Welcome to the third installment in the "Complete Technique Practice" series. Last time we covered the three elements that are vital for great guitar technique, and this time we're going to go over the six mistakes that will immediately destroy your progress.
In general there are six common mistakes that people make that prevent them from ever reaching their technique goals. Often, the problem is not that people do not know how to fix their mistakes, but rather that they do not even know they are making them. Many common problems such as slow progress, being unable to get a certain passage up to speed and finding it difficult to play for long periods of time cannot be fixed directly; this is because they are in fact not problems but symptoms of problems. In order to sort out these issues and make solid, visible progress you need to go right back to basics, and analyse the process of practising itself.
In this lesson, we will go over the six common mistakes that almost every guitarist has made at some point, before then covering how to eliminate these errors and ensure that you form new, effective practising habits to replace your old ineffective methods. You may find that all of these apply to you, in which case you're in store for a big surge in progress when you start to change your ways!
Alternatively only one or two of these may be causing problems, in which case it will be a quick and simple process to fix your errors and unlock the next level of technique. Whatever the case, I guarantee that if you are not achieving your goals as fast as you feel you should (or at all) then there will be something to learn here. Whether the problem lies in your practising habits or your attitude towards guitar in general, making just one of these mistakes can hamper your progress significantly and reduce your motivation to the point where you honestly don't believe you can reach the level you desire. Don't let that happen! Instead, supercharge your progress and allow yourself to drastically improve by avoiding these problems and mistakes.
Lack of Focus When Practicing
Although all of the errors talked about in this section are common, this is perhaps the most widespread. The problem is that people often don't realise how focused you have to be in order to get big results - causing them to miss small mistakes in their technique (such as a loss of synchronisation at a certain point) that absolutely must be ironed out! The truth is that when learning a new piece of music, you must focus intensely on every detail and movement. You must ensure that everything is as effortless as it can be, and that your movements are as controlled and efficient as possible.
You see, what you are really doing when you practice is programming your brain - building up new connections that can then be strengthened in order to play something with greater ease and control. Many people simply learn songs and passages by repeating them with mistakes until they finally play what they intended - a very inefficient way to practice! Whenever you perform a sequence of notes, you will start to build that sequence into your subconscious. If you practice with mistakes, you will build mistakes into your subconscious! Your unconscious brain cannot tell right from wrong - it simply does what you tell it to.
By repeating a pattern without really focusing you are increasing the chance of mistakes being made and are therefore telling your unconscious that mistakes are what you want - not good! If, however, you practice with complete focus on everything you are doing - that is, every movement, muscle and note - you will be able to play with much greater precision, accuracy and consistency. By programming your brain to play perfectly you are ensuring that when the time comes to play to an audience, you will be able to deliver a solid performance no matter the circumstances.
If you are having trouble focusing intently, make sure to practice in a distraction-free environment. Turn the TV off! I personally wasted too many hours practicing in front of the TV, only to wonder why I couldn't play the passage I was practicing cleanly. You will get where you want to be so much quicker by focusing instead of wasting time. If you have to, turn off your phone and go to a room where you can practice without interruption. If you're not focusing, you're not practicing!
Being Unaware Of Tension
This leads us onto the next common mistake - being unaware of tension. As discussed in the previous lessons, tension is the ultimate killer of control and ease, making it much harder to play even the simplest of passages. Often people will just focus on their hands - leading to a build-up of tension in other parts of the body that then prevent them from progressing further and getting to the next level of technical ability. By making sure that your whole body is as relaxed as it can be, you will ensure that guitar playing is as easy as possible - making it much more fun!
Until I started to really focus on how much tension I had in my body when I played, I was completely unaware of how contorted and uncomfortable my muscles were - no wonder I couldn't play for very long without pain. However, once I became aware of this tension and focused on eliminating it, it quickly subsided and I was left being able to play much more easily (and much faster) than before.
