Are You Practising or Playing Guitar?

Playing guitar and practising guitar are two very different things, but we often get them confused. By drawing some distinctions between the two, we can use our time more effectively and get better results in our playing

For the first few years of learning guitar, I love to noodle. I would sit down and put hours into my playing… sometimes not really doing much of anything. I would jam some scales, play through a few chord changes that my teacher gave me, and I had a lot of fun doing that. A lot of fun!

However, I did not progress very quickly - at all. I was an incredibly slow learner. I mistakingly thought that playing guitar and practising guitar were the same thing.

Now, before we start looking at some of these distinctions, I want to say that if you are enjoying what you are doing, and you are getting what you want out of your guitar playing - there is nothing wrong with that!

But, if you are not making progress the way you want, then maybe some of these distinctions will help you start to understand how you can make more consistent progress with your playing.

What is Playing Guitar?

I tend to think of playing guitar as anytime we are:

  • Performing
  • Playing a song
  • Playing for fun

Or, as anytime when we are not specifically focussed on improving some area of our playing or improvising for fun.

When I was younger, this was 90% of my “guitar time”. Most of the time I thought I was practising, I was really just having fun. And like I said, there is nothing wrong with that, but you are not going to make much progress this way.

What is Practising Guitar?

When we are practising guitar, we are specifically looking to increase our skill or solve a problem with our playing.

Sometimes this is not fun! But when we do it correctly, it is always rewarding. Every time we sit down to practice, we should be making progress.

The progress might not necessarily be an increase in speed, but could be something like:

  • Memorising the next bar
  • Identifying a muscle tension problem
  • Training a problem, the results of which will manifest the next day or sometime after

Practising guitar is more focussed, disciplined and intent driven than playing guitar.

Why Do We Want To Distinguish Between Practising And Playing Guitar?

The main reason for drawing a line, or a distinction, between playing and practising guitar, is that so that we can make sure we are doing the right one at the right time.

If we want to jam and have fun, we don’t want to obsess over a little mistake we are making.

If we are wanting to make sure we make progress, then we want to make sure that when we sit down to practice, we know

  1. What it is we are going to practice
  2. How we are going to practice it
  3. If there are any particular areas we need to focus on

Generally speaking, unless we are performing, our practice time will be a lot more focussed than our playing time.

For example, let’s say we wanted to practice our sweep picking. We would not sit down with a backing track and mindlessly play some sweeping licks in E minor.

We would plan out the exercise we were going to be practising a week in advance.

We would schedule some time each day to work on it.

We would study the sound of what we are playing and isolate any mistakes.

We would then train out mistakes.

How Do We Train Mistakes That We Make When Practising Guitar?

Let’s say we were practising a basic 3 string A minor arpeggio, with the root on the 2nd string, like this:

Neck diagram showing an A minor arpeggio

And we were practising it in the following way:

An A minor arpeggio sweep picking exercise

But we found that we were getting “note bleed” when practising. We would want to:

  1. Slow down what we are playing, so that we play as slow as grass grows,
  2. Isolate the specific note(s) that are bleeding together
  3. Isolate the cause of the bleed - is it our right hand or our left?
  4. Figure out how to do it correctly
    • Do we need to change how we are muting the strings?
    • Do we need to change how the fingers are fretting the notes?
    • Do we need to change the timing of the fingers?
    • All of the above? Or something else?
  5. Repeatedly train the correct motion of our hands, for 5 - 10 minutes.

This is the process we use to fix nearly every possible mistake in our guitar playing.

Bonus: You can read some more ideas on sweep picking here.

How Can You Tell If You Are Practising Guitar Or Playing Guitar?

Intense practice rarely sounds good.

If you practising, by training out isolated mistakes, your practising is going to sound horrible

Practising guitar and making music are two very different things

If you are playing guitar, it should sound a lot, lot better than when you are practising guitar.

How Can We Use These Ideas To Progress Faster With Our Guitar Playing?

The main way we use this is to make sure that we are actually practising guitar, in our practice time, and not just playing (well, unless that is what you want to do!).

Make a distinction, plan your practice time and get to work :-)