One of the things that most guitar players have in common is having access to a virtually infinite number of guitar playing exercises at their fingertips. Unfortunately as most soon find out, "guitar exercises" in and of themselves do not guarantee (or produce) massive progress in your musical skills. This is one of the reasons why it is so common for many people to spend a lot of time practicing guitar every day and yet only see minimal (if any) improvement in their guitar playing abilities.
Ironically, most people who share this problem try to deal with it by taking a totally wrong approach. By believing that their slow progress on guitar is due to poor exercise selection, they begin to search for even more new guitar learning materials. However, because little or no effort is put into learning the best way to actually practice these exercises, the practice time spent on them brings zero results.
The reality is that instead of constantly seeking to discover additional new exercises, you should learn how to get the most from the guitar materials you already have (which, if you have played guitar for any length of time, is "more than enough"). When you learn how to maximize the improvement in your guitar playing from working only on a single practice item, several things will happen:
1. You will progress more quickly due to not having to practice so many guitar exercises to get to the next level in your playing.
2. When you truly need to, you will know exactly how to create your own exercises to address the exact issues you need to solve in your guitar playing.
When you practice guitar, you must be able to clearly explain (at least to yourself) the reasons why you are working on a particular practice item at any given time. Being able to give such an explanation helps to keep your practicing directed in a specific path, instead of letting it become a random and unfocused waste of time.
To explain more clearly what I mean, consider a very common example of practicing scales on guitar (something that all guitar players have done at one point or another). Although virtually everyone understands that scales are an important item to practice for musicians, few guitar players consciously know how to direct their practicing of scales to help them improve the following specific areas of their musicianship:
1. Learning to play guitar fast
2. Learning to improvise guitar solos (or improving their ability to do so)
3. Visualizing the guitar neck completely
4. Expanding their creativity in music
A specific list of actions is needed to help you achieve each of the above objectives. To make that happen, your mind needs to act as a compass to direct your hands to take the appropriate steps during each practice session dedicated to scales. When doing this, it is necessary to set specific miniature objectives for every individual practice session. To avoid any misunderstanding, these "miniature objectives" are not the same thing as the big, long-term vision you want to reach as a guitar player (several years from now). Instead (as described above), they are similar to a map and a compass that tells you exactly how to move (what actions to take) to reach a very small specific goal. When you become comfortable doing this, you will see that it is very possible to get better in many elements of your musicianship with only one guitar practice item. However since most guitar players do not have this mindset while practicing, their practice sessions often turn into little more than a mindless list of items to play through, with no understanding of how each exercise is (or should be) bringing them closer to their goals. This alone accounts for a huge portion of the reason why most musicians never realize their guitar playing potential.
Most people struggle with naturally being able to create highly specific miniature objectives on their own each time they practice, and this is one of the reasons why a "good" guitar teacher is so helpful in helping you to make more progress faster. However, even if you are learning to play guitar by teaching yourself, you will still grow your musical skills more quickly simply by making the attempt to focus in this way when designing your guitar practice routines.
To help you do this, I am going to list a few specific ways in which practicing scales (continuing to use the same example) can help you to grow in many areas of guitar playing. As you have learned above, you can easily do this by directing your mind to concentrate on a very specific miniature objective each time you practice guitar.
When you work on scales with the goal of improving your guitar technique, it is important to focus on very specific elements that make such an improvement in your technique possible: economy of motion, tension control, 2 hand coordination and articulation of the pick. To see a live demonstration of this, study this free guitar picking technique lesson on video. Notice the important difference between practicing scales while concentrating on specific elements of your guitar technique vs. monotonous repetition of finger motions that most guitarists go through. It is this difference that allows the mind to tell your hands what to do in order to learn to play guitar at a higher level.
When it comes to improvising, playing scales on guitar is obviously only one of many elements that needs to be practiced, however in order to improvise freely and creatively, you must go through the process of becoming accurate at playing the scales needed for your musical style. One practice method to achieve this goal requires you to work on mastering each shape of a particular scale individually by improvising only in that scale shape over a backing track (while switching to a different shape of the same scale every few minutes). There are many more possible ways of using scales to grow as an improviser (I address them all in my video eCourse on the topic of scales for electric guitar), but the idea is to illustrate how your attention is being directed on a very precise goal (when practicing scales to improve as a soloist) versus working on scales to improve other aspects of your guitar playing.
When you work on learning the guitar neck with scales, you need to pay more attention to how the scale shapes form visual patterns that occur all over the fretboard. In this case, less attention is needed to be paid to what your hands are doing and all efforts must be directed on memorizing how every scale pattern will look in your mind before your hands touch the guitar. When you focus in this way, it will be impossible for your fingers to mindlessly go through the motions of practicing and your fretboard visualization skills will have no choice but to improve. If you are unsure of how to do this in your practicing, check out this guitar fretboard memorization video tutorial to get help with this.
One effective way to become a more creative guitar player when practicing scales is to work on coming up with new sequences and phrases from scale shapes that you are practicing. Instead of merely playing the notes of the scale up and down in a boring way, this will require your mind to think in innovative ways that you don't normally do when doing regular guitar practicing. This is yet another way of how scales can be used to grow a certain element of your musical skills by directing your attention to a very specific mini goal.
Now that you understand more about how to use a single guitar practice exercise to expand your musical skills, it is important to mention two other critical points:
1. Of course, in addition to scales you can easily take any guitar exercise in existence and by using some creative thinking you can practice it to improve every aspect of your musicianship.
2. With all of this being said, I do not want you to think that having lots of exercises to practice on guitar is a bad thing. On the contrary, having a variety of guitar practice items can be quite helpful, but it is critical to know how to use any single exercise you practice in order to improve many different elements of musicianship.
To help you apply the advice from this article, I recommend to break up working on each mini goal in your guitar playing during a different day of the week. As an illustration, you can focus on improving your guitar playing creativity with scales on Wednesday, followed by practicing scales to learn the guitar fretboard on Thursday and so on. This will help you to focus better on each specific objective and improve your guitar playing faster as a result.
Begin applying this method of practicing guitar for each and every exercise you practice and you will shock yourself by how much faster your guitar playing will start to improve. The more you apply this philosophy to your practice sessions, the faster you will achieve the level of guitar playing that you have always dreamed about.
If you haven't yet checked out the resources mentioned throughout this article, I recommend to do so now:
Mike Philippov is a professional guitar player, recording artist and guitar/music teacher. His guitar practice columns about learning to play guitar are read by guitarists worldwide.
His instructional music web site PracticeGuitarNow.com contains advice for guitar players on overcoming the most common problems faced when learning to play guitar.
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