How to Practice
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Take a cab, buy a ticket.
The secret behind good technique is to practice, practice and then practice some more. There are no shortcuts, a significant amount of spadework simply has to be performed.
It is an inevitable fact that after a while, one no longer improves in leaps and bounds. Your playing hits a plateau, and it can be disconcerting to realize that you are no longer getting anywhere.
That's when you get into the meta-game. There are lots of things that can be improved before you even sit down to play a scale or an arpeggio. And if you weren't aware of them before, they can mean the difference between hitting your head on the wall—and taking things to the next level.
A proper methodology acts like a force multiplier, maximizing the returns from the materials that are already available. If you find that you are not making progress, check out the tips and pointers in this article and you might just stumble upon something that you haven't thought of and that can help you.
The most important aspect of practicing is to make sure you warm up properly beforehand. The proper way to approach guitar playing is to take for what it is: physical exercise, albeit using fewer and smaller muscle groups than for instance running or swimming. You don't go for broke from the first exercise, you start out at a slower pace so as to get the blood pumping through your muscles, and only then do you kick it up a notch.
One surprisingly effective way to prepare for a lengthy practice session is to wash your hands thoroughly in warm water and with lots of soap. Then you dry off equally thoroughly using a dry terrycloth towel.
The warm water and vigorous drying improves the circulation and serves as a pre-warmup warmup. Having clean hands also has the side benefit of increasing the life expectancy of your strings.
Instead of soap, you can use some form of hand scrub. It has grit mixed in that serves to scrape off dead skin cells, so that they don't get stuck on your strings.
Proper Playing Position
It is well worth the effort in making sure that you sit properly when you practice. I have found it instructive to watch classical guitar players.
The first thing you will notice about a classical guitar player is the posture: back straight, left foot on the little footrest. The second thing is that the waist of the guitar is placed on the left thigh, not the right. There are actually several advantages to this playing position:
- The neck is elevated in relation to the body.
- Your entire left arm hooks around the neck, not just the fingers or the left wrist.
- Your elbow is forced away from your body.
- Your fingers approach the fretboard with the fingers parallel to the fretwire.
- You don't have to reach across your body in order to get to the upper frets.
This playing position encourages the proper positioning on your left hand on the neck: with only the fingers touching the neck and the thumb firmly anchored on the back of the neck.
The classical playing position lends itself well to lead playing, as the position of the left arm ensures maximum flexibility and reach. However, it isn't always optimal for regular strumming. The left thumb does have its uses, most importantly for muting while playing certain chords with roots on the upper strings.
The basis behind good technique is not expending one more joule of energy than you absolutely need to in order to put the string into motion. In business, they tell you to work smarter, not harder. In Pilates, which I practiced for a while to get rid of my back problems, they say don't use ten pounds to perform a five-pound movement.
This problem can be approached from many angles at the same time. First: let the amp do the work for you. Second: use the thinnest possible string gauge that still gives you the tone you want. Third: use a pick that suits your hand position and attack.
It is a good idea to invest in a small practice amp to keep at home. They are not necessarily expensive, and they usually have modeling features that allow you to approximate tones that would otherwise require a room full of Marshalls, Boogies, Fenders and Voxes. Practice amps are usually solid-state, which means you get the same sound no matter the volume level. Tube amps tend to sound better the more you push them, which might not be the realistic option in an apartment building, or if you live with other people. An alternate option might be a multi-effects unit with a headphone jack.
The electric guitar is designed to be plugged into an amplifier, hence its name. The amplifier is there to help you. Let it. If you practice on your electric guitar without plugging in, you subconsciously use muscle power in a vain attempt to compensate for the instrument's natural acoustic shortcomings. I would recommend that you instead practice consistently through an amplifier, and when your attack is second-nature, permanently embedded in your muscle memory, you may go back to practicing unplugged. The minute you start pounding the strings to hear yourself, you waste energy.
Distortion and Clean
If you use distortion, you might be aware that the relative amount of distortion is determined by the input volume (gain) and output (master) volume of your amplifier and/or any distortion/overdrive/boost units between your guitar and your amp. The absolute amount depends on how much signal the guitar is pumping out. Three factors determine the strength of this signal: 1) the output of the pickups, 2) the volume setting on the guitar, and 3) how hard you play.
Indeed you can control the amount of distortion by varying your playing dynamics and adjusting the volume of the guitar. But think about what you're doing. Make sure that you dial in a sound that gives you the tone and fluidity you want without having to pound on the strings. The extra effort you expend in playing harder makes too small a difference in the amount of distortion to make it worthwhile. If you find you have to use a certain degree of elbow grease to get the sound you want, and the guitar is already at full volume, you have to increase the input signal—increase the gain, add a distortion unit or boost pedal, get higher-output pickups. However, as your technique improves, you will notice that you need progressively less distortion.
