How to Avoid Mediocre Results on the Guitar - Part 1: The Correct Practicing Method

Did you play an instrument in elementary school, middle school or high school. Did you try to learn guitar in the same way you learned this other instrument? This article addresses why you got mediocre results trying to learn guitar in this way.

Ultimate Guitar
I wanted it and I wanted it bad. I wanted the ability to play whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to. What guitar player doesn't desire this type of technical ability? To a high school student used to playing trumpet I never even considered what else I had to do to become the guitar player I wanted to be. I used the same methods my teachers taught me in elementary, middle, and high school.

My typical lessons in the school environment followed one path. They'd give us a method book - a bunch of small songs - to work on. During the lesson we would run through a page or two of these smaller songs and then we would go home and practice them. This form of "practicing" wasn't really practicing. I'd go home, play through each song many times. 

There was no real focus or goal. Without a goal, you aren't practicing.

I'd like to take time to discuss and break down the actual high school method of teaching music and whom it works for and if you should use this method for your musical studies.

The high school run through of songs in a method book focuses on two primary areas of musical study:
  • Developing a basic ability to play the instrument.
  • Reading music.
Using this method I was at best a mediocre trumpet player.

This isn't a terrible method for high school students in a band or orchestra. Most of these kids are not songwriting, so other skills of musical studies are not needed. Many of these kids are hobbyists so many won't continue learning past high school.

The problem with this high school stylized method of musical study, isn't with the actual delivery or method itself - even though in my opinion there's a great room for improvement - the real problem lies with who uses this method.

This method is strictly for hobbyists who are looking to play others music. This is not for people looking to create their own music, master an instrument or learn how to improvise.

You have to apply the right methods of practice and musical study to the right musical goal.

After playing trumpet for 8 years I got bored and decided to move onto guitar. When I first started playing guitar I went about it the same way I learned trumpet. The faults in my playing were this:

1) Most beginner guitar students learn songs using guitar tablature.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with guitar tablature it's dumbed down music notation. Using guitar tablature as a beginner guitar player is useful because guitar is more physically involved than other instruments. Using tablature allows the beginner to focus on just playing the instrument. The one fault of this style of notation is that it makes playing guitar completely focused on the physical aspect. Combine this with the high school method of learning an instrument which has a little bit of music practice involved but is still very technical focused and you get one lop sided guitar player.

2) I focused primarily on the physical aspect of playing guitar for a number of years.

Now, I'm not saying I didn't study scales, chords, theory, ear training and other areas. I'm just saying most of my time was spent on practicing the physical element of learning guitar. In my mind due to my past musical studies learning guitar and music meant focusing on physically being able to play the instrument.

Many would think that focusing primarily on the physical element is common, but mine was a bit more to an extreme. I would spend maybe an hour on other musical studies and spend the other 4 or so hours completely dedicated to technical studies.

A good analogy for this would be a video game character. Say your character levels up and you have 4 choices of skills you can raise: health, strength, intelligence and stamina. I maxed out my strength stat rather than taking into consideration how the others would help me. Making this analogy work in guitar, I could basically play anything I wanted but had trouble applying this to creating music or improvising. That is definitely lopped sided!

3) I didn't know how to apply or integrate any of my musical skills together.

The high school method of learning an instrument doesn't teach you how to apply skills together because it's unnecessary to do so when all you're required to do is read music and play the instrument.

Since I was unaware of the need to apply these skills most of my skills were worthless or unusable.

This is also why I state that even though I studied scales and chords I never really studied them. If you can't apply something, you didn't learn a thing.

So there is no misconception this article was not made to bash elementary school to high school music lessons. The purpose of this article is to explain that the way you practice and the method's you use to practice need to match your goals.

If you desire to be a hobbyist and just want to play other people's music, then the high school method may work for you. If you desire to be an artist so you can write your own music and master the guitar then you need to change the way you practice guitar. 

By Chris Glyde

3 comments sorted by best / new / date

    As someone who moved on from saxophone to guitar coming out of high school, this really helped me evaluate my own weaknesses. Merry Christmas, happy new year