise you wouldn't need to practice them. So, how could you learn something without ever making a mistake?

Well now, think before you act. If you jump in an exercise or a section of a song, right away, without thinking about the movement of the fingers, you're likely to make mistakes. So take the time to analyze what you are doing and think about the best way to do it before you get started. You do not want to aim for an average/ho-hum result that you would improve later, you want to immediately seek the appropriate movement, with no mistake.

But this is not enough! It’s nice to think ahead but it does not magically make us good. So the second very important point arising from this golden rule is that you must work very slowly. You should know, coming back to the good ol' brain, that no matter if you make a movement slowly or quickly, the brain records it (almost) in the same way. So it is completely useless to try making these movements quickly in the beginning, since you will not learn any faster, and since you take the risk of making mistakes.

You really need to understand this concept: the faster you practice, the faster you will make mistakes and waste time. I cannot insist enough on this, the goal is to strive for perfection and try not to make any mistake ever.

This leads us to another question that beginners often ask "What is a good pace to practice?" The answer is simple: as slowly as necessary. If you practice at a certain speed and you feel you're not comfortable with it, you cannot keep up to it, or you are failing from time to time, just slow down. You will work on speed will only once the movement is learned and completely mastered, slowly, and not before that.

But all of this is boring as hell

Yes, unfortunately, applying these tips all the time, ugh it's boring! It involves repeating the same phrases, slowly, many times, every day. This isn’t the funniest thing. Unfortunately, this really is the best way to move forward on the guitar.

Afterwards, you will not have to do it all the time. We all have moments when we do not want to practice and we should not necessarily force ourselves. But keep in mind that practice that is not repeated and that is not thorough does not make you improve much. It is therefore up to you to motivate to yourself to do it!

That's all for today, keep these two tips in mind which apply to all of situations. Learn to use them and other tutorials will deal with methodological issues, such as how to work on speed, how to manage your practice time or even how to work with the metronome. Good luck!

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Music is the wine that fills the cup of silence
(Robert Fripp)