This article deals more with how, rather than what, to practice. There is a wealth of good information available on techniques, basic theory, scales, arpeggios, chords etc. So we're not going to go into that area of guitar, but instead we're going to deal with what sort of attitude you should have and how to apply yourself to get the most out of your practice time.
I've written a few articles, most of which have been aimed at intermediates who already have an understanding of theory, and a fair bit of experience under their belts. I tend to share things that I myself am finding useful, and so have never written for beginners because it's been 20 years since I began, so knowing what it feels like to shape my first G chord isn't exactly fresh in my mind.
That was until a couple of months ago when I started to learn piano as a second instrument. As a result I was able to apply these ideas and find out if they have a practical use for beginners.
What Is Practice
The first thing to appreciate is that practice isn't a performance and performance isn't practice. During a performance, the piece is played in its entirety, and any imperfections just have to be lived with. Practice however is all about addressing imperfections, so playing a song at full tempo from start to finish without stopping is an inefficient way to progress.
Good practice is about not playing under strain. Not rushing things. Not tolerating mistakes. And ultimately trying to cultivate an approach in which aches and mistakes are almost entirely absent. If we stay within our current technical limitations, and not rush ahead of ourselves, it's possible to do just that!
Aches And Mistakes; You Get Out What You Put In
When you learn a new skill such as playing a song on a guitar, you're essentially programming yourself to perform tasks, like you would a computer. Say for example we wish to play a G chord. The first thing we do is visualise the chord. We don't think play a G, we float an image in our minds which represents a G chord on the guitar. Then the signal is sent to our muscles to carry out the desired action. If we were virtuoso musicians, what would happen at this point is that the precise muscles, and no others, needed to perform the task would be engaged. Each finger would go precisely where it's supposed to and it wouldn't hurt or be the least bit tiring. The absolute minimum amount of effort and energy would be expended, and the result would be an almost effortlessly executed and beautifully sounding G chord.
So how do we achieve this wonderful level of musicianship? By carefully programming the computers that are our brains to correctly and efficiently direct the machines that are our bodies. The important word to remember is carefully!
If we're not careful, we inadvertently program in all the things we're trying to avoid. If you play a C major scale in a stiff and painful way, next time you float the image in your mind, you'll get out not only the learned fingerings for the scale, but also all the stress and strain which you inadvertently inputted.
It's a fact that most stiffness and aches are due to poor initial programming rather than lack of strength and agility. How fit and strong do you have to be to play a single note, or a briskly chopped chord? If you program yourself carefully, the whole song could be performed with this minimum level of energy expenditure.
How To Program Yourself Effectively
The worst mistake you can make when practicing is to rush ahead and play things before you're ready. In other words, playing beyond your current limitations. There's an easy way to tell if you're getting ahead of yourself; aches and mistakes! As soon as you encounter either of these telltale signs you should stop, relax, reset yourself and continue at a more suitable speed.
As beginners we tend to ascribe aches and pains to lack of fitness. This in turn leads to the false assumption that if we just grind away for hours on end we'll toughen up and the aches will disappear. This is true to a certain extent, but it's an inefficient way to approach things, and in my experience, the brute force approach never leads to truly relaxed, gentle, effortless, and sweet sounding music. Instead it leads to a clumsy, heavy-handed, brutish attack, which when combined with the mental stress of never quite feeling as if you have the guitar under control, is an exhausting way to play.
Using the brute force approach, I certainly don't think it's possible to achieve regularly the state known as dynamic relaxation'. This being the idea that you can play an instrument whilst in a trance-like state akin to meditating. Playing an instrument in this condition is an absolute joy. Even as a beginner/intermediate, I, and you may too, have experienced this hypnotic state in which nothing exists except the music. If you program yourself to play in a relaxed way, it will become a regular thing, and not just the odd freak event.
What To Practice
Practice is usually divided into two main areas; general technical development and specific pieces which we wish to learn. So what constitutes general technical development? Well if for the moment, we ignore the subtleties of dynamics and tone, at its most basic level, music has three main facets; melody, harmony and time. The melodic line being the foremost part of the tune; a series of single notes; the bit you whistle when a tune gets stuck in your head. Harmony occurs when two or more notes overlap or are played simultaneously. Harmonies enrich the sound by providing depth and altering the flavour' of the melodic notes. A melodic note can have a very different feel depending on which other notes are played beneath it. And all of this has no meaning at all unless it is played rhythmically in time.
So we tend to practice scales (melody), chords (harmony), and arpeggios, which are a halfway house between the two, as they contain both a melodic and harmonic element. So these are like the three staples, or dimensions, of technical practice, all of which exist upon a framework of time.
Another area of technical practice can be what I think of as custom practice. This is when you encounter anew technique in a piece you wish to learn, and it's beyond your current ability, so you analyse it, find out what's involved and create a comprehensive set of exercises designed to turn a weakness into a strength. Whenever you encounter the same thing in a future piece it won't slow you down as much.
There isn't much point in tackling a piece until you have developed a bit of initial coordination with the techniques involved. It's for this reason that as a beginner you should stick to really simple pieces and I mean simple. We're talking nursery rhymes here.
Other than to satisfy a bit of curiosity as to the structure of a song, there's no point looking up a John Petrucci tab trying to learn it because the techniques involved will be in another universe to the one you're in at the moment. So don't frustrate yourself. Remember the first rule; not rushing ahead of your current ability.
How To Practice
Before we try to play actual music, no matter how simple, we first need to develop a bit of initial coordination. We can do this by running through some exercises based on the elements described above. But before we even tackle a whole scale or arpeggio, it's useful to develop basic coordination, get used to the strings and the fret board. Get comfortable with the guitar. Get the two hands working together, and get used to employing the fingers in the right way. In this article I'm going to leave the lesson plan largely up to you. The sooner you start intelligently creating exercises specifically tailored to your own needs, the better. However, I'm going to use the following recommended exercise as a template for how you should approach ALL your exercises.
This exercise gives all four fingers of the left hand equal attention and develops coordination between the two hands.
This Is Extremely Important!
Play each note individually, resting between each one. I don't mean put the guitar down and go and have a cup of tea. Just play the note and then relax. The finger of the fretting hand should depress the string just enough to sound the note, then you relax completely whilst leaving the finger in place. The string will return to its undepressed state with your finger resting lightly upon it. This will instantly dampen the sound. Don't pull the finger away just relax it. Then you do the same with the next finger. This is called switching the fingers on and off. Play the note for a beat, relax, rest for a beat, play the next note for a beat, relax rest for a beat, etc.
The picking hand should also just do enough to make the stroke then relax, whilst remaining in place to play the next note. The important thing being that every action is balanced by rest. At this stage the action and rest need to be pretty much equally spaced, but eventually the two things will merge and become play/relaxed or dynamic relaxation'. But like everything, it won't happen if you don't practice it.
Play the following notes on the 1st e string using finger pattern 1, 2, 3, 4.
Play the following notes on the 2nd B string using finger pattern 1, 2, 4, 3.
Play the following notes on the 3rd G string using finger pattern 1, 3, 2, 4.
So as you can see we're ascending the 1st string using the same finger pattern as we move up one fret at a time. We then move to the next string and descend one fret at a time using a slightly different finger pattern. WE then move to the next string and ascend again using a slightly different pattern. We continue in this way to complete the first set of six exercises. The three remaining patterns are as follows:
4th D string: 1342Descending
5th A string: 1423Ascending
6th E string: 1432Descending
That completes set 1. There are 3 more which apply the same principle of ascending 1 fret at a time whilst keeping the same finger pattern. Then descending the next string using a slightly different pattern.
1st e: 2134Ascending
So you can see from the above exercises that we have moved systematically from finger pattern 1234 to 4321 using every possible fingering permutation in between, whilst moving up and down the fret board. So why do this? Why not just stick to 1234 and then every finger would still be getting an equal workout?
Well, finger 2 won't always follow finger 1 and so on. Also, what will most likely happen is that you'll naturally fall into a rhythm which will put an accent on the first note of the four, ONE two three four.ONE two three four etc. This I think of as the Indian drum beat groove, HI ya ya ya Hi ya ya ya. So what would happen if we just played fingering 1234 is that the first finger would always be accompanied by a strong accent. This would become a part of the programming, so that we would play an accent whenever the first finger was employed. This could really screw up our future phrasing. Accents can fall on any of the four fingers, and by moving through the exercises in this way, not only have we given each finger a workout, but we've distributed the accents equally amongst the fingers.
Keeping things equally balanced and so not giving bias to one area of practice over another is what I mean by intelligently created exercises. Also it's important not to give bias to things that come easily, and neglect things that do not. Don't flatter yourself when you practice (Wynton Marsalis)
As I said at the start of this article, it's been a while since I shaped my first chord, so I'm not sure how useful the following technique will be for absolute beginners who haven't yet got past the phase of having to place the fingers one at a time to make the chord. Once you are able to manipulate the fingers as a group then I suggest learning new chord shapes in the following way:
Clearly visualise the chord in your mind's eye before shaping it with your fingers. Don't depress the strings until you're certain the fingers are well placed, but as soon as they are, play the chord with a clean chop. This is done by depressing all the fingers simultaneously while making a swift stroke with the picking hand. Then the fingers should all be released at the same time. There's no need to pull the fingers away from the strings. Simply leave the fingers in place and relax the hand, allowing the tension to instantly dissolve. This should cause the chord to end abruptly and cleanly, provided the fretting hand was playing all six strings. If there were open strings then you will need to use the side of the palm of the picking hand to silence the ringing strings. This should be done in sync with the relaxing of the fretting hand. The product should be a nicely chopped chord.
Unless you're working on rhythm, don't leave the fingers in place and play the chord again, as it serves little purpose. It's better to remove the hand from the position before shaping the chord anew and performing another brisk chop. This way you can shape the chord many times in a short period. This is a more effective way of programming your fingers to shape chords, than just holding them down and strumming for a while.
When beginning arpeggios, I suggest keeping it as simple as possible. That is, stick to the basic major and minor triads played across just three strings. Avoid playing arpeggios across all six strings combined with a position shift or two. Once you have gotten comfortable with the basic triads, you can then start to string them together to create longer ones.
Remember that when you hear guitarists playing long runs on guitars, they are in fact stringing together a series of short phrases. They can perfectly play each of these short phrases in isolation. This means they can line them up and knock them down one after another without pause. This gives the illusion of a mega run.
As a musician you will eventually need to be able to play any phrase in the piece of music in perfect isolation. This means that from a standing start, being able to play any phrase on its own, cleanly, up to tempo, and with all the dynamics and expression in place. Only when you can do this will you truly be able to perform the piece in a musical way, that is, playing all the phrases perfectly one after another, and not just plodding through the entire piece in a breathless and wooden way.
You Can't Rush Success You Can Only Rush Failure
Remember to stop, relax and play more slowly and carefully every time you make a mistake or encounter an ache. Something we tend to do as beginners is develop the habit of speeding up every time we make a mistake. The reason being that we feel we've wasted a bit of practice time by making a mistake, and so we rush to correct it. We can rush over the same portion four or five times in a sloppy way before finally getting it sort of right and then moving on because we believed that the five sloppy repetitions were the cause of the good one.
What we've actually done is inputted five times as much bad info as good. So in theory we're five times more likely to play it sloppily next time. If instead we'd have slowed down and played it three times very carefully and accurately, we'd have a ratio of 3:1 in favour of accuracy. So theoretically we're 3 times more likely to get it right next time, and so our potential for accuracy keeps increasing rather than decreasing. Get into the habit of stopping, relaxing, slowing down and thinking carefully whenever you make a mistake. Try to maintain a good accuracy ratio.
The Right Attitude
Will frowning, sighing, clenching your fists, gritting your teeth and thinking, why am I not getting better more quickly, make you a better guitar player? Will it correct a mistake you've just made? Of course not. It will however waste energy, cause tension and stress, make you feel dejected and ultimately make practice a drag. So don't give house room to feeling such as these.
However if we're going to successfully remove downs from our practice sessions we also need to remove ups. One can't exist without the other. So getting over excited and cocky when you experience progress isn't allowed either.
What I'm saying is that when entering the practice room, you should leave your emotions on a nail by the door. The only exception to this being if you're working on the expressive side of a piece, but by the time you reach that stage, you'll be well past the initial programming phase. Essentially, don't route good and bad performance through the part of your brain that governs emotions. There's no need, and it serves no constructive purpose.
Practice Is An Inevitable Part Of Our Day
When we awake in the morning what's the first thing most of us do? Get dressed. Have you ever thought, I don't really feel like getting dressed this morning'? Of course not, because going to school or work naked isn't an option. So getting dressed is such a fundamental part of our day that we never route it through our emotions. We never have to ask ourselves whether we feel like it or not.
Moreover, we never enter into competition with ourselves on the subject of getting dressed. Have you ever timed yourself to see if you're buttoning up your shirt faster today than you did yesterday? Do you try to put your shoes and socks on in perfect time and then get annoyed when you fail? Of course not.
So try to develop this detached attitude to your music practice. It's a fundamental part of your day, and so you do it whether you feel like it or not. You don't compete with yourself. You don't get annoyed if you can't play the scale at a higher tempo today than you did yesterday. You just do the practice whatever.
There is no need to set goals because you're just setting yourself up to fail. If you do the practice in a calm, careful, and intelligent way, you'll improve whether you want to or not. Every time you make a competition of it, you're setting yourself up to fail. Remain detached when practicing.
Imagine two people: One sets himself a goal to be achieved by the end of the month, and then spends every evening visualising himself accomplishing it, but does little practice. The other sets herself no goals, but instead just practices her technical and musical exercises in a detached way every day, caring not whether she achieves anything or not. Who do you think will be the more capable come the end of the month? It's the practice that counts not how you feel about it. You don't feel the need to enjoy getting dressed in the morning, and because you don't try to enjoy it, you don't dislike it either; you feel nothing either way. It's just something you do. Practice your music in this detached way, and the irony is that by not trying to achieve or enjoy, you'll do just that!
I'm not a music teacher. I have not had the experience of teaching thousands of students to play an instrument. Therefore I haven't had the experience of seeing which techniques are most effective for most people. And so nothing I say should be taken as Gospel. These are nothing more than the approaches I have found useful. Take em or leave em.