How I Practice Guitar

Over time I’ve come to realize that how you tackle problems matters more than what you know before you start tackling a problem. Having a system for subdividing a problem and addressing its issues in smaller, manageable pieces can make issue discovery and resolution progress at a far faster rate.

Learning, it turns out for me, is just another problem. And if I apply a system to the way I attempt to learn I can generally progress through skill levels at a much higher rate. It’s not necessarily the most glamorous of realizations. But it’s certainly been one of the realizations that’s helped propel me through life.

And it was playing guitar that really opened my eyes to the fact that having a defined system for learning really pays off.

I used to struggle quite a bit with my guitar skills. Despite playing guitar regularly, daily for the most part, and performing live with pretty high frequency, my skills were at a plateau for many years. I’d buy new instructional books and quickly discover they were too simple, too hard, too boring or some combination of all of those things. And they’d collect dust.

What really helped me break through the plateau was coming up with a system for studying guitar that didn’t bore me to death, but kept me working on the areas that needed constant improvement. I built a system for learning.

It’s nothing amazing. Really, it’s actually quite boring. It was the realization that having a routine for learning could help me approach learning in a way that made it less a chore and more something I enjoyed. When I practice now (and I’ll admit, the frequency of highly structured practice has fallen off as the years have worn on) I do it in a way that keeps me focused but moving through different areas I need to create skill so I’m not getting bored.

Here’s my general routine:

  • 5m - warm up, stretching exercises
  • 10m - modes, scale runs (try to work in things like string skipping)
  • 15m - chords, inversions, arpeggios
  • 15m - sight reading (I’ll pick a new chart from the Real Book)
  • 10m - general wanking
  • 5m - musical meditation (listen to something new, play blindfolded…something to connect the soul to the music)

That’s 60 minutes. Given my kids are in bed I can do anything for 60 minutes without my focus and attention being pulled away. And 60 focused, structured minutes, it turns out, helps me improve at a much faster rate than if I just sat down and did… whatever …for 2 or 3 hours.

All of the above, I will add, I do with a metronome. Always. At first the metronome will be running fairly slowly and over time the speed creeps up and up. If I’m learning a new set of inversions or chord shapes, I’ll start by comping the changes over a slow tempo. I like to really focus on holding notes for their full duration at a slow tempo. It can be quite a challenge!

Written on September 13, 2016