The following videos and practice tips are excerpts from Jeff Scheetz’s Smart Practice for Guitar, which is more than just a course–it’s an entirely new way about thinking about practicing guitar and becoming a better player. Download the full system today!
Practice Tip #1: The #1 Problem
What is the number one problem we face when practicing? OK, there may be several problems that could occupy this spot, however one that will derail your entire plan, is practicing something wrong over and over. All this does is make you really good at playing really bad! Motor learning, or what we often refer to as muscle memory is the ability to repeat a movement to the point where it doesn’t require conscious effort. This is what helps us play songs or licks without thinking about them, our fingers just seem to know the way. The thing about muscle memory is it doesn’t discriminate. It will learn and retain bad technique just the same as it will good technique.
This is why it is so important to stay organized with your practice, and keep analyzing and reviewing what and how you are practicing. Even with things that you think you have down, don’t take them for granted! Go back through licks and things you have been playing for years and look at hand position, pick angle, wrist movement, level of relaxation, finger placement and more. Really TRY to find what is wrong. Even if it is a small thing, fix it. This will elevate your overall playing.
One good method for dealing with this is to do what I call a “Spring cleaning” practice session every couple of months. This is where you will do nothing but look at all of the things you already think you know, and try to be extra critical to see if they can be improved. If you find something you need to work on, put it back on the “What I am working on” list so you can get it back on the schedule.
Practice Tip #2: Do It Like You Will Do It
If you are practicing with the intention of eventually performing on stage, you want to look at a couple of things to help you get ready for that. Many students who go out for their first jam realize that practicing sitting down in their comfortable chair is completely different than standing up on a stage. Spending some of your time practicing standing up is really important as both your right and left hands fall on a different place on the guitar in this position.
A word on guitar position. We all want to look cool when we play. You know, that punk rocker pose with your Les Paul hanging down around your ankles and the menacing sneer on your face. However -that is a terrible position to have your guitar in if you want to be able to play anything more complicated than power chords! There are a few players who have slung their guitar low and still played well, but perhaps longer arms and just long suffering technique has allowed them to pull this off. For most of us, keeping your guitar slightly higher up on the strap so it is in a position more like it would be if you were sitting will lead to much easier and better playing. You can lower it for your photo shoot, but keep it up in a playable position when you need to play your best!
The other thing that will usually be different is your volume. Most of us practice at a lower volume than we play on stage. So it would be good to allow yourself to practice at a loud volume some of the time. This is especially true if you are practicing songs that you will be playing live, then by all means try to get your amp set up as close as you can to how it will be on stage. Breaks in songs, or dynamic parts can be completely different to deal with at a loud volume, so practice it like you will perform it.
Practice Tip #3: The 3 P’s
Each time you pick up your guitar, you are doing one of these three things. Which one of these you focus on the most, and invest the most time in will determine how you excel.
This happens each time you pick up your guitar and are just messing around. Maybe playing some songs for a friend, jamming to your favorite T.V. commercial, playing cartoon themes, or just testing new delay pedals. There is nothing wrong with this first “P”, as a matter of fact it is an essential part of playing a musical instrument. It adds the “fun” to playing. You will advance to some degree just by playing around, however, it will not be at the same level or speed of advancement as SMART practice time. Too much time spent in this area will give you the illusion that since you are putting in hours, you must be getting good. It also leads to frustration; if you feel like you are “stuck in a rut” there is a good chance you are spending too much time in “Play”.
This is any time you pick up your instrument for “work”, or because you have to. (You may not actually be making a “profit”, but you are doing something that is not exclusively for your own enjoyment or advancement.) Maybe it is doing a gig at the local pub, or playing Sunday morning at church, or recording a solo in your brother in-laws home studio for his demo. Like “Play” – you can get better in this area. For example if you are playing in a band that is doing 6 nights a week in a club -that is a lot of playing and certain aspects of your playing will benefit from that. However, most “Profit” playing opportunities don’t require you to push your playing to the edge or try new things. In fact, it is usually just the opposite – play the part – play it safe – play it right.
I define practice as “Doing activities specifically designed for the purpose of improving performance in an organized and systematic way.” Not just playing around or doing it for the heck of it, but practicing for a specific purpose. Read that again. “Doing activities specifically designed for the purpose of improving performance”. This is “Practice on Purpose.”
