Quite often when we are practising guitar, we are looking for “tricks” and “tactics”… but how often have you thought about… what you are thinking about?
(I’m dangerously close to a tautology here)
There are several factors that affect how fast we progress as a musician:
• Having the right things to practice
• Having mental focus when practising
• Practicing the right way
• What we are focussing on, when we are practising
Lets briefly look at each one
1. Having the right things to practice
We can easily show this is important, with a quick thought experiment. Let’s imagine you are a beginner, day 1 guitar player. What is more suitable for you to practice:
a simple melody with 3-4 different notes
Sweep picking arpeggios and integrating how to use diminished chords to shift between major and minor arpeggios?
Obvious, right? It’s going to be the simple melody.
Because as a beginner, you don’t have the conceptual knowledge to know what diminished chords are or what arpeggios are; and additionally, you don’t have the mechanical skill to be able to implement those concepts.
So we want to start with building the basic mechanical skill, which we do by learning a simple melody. From there, we can logical ascend through a hierarchy of knowledge and skills, building up to sweep picking diminished arpeggios.
2. Having mental focus while practising
Next, let’s think about – what are we trying to achieve when we practice?
When we practice guitar, we are taking a conscious process, and turning it into a subconscious process. The biological process behind that is the brain building neural pathways and then increasing the amount of myelin on the nerves in those pathways (increased myelin speeds up the electric signal moving along the pathway).
The way we do this… is by mental focus.
So if we are playing on a building site while watching TV… we are not going to be very focussed. Our brain will not be able to build and re-enforce the pathways properly.
If we are practising in a quiet room with no distractions, we have a huge amount of focus. Our brain will be able to build the pathways much quicker.
3. Practising the right way
So we established in the first point that we want to start with a simple melody rather than a complex sweep picking arpeggio. Second we established that we want to have mental focus while we practice. Does how we practice that melody matter?
Have you ever noticed you have bad habits with your playing? A bad habit is when you become an expert at doing something the wrong way. When practising we want to be conscious of:
• Are our fingers flying a million miles away from the strings rather than being near the strings?
• Are we unnecessarily tensing weird muscle groups when we practice?
• Are we holding the pick correctly?
• Are we trying to crush the guitar neck with our fret hand, or are we using just enough pressure?
• Is our pick / strumming hand flying around like we are digging a hole, or is it nice and controlled?
And other things. Being conscious of these ideas helps us form the correct habits which makes playing a lot, lot easier.
4. What we are focusing on when we are practising
This takes points 2 and 3 and combines them. We need to keep our brain focussed, and we need to know what we are focussing on. But we can’t focus on everything at once.
Take a guitar exercise. Now choose two or three things to focus on. This could be how you hold your pick, your finger positioning on the frets, maybe keeping your shoulder relaxed while playing. Set a timer for 1 minute. Play through the exercise, investing 1 minute into each different mental focus area you chose. One at a time.
You’ll quickly find you start solving guitar playing problems and making your playing easier, allowing you to progress and become a better guitar plater!
If you want to learn how to practice more effectively, you can check out my book on How to Practice Guitar.