Guitar Practice System
The path found on this site is but one example of a way through the sonic terrain, using a guitar, and a bunch of maps/language. There are as many ways through as there are players.
In many ways, everything is practice…thinking/not thinking, feeling, techniques, style development, technology, performance, jamming with/for others, etc. We can practice all of this and more in myriad ways (always something to do, always a way to go deeper).
In a practice session, we typically don’t hit all 10 practice areas. We typically hit 3-4 per day. Over time, points on the wheel can and do start to merge: we read melodies, strum songs with others, get to know our board via soloing & chord exploration. Yet, each can always be a distinct category for activity.
To build a sustained music practice, I encourage training beyond, honoring self…
Training beyond means developing our skills beyond what it takes to play the music we want to play [whether recorded or in our imaginations].
Honoring self means that we allow our musical self to breathe & unfold while learning to play, through independent thought & action. This translates into developing our tonal, rhythmic, melodic, & harmonic self whether learning others folk’s music, or, our own. We stay conscious about what influences us.
When practicing, what is essential is how we practice. The ‘what’ matters, of course, but the ‘how‘ determines if we actually create the conditions for improvement.
- We have a plan for practice, while still allowing for space to follow our own lead when things start happening.
- An hour of wandering aimlessly is never as effective as 10 minutes of focused, deliberate training with awareness. Incrementalism works [a little everyday]. Conversely, an hour of wandering aimlessly is a good thing every now and then, especially when our training is on track.
- Besides tuning [always first – be ready], the order and duration doesn’t matter as much as the quality of practice (including quality of consciousness) in each zone. And, we always warm-up a little. Warming up sets the tone of our session.
- We know which practice mode we are in – training or jamming. Exercise each until they merge; yet, continue to use each as a distinct mode.
- There is a rhythm to practice. We discover our practice rhythm.
- It’s okay to take a day off. This happens naturally; we relax about playing/practicing & keep it in the fun-to-do category.
- With learning to play any instrument, find new ways to keep it interesting, while continuing to improve. There are moments when we have dissonance, but this is normal and a natural part of stretching ourselves as musicianers.
When we hit each practice zone enough, with quality, we can play. It’s really that simple. We do a little focused work in each. Over time, it all adds up. And, some zones are optional, while some are absolutely necessary.
Being ready, gaining technical control, playing/figuring out melodies, knowing your board, being a reliable rhythm player, and jamming with/for others.
Reading, knowing theory, soloing, and writing/improvising, though these are important and integral to any comprehensive guitar practice.
There might not be universal agreement for what is ‘necessary’ or ‘optional’, but this is my view, in this moment.
Each of us is unique for sure, yet some things are universal. Balancing all of the aspects of musicianship can be challenging. We stay open to new information, but also don’t reduce your playing life to one dimension of guitar. Experiment in all areas.
As we build our guitar practice, we find out what keeps us fired up to play, what challenges us in positive ways, and what we may want to sideline for exploration in the future [or retire forever].
If you are interested only in a specific area, study it, but I encourage you to take a look & do some work in all of the areas.
Again, over time, many of them will & do merge…playing simple melodies moves into reading & soloing; riffs into song playing & writing.
The more we practice & play, much of it becomes self-evident. This is a fact. We just keep doing the work & have fun doing it.
Our goal is to create a big path (the long arc) for our studies built from the activities which inspire us. In doing so, we then see all of the sub-paths, or side-paths which are necessary to make the big path happen.
Let’s look at each point in more detail…
To be ready, we prepare:
Our gear is in working order. Guitars have decent strings & all of our components have power [AC or batteries]. We set up our practice space, making sure that everything is in arm and/or foot reach [amps, computers, audio players and/or recorders, pedals, etc.].
We get comfortable.
We learn the basics. Including at the bare minimum:
Get in tune ⇒ being in tune ensures enjoyable practice sessions and lets us know – through sound – that we are doing things right. We begin with standard tuning [Low to High: E-A-D-G-B-E → Eat Apples → Daily → Goto → Bed → Early] reference tones. Standard is only 1 of over 100,000 tunings that your guitar can be tuned in.
Tablature ⇒ the easiest notation system for guitar. It consists of 6 lines representing the strings and uses numbers on those lines to indicate frets.
Finger labels & position ⇒ we need to know what our finger labels are and understand fretting hand location.
We prepare to expand our abilities and overall experience.Ground Session List
To play anything, we must have some level of control over our physical playing system. This is called our technique. Technique is our hands working together to create sonic events.
By training with focus, we…
- understand how our hands work; the best motion for our motors for a given technique.
- produce sweet tone.
- realize our ‘touch’, including ‘after-touch’ (release)
- build intelligence into our playing from the start.
