Learning any instrument is tough, and guitar is no exception.
Here are my top five pieces of advice based on mistakes I experience guitar players make, and my pro-active solutions to these issues to help you hit the ground running with your guitar playing. Whether beginner or advanced, there should be some information here to help you.
1. Avoid trying to learn too much, too soon
It goes without saying, there is a really huge, content rich learning community on the internet that is incredibly accessible. As great as I think the amount of information available is, it can be enough to stagnate the progress of an aspiring guitar player, or even worse, put a young (or ever older!) guitar player off playing for life. The reason?
The amount