Improving Your Guitar Practice
This lesson is principally aimed at intermediate level students of electric guitar who want to reach for and attain a higher (professional) level in their playing and also improve their guitar practice time. It’s not especially for jazz guitarists or rock guitarists as such, but really any player who feels that they have the potential to become a much better musician and who wants to work professionally.
A Short Story First…
When I first decided to study music full-time I was actually quite casual about my guitar practice. I tended to ‘work’ only on things that appealed to me and avoided other areas that I was poor at, didn’t fully understand or seemed boring to me. These ‘other areas’ included sight-reading (I recall I was a completely dreadful sight-reader!) scales and arpeggios in all keys, rhythms and time-keeping and the learning of chords systematically along the fingerboard. All I wanted to do was play single-line solos really and to be honest I wasn’t really very good at that.
When I became a full-time music student the situation improved somewhat, however I was still in the frame of mind that I only wanted to work on things that I enjoyed. This situation changed quite dramatically however when I left music college and found myself in the real-world of music. I very quickly realised through some failed auditions, badly played gigs and other unsavoury musical experiences that I had a lot of work to do and needed a way to really learn ‘the basics’ on my instrument.
You might be thinking at this stage, why didn’t I do all this work at music college? Well I did try, but often became side-tracked and I perhaps didn’t see the real value of putting in the hours some of my fellow students were in their guitar practice. The vast amount of information that I received at college was also an issue for me and it was often difficult to know what to work on first.
What I did soon discover was that there are certain essentials (basics) that you have to know if you want to work professionally and I’ve listed some of them below. These are certainly the areas that I knew I had to work on.
So what are the Basics/Essentials?…
- Playing in all keys – This is a professional necessity in my view, especially if you are going to be playing other people’s music and not just your own songs or covers. Why is it so important? – well, singers for example may want you to quickly change a key in rehearsal, a producer might want a key change in a recording, a writer might ask you to change the key of a part or a whole song and the list goes on. You have to be able to do it and do it quickly.
- Good Time and Rhythmic Awareness – If you are going to play in any way professionally, you have to be able to play in time. You also have to understand groove, different time ‘feels’ and common rhythmic subdivisions. Without these rhythmic skills, you will struggle (as I did) to get gigs and have an audience really appreciate your playing properly.
- Know the Fingerboard Thoroughly – A lot of players feel they already know the fingerboard well, but it’s usually not the case (as it was with me) In my opinion you need to be able to play all the common scales in all keys all over the fingerboard, along with their associated arpeggios. You also really need to know your triads (in all inversions) A good working knowledge of seventh chords and their inversions is also very useful and whilst you may not need all of them on every gig or recording, there will always be a point when you will be glad you learned them.
- Learn to Read Music – Guitar tablature is great and often helpful, but in the real world of music, no one is going to hand you music written out in tab. Learning to read will open a lot of doors for you and even if you are not the world’s fastest sight-reader, an ability to accurately interpret music from the page is a major asset. If you are planning on working with other musicians, producers or composers who rely on written music then you have to be able to read.
There are obviously other areas that could be added to the above list, but these were the ones that stood out to me as being essential for the work that I wanted to do at the time.
How long is all this going to take me?
Everybody is different with their practice routine (and of course their ability to retain and practically apply musical information) and some areas may take longer to work on than others. For me, everything listed above took about a year to 18 months before I felt semi-comfortable with most of it. Sight-reading was the hardest probably, but I spent about 6 months working really hard on that and saw major improvements.
I don’t want to give the impression that just working for a year or so produces complete mastery (all these areas are really life-long musical studies) but it was the period that took me from being very unstable sounding to feeling that I was definitely ‘getting there’.
How much time should I put aside for guitar practice?
I get asked this question a lot and the simple answer is that it will vary from player to player. In my experience however, it’s the regularity of practice that matters most. A solid and productive practice session every day is far more beneficial than cramming in 4 hours on a Sunday with nothing in between times. If you are really wanting to work professionally then 2-3 hours daily will see you gain major results.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this article is really aimed at players who want to work professionally or make major improvements in their playing. If music and guitar playing is just something you do for personal pleasure then things will likely be different for you and putting aside several hours a day may not be feasible.
My final suggestion is regarding monitoring your progress. For a long time I kept a musical diary of what I practiced and this was a big help, as it enabled me to check on my progress and address any areas that I felt weren’t getting enough attention. Give it a try. It really works.
Anyway, that’s it for this lesson. I hope it’s helped a bit anyway.