- don’t train mistakes.
- get into deeper jam zones sooner and learn to live there.
- don’t lose interest and create a situation where we have to go back and fix things later.
Technical training topics are being added throughout the path.
Fretting is pressing the strings down to shorten or lengthen the string and create higher or lower tones. Techniques include pressing, slurs, and muting/touching. Slurs are using our fretting hand to articulate tones. Muting is using the fretting hand to block the strings without pressing. The fretting hand is integral to creating sweet tone and rhythm. And, it’s a part of nearly every lesson on the site.
Motor Hand Techniques
Motor hand techniques include strumming, picking, and fingerpicking [fingerstyle], & tap-touch (though tap-touch includes fretting hand to make whole). And there is tapping (e.g. Eddie Van Halen) and touch (e.g. Stanley Jordan). The path doesn’t explore tapping, nor touch techniques proper.
We can also use other objects than picks [toothbrush, coins, candy bars, etc.].
There are many technical hybrids, where techniques are mixed.
Each hand can also do what the other traditionally does [i.e. the fretting hand can strum, motor can fret].
We can and do reevaluate our technique at any point along the way. And, we are always training. We continuously look for ways to improve.
Live this: don’t train mistakes by just ‘trying’ things over and over. We do some thinking and feeling at the start of any process. If we aren’t getting a technical skill after multiple attempts, we change our approach. We make adjustments; incremental ones, until we feel a pocket. When we train with awareness, ‘aha’ moments inevitably follow.
When we step slowly through a sequence of movements, programming the motion, through space, in time, we can recreate it again & again; and, at a certain point without having to think about it – “Do that!”
A basic area of practice is to figure out and play simple melodies and riffs. This gives us a good start. It is a core skill to be able to figure out melodies by ear. This connects our voice to the guitar, which is the foundation for soloing/improvising. We recommend figuring out simple popular tunes such as kid’s songs [see list below], and figure out the vocal melody to any song that you are learning [guitar solos can often be the main vocal melody or use it as an outline or use parts of it].
Melody is the linear or horizontal dimension of music. It is a succession of single tones that create a cohesive & often memorable tune. Other words for melody are tune & line. Melodies are often most of what we retain from songs that we know.
A Little Night Music Melody
For melodies, we eventually move to reading music.
Riffs are guitar based ‘melodies’ [although many can be played on any pitched instrument] which are recognizable and singable. In contrast to certain types of chord progressions, riffs can be sung. Good examples are Crazy Train, Smoke on the Water, and Seven Nation Army.
For riffs, we move to learning the rest of the song, all the way through.
We typically use tablature at the very beginning, yet we learn to use our voice/inner hearing to figure out known melodies. And, learn to read music.
Figure these, or any others, out. Write them down if needed. Also, keep in mind that any melody can be played in hundreds of ways [different keys, positions, using open strings]. If you are a teacher, you will need some of these. I often have students start on single strings. This creates a solid opportunity to address position/s.
Happy Birthday, Row Your Boat, Star Spangled Banner, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Old MacDonald, Little Lamb, London Bridge, Over the Rainbow, Rain Go Away, Twinkle, and on and on. Do this.Scales/Melody
We ask all students of guitar to learn to read music. It’s really not that difficult and it is an incredibly valuable skill to have. Whole new worlds of music open up to the reading musician. It connects us to history, in a way only reading music can.
Music notation is a system of symbols which we realize into sound. It uses 5 lines as a visual base for displaying notes, with different durations and combinations. The challenge is connecting these notes to locations on the fretboard, and playing these conversions in the indicated rhythm.
My reading system follows a specific note sequence to ensure you learn to read with relative ease. When you follow the sequence and think through the material, there is no way that you won’t know how to read.
Even if you don’t decide to use my system, find a resource to learn to read!Reading System
Nearly everything we do from learning chords and chord structures, understanding scale systems, and reading music, jamming, etc. helps us to learn our fretboard.
There are myriad ways to go about learning the fretboard. To learn our tone names in standard, we could use basic tone spelling on a grid. We can also get to know our octaves [the ultimate skeleton for any tuning].
It is also important to understand tone naming and the traditional music theory naming system. There are multiple ways to name the components within our tonal system. There are traditional ways, as well as more modern ways, to name things. Knowing what things are called is useful to know and creates language to communicate ideas to our fellow musicianers.
The 7 Major scale patterns & Pentatonic patterns also provide a solid fretboard framework.
Learning theory isn’t that difficult and does not interfere with musicianship. It is meant to be learned and integrated, not be the main lens for music making. It is an enhancement of our understanding of our tonal system.
