How to Become More Consistent With Your Playing

I recently received a message from someone lamenting that they felt like they hadn’t improved much over the last thirty years. We had a bit of a back and forth and hopefully he’s got a path to improve. The conversation was one I could imagine a lot of guitarists benefitting from, so I’ve put it out here.

I started off asking a few questions:

  1. What do you want to be able to do on guitar? What sorts of music, songs etc do you want to play?
  2. How have you been working on your playing?
  3. When you practice, what do you do?
  4. How much time do you practice for?

With the following replies, I’ve corrected a few typos, removed names and added the occasional note to clarify a misconception.

Struggling with fluency and general practice overview

This was his reply to my questions:

  1. Fretboard fluency is one of my goals. Speed with effective timing is another goal. I love Contemporary Christian music. I also love 80 and 90s country and 70s rock.
  2. Sometimes learning scales, sometimes learning chords for new songs, learning the lead for the songs if possible. 3 work on speed drills, chord changes, timing.
  3. Usually 1-2 hours per day. I have arthritis in both thumbs so the time is now limited.

Clarifying music theory terms and digging deeper

After reading his reply I suspect there was some confusion in terminology going on, which I wanted to clarify, asking the following questions:

  1. What do you mean by fretboard fluency?
  2. Can you give some examples of songs you want to be able to play? What songs are you able to play at the moment? Are you able to play an entire song (even if it’s a simple easy one) from start to finish?
  3. When working on chords and scales, what are you doing? What are you getting stuck with?
  4. How are you working on speed drills, changes and timing?
  5. If you look back at what you could do 1 year ago, 5 years ago and 10 years ago, have you made any progress?

Fretboard fluency and favourite bands

Here was his reply:

By Fretboard fluency, I mean knowing all the notes on the guitar, each not that all chords consist of. How they relate to one another, how the scales relate to each chord, etc. watching people like Keith Urban play so effortlessly is what I consider fretboard fluency.

I play Dust in the Wind from start to finish but still make mistakes.even after 25 years. Makes no sense. I love all songs by Steven Curtis Chapman. And many more of those type songs. I can play a lot of partial songs, but not very many all the way through. Of course, if I have the chords written down, I can play a lot more.

I have attempted to learn the CAGE system, and have in the key of C. Just having issues with learning all the modes. At 61, my memory is not what it used to be. I usually set my metronome at a certain cadence and try and play at that speed and sometimes try and boost it up a little.

If I could go back, I would learn more music theory and less of just attempting songs. Without fretboard fluency, a person just learns songs. Not a good way to learn.

The distinction between fretboard fluency and playing fluency

Fretboard fluency: When you describe knowing the notes on the neck, what notes go in what chords and how it all relates, you are describing music theory. When you talk about Keith Urban playing effortlessly, that is practising a lot.

Now, if you were to talk about Keith Urban writing a song with lots of chords with nice melodies that relate, that would also be music theory. So we have to be careful with definitions because if we get them muddled up, it’s difficult to make sense of what we are trying to learn.

When it comes to memorising the notes on guitar, this article should help: How to memorise the notes on guitar. If you want to learn composition, that is a topic that requires a more formal course of study, whether with a teacher or an online course.

If you want to help practising more accurately so that you can play effortlessly like Keith Urban, that comes down to practising effectively. There are some other articles on my website about that, and my book also goes in depth about it. You can see some of my general guitar practise advice here

Dust In The Wind is a cool song! When you say make mistakes, what do you mean? Can you get specific? Is it a totally random mistake that happens? Is it a particular chord change that is difficult? Is there a picking pattern with the right hand you struggle with? Are there open strings that you are knocking by accident?

When you have the chords written down, do you also have the rhythm written down? Do you practice the song reading the rhythm at a slow tempo to a metronome? You say you set your metronome to a certain tempo, do you ever go below that tempo, or do you struggle at the tempo that you set it at?

When it comes to learning the CAGED system, how are you trying to do that? It’s probably the case that you are trying to do too much at once (I’m pretty guilty of this). For example, if you are trying to learn all 5 positions in a day, that might be too much. What if you spend 30 minutes a day for one month on position 1, then the next month on position 2, then the next month on putting the two together, then the next month on position 3?

Work through it in different keys, with different picking patterns, grab some backing tracks and do some noodling with it. Really go hard and deep on doing a small piece of CAGED for a long period of time.

There are a lot of good music theory resources, but getting something structured that makes sense and applies to the guitar can be difficult. You could try finding some structured courses online, or find a local teacher to help break it down for you.

Unable to read rhythm

Here was his reply:

Hey Sam. Not sure what playing to the 8ths, 16th notes mean. I just set the metronome on a certain cadence/speed and play with that set beat.

My note In music “cadence” usually refers to a type of chord progression used to end a phrase. Some examples of cadences are given in different minor key chord progressions for guitar.

I do need a deep dive into music theory. That is a serious deficiency in my learning curve. I have the basics, but only enough to be dangerous. When playing Dust in the Wind, the mistakes are normally random. I can’t seem to hit the right tempo, and make all the notes perfect. I’ve attempted to learn the classical intro piece to Crazy on you for years, but just can’t nail it down.

These issues cause me to sometimes want to just give up.

Of course, having smaller hands doesn’t help. Making an Am/g, sometimes causes issues. Im glad there are alternative ways to make chords. Triads, etc. My biggest issue is comparing myself to other players, and never ever being satisfied with my playing.

The benefits of studying rhythm and not giving up

My reply was as follows:

Something I think you will really benefit from is studying the theory of rhythm. From what you’ve described, it sounds like this is currently a weakness. When you reach the point where you can “write out” the rhythm underneath the music, you will then be able to practice it slowly, slow enough to get it correct, and then you can slowly increase the metronome tempos as you get it correct.

I lay out some ideas on increasing metronome speeds here.

It would also be good to record your tempos by keeping a brief practice diary, I use a page in my day planner. When you to practice the following day, start off at a similar tempo to where you started the previous day, and work your way up from there.

Practising like this will help you be more consistent with your performance.

Additionally, after studying rhythm, you’ll understand what “setting the metronome to the smallest subdivision, whether it’s 8th, 16th etc notes” means, and you’ll be able to do so!

I know this stuff can be frustrating - but please don’t give up! I suspect you can do a lot more on guitar than you give yourself credit for, and that you’ve done a lot of the hard work already.

I think that by learning a few more things and fine-tuning how you are approaching your practice, you’ll start to get the consistency and improvement that you are looking for.

Taking it easier on yourself is one of the topics I cover in my practice book, I found a lot of my students seriously struggled with psychology bullying themselves over their playing, and getting that straightened out helps put the fun back into it, you can check out the guitar practise book here.