BLOG POST: Smarter Practice equals Better Playing

  • A tourist walking along Fifth Avenue stops a passerby and asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”          

    The New Yorker slyly responds, “Practice.”

    In the case of guitar, practice is usually thought of as a painful endeavor. "I just want to play music!"  However, practice can actually be fun if you look at it the right way. There are a few proven methods to increasing the learning curve that are worthy of mentioning simply because I've resisted them for a long time but, once i got on board, they've proven irreplaceable and changed my playing almost overnight.  So, it's not just cranky old guitar teachers enforcing these harsh practice methods on you. These practice tips are merely something to consider applying every time you pick up the guitar. 5 minutes.  10 minutes.  1 hour.  Whatever time you have. 

    Once I finally applied these practice areas in earnest, my playing soared. Within weeks my playing went from flat and predictable to tight and melodic. I began playing in time hitting the right notes on each of the song's chord changes.  I was filling out the rhythm parts in new ways. Finger dexterity improved significantly.  Practicing this stuff each time I picked up the guitar made playing guitar fun again. It just took finally accepting that what I had been doing wasn't working and I needed to be much more thoughtful in what I worked on.

    Nowadays, I literally set the clock for how long I am going to officially practice so I can use the time more efficiently.  No more open-ended practice peppered with checking email, news sites, facebook, or watching TV.

    This post is simply to tell you about how I practice and maybe it will help you.

    I am a fan of the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir's “lead rhythm" playing and these methods have gotten me closer to it.

    Here's my routine:

    1) Finger coordination exercises (10 minutes): There’s a million coordination exercises out there.  Here's an example:

    I do this with a metronome because it forces me to stay in a note-to-note rhythm as I go thru this. Using the metronome kills two birds with one stone: it not only improves my finger strength and dexterity, but also keeps me playing in time. Win win. You will naturally blend the note-to-note playing into a harmonious tempo which is what you’re after – and it’s easier on your ears as you go thru it!

    2) Play along to your favorite tunes(20 minutes): No metronome necessary. With the internet at your disposal you can find your favorite music for free. YouTubeTM plays full length songs for free and you can even put it in a loop to automatically restart parts if there’s one section you’re struggling with.  Queue up YoutubeTM to playback the song and reference the song’s basic chord structure from the Ultimate GuitarTM.  Doing this is a lot of fun and keeps me playing in time. The more you do this the better your ear will become. Listen for the song’s chord changes – if you can’t hear them try to locate the bass line underneath everything else.  The bass is the real chord change truth teller.  (Bass players and drummers – most of them, anyway! - have the oft-used nickname “time keepers” for a reason.) 

    2) 5-in-5 exercise (10 minutes): Practice identifying all 5 occurrences of a note, i.e. A, A#, B, C, C# within the first 12 frets.  The goal is to play each of these notes in 5 seconds.  See the image below for an example of where the notes are for the note “C”.  Do this for as many notes as you can and notice the relative nature of each occurrence to the other.  You will, of course, start to see a pattern in how to are juxtaposed against each other fret-to-fret, across string-to-string.  Knowing these "distances" is exactly the type of knowledge that helps your rhythm and lead playing.

    3) Major Scales (10 minutes): I do these alternating across the I-IV-V chords.  This exercise is what's changed my playing the most. Because of this exercise I am able to play over similar I-IV-V progressions while keeping in time. I have some work to do but this exercise has really helped me improve my lead rhythm playing.  And doing this can be fun, especially as your fingers grow more and more nimble and dexterous.  This is a confidence builder too when you're jamming with others. Essentially, within a 4-fret block you can play solo or riff within your chord playing with greater confidence and fluidity.  I like doing these right before a jam session!

    How I do it.  As a starter, begin on the low E string and work your way down the strings to the high E string (1st string).  I usually start on A major at the 6th string, 5th fret. This will be our "I" chord. Run through that major scale. Next, go to "D" on the 5th string, 5th fret. This is our IV chord to the root I chord (A). Run through the D major scale starting at the 5th string.  Then, go to "E" on the same 5th string only moving up to the 7th fret. This is the "V" chord. Play the "E" major scale "back" to the 4th fret so that the notes overlap with the notes just played for the I and IV chord. In this case, the "E" major scale notes would be between the 4th and 7th frets.  (Note: If you think about each of these I, IV, and V chord scales in terms of the CAGED method, it could be described as:

    [Beginners might want to ignore this because, if you're not familiar with the CAGED method, it might do more harm to you!]

    I chord (Root)

    A major scale at 6th string, 5th fret:

    Shape: "E" CAGED shape (Start on 6th string)

    IV chord

    D major scale at 5th string, 5th fret

    Shape: "A" CAGED shape (Start on 5th string)

    (V chord)

    E major scale at 5th string, 7th fret

    Shape: "C" CAGED shape (Start on 5th string, 7th fret tracking back to lower-numbered frets; Scale run for the E major scale (V chord) is between the 4th and 7th frets.)

    I covered a lot of ground here so don’t be shy asking questions – or poking holes in my suggestions!  It’s all good.  I practice a few other things of course but these are the ones I thought others would benefit from hearing.  This is hopefully enough information to get you thinking about how you practice.  Maybe even try these out.  If you need more information don’t hesitate to let me know and I'll try to explain further.  Only so much I can say in a blog post.  These topics really deserve a full length novel!

    If I succeeded in doing anything I hope I got you to think again about using a least during coordination exercises! Ginger Baker was asked why Eric Clapton was such an exceptional guitar player. Ginger’s response, “He had perfect timing.”  (Check out the Ginger Baker documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker” to learn more about Cream and Blind Faith’s virtuoso drummer and "charismatic" personality.)

    Thanks for reading my post.


    P.S. These are my electric guitars - had to share!

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