Everyone knows the old saying "practice makes perfect." It's true that in order to develop any skill, practice is absolutely necessary. The question is, what is practice and how does one do it? More importantly, how does one practice in a way that makes the best use of the limited time available for it? Entire books exist on this subject, and it is beyond the scope of this humble article to offer them any competition. My intention is to offer up some basic principles for practicing effectively, and in order to do so in a compact format I'll limit this article to answering three of the most common questions I hear on the subject.
How Much Should I Practice?
In some ways, this question is the easiest to answer. Simply put, you practice as much as it takes to accomplish your goals. You need to feel it out. If you're not accomplishing what you want to, you are either not putting enough time in, or not using the time effectively. If you are just starting out on guitar, 30 minutes a day is generally a good minimum. Intermediate students probably need at least an hour, and for advanced guitar disciples, anywhere from two to five hours daily is pretty normal. Don't think of it as a hard limit. If your time is up and you're enjoying yourself, by all means keep going. After all, even though practice is considered work, it should be a positive, rewarding experience. If you are a creative sort of person, practice will often branch out into improvisation, exploring the instrument, and general right-brained activity. I encourage this, within limits. If you tend to get really spacey and not do any of the more disciplined practice, curb it a bit, but by all means make it part of your practice time. The point is to fold practice into your daily activities in an enjoyable and productive way.
How Do I Use My Practice Time Effectively?
Now that you have an idea of how much to practice, the next issue to address is how to best use the time you have set aside. As stated before, there should be a little time in there to just "play." After all, we call it "playing guitar" for a reason. However, the ability to play a musical instrument is a skill, and like any other it requires discipline and focus, along with a great deal of repetition to master. There are certain core skills that any guitarist needs to play successfully. Knowing chords, and being able to transition quickly and smoothly between them, is one. The ability to play with a steady and strong sense of rhythm is another. For most players, these two things alone will lead to an enjoyable level of skill on the instrument--enough at least for you to play your favorite acoustic guitar tunes and have them sound recognizable to others. There are many other skills for more advanced players to consider, but to avoid this article getting too long, we won’t discuss them. Since we all have different amounts of time available for practice, I'm going to break it down by percentage.
Spend the first ten to fifteen percent of your time doing some simple finger exercises on the instrument to warm up your fingers and stretch them out a bit. The simplest one is to play four consecutive frets on each string using one finger per fret. Go through the strings in any order, but play it on every single string and keep going for the entire time you've allotted. Scales also work well for this.
When you've finished warming up, go through all of the chords you know to review them. Play them in any order, or group them together by letter name or type, but go through all of them at least a few times, with extra attention on any tougher chords you haven't yet perfected. Make sure every string in the chord sounds loud and clear. Spend about the same amount of time doing this as you did your warm up. This will help you to further warm up your hands, while at the same time improving your chord vocabulary.
When you're done with the 'chord review' phase, it's time to practice whatever pieces or songs you're currently learning. This should take at least fifty percent of your total practice time. Play the songs all the way through a couple of times, and then go to the tough spots and play those through at least ten times, slowly. Your focus should be on clear tone first, and then playing with a steady rhythm. Use a metronome after you're confident enough at the parts to play them cleanly. Then play through the whole song again.
The next phase is going to be the reward for all your focus and hard work up to this point. That's right, the last twenty to thirty percent of your practice time is dedicated to pure enjoyment. Play your favorite stuff, everything you're already good at. Or just fool around and improvise. Try to make new and weird sounds; experiment. Have fun, because you've earned it!
Playing With Speed and Accuracy
As you advance further down the path to guitar mastery, you will become more and more concerned (some would say obsessed) with playing FAST. Whether you’re trying to melt faces with a blazing guitar solo, or getting an intricate classical piece up to its full tempo, playing fast is a real challenge. Students trying to increase their speed are faced with both physical and psychological obstacles, and it can be very daunting to try playing anything fast. Usually people go about it the wrong way, which is in fact the source of the difficulty. The number one mistake people make is trying to play something fast before they can play it ACCURATELY. Anyone can play fast, but that doesn't mean it will sound good. Almost everyone possesses the ability to move their fingers quickly, but speed alone is not enough to get the desired sound. Speed that produces a musical result comes from a combination of very fine muscle control and precise timing.
The first step is to develop the control. Play the passage as slowly as you can stand, but play it PERFECTLY. This means to play it with the exact fingering you want, and to play it totally clean. You should be able to do it 10 times in a row like this before moving on.
Next introduce the timing. Get it to the point where you can play it with a metronome ten times in a row without missing a beat, and totally clean. No cheating!
Now increase the speed by two notches on the metronome. Play it at least 4 times in a row perfectly, then increase again. Keep doing this until you “max out.” Maxing out means that you can’t possibly play it any faster. Then turn the metronome down by about 20 BPM and build it up again. Usually the second time you max out will be faster than the first. After this, rest up and come back to it the next day. It’s hard work, but I guarantee you will get results with this method.
Summing it Up
If you take anything away from this article, it should be summed up in the next three sentences. First, find the amount of practice time that supports your musical goals. Second, structure your time so that you’re working on what’s important, and balancing work with play. Third, play it slow and clean, then with perfect rhythm, and then speed it up. If you keep these basic principles in mind your practice will always be rewarding and effective. Happy practicing!
Sean O’Connor, ©2013