Sure, when getting to grips with anything new, we need a little time to get everything under our fingers. But making that move from formless busking to a real musical outcome can be hard. Whether it be a song, scale or solo, nothing you learn on the guitar truly takes shape until you perform it with music. Playing anything unaccompanied allows for a certain amount of freedom from the tempo or pulse of the music; we have the luxury of playing without pressure, in our own time. Unfortunately, performing without a pulse, or musical backing, can give a false sense of how well we can play any given part or improvise.
When playing to music you become tethered to the beat and are encouraged to play in time, with rhythm and groove. It is these elements which turn any noodling into real music. Performing to music, whether it be a learnt song or improvised solo, will also reduce your hesitation and ‘tighten’ your playing up.
You make some pretty big demands of your fingers whilst playing and practicing guitar; even holding down those faithful cowboy chords requires a lot from our hands and muscles. Much like any other physical exercise, warming up is a good idea to get the blood flowing and become physically prepared to play.
Warming up will also bypass that awkward initial chunk of time where your fingers feel a little rusty and stiff. Why spend time trying to convince your fingers to do as they are told, when there is music to be made!
So, how do you warm up? There are, of course, a wealth of ‘warm up’ exercises, perfectly designed to get your fingers revved up for a couple fo hours of wood shedding. However, the exercises you choose should reflect the type of playing you are involved in, and ultimately, your goals – finger independence and alternate picking drills may not aptly prepare a funk rhythm guitar fan as effectively as they would a rock lead guitarist. Seek out exercises which match the context of your playing.
It is also good not to view your warm ups as intense technique builders – these have their place later in your practice, if that is part of your goal. Make sure you only spend a few minutes warming up. Focus on accuracy and clean delivery rather than speed and use this as an opportunity to get your fingers and brain in a playing frame of mind. As with point 1, warm up to a beat to avoid any loose timing issues – this could be a metronome or drum loop.
Whatever you are practicing, once it feels ready, get that backing track on and rock out. There are few better methods for developing your playing as a ‘finished product’ than this. This is also where all the fun is!
Repertoire is all important, but without creating something original, from ourselves, each time we practice, can leave you feeling unfulfilled as a musician. The guitar is, after all, an improvisatory instrument; it is in our DNA!
Creativity is also vital to our notions of progress and general satisfaction with our efforts on the guitar. Learning a song sets a very clear bench mark – it’s right or its wrong and we, all too often, despondently compare our efforts to that of the original. The beauty of creating something, be it improvising or writing a song, riff or chord progression, is that it is outside the bounds of right and wrong. The inclusion of creative time within your practice session allows your brain to switch gear and focus on an area of your playing which has less pressure attached to it.
Improvising and writing is also one of the key ways we, not only explore the our instrument, but discover our own sound, voice and style. It is how you find, and define, your own musical personality.
It is important to approach creative practice with the right mindset – keep the focus on creating something and don’t blur the lines between other areas of your practice, such as working on your chops or mapping scales. For example, when improvising, your focus should be on using the scales, shapes and patterns you know to create something original and musical. This isn’t the time to practice those new licks or learn a new scale. Equally, you shouldn’t worry about delivering a particular technique or forcing musical ideas.
If you don’t do so already, improvising using jam tracks is one of the best ways to ensure you add a creative element to your guitar practice.
Hitting a wall or becoming disillusioned with our guitar playing, while part of the learning process, can be a halting experience. The chief cause of those dreaded guitar ruts comes from the habit of practicing the same things. The logic of directing your attention towards the same song or musical area is sound – the more time you give it, the better your progress, right? In fact, relentless focus on one thing can stunt progress and, worst of all, create boredom and even contempt for your guitar playing.
To keep things fresh and exciting, it is imperative that we learn something new each time we pick up the guitar. This also ensures we have small rewards and ‘wins’, rather than long term goals only.
Adding something new to your skill set or repertoire every time you practice keeps you moving forward and prevents that all too common feeling of stagnation; musically ‘treading water’. Learning something new doesn’t have to be dramatic – a new chord, a single riff, a cool lick, a little nugget of knowledge/theory, or even a new way to bend a note – all add to the notion of discovery which keeps you motivated to play.
As electric guitarists, so much of our experience with the instrument is shaped by the tone we use and the sound we produce. We are obsessed with chasing our next tonal breakthrough – pedals, amps, pick ups – the list goes on. The right (or wrong) tone impacts how we play and even our mood.
It is for these reasons that we often seek out the most secure and comfortable tones when practicing – a little extra reverb, a generous slathering of delay and perhaps a touch more gain. These all serve to add little more magic to each note and generally make the physically demanding job of playing the guitar feel a little easier.
What can be a bitter pill to swallow is that the guitar sounds which make playing feel better – the spacious arena driven rock lead tones and the scooped heavy sounds – can all too often ‘cover up’ some areas of our playing which need attention and, in some cases, give a false sense of our abilities.
It is important to see the difference between a useful practice tone and a good performance tone. Go easy on the gain and time based effects as these can quickly hide how accurately you are playing. Of course, you need a little ‘sauce’, so no need to practice with a clean dry sound; simply be conservative with your effects and think about creating an ‘honest’ practice tone, which doesn’t easily mask any mistakes and allows the nuances of your playing to be heard. A less saturated sound is also a good way to improve how dynamically you play – your ‘feel’ if you will.
When it comes to performance time, give yourself full permission to play with the sound which suits the music. It is also worth considering the correct tone to suit a band environment vs playing at home with backing tracks.