Mike Philippov is a guitarist in progressive rock and neoclassical styles and an expert in guitar technique and guitar practice training.
Posted Feb 26, 2013 12:27 PM
Have you been learning to play guitar for some time, gathered a huge library of guitar playing exercises but found yourself unable to make much progress with any of them? No matter what you try to do or what exercises you try to practice, the rate of improvement seems unbearably slow or non-existent. Does this sound like you?
Ironically, most people who share this problem try to deal with it by taking a totally wrong approach. By believing that their slow progress on guitar is due to poor exercise selection, they begin to search for even more new guitar learning materials. However, because little or no effort is put into learning the best way to actually practice these exercises, the practice time spent on them brings zero results.
The reality is that instead of constantly seeking to discover additional new exercises, you should learn how to get the most from the guitar materials you ALREADY have (which, if you have played guitar for any length of time, is "more than enough"). When you learn how to maximize the improvement in your guitar playing from working only on a single practice item, several things will happen:
1. You will progress more quickly due to not having to practice so many guitar exercises to get to the next level in your playing.
2. When you truly need to, you will know exactly how to create your own exercises to address the exact issues you need to solve in your guitar playing.
The Way You Practice Guitar Matters More Than The Exercises You Work On
In my previous articles, I discussed why you must have a clear reason for everything you include into your guitar practice routine. If you cannot give an explanation about why a certain item exists in your schedule, your practicing is likely to lack clear direction. This point also means that any given guitar exercise can be utilized to improve multiple areas of your musical skills, based on the approach you take when working on it.
To illustrate this critical point, here is an example of an area of guitar playing that you are no doubt familiar with it: working on scales. Many guitar players understand that scales are helpful to practice as a general training tool, but most do not understand how to practice scales in different ways to attain several diverse goals:
1. Learn to play guitar fast
2. Become a better lead guitar soloist
3. Learn to visualize the guitar neck at a high level
4. Become more creative as a musician
Achieving any of the goals mentioned above takes a unique set of steps, even while you are practicing the same basic exercise (scales in this case). In other words, you must rely on your mind to know HOW to adjust your practicing accordingly in order to reach very specific objectives. To do that, you should set very clearly defined 'daily' goals for each item or exercise you practice on guitar. To be clear, this is not at all the same as having longer term objectives you want to reach 3, 5 or 10 years from now and instead such daily goals act just like a navigation system that guides your mind (and your hands) through specific practicing steps that are needed to achieve the result that you want. When you do this, it is possible to improve a variety of guitar playing skills with only a single exercise. Unfortunately, only a few guitar players know how to achieve such a clear focus and they instead go through the motions of practicing in a mindless way, without consciously focusing on why each exercise has a place in their guitar practice routine. This is one of the biggest reasons why the vast majority of guitarists go on practicing and playing guitar for months, years and decades without much improvement.
The skill of being able to set individual goals for each item in every guitar practice session does not come intuitively to most people and this is also why studying guitar on your own is a poor choice for many musicians. However, regardless of whether you take guitar lessons or not, by making an effort to go through the above process in your practicing will already improve the results you get in your guitar playing.
To illustrate the above process in action, I will describe a few examples of how it is possible to use a common guitar practice exercise such as scales to grow as a guitar player in a variety of areas. As explained earlier, this will be achieved by focusing your mind on a specific list of objectives in every practice routine.
How Practicing Scales On Guitar Improves Your Technique
When you work on scales with the goal of improving your guitar technique, it is important to focus on very specific elements that make such an improvement in your technique possible: economy of motion, tension control, 2 hand coordination and articulation of the pick. Notice the important difference between practicing scales while concentrating on specific elements of your guitar technique vs. Monotonous repetition of finger motions that most guitarists go through. It is this difference that allows the mind to tell your hands what to do in order to learn to play guitar at a higher level.
How Practicing Scales On Guitar Makes You Better At Improvising
When it comes to improvising, playing scales on guitar is obviously only one of many elements that needs to be practiced, however in order to improvise freely and creatively, you MUST go through the process of becoming accurate at playing the scales needed for your musical style. One practice method to achieve this goal requires you to work on mastering each shape of a particular scale individually by improvising ONLY in that scale shape over a backing track (while switching to a different shape of the same scale every few minutes). There are many more possible ways of using scales to grow as an improviser, but the idea is to illustrate how your attention is being directed on a very precise goal (when practicing scales to improve as a soloist) versus working on scales to improve other aspects of your guitar playing.
How Practicing Scales On Guitar Helps You Learn The Guitar Neck Better
When you work on learning the guitar neck with scales, you need to pay more attention to how the scale shapes form visual patterns that occur all over the fretboard. In this case, less attention is needed to be paid to what your hands are doing and all efforts must be directed on memorizing how every scale pattern will look in your mind before your hands touch the guitar. When you focus in this way, it will be impossible for your fingers to mindlessly go through the motions of practicing and your fretboard visualization skills will have no choice but to improve.
How Practicing Scales On Guitar Will Make You A More Creative Musician
One effective way to become a more creative guitar player when practicing scales is to work on coming up with new sequences and phrases from scale shapes that you are practicing. Instead of merely playing the notes of the scale up and down in a boring way, this will require your mind to think in innovative ways that you don't normally do when doing regular guitar practicing. This is yet another way of how scales can be used to grow a certain element of your musical skills by directing your attention to a very specific mini goal.
So far in this article I have given you examples of how you can use a single guitar exercise to grow in a variety of elements of your musicianship. By choosing where to focus your attention in a guitar practice session, you can achieve a variety of objectives. Its important to mention that these general approaches can be used with ANY exercise that you practice on guitar (and aren't limited to only scales) in order to refine any musical skill that you think of. The more you do this, the more you will realize that your guitar playing progress isn't affected by "the exercises" you practice on guitar, but rather by HOW you practice whatever it is you are working on.
In order to get the most out of this approach to practicing guitar, divide your attention to working on a unique "daily goal" during each day of practicing. This will enable you to cover everything without trying to cram too many things into each guitar practice session. For instance, set a specific goal for an item such as scales for Monday's practice session, then work on scales with a different focus on Tuesday and continue in this way through the week.
One last point I want to make about this general approach to practicing guitar is that having a lot of exercises is NOT a bad thing in and of itself. In fact, multiple exercises are often necessary for more productive practicing, but it is still critical for you to learn how to get maximum value from only a single practice item. After you begin to practice guitar with this mindset, your rate of progress will skyrocket and you will amaze yourself by how much faster you will move towards your guitar playing goals.
To learn more about how to speed up your progress on guitar and implement the ideas from this article, watch this free video about improving your guitar picking technique.
About The Author:
Mike Philippov is a recording artist, guitar teacher and author. His articles on practicing guitar are read worldwide. On his website PracticeGuitarNow.com you can find many more guitar practice articles and lessons on improving your guitar playing.