These Two Things Separate the Experts From the Amateurs

A recent study revealed that, among other things, two main practice techniques were the primary reason certain athletes succeeded and others did not. This can be applied to guitar playing as well.

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If you're serious about playing guitar, and since you're reading this I assume you are, you probably spend a lot of time practicing. I don't mean a few hours a week, I mean a few hours a day. Like many guitar players, you may be frustrated with your lack of progress and think that you just don't have the talent other people have or that you'll never be a great guitarist. You may wonder why some people seem to excel while you continue to be stuck where you are. You may wonder, what is it that sets them apart from me? What do they do differently? Is there something I can do to improve my practicing so that I achieve more? Well, keep reading. A recent study done at City University looked at two groups of basketball players. One group were expert free throw shooters while the other was, well, pretty bad. The researchers wanted to know what made one group excel and the other fail. They found two main characteristics of their practicing that can be applied directly and immediately to you in your practice sessions. First, the experts set specific goals. For instance, instead of practicing with the goal to improve, they practiced with the goal to make 10 of 10 free throws. The group of poor free throw shooters did not set specific goals. They just "tried to get better" without being specific. Second, the experts, when they failed, identified specific problems or reasons why they missed their free throws, such as failing to bend their knees. The other group did not do this at all - they just assumed they weren't concentrating or used other generalities about why they did not succeed. I think it is pretty obvious how this can be applied to your practice sessions. Next time you sit down to practice, write down one or two or three very specific goals for that session and work on those goals. When you make a mistake, don't talk down to yourself. Instead, ask yourself what caused the mistake? Ask why and how you made the mistake. Diagnose the problem and try to find a cure. Stop "trying harder" and start isolating the problems so that you can solve them. This will go a long way toward helping you reach your guitar playing goals and save you a lot of wasted and unfruitful practice time. About the Author: Nicholas Anderson is a guitar teacher located in Olympia, WA. Check out his website and sign up for his free tip of the week at www.OlympiaGuitarLessons.com.

25 comments sorted by best / new / date

    st017
    Playing guitar is nothing like playing or practicing basketball. Instead of sitting down analyzing every single mistake you make try breaking your riffs, rhythms, or solos into very small sections, and then once you have that down move on to the next part. If you mess up start at the beginning of the riff or section you are working on. I've went as far as to go 3 notes at a time, but use the structure of the song to break it down. Bars are great natural breaking points for this as well. Once you have it all down work on stringing them together smoothly. There are a few other things that really help you get better. 1. Have someone to jam with. You will naturally get better without really even realizing it. 2. Play for people even if you have to set up a solo show for just your family or friends. 3. Learn to write and read at least in the form of tabs if not real music notation. Once you figure out the way the music scoring system works it opens the box in your brain that makes it harder to learn. 4. If you have songs of your own or from your band, record a demo or have a program synthesize a demo that you can play along with.
    Davo_deluxe
    only problem with me in my town is looking for another guitarist to jam with, there are other blokes who play but they are more interested in getting of their face.
    milesofjazz
    Breaking down the music into smaller parts as you described is a good strategy, so far as it goes. However, if you're consistently making the same mistake, you *do* need to identify the problem and find a solution. Otherwise, you're banging your head against a wall and wasting a lot of practice time. In fact, if you're making the same mistake consistently, you're training yourself to make that mistake.
    nargoth
    What I want to put out there, is professionalism is the real thing that separates experts from amateurs. I've seen so many people who are skilled musicians, who waltz up and think they already are a rockstar or a diva, act like a total dick by shouting at the soundman, being a diva to work with. They think they are the shit before they have made it, but in doing so, no one wants to work with them, and they won't make professional contacts, and therefore won't get anywhere.
    st017
    You can be the shit and never make it. Being popular doesn't mean that you are good. I could name plenty of horrible musicians that have "made it." At the same time being a pro level musician doesn't insure you will make it big either. When I was really doing the whole band thing I made a point to be as good and professional as I could be. I practiced 8 hours a day, and was the nice guy. However, almost everyone that tried out or did play with us quit. They said I was a pro, and they felt that they were not good enough. I have tried to explain practicing makes you better until I was blue in the face, just to have someone to play with. I never once told anyone they couldn't play or needed to practice either.
    Celtic172
    Well...I'm the worst here I think I can't train for few hours, and I can't focus on my mistakes. If I can't play excercise properly, I'm stopping it after few tries. It's about 30 minutes. Next day I'm trying again - with the same effect. I'm starting to think that the guitar, or instruments, or making/playing music at all is not for everyone(I'm also singing, with same effects).
    christianonbass
    I had to jump in. I know this is a couple days old, but I am sure this is a long term issue. I'll make a long story short. This is not to tell you WHAT or what NOT to do. This is to encourage you. My younger brother and I were idolized when we were kids. Him especially. Then as a group, people gave us some very significant compliments regarding our tightness, feel, skill, blah blah. Many of us (probably most) musicians have too big ab ego, too much pride. We had some serious esteem issues. One more thing for sure--we were NOT any where near "naturals" at playing music. So I kept saying "musicians are made, not born". We have all seen the child prodigies, 4 year old master pianists, playing incredibly complex stuff, with surgical accuracy. You know what, I bet if they were put into a jam session they would choke. I have played with some "naturals". They were a disappointment. They excel in a specific area of musicianship. As far as focusing, I don't know if you have had ADD/ADHD issues. It is possible. have you considered taking even a couple lessons and focus the teaching on effective practice? I want to tell you that your story sounded very familiar. You don't have to be a "natural". It sounds like you are humble enough to ask for help. Do that. Message me if I can help you at all. I have no agenda except to help you get over some of this fear of succeeding, OK? Don't care if i get downvoted this was for celtic172 because he sounds like I did. I figured I would help the brother out.
    DundeeShamrock
    There are some great youtube videos that show you how to play all sorts of guitar licks. Lately, I've been leaning towards bluesy licks. My process is this: I listen to the guy play the lick, pause, try and figure out how to play it on my own, and then I finish the video to figure out the "proper" way. This gives me a chance to train my ear and be creative as well as simply getting down the "right" lick in the end. Then I can put the lick into a jam session and make it my own.
    DaleyHoe!
    i get how 'nooby' this is going to sound, but what sort of practice goals are we talking about? I understand the whole concept and agree, but what are some examples of typical goals we should be aiming for? With myself i have goals, they are the sky pretty much. I want to try and master everything! Do we sit in practice and set a smaller goal like doing a run on a specific tempo 3 times in a row without a mistake? How many of these goals do we need to set? I feel when i set my mind to a specific task i tend to sit on that task for a while. In the meantime i feel some other technical aspects of my playing are not getting enough focus, but yet i have not achieved what i wanted with the other task? Does this make sense to anyone else or do i try to overthing the whole situation. I just feel that there may be 10billion goals, but where do we start, how do we approach that.
    theoneandonlyq
    I think the gist of this article is to make quantifiable goals for each individual session of practice. Your example of playing a specific riff at a certain tempo is actually a great idea. Other ideas include a scales at a certain tempo, learning 'x' measures of a song, etc. It's easy to get pigeonholed into pursuing only one goal until you get it, so be careful to have multiple goals for each session and to allocate a certain amount of time to each so that none are neglected.
    milesofjazz
    Try to define your goals. Start with long term goals and then ask yourself what has to happen in order for me to get there. Write down everything that you need to be able to do to be able to reach your long terms goals. Then break down everything in that list into short and mid term goals. Short and mid term goals can be broken down further into weekly or daily goals. Does that help?
    jasonrauch
    This is good article. Perfect practice makes perfect. Practicing things the wrong way just set you up to fail in the long run. Practice thing slow, and right and speed and muscle memory will build up from there. Remember that this applies to everything including the guitar; You'll only get out of it what you put into it.
    iduno871
    everything he says is true...about Basketball players. When applied to guitar and music it's simply not that straightforward. There are tons of pro musicians who are really mediocre in their skill set.
    mulefish
    That doesn't mean what he is saying isn't useful though.... It's pretty easy to see how isolating areas of weakness and setting specific goals targeted at said areas could be beneficial to the guitarist.
    AxeARM49
    wished this was posted a year ago.that way i would've read this and would not have had to reflect on the hundreds of hours of my life i spent playing and practicing guitar the WRONG way like i am doing now. but guess its never too late. great idea for getting a new perception and direction to practice!
    butthole.messia
    I find it hard to set a very specific long term goal. "To be as good as I can be", I guess is my goal. But that doesn't really help me pick better short term goals in any way, other than "practice more/better". Other equally unspecific goals are "I want to be as good as [some rockstar]", or "I wan't to be able to impress people around me". For sports, I can see it being somewhat easier to set such goals. Maybe you want to be able to join a certain team, or win a certain cup. For guitar, I'm not sure if I have ever seen an example of a good, specific long term goal. Mid term goals are somewhat easier. For instance: "I want to have learned X songs by the end of summer". But why do I want to have learned X songs by the end of summer? Because "I want to become a better guitarist". Which makes even the mid term goal seem somewhat arbitrary.