What is Guitar Practice?

This blog addresses the issue of what guitar practice actually is and how I believe you should approach it.

The question 'What is Guitar Practice?' might seem like one that doesn't need to be asked but in my private teaching I am constantly coming across students whose practice habits are prohibiting them from really making any significant improvement.

I'm not talking here about students who just don't practice (that's their problem, they're ticking time bombs) I'm talking about students who do practice but whose guitar practice methodology is flawed.

So what is guitar practice?

I believe guitar practice to be the act of converting conscious thought into subconscious execution via repetition.

A good analogy for this process would be tying your shoelaces, or any other such action that you had to learn but now perform without any regard for the processes inherent in doing so.

When you were younger someone had to teach you how to tie your shoelaces. You would have got it wrong a number of times and had to accept those mistakes, adjust to them and keep adjusting and thinking until you could successfully tie your shoelaces. You persevered. Then every time you tied your shoelaces you would have been thinking less and less about what you were doing until the act of tying your shoelaces became a process you were so familiar with that you could carry it out without having to think about any of the individual steps involved. Guitar practice is really no different.

Ironically, most students who are having difficulty with their guitar practice have actually had success with it in the past. They're just not applying the same methodology to how they are currently practicing.

A good example of this is learning to play open chords. A new guitarist will not be able to play open chords on the guitar. They will learn these chords slowly, learn to change between them (using a lot of conscious thought) and repeat this process until changing from G to C (which used to take 3 to 4 seconds and require a varied selection of ridiculous faces) is an instantaneous action which requires no conscious thought and is left to muscle memory and one's unconscious to take care of. This frees the conscious mind to concentrate on task management issues such as form and dynamics.

Every guitarist goes through this process but often forgets this very successful practicing experience when learning to do almost everything else.

The amount of times students have asked me 'how do you know so many chords?', 'how did you learn where all the notes are?', 'how do you know all of your scales?' etc  and the way that I learned them is the same way that they learned all of the chords, notes or scales that they know, and is the same way we all learned the open chords when we first started learning.

A big issue at play here is coping with being bad at something and working hard at it until you are no longer bad at it. I have a fair few students who will not practice things that they are bad at. Suffice to say these students don't make much progress.

But the question/topic that I really want to address is one that I get asked a lot which is 'What are you thinking when you're improvising?'.

What someone who is improvising well is thinking whilst they improvise is not what you should be thinking whilst you are practicing using the devices you will use when improvising.

Let's take blues as an example. Let's say that you want to be able to improvise better over the V chord in a traditional 12 bar blues. You need to first identify what it is that you feel is lacking in your playing. Is it a lack of melodic devices available to you (licks, scales, chord tones etc) or is it a lack of strong rhythmic ideas? Whatever it is, the best way to remedy it is to find examples of players whose playing you like, playing over the V chord in a blues and copy what they are doing. Learn 5 or 10 of their licks using a programme such as 'Transcribe' and then play these licks over the V chord in a blues over and over again, hundreds, thousands of times consciously inserting them (no matter how contrived they may sound) over the V chord. This is practicing.

However, what you must also do is improvise freely without consciously inserting your favourite licks, just allowing yourself to improvise ideas. What you will find over time is that these licks that previously you were consciously having to insert over the V chord will seep into your playing unconsciously as a result of thousands of receptions, and what's more they will be malleable and less rigid when they do. So when someone asks you 'What were you just thinking when you were playing over the V chord' you will say 'Nothing. I was just playing'.

So to summarise, when you are practicing you should be thinking a lot. You should be consciously trying to apply scales, licks, rhythmic devices, techniques, theories and ideas and cataloguing the results and diligently, repetitively practicing what you liked and what you felt worked and sounded cool. This is guitar practice, this is where you think, where you practice slowly and methodically.

When you are playing you should not be thinking like this. You should be playing freely, allowing the work that you did whilst practicing to subconsciously bleed into your playing.

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