You may not realise it, but any amount of excess muscle tension anywhere in your body WILL hinder you to some extent. Even if your back or legs (yes, even legs!) are more tensed up than they should be you will soon have difficulty in speeding up a song or lick, or getting a chord change smooth. The reason for this is that tension is quick to spread to other parts of the body - including your fingers, wrists and forearms - resulting in greater difficulty and more strain when you play.
The way to eliminate this tension is by simply playing slowly enough to notice it - after all, becoming aware of it is half the battle. Once you have got a clear idea of where excess tension is present in your body when playing a particular song or lick, simply loosening off that body part will allow you to release the tension. I have found that the easiest way to do this is by letting that particular body part "drop" - almost like a puppet.
A big mistake you can make when trying to reduce tension is to try really hard - the whole idea of this is that you are NOT trying hard! You are simply using the absolute minimum of force required to play the piece, which is often very little. Due to the fact that they are so thin, guitar strings take very little force to press down and pluck - at absolute most around twenty grams. Even if you want to vary your dynamics and pluck harder to get a louder note, immediately before and after you pluck the string you should relax your muscles - there is no need for them to be tensed up.
Putting Speed Before Control
The big mistake people make here is missing the point of good technique. The reason musicians play technically demanding - i.e. fast - pieces and phrases is to express intensity - very often (although not always, depending on the piece and context), the faster something is played the more intense it sounds. Playing fast when you are not in complete control of your movements and muscles will simply result in messy, unprofessional playing that will not convey the appropriate message to the listener. Instead of intensity, all they will hear is unclear and sloppy noise!
People often forget this, and get caught up in simply playing fast for the sake of playing fast - resulting in them being rather disappointed when they realise they cannot play whatever they were practicing in a smooth and controlled manner. I cannot stress enough the importance of control! If you are not controlled your consistency goes out the window - you'll have very little idea of whether you can pull off the phrase "this time," and thus will be unable to play it in a real song/performance situation, where you must be absolutely certain of your ability to play cleanly and accurately. Instead of saying "hey, look at what I can play" you will be sending out the message "hey, everyone, look at what I can't play!" - Obviously the opposite of what you want.
Instead, remember to always practice at a speed where you have complete, relaxed control over what you are playing. By doing this, you will enable yourself to play the piece or lick perfectly every single time without hesitation - whatever the circumstance. Instead of filling yourself with uncertainty and inconsistency, you will allow your brain to really digest what you are learning. This not only allows you to play this particular lick or piece effortlessly, but it will also allow you to apply those skills (for instance, a certain picking pattern or left hand movement) to other pieces of music too.
This means that when you come to learn other similar things you can do so more quickly and with less effort, simply because you will have already mastered specific parts of what you are playing. In short, the more things you learn, the easier the learning becomes. Eventually you get to a stage where almost everything you encounter will be made up of skills that you have previously mastered, making the learning of new pieces very quick indeed. Put speed before control, and your results will suffer. Put control before speed, and your results will go through the roof.
Not Understanding the Meaning of Initial Slow Practice
When you think of "slow practice," how slow do you imagine yourself playing? Maybe 3-4 notes in a second? As little as one note per second? However slow you are imagining yourself practicing, I can guarantee it is not nearly slow enough. In fact, you could play twice as slow as you normally do when learning a new piece and I would still place a bet on the fact that it would not be slow enough. You see, due to the complexity of the human body and the sheer number of muscles that you use when playing guitar (34 to control the fingers in each hand - that's 68 altogether! Never mind the muscles in the rest of your body that you have to make sure are not tense...), you have to play extremely slowly in order to make sure everything is perfect. Even if you leave a whole second between each note there will still be small imperfections in your technique that will hinder you when you try to move to higher speeds or more advanced pieces.
When learning something new for the first time, it is vital that everything is perfect - new skills need to be practiced in a slow, controlled and relaxed manner that will allow you to learn the required motions much more efficiently. Once the skills are learned, you can then practice pieces that involve them by playing a little faster. Whilst you are still learning the skills, however, make sure that you play slow enough to avoid imperfections in your technique.