But for all this talk about the correct amount of distortion, I also recommend mixing your practice regimen with a healthy dose of clean and/or acoustic playing. To practice without distortion means that fluidity comes from your technique and not the compression of overdriven tubes or diodes. It is a good measure of how good you really are. However, if you spend too much time plugged into your Twin Reverb, or on your acoustic, you will forget the importance of muting strings that are not played. The distortion will inevitably call attention to any such glitches.
A related issue is to make sure you hear yourself in the rehearsal room and onstage. The minute you start losing yourself in the mix, it is all too easy to more or less subconsciously start pounding the strings, at which point your finely honed technique gets thrown out the window.
Your chosen string gauge directly affects your tone. The thicker strings, the more they will sound. But string gauge also determines how much energy you have to spend to generate the tone, which makes it a compromise issue. Ideally, guitar strings would have lots of tone but no resistance, but this is not the case.
The pitch of a given string is determined by three factors: its thickness, length and tension. Since this is an equation, if you want to change one of the parameters, at least one of the others has to be changed in a reciprocal fashion.
The limitations of the matter are that a guitar has a fixed scale length. Tuning might also be a limiting factor, for instance if you prefer standard tuning. In those cases, the only variable you can affect in order to experiment with tension is the string gauge.
Ultimately, the best pick to use is the one that you are used to. But it is well worth the expense and effort to experiment with gauges and shapes. There just might be something that suits your particular playing style better.
A thinner pick will bend like a spring and when the potential energy overcomes the friction against the string, the pick releases the string, sounding the note. This is inefficient, because a proportionally larger fraction of the picking motion is wasted by simply bending the pick as opposed to generating the tone. And the string release itself is unpredictable.
A thicker pick will give the player more distinct control over exactly when the string is released. Only a minimum of movement is required.
The shape and cross-section of the pick can be more important than the actual thickness. A rectangular cross-section means an edge, or a ridge, that scrapes against the string, making string release unpredictable. A cross-section that is bevelled or rounded allows the string to slide off the pick as pressure is applied.
Some players prefer the positive feel of a pointy pick, others the wider contact area and thicker tone of a blunt tip. No method is preferable over the other, so try both and see which suits your playing style better.
Any player no matter what the instrument would probably offer this as their very first piece of advice: start out slowly. Increase the speed only when you can perform a passage cleanly. You'll be amazed how much quicker you'll improve if you go easy in the beginning, as opposed to if you start out at a fast tempo and then have to practice like mad to get rid of the sloppiness.
The next tip follows from the last one: practice with a metronome. The purpose of the metronome is to whip you along. It doesn't allow you to elongate beats when you run into something tricky. The metronome also acts as the perfect barometer of your progress. If you turn the speed up and you can still perform the exercise as intended, you've progressed.
Do not get stuck in E minor. It is very tempting, as basically no other key makes the guitar sound as good or resonant. But you really shouldn't. Who knows what sort of key you might be playing in tomorrow? There are two main reasons why you should improvise and practice scales in keys that are not particularly idiomatic to the guitar, such as F minor, B flat minor, E flat major, and so on:
1. Sticking to the traditional "guitar keys" means you will eventually develop a certain hand-eye coordination where you are tied to the fretboard markers as road signs. A sudden transposition in order to accommodate a new vocalist, or a jam that meanders through unfamiliar tonal territory might throw you off completely.
2. Practicing in only a few select keys makes you accustomed to the feel of the strings in those positions only. Further down, the spaces between frets are wider and the tension of the strings greater—and vice versa. Try to teach yourself how to play in every key.
Do not underestimate the importance of resting. This ties right into the theory of treating guitar playing like going to the gym. Allow your fingers a day off once in a while. You'll be surprised how one day's rest can improve your playing!
You can still get busy with guitar stuff even though you're not playing. Put on a good guitar album and treat your instrument to a spa evening. Break out the polish and lemon oil, change the strings, clean the chrome.
But if none of this helps, and you still think you suck and that the entire world just laughs at your pathetic blunderings about the fretboard, think about how far you've come already! Take your guitar and flip it over like Jimi Hendrix. Try to fret some chords or play a lick with your picking hand on the fretboard and vice versa. This is how good you were when you started. Now flip the guitar right back and enjoy just how good you've gotten since!
Another trick is to temporarily switch instruments. Have a go at the piano, the bass or the drums. Unless you are really proficient on any of those instruments, you will feel like a complete novice, and when you come back to the guitar, you will feel like the master again.