My Wrong Ideas About Practicing Guitar
By Paul Kleff
Be careful when choosing advice regarding guitar practice. Advice that I thought was true when I began playing the guitar actually made improving my guitar technique and skills more difficult than it needed to be. Here’s why:
One of the problems people encounter when practicing is deciding what, when and how much to practice a given technique, solo or song. Much of the confusion comes from the huge amount of guitar information available today—some of it is good, some not so good. Often, there are many conflicting views on the same subject. Nobody wants to waste their time or practice in ways that don’t give maximum results in the shortest time.
When I started getting serious about guitar (back in the pre-internet days!), I sought out as much information as I could from every source I could: lessons, magazines, books, reading interviews with musicians I liked and trying to learn by ear from recordings and tablature. The problem I had was I couldn’t always tell the good information from the “not so good” information. I had no real way of knowing what worked and what didn’t. Many times, I would work on a technique, song or solo and make little or no progress and wonder what I was doing wrong. I wasted much time, effort and experienced a lot of frustration trying to figure things out. If I had known then what I know now I would have made much faster progress toward my musical goals and eliminated a lot of wasted effort and aggravation along the way.
If I listed all the wrong things I believed back then and all the dead-end practice techniques I tried, I would probably run out of space here! Here are the main guitar technique and practice myths that sidetracked me and slowed my progress along the way:
Myth #1: Always practice slowly if you want to be able to play fast. For a long time, I practiced scales, solos and songs, always playing slowly, and wondered why I didn’t get any faster. I didn’t get any faster because I didn’t push myself to get faster. It is very true that much time must be spent practicing slowly and deliberately, developing and refining the technique you are practicing without ingraining mistakes and sloppiness—especially when the material you are learning is brand new to you. However, as you learn and memorize the lick, song or riff, at some point you need to push yourself to the edge of your ability to play it cleanly. You don’t want to practice at the “edge of ability” speed for long periods of time, but this type of practice is necessary in order to take your technique to the next level. When practicing a scale or technique, some part of your session should include some speed time—just make sure that it is not overdone to the point that sloppy playing and bad technique get ingrained. Immediately after pushing your speed, it is good to go back and practice the same technique at a speed you can play cleanly and perfectly—it will feel much smoother (and should be much easier) to play after your “speed push” session. Practice slow to play it clean, practice speeding it up to get it faster.
Myth #2: Never practice scales, arpeggios, etc. using distortion. If the primary style of music you play uses overdriven and distorted guitar, it is absolutely necessary to practice using a distorted guitar sound. A long time ago, when I first learned the opening guitar part to “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” by Van Halen, I practiced playing it without an amp—making sure I could finger the notes and pick them cleanly. When I plugged into an amp with distortion and tried it, I didn’t sound very good. I could play the right notes at the right time, but I didn’t yet understand the importance of how to use muting to make everything sound clean. Strings that weren’t supposed to be sounding were ringing out and the whole thing sounded “messy.” I learned that if I was going to play using an overdriven tone, I needed to practice using that tone—it wasn’t enough just to practice the notes using a clean tone or playing without an amp. If your playing is not clean, the distortion will make it sound even worse—you will hear the mistakes that would not be apparent using a clean tone. Your practice needs to use the same amp sound you use when you play.
Myth #3: Always hold your pick, left hand etc.“this way.” Regarding hand positions and pick grip, always be wary of the word “always.” There are no absolutes—there are more efficient techniques, but no one way is always the right way. For example, both Paul Gilbert and Yngwie Malmsteen have monster chops, but if you look at their pick hand technique, they are both very different. Gilbert picks more from the wrist and Malmsteen more from a combination of fingers and wrist. Both ways of picking work well for each player. We all have different hand shapes and sizes, play different styles of music and guitars. If you are having difficulty with a certain technique, the best advice is to find a good teacher who can help you find the best way to develop a solution to your problem. Most technique issues can be resolved in more than one way, and sometimes a little help is needed to find the solution that will work for you.
Myth #4: Learning theory will ruin my creativity and originality. I read more than one interview with famous guitar players (who I won’t name!) where they said everything they played came from “inspiration.” While they were certainly creative and inspired players, I believe that somewhere along the way, they learned some music theory. At the very least, they learned scale and chord patterns on the guitar and learned how to apply them to get the musical result they wanted. Learning theory is like learning to read and write a language—if you can’t read and write, you are limiting your ability to express yourself and have others understand what you are trying to communicate. Learning theory opens new doors to creative ideas that most of us would not come up with on our own.
Myth #5: You have to practice X amount of hours a day for X number of years before you’ll be any good at guitar. This one is partially true. Any guitar player with advanced skills had to put some serious practice time in somewhere along the way. However, it is not necessary to lock yourself away in your room for four years and practice twelve hours a day (although you probably would get pretty good at the guitar!) The key is to find the most efficient and effective ways to use the practice time that you have so that you can do the things you want to be able to do on the guitar. If your goal is to be able to strum some Beatles songs, your practice routine will be much different than if your goal is to be able to play like your favorite shredder. You need to determine the specific skills you will need to develop to play what you want to play. Think about it—what would you really like to be able to do on the guitar? Get out a piece of paper and write down what those goals are. Once you have your goals, then you can develop a plan to reach them. If you are just starting out, a good teacher who can play well in the style you are interested in can be very helpful in helping you reach your goals in the fastest time possible with the least amount of wasted effort. Having clear goals and finding a good teacher who will help you reach them is one of the best ways to maximize your practice time.
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Paul Kleff is a musician and guitar teacher located in Grand Rapids, Michigan USA. Learn to play guitar with
guitar lessons in Grand Rapids at the West Michigan Guitar School. The West Michigan Guitar School offers
Grand Rapids guitar lessons in both small group and individual private guitar lesson formats. Become the guitar player you know you were meant to be!
© 2008 Paul Kleff