So how slowly should you practice? Well, when learning a new skill that requires a lot of focus, you should practice at anywhere from 2-5 seconds per note, depending on the complexity of the movements involved. "Two to five seconds in between each note?!" I hear you ask - yep. Of course, once you have got used to the motions by practising for a while at this speed you can then use a metronome to gradually speed up from around one second per note to as fast as you like, depending on your needs and desires.
When people hear that they have to "wait" so long between notes, they often do just that - wait! They completely lose focus and just stare at the clock until they can play the next note - which, due to the lack of focus, has just as many mistakes in it as before. Do not practice at this speed for the sake of it - practice at this speed because you need to in order to play perfectly. Focus on the three elements of technique that were discussed in the last article, and make sure that the piece or lick that you are practicing is as perfect as can be.
Taking on Too Many Challenges at Once
When learning a new piece, it is vital that you break it down into small pieces to learn separately before then piecing them together. As stated in the previous section, playing guitar involves a large number of minute movements that each need to be focused on - if not, mistakes will develop and your playing will suffer.
People often overestimate how much they should take on at a time. Even the simplest of pieces can present many different challenges - from barring the left hand fingers to an intricate picking pattern, there will most likely be a large number of individual movements that need to be mastered in order to play cleanly. However, don't get the wrong impression - this doesn't mean that guitar playing is "hard"; it just means you have to approach it in a certain way in order to get results. Breaking everything down into tiny pieces will greatly help with this.
If you are like most guitar players, you will likely overestimate how many movements you should practice at one time. In general, practising 3-6 notes of a piece together until they are perfect is a good guideline; more than this and your progress will slow down due to the fact that there is a substantially greater amount to take in. There is not much point in learning fewer notes than this at a time, as even if the piece is very intricate you will easily be able to digest all of the necessary information.
The reason this mistake is so common is often due to impatience - we want to learn that new song now! We settle with tense, uncontrolled hands that do everything we don't want them to (and nothing we do) just to hack through the notes and hope no one noticed the mistakes. The ironic thing is that breaking down the piece actually results in you learning the piece faster - less to take in at once means you can digest the information more easily and thus learn more in less time. Quicker learning means more fun!
Not Believing in Yourself
Although this may not seem like a serious problem, it is actually the most damaging of all the ones featured in this lesson. Too many guitarists sabotage their chances of ever being great by putting their heroes on a pedestal, and treating them as if they have achieved an unattainable level of technique others simply cannot reach. As made clear in the first lesson of this series, this is a viewpoint that I do not hold. In fact, I am confident of the fact that anyone - yes, including you - can learn to play the licks, riffs and pieces of Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen and anyone else you are inspired by.
By believing that you cannot do certain things, you will reduce your motivation levels to the extent that you won't try - after all, what is the point in trying to achieve something that is unachievable? There is none! You'll sit there admiring your favourite players, simply saying to yourself "I'll never be able to play like them..." The fact that this belief prevents you from trying immediately excludes you from achieving. You cannot accomplish something that you do not attempt.
It's worse than just reducing your motivation, however - if you don't believe you can do it, your brain will automatically find evidence that you really can't (just look up Conformation Bias in psychology to see what I mean). For a wacky example, just look at people who believe in UFO's - they are constantly finding evidence for the fact that they exist, despite this "evidence" usually being easily explainable by non-UFO believing people. Essentially, a lack of belief in yourself and your abilities quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, by believing that you CAN do it, you will increase your motivation and thus will practice more - resulting in more progress that reinforces your belief! Just like the "I can't do it" belief, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more confident you are of your ability to achieve your guitar goals, the more likely you are to achieve them. This may all sound rather cheesy, but it is true - if you become absolutely certain that you can play anything, you will then open up that possibility to yourself and get hugely increased levels of progress.
I can guarantee that every single guitarist out there has made at least one (most likely more) of these mistakes at some point or another. By avoiding them like the plague you will put yourself far ahead of anyone else and really start to make progress, allowing you to learn to play anything with greater ease and speed. Just think about the results you could get (and the time you could save) by refraining from making these errors!
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