The four practice phases to get you playing those impossible guitar techniques
In this edition of Guitar Notes I’ll be taking a closer look at the learning process as it relates to the guitar. Specifically, how seemingly impossible techniques and applications of theories become easier over time and can eventually become second nature.
Miles Davis talked about learning it all and then forgetting it all. He was talking about learning things so well that you no longer have to think about them. With study and repetition, we can effortlessly do things that seem impossible at first.
I was talking with a friend recently about why so many younger kids who try to learn an instrument or sport at an early age fail to stick with it. I think one of the most important concepts a teacher or coach can impart is that it's not easy and it takes a lots of work and time to get good at anything.
That may sound discouraging, but it should actually be encouraging. Many times when we can't seem to master something right away, we may tell ourselves we aren't good at it or it's just not for us. The reality is we tend to underestimate the time it takes to become proficient at something. It’s the rare person who can just pick up an instrument and play it. The rest of us (even the greats) have to invest tremendous amounts of time in honing our craft. If we understand going in that it will take time and effort to be great, then we can keep discouragement to a minimum. Let's break down the journey to greatness via learning and practice.
The first step to practicing is knowing what to practice. Knowledge may seem like magic to those who don’t have it. We pay for knowledgeable service on a regular basis. Take a car mechanic for example: Your car is acting up so you take it to the shop. The mechanic looks at your car, easily diagnoses and fixes the problem and you're back on the road. Although this may seem like magic, it’s just knowledge.
Given all the possibilities, knowing what to practice on guitar can certainly be overwhelming. Having a good teacher can really help focus on practicing the right things. Look for a teacher who can play the things you’d like to, or sounds the way you’d like to sound. This is a good indicator that they have practiced the right things.
If a good teacher is not an option, organize your thoughts in terms of what your goals are, then systematically build a plan to achieve those goals. That said, understanding and practicing the fundamentals is a good place to start with just about any playing style or instrument. They are:
- Melody: Knowing scales and how they relate to chords
- Harmony: Knowing different chord types, how to build them and how they relate to each other in a given key
- Rhythm: Understanding meter and how to divide measures into various subdivisions
I covered these fundamentals in greater detail in a recent post, Trading Licks and Riffs for the Fundamentals.
Once you’ve decided exactly what you’d like to practice, it’s time to learn how to do it. This step is tricky and can be discouraging, which is why some of us give up here. But before you throw in the towel, give it time and space. Approach the time aspect in two ways: Remember that it’s going to take work, patience and time to get anything to happen. The second way time can improve your practice execution is by slowing things down.
How a drummer works things out at a slow tempo is a great example. Behind the drumkit many things happen pretty much simultaneously. By slowing things down, the drummer begins to see how these elements relate and work together. For instance, once you can clearly see the hi-hat and bass drum both play on the & of 2 of a drum beat, it becomes easier to execute that. The same goes for being aware of the sequence of a drum pattern such as bass drum, hi-hat, snare. The execution stage of practice is when you’ll refine your motions and understand what’s making something work. It’s very important to get your technique and execution down before moving to the repetition phase.
You decided to learn something and you’ve learned how to do it. Now it’s time to own it. Repetition is crucial to being able to effortlessly pull off amazing things, and I find this phase the most enjoyable part of the process.
Learning to fingerpick or Travis pick (the Merle Travis/Chet Atkins technique using the pick on bass notes and fingers for the chords) takes repetition. Without repetition, we have to think too much. We’re bound to stumble since we simply don’t have the mental capacity to work the other parts of the song like the chord changes. Through repetition, we free our brain up for other things like lyrics or chord changes.
Simply practicing improvising eighth notes with a quarter-note metronome can take your playing to new and exciting places, giving your sound a more relaxed flow. That’s because you’re thinking about other things such as melody, phrasing and the chord changes under the solo. The relaxed flow comes from being comfortable with the concept. As you begin to repeat concepts, you may find that you get worse as you go. This is simply a sign that you’re losing focus. Take a five- or ten-minute break and come back to it.
It’s also a good idea to slow things down and reevaluate the technique you developed in the execution phase. You may find a better way, or discover that you’ve lost your way during the repetition phase. Slowing things down will quickly reveal techniques that have slipped sideways during your repetition phase.
Of course it’s more fun to work out that muted bass Travis picking style with a Gretsch 6120! This is the Gretsch Guitars G6120T-55 Vintage Select Edition '55 Chet Atkins Hollowbody at Musician’s Friend Private Reserve.
Applying new concepts in your playing is similar to initially executing them, but now it’s for real: Taking a new fingerpicking style and recording a guitar part with it. Playing steady streams of eighth notes in a guitar solo with your band. Or maybe using those new chord voicings you’ve learned at the open blues jam.
Being able to pull off new techniques in the heat of the moment is a great gauge of sufficient repetition. The pressure of live playing can make concepts you thought you had down pat fly right out the window. No big deal. Just abort the mission, go back to the repetition phase and try again next time.
In the meanwhile, the metronome can help simulate some of the pressure of working new things into your playing with others. Another way to feel that pressure is to show someone what you’re working on. Try playing that crazy chicken-picking lick you’ve been working on for three weeks for your girlfriend, and watch it fall apart before your very ears. Don’t get discouraged; it’s just not automatic yet and needs more repetition.
So there you have it. Acquire the knowledge, learn how to execute it, practice it over and over and then apply it to your playing. You’ll begin amazing people (and yourself) in no time. Most importantly, don’t get discouraged and don’t give up. Until next time, keep playing!
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Visit www.privatereserveguitars.com or contact Derek White directly at 866-926-1923. He can get you the absolute lowest price on your dream guitar. Connect with Private Reserve Guitars on Facebook and Instagram.
Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing several nights a week in the legendary Kansas City jazz scene. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach and has a book and DVD titled "Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard".