If you’ve been following The Six Points of Awesome, you have:
Made a commitment to yourself to reach your greatest potential.
Found a mentor or two to inspire you and to help guide you in the right direction.
Focused your attention on the details like a laser beam.
Consistently punched the clock in your guitar practice.
Now that you’re in the practice room, what do you do?
The simple answer is “practice”…and for getting that one right, I would applaud you.
However, many guitarists treat “practice” as an open-ended, “a little of this followed by a little of that” approach. Although doing a little of this followed by a little of that is perfectly valid and can be fun, it seldom leads to Status: Awesome.
So in this Awesome Point we’re going to talk about how to get the most out of your practice time through good organization, sound strategies, a clear sense of priorities, and even knowing when to say “when”.
[Note: If you happened to answer the above question with, "practice with good organization and solid strategies in place to make the most of my time", then I would not only slow clap for you, but I'd also give you the Guitar Ninja High-Five*.]
In the fifth installment of our series, it’s all about efficiency – in planning, approach and execution. Let’s rawk!
Awesome Point #5: Be Efficient
You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “Work smarter, not harder.” Well, this is just another way of saying that you should work efficiently.
The term efficiency describes the extent to which time or effort is well used for the intended task or purpose. To say that we are using an “efficient method” of guitar practice means that we are able to produce a specific outcome – greater fretboard knowledge, for instance – effectively with a minimum amount of waste, expense, or unnecessary effort. Basically, we aim to get the most done with the least effort. For those among us who are short on time for guitar practice, this may be the ultimate key to success!
Let’s explore some ideas that will help us to become as musically efficient as possible, shall we?
Having a good sense of organization for our guitar practice means setting up some musical categories and making sure that we regularly touch on elements from each category. This will keep up our strengths, bring up our weaknesses, and keep us moving forward instead of spinning our wheels.
Jamie Andreas of Guitar Principles has written a very in-depth article on this subject: Guitar Practice Organization. In it, she categorizes the practice elements this way: Technique, Musical Skills, Repertoire and Review.
The Technique category consists of exercises that enhance the purely physical, mechanical nature of playing. The Musical Skills category is a catch-all for the wide variety of things that make up your skill and knowledge base, such as theory, rhythm, scale work, chord vocabulary, improvisation, ear training, etc. The Repertoire category is simply songs that you’re learning or have learned. The Review category is just that: consistently going back over material you’ve previously learned, whether from the Musical Skills or Repertoire category. Because the art of guitar is such a wide-ranging endeavor, regular review is not a suggestion; it’s a necessity.
The bottom line here is that having good practice organization will clearly illuminate what needs to be done, so that we can then set out to efficiently execute said things. It will also make sure that we’re spreading the love around a bit, instead of only focusing on the stuff that we’re good at or the stuff that’s “fun” – both surefire ways of becoming stagnant.
Get Some Strategies
There are a bunch of practice strategies that I’ve either invented or
stolen lovingly appropriated from other sources. I’ve listed some of them below in random order and added some clues about how to use them. Rest assured that if I’m including them here, they absolutely work in cutting down on wasted time and effort.
PRACTICE IN MANAGEABLE SECTIONS
Please stop trying to practice everything from the beginning to the end, which is the standard protocol for newbs (and sometimes veterans). If there is just one thing that will make your practice more efficient, this is it. Work on a few bars of music at a time and really master them. Add a few more bars and do the same. Link ‘em together.
If you’ve got an issue in bar 11, but you keep playing through your song from bar 1 until you stumble at bar 11, you’re wasting a whole lot of time. Instead isolate bar 11 first and work it; then smooth it over as follows…
SMOOTH OVER THE SECTIONS
Think of it like fixing a hole in the drywall. You put a patch over it and lay some spackle on. You then feather and sand the spackle in all directions so that the hole can’t be detected anymore. This is the mentality with linking musical sections.
Let’s take the aforementioned problem bar 11. First work on fixing bar 11. When that’s cooking, play into bar 11 from bar 10, then from bar 9, then from bar 8. When you’re comfortable getting into the problem area, work on getting out of it by playing from bar 11 into bar 12 as cleanly as possible. We’ve now spackled and sanded that problem area, guitar-style.
SPEED IS NOT YOUR FRIEND
When learning anything new, speed is your enemy. Go slower than you think you need to in order to allow your brain to absorb the new material. Focus hard on becoming accurate first. Speed is a by-product of mechanical accuracy. Allowing yourself to play too fast too soon will just hinder your progress by impeding the muscle memory you’re working so hard to achieve.
VISUALIZE IT AND “EYEBALL” IT
Some things you visualize in your mind’s eye, such as the shapes of the chords or the path of the scale. These need to be “seen” before you make the move; don’t wait until the moment of truth to decide what the chord looks like or where the scale pattern lies.
“Eyeballing” something means actively looking for and locating the fret that you need, again preferably before the moment of truth. This is especially important when moving up and down the fretboard with power chords or barre chords: it helps to “lead” with your first finger, for example, by aiming it at a specific fret.
FIND THE COMMON ELEMENTS
Make use of what I call “common” strategies; that is, let the elements that chords have in common help you to make efficient chord changes.
The common finger strategy dictates that you keep a finger anchored in place if it’s the same for two consecutive chords. It would be poor guitar technique to lift up a finger only to put it back down in the same spot (for example, fingers 1 and 2 in C and Am).
The common string strategy dictates that you let a finger shift you along a string if that finger stays on that string in consecutive chords (for example, finger 1 on string 3 between D and E).
The common shape strategy encourages you to use similarities in shape to help you visualize and maintain your hand position in consecutive chords (for example, Am and E).
START AT THE END
Sometimes it can be a fun exercise – and possibly give you an advantage, psychologically-speaking – to work backwards when learning a riff or section of a song. This way you’re always working from a newer/weaker section into a familiar/stronger section, rather than the traditional way of working out of the familiar/stronger section and into the newer/weaker section. Give it a try!
Get Your Priorities Straight
Many times a guitarist will understand the elements she has to work on, but the way she prioritizes them is out of whack. She just needs to focus on the correct things at the correct time. The most critical example of this is left hand versus right hand movements.
LEFT OR RIGHT HAND, NOT BOTH
When you’re working on left hand issues, simplify the right hand moves. This way you can keep the focus where it belongs.
An example of this might be working out a new major scale pattern. Either play it with all downstrokes or take out the right hand and just “tap dance” along the scale pattern with the left hand fingers. When the left hand is locked in, then start to incorporate alternate picking in the right hand. Trying to do both simultaneously – unless you’re a solid intermediate to advanced player – is usually a recipe for wasted time.
Vice versa, if you’re rocking a new complicated right hand technique, keep the left hand stuff to a minimum. Heck, take the left hand out altogether!
For example, a tricky syncopated strum pattern might be best practiced over just one chord or even open strings. Once that strum starts to lock in, start incorporating chord changes one at a time. This works like a charm.
THE PARETO PRINCIPLE
Another priority issue that I sometimes see is a musical version of the Pareto Principle, often called the “80/20 Rule”.
For the uninitiated, the Pareto Principle refers to the idea that the vast majority of benefits are usually produced by a small minority of contributors; for example, 80% of your sales usually come from 20% of your customers. So it would seem smart to focus on giving your best customers (the core 20%) the best service, since they generate the bulk of your sales.
For guitar purposes, stop with all the fluff and the stuff that doesn’t really matter and focus hard on the fundamentals that give you the greatest benefits! This is the epitome of making the most of your practice time.
[Note: Although folks like to say that 80% of the benefits are produced by only 20% of the contributors, there is apparently nothing magical about the numbers 80 and 20. It is simply meant to signify a vast majority and minority.]
Here are some guitar studio examples of the Pareto Principle:
Learning to sweep pick and finger tap can be a lot of fun, but those techniques are used 1% of the time. Focus on solid alternate picking first and foremost.
Learn to play your basic scales – pentatonic, major and blues – in all 5 positions on the fretboard, then worry about modes and other improvisation concepts.
Don’t spend time on exotic chords up and down the fretboard when you have trouble remembering the basic open chords like G, Em and D. Clearly your time is better spent there, making them sound solid and professional.
My personal favorite: stop buying new guitars and learn to play the ones you have. Gear lust is fun but it makes you a guitar owner. Learning to play makes you a musician.
Jamie Andreas likes to say, “practicing one thing is practicing everything”, which means that learning one element well will carry over into other things you do. It’s a variation on “all ships rise with the tide” and it’s what we sometimes refer to as Vertical Progress. Truly mastering the fundamentals causes all of your songs – the Horizontal Progress part – to improve across the board.
Remember that the most accomplished players are not usually any smarter or more talented than you or I. They have just mastered the basics – the small minority of elements that give the most benefits – better than we have. So forget the fluff and concentrate on that 20%!
Let the Music Come to You
Finally, there are a few situations where patience or even knowing when to stop and regroup is the best approach. This is not to be used as an excuse for lazy behavior, of course; think of it more as stalking your musical prey.
PUT IN YOUR TIME, BUT DON’T FORCE IT
Although it’s much more common to encounter guitarists who don’t put forth enough effort to get great results, some are actually too intense about their playing and wind up whipping themselves into a frenzy of frustration. These are the folks that you have to talk down from the ledge once in a while.
They need to throttle the intensity back and “let the game come to them” (to use a very cliched sports term). They want it too much and they want it NOW.
Unfortunately, learning a new skill – especially a complex motor skill like guitar – takes time and patience. Your brain needs time to absorb the information (assuming you’re feeding it the correct info, ‘natch) and then it takes time for the brain’s commands to sync up with your hands. You simply can’t force it.
GETTING BETTER, GETTING WORSE
If you’re anything like me, you may have encountered a time when you’ve started off playing some chord changes or a particular guitar riff poorly, but then after some focused practice, it all started to come together and sound pretty good. Having witnessed a glimmer of success, you kept hacking away at it, hoping to conquer that beast once and for all.
And then, inexplicably, it started to sound bad again. Little by little, all manner of things started going wrong, including some stuff that was sounding killer just a few moments ago!
This is not at all unusual; in fact, I see it in guitar lessons on a regular basis, as well as in my own guitar practice.
It’s almost like your brain is telling you to “put the brakes on for a while and let me sort some stuff out.” So do what your noggin is telling you: stop, take a few breaths, clear your mind, and slowly work that riff again from the beginning. I think you’ll see steady, lasting improvement at that point.
BE A NINJA…TO A POINT
The old Japanese saying, “Seven times down, eight times up” is a testament to persistence. Without persistence, you simply won’t succeed at much in life. In fact, we tell kids this all the time; learning how to “keep at it” is a key to success.
But there can be a point of diminishing returns, where the psychological toll of failing at something is greater than whatever lesson you’re hoping to learn. At that point – and you’ll likely know when you’ve reached it – it’s best to walk away and come back tomorrow. Learning guitar is a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t win every individual battle in short order. Sometimes you win them over the course of days, weeks or months.
And sometimes you’re just beating a dead horse (to use a decidedly creepy figure of speech) because you don’t realize that a particular technical or conceptual issue is holding you back. So no matter how many times you try, you’re still going to fail at it. At some point, you may have to step back, take apart the problem and troubleshoot it for answers. That is often the breakthrough you need.
To sum it all up: be as efficient as possible by organizing your practice, using sound strategies, keeping your priorities in order, and knowing when to call it a day. Next up is Awesome Point #6: Find Your Zone…
*An act as rare as a sighting of Bigfoot. But much more awesome.
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