It is virtually unavoidable that every musician, at some point in their training, will run into physical or mental barriers that threaten to limit their progress. On the guitar, such barriers can manifest in several different areas such as speed, accuracy, comprehension, etc. It is important to understand that in most instances, these barriers are the result of a lack in proper practice technique. Being smart about how and what you practice, when you practice, and for how long is a crucial skill to develop on your journey towards reaching your full potential on the instrument.
It is absolutely unnecessary, and very often potentially harmful, to practice for more than a few hours each day. The idea that slaving away on the guitar for 8-10 hours a day is the only way to become an accomplished musician, while romantic, is ultimately false. A word to the wise: many guitarists have seriously injured themselves by attempting such dramatic methods.
No, it is much more important that one effectively maximize the time that you have to devote to practice, and to spend that time EVERY DAY. It's better to practice a little a lot than a lot a little. 6 hour practice sessions every 3 days are not nearly as effective as 1 hour sessions daily. And if you have a day in which you are especially pressed for time, still make the effort to practice SOMETHING. The goal is to get your mind in that place daily, even if only for five minutes. This keeps things fresh, and it keeps your music firmly embedded in your daily thought process. Remember that good musicianship is as much mental as it is physical.
Take a minute before beginning practice to de-stress and clear your head. Entering practice with a clear mind and calm demeanor maximizes your chances of learning something new and retaining it.
Below, I have laid out some general guidelines for practicing that will help you to maximize your potential. These techniques have worked well for me as a guitarist, but they have also been put to excellent use by my friends and band mates who play other instruments as well. Remember that achieving your goals as a musician is directly related to your daily practice habits. It is important to see the big picture, but the big picture is made up of lots and lots of small pictures.
01. Accuracy, Then Speed
Always strive to be accurate. Strive to play each note cleanly, regardless of tempo. Be aware of where your fingers are falling within the fret: too close to the wire and the note will sound muted and dull...too far back and you will throw your intonation off. The ideal position is to fret the string absolutely as close to possible without any part of your fingertip touching the fret wire. Also, take note of how you are using your right hand. The angle and placement of the pick or plucking finger can dramatically affect your tone. Experiment with different methods, and always be conscious of what method you are using and why.
02. Understand It, Then Play It
When approaching new material, review it and try to understand it before trying to play it. Try to hear the music in your head as your read it. Be on the lookout for any sections that you think will be difficult to play, and make a mental note of them. This helps to put you inside the mind of the person who wrote the music, which will ultimately help you to better understand and feel the music.
03. Start Slooo000w
When dealing with challenging material, the basic rule of thumb is, you can't play it fast if you can't play it slow. Begin at a tempo of 60-70 BPMs, focusing on playing every note cleanly and correctly. (By the way, you should work with a metronome for at least 75% of your daily practice. This is critically important to developing accurate timing.) Once you are able to play the material flawlessly, then speed up by 5 BPMs or so and repeat the process. Continue this until you have achieved the desired tempo. As the tempo increases, become increasingly observant of your technique, and of any tension that may exist. Stop every 20 BPMs or so to ensure that your are still playing the piece correctly and haven't accidentally changed something without realizing it.
Muscle tension is your enemy when playing, ESPECIALLY at faster tempos. Focus on the microscopic details of what your body is doing as you play. Is there tension in your hand, wrist or forearm? Are you clinching your jaw? Are your shoulders and neck stiff? Are you using more pressure than necessary when fretting a note or barring a chord? Be aware of tension from head to toe, and always work to eliminate it.
It is most effective to break your practice time up into different categories. Devote individual blocks of time to each area that you wish to develop, such as warming up, technique, sight reading, music theory studies, etc. This accomplishes several things. First, it keeps you mentally engaged throughout your practice session. Second, it ensures that you will develop into a balanced and well-rounded musician who excels at many things rather than one or two. By devoting a specific amount of time to each area, you give yourself the ability to work as much on the mundane things as you do the more interesting or exciting things.
06. Take Breaks
When you begin to feel frazzled, or if your hand begins to stiffen or cramp, it is time for a break. I suggest taking a 15-20 minute break for every 30 minutes of practice. This helps you to keep your mind fresh, gives you time to vent stress or frustration, and allows your muscles to relax and release any pent up tension that may have developed.
07. Shake Things Up
Be sure to frequently and consistently introduce new material to your practice sessions. For example, learn a new song each week, or buy a new method book of some sort once a month, etc. And don't just learn similar material...stretch your creative muscle by challenging yourself with music from several genres and schools of technique.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this article, in which we'll discuss specific techniques for overcoming physical blocks to developing speed, accuracy, and dexterity.