Theory is ultimately a naming system [which describe sonic relationships]. For those who think that learning what things are called dampens creativity, this is total nonsense. It does no harm to know and it deepens our understanding. And, we when we know it really well, we can transcend it. Naming things is just one of the many ways to think of our tonal system. When we are in the flow, making music, we might not think of a single name, but rather, of colors and light, or nature, or friends. Names don’t have to get in the way of feeling-tone.
Becoming a solid rhythm guitarist will typically be our first area of total competency. We build a chord catalog – one with which we’ve made enough connections – to make things automatic. This enables us to play our favorite songs, write songs, and figure out songs. And, this skill is our doorway to jamming with other musicians.
Of all areas of focus, being able to strum songs is the most important [after getting in tune, of course]. As far as ‘levels’ of playing, being able to strum a song all the way through is the benchmark for being an intermediate player.Strumming Chord Connect
Learning to solo can be as intense as it is frightening. We recommend to all students of guitar to start this process at the beginning. If you haven’t started to solo yet, start immediately.
For most of us, becoming a melody maker can take decades to find our pocket. And the process is never complete; it just keeps going [melody is infinite].
To learn to solo, we train with scales, learn existing solos, and make up our own [whether improvising or written out/planned].
The real goal of soloing is to get to know and to develop our melodic self; awaken our melodic sensibilities.Scales/Melody
At the heart of music making is creating a rewarding & sustained practice that produces joy and intensity for a life-time. This is possible for everyone; and the best part is, that we, as players, steer the process. When our goals are clear & we make contact with our musical self, incredible experiences can follow.
For any given set of tones, we work the materials in our own way, in our own order, at our own speed. Even if we are learning a song or a solo, we can use the materials of that song or solo to be inventive. We give ourselves this opportunity. We can also make up stuff within any practice area, even creating our own exercises. And, we start this at the beginning.
Jamming with/for Others = testing our skills & interacting with other musicianers; performing for an audience.
Is our training paying dividends? Whether we are jamming with friends, rehearsing and performing with a band, playing for an audience, or just using audio, this is a vital component of any sensible learning system. For most, it is why we play. For others that view playing as a solitary craft, we still can use audio to interact with the sonic world, or not. We eventually will end up playing for or withsomeone at some point.
Jamming is a different mind mode than training. We let go and just play.
Of course, we can and do jam alone, with or without audio.
There are endless playalongs out there. We suggest that you avoid Musak sounding audio and favor real world sounds.
As you know, improvising is making up music on the spot. We aren’t working from a script, rather from experience and internal resources [inner hearing, singing, inspiration, visuals]. Improvising is a primary practice piece for all guitarists, no matter what level or age.
It all begins with beginning. Start this process immediately. It is an integral component of any sensible learning system.
- All 12 tones are workable in any key, not just the 7 that are in the key. ‘Wrong tone’ means ‘wrong emphasis’. Tones outside the key are used for passing tones or approach tones.
- Sing to yourself. Vocally & subvocally.
- Listen. Really listen for tension and resolution.
- Use maps, then don’t use maps.
- Learn tone-names & intervals – understand directionality & what particular tones can do within a harmonic environment.
- If you hear a tone outside the given set [the scale], find & use them.
Jam audio can assist with your melodic development by providing a backdrop to explore a given tone set. By using tonal material against audio, we find an effective means of practice, a way for us to interact, & an opportunity to play against changing elements within the provided track (melodic motifs within harmonic motion, level of intensity, shifts in sections).
Use jam audio for improvising [or any you can find – we do not promote soloing to Muzak type MIDI tracks, simply for the sake of art]. Turn the track on, know your tone set, and run.
Explore every conceivable combination of tones. Listen to what you are playing. Go in any order, repeat tones, & use slurs (pulls, hammers, slides, bends, & vibrato). Use your voice & your ear. Be melodic. Be harmonic [build mini-chords to accent the existing harmonies]. Logging time just noodling and tinkering leads to your melodic faculties (sensibilities) warming up. You may find motifs from tunes you know, &/or write your own melodies. This is a process that assists with songwriting.Jam Audio
Practice routines can be categorized in two general types: multi-topic or single topic.
For multi-topic, we touch in on a variety of topics, digging in just a little in each activity zone. An example might be warming up, then doing some fingerpicking, then reading, then jamming, then thinking on some naming systems [theory].
For single topic, such as experimenting with a tone group [‘scale’], we do a variety of things: train in a number of ways [picking, fretting, rhythms, tempo, sequences], jam [improvise], memorize tone names or numbering systems, etc.
5 minutes of focused practice daily can be as beneficial as long unfocused sessions. Steady practice adds up, incrementally.