Practice - Play - Perform

Like many guitarists I spend a great deal of time day dreaming about music when I am away from my instrument. Over the course of these dreams I have developed the following thoughts that have helped me deal with the various aspects of developing on the instrument. I have broken musical development down into three parts:

  • Practice
  • Playing
  • Performance

To grow as a musician, and to master your craft as a guitarist I feel it is important to concentrate on these three areas. Although they all work together, each one deserves specific attention.


Practice is where the rudiments of music and the instrument are learned. Exercises are done to focus on one particular technique, which is then incorporated into the big picture, raising the overall ability of the player.

Practice is all about discipline, focus and delaying gratification. Living in a culture where everything happens so fast, it is sometimes difficult to find the "practice groove". You must find that space where you are part of the thing that you are practicing; repeating an exercise in a mantra like manner can be a meditative experience. Practicing is NOT playing. Often times it drifts into playing, and if this is producing creative results go with it. But if you are just wandering, get back on track to the task at hand: practice.

The truth is most musicians don't like "practice"; it is too much like school, but without it, especially in the early years of learning, you will be limited in the long run. Part of the reason practice is not popular is because it is work. It involves the logical non-creative left brain. Actually practice is the method by which we take left brain activities that are new to us and work them into automatic activities that the right brain can then use in a creative way.

Tips for practice.

  • Write a schedule for what you will practice each day
  • Do not practice the same thing three days in row (two works, but not three)
  • Set a specific duration for each particular practice. Ex. 3-6 exercise a day, each lasting ten minutes.
  • The key to practice is a little bit every day over a long period of time. You will get more out of practicing a three-octave major scale for 10 minutes four times a week than you will get from practicing that scale for an hour once a week.
  • Use a metronome for all exercises involving time.
  • Do not start practicing right when you pick up the guitar. Noodle for a while. Often times new song ideas will come to you the first time you pick up the guitar for that day.
  • When practicing do not use any effects, that includes distortion. This will help keep you focused and allow you to really hear what you are doing.
  • Fingering is everything. If you canÌt seem to play a part no matter how hard you work at, nine times out of ten the problem is the left-hand fingering.


Guitarists spend an incredible amount of time noodling; I know this first hand. We start playing one thing and then move to the next and then back to the first thing. Most of the hours spent with the guitar are spent "playing around". The "Playing groove" is the easiest groove to find of the three. This is where you discover new licks, write songs, compose solos, figure out other players solo's by ear etc.
Adding some structure to this endless wandering can help produce more results.


  • Do not just play lead lines for four hours. Learn to play songs. Sing the words to the song even if you "can't sing"; it will help your ear, and help you to understand song structure.
  • Blur the line between lead and rhythm guitar. Jimi Hendrix was a master at this; "Little Wing" and "Castles Made of Sand" are excellent examples, so is Eric Johnson's the "Cliff's of Dover".
  • If you find yourself playing the same tired patterns, try to sing along with what you are playing. This will help you to fine tune it and create a melody. It will also slow you down because you can only sing so fast :).
  • If your are having trouble playing a lick you just made up or copied, play it slow and pay attention to each note. If you can play a run cleanly and with confidence at a slower tempo, it will sound that much better when you speed it up.
  • Use a tape recorder. This is your best teacher. If you hate everything you hear, listen back to it the next day so that you are not over critical.
  • Have a tape to record little ideas that sound cool to you at the time. Listen to the tape months or years later. You will be very surprised.
  • Record a rhythm part first and then play along. Make sure the rhythm pattern you choose has changes in it. The sweet spots in solos usually occur at the point of a chord or key change.
  • When playing along with records, the first step is to figure out the key, then figure out the chord changes, then jam.
  • Use a metronome or drum machine. Always be conscious of how many notes your are trying to fit into a given space. Play with rhythm in mind even when you are playing lead.


Performance usually occurs in front of an audience of at least one person (or a tape recorder... a whole other topic all together). The piece of music is played completely from start to finish without regard to mistake. It has been said that one performance is worth two practices. A performance provides insight into your mental and physical comfort and control of the instrument and the music. It is the naked truth and there is no chance for cover up. Performance as a soloist is even more reveling. The difficulty with performance is largely mental. You have to find that space where you are not thinking about what chord comes next your how you should stand; you have to find the "performance groove" and you can only discover this through performing. Whatever level you are at: Perform! If you just started playing, set up a 10 minute "show" for your Mom, your sister or girlfriend (females tend to be a kinder audience :)). If you have a band with the guys/girls from school talk Dad into letting you use the garage as the forum one afternoon. If your town has a local street scene where musicians set up and play, get a chair and tip jar and perform. The more you perform the better you will get. You will get addicted to it; performing can give you one of the best, and longest lasting highs.

I hope you are able to use some of these ideas to improve your playing. If you have any insights you would like to share please e-mail me.

Curtis, a guitarist and composer from Playa del Rey, California, has a long-term goal to write and record great music and share it with as many people as possible.

His eponymous debut CD features thirteen instrumental tracks and two vocal numbers.


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