Practice Tip #4: Right, Wrong, Right
Guitar is a very tactile instrument. In other words you “feel” the guitar under your fingers. How do you know if you are doing something right? Many times you can tell when it feels right.
So when practicing, one technique I find very helpful is what I call the “Right, Wrong, Right” method. You will play something several times the right way, but then make yourself play it wrong. Maybe that means with your hand in a weird position, or a bad fingering pattern, but just do it wrong a couple of times. Then immediately notice what the “wrong” element is, and correct it and play it right several times paying special attention to the part that you just corrected. This will help you know when it “feels right”. You will find that you become very comfortable doing it right and when you do it wrong a warning goes off in your head because you have learned what “wrong” is!
This is a great technique for positional things and can really instantly improve your feel on the guitar. In his book “The Talent Code”, Daniel Coyle outlines one of the main teaching techniques in the arsenal of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. “One of Wooden’s most frequent forms of teaching was a three-part instruction where he modeled the right way to do something, showed the incorrect way, and then remodeled the right way.” There is no doubt that Coach Wooden knew a thing or two about building excellent skills, and using this Right, Wrong, Right method will work on your guitar playing just as well as it did on his 10 time National championship winning players.
Practice Tip #5: How to Avoid Frustration
Playing guitar can be a roller coaster ride! Love, Hate, Love, Hate. The key to keeping the overall experience on the upside is to avoid getting frustrated when you are trying to improve. I am about to give you the number one thing that you need to tell yourself over and over again. The one thing that I have discovered in all my years of teaching thousands of students. Ready?
I have NEVER seen a student who practiced the right things, in the right way, and put in a reasonable amount of time NOT get better. Period! You may improve quickly, or it may take you a little longer – but if you put in the practice time on the right things the right way. You WILL get better! I have heard every excuse you can imagine; “My hands aren’t big enough”, “I don’t have a good ear”, “My hands are too big”, “My family doesn’t have rhythm”, “I need a new guitar”… and on and on. However, the ONLY reason that will keep a person from improving is if they don’t practice the right things the right way, and put in the time. So that is the good news!!! You can do this! Tell yourself this – “If I keep SMART practicing I WILL get better!”
Below are a few things that will help you deal with frustrations along the way.
1. Get Over the Hump
When you first start anything, there is a “hump” just ahead. Until you get over that hump you will struggle, get frustrated and discouraged. This is where most first time guitar players quit – before they get over the hump. The key is to remind yourself that whatever you are learning you just need to get over that hump, and then it will get better.
2. Think Long Term
Don’t worry about what you sound like NOW, make yourself think about what you will sound like 6 months from now if you keep practicing. It is easy to get discouraged when things don’t sound as good as you think they should – so tell yourself you are going to postpone judgement on how this song or lick sounds for 6 months, then if you still think it sounds bad you can quit and take up the Tuba instead! I guarantee if you keep thinking like this it will help you stay focused on the big picture instead of getting caught up in being too judgmental on your playing. Which leads into:
3. You Will Plateau Sometimes
Every player I talk to, whether they have been playing 1 year or 20 years each will say the same thing, that they sometimes get the feeling they are just not getting any better. Spinning their wheels. Stuck in a rut. Sound familiar? Your playing will have it’s ups and downs. But the thing to do when you are feeling like you are not moving is… relax! I know that doesn’t sound like it will work, but if you will relax and realize that this plateau effect is natural and happens to everyone, then you won’t be frustrated by it. Then, to get moving again and have that next breakthrough, just dig into something new, or a new way to look at what you are working on. But always know that like I said earlier -I have NEVER seen a student who practiced the right things, in the right way, and put in a reasonable amount of time, NOT get better! So keep at it and you will soon be off of this plateau and moving up!
4. Process Over Outcome
Whatever your goals are, as you sit down to practice don’t get too obsessed with being able to play the end result, but rather focus on the steps you need to take to get there. If you concentrate on doing the “process” you will achieve the “outcome”. Always focus your efforts and mind on the process. Just like with number two above -don’t be too harsh or judgmental on what you are doing, just follow the process.
Dig these tips? Be sure to check out Jeff Scheetz’s Smart Practice for Guitar for many, many more insights and practice tips!