One of the most frustrating obstacles for beginning guitar players is achieving accuracy and unity between the picking and fretting hands. In most cases, the budding guitarist will repeatedly chug through a song only to trainwreck in the same spots every time. After a while this becomes both discouraging and infuriating. It leads the guitarist to doubt if they will ever be able to play the instrument effectively.
More often than not, these struggling guitarists share the same ineffective practice technique. They are practicing their songs at tempo. That is to say, playing the songs at the same speed they were originally recorded. Sometimes they will even speed up after continually making the same errors. They are doing themselves a huge disservice. The method to correct problem spots in songs is very simple.
Slow down. Instead of repeatedly playing a song incorrectly at the correct tempo, start playing the song correctly at an incorrect tempo. Then gradually work your way up to the desired speed.
A big part of learning guitar parts is creating muscle memory. After playing a part a number of times, it becomes an effortless, thoughtless act for your brain. When you start learning a song at a slow speed that you can handle, you are creating accurate muscle memory. Once accurate muscle memory begins to set in, increasing your tempo without bungling your riffs, chords, or solo lines becomes much easier. Conversely, making the same mistakes at a tempo you can't yet handle is only going to create inaccurate muscle memory, which will make things even more difficult for you to correct as you continue to practice.
Try the following method.
Isolate the section of the song that is giving you problems. Then determine the tempo of your song (many websites and metronomes have Tap Tempo features to help you out with this). Once you've determined the approximate tempo of your song, divide it by 2. For example, if your song is 150 beats per minute, cut that tempo in half to 75 beats per minute. Set your metronome to this new half-speed tempo and begin practicing there. (If you are still struggling a lot at the half-speed tempo, go even slower. Play the part completely rubato if that's what it takes to play all of the right notes in order without any wrong notes or clams. Your primary goal is to create the accurate muscle memory to play your notes sequentially, perfectly, and effortlessly.)
Chances are that by slowing down, your brain will be able to handle the demands of both your fretting and picking hands with fewer mistakes. Once you can consistently and confidently play the part at this slower tempo (I'd say 3 times consecutively with no mistakes), increase your tempo incrementally by 2-4 bpms. Spend as much time as you need in each tempo to be able to play the part consistently and confidently. This seemingly tedious method is much less time consuming as you would guess and is incredibly effective in increasing accuracy.
So the next time you are continually failing in the same section of a tune and are ready to shot-put your guitar through the nearest window, try slowing way down and working your way back up to the desired tempo.
About the author:
Charlie Button is a musician, producer, and educator from Upstate NY. His name has appeared in such music publications as Pitchfork, MySpace Artist of the Day, Dead End Hip Hop, All About Jazz, and more. Visit Charlie's website for private and group Skype guitar lessons, as well as to sign up for his newsletter that contains free video lessons and articles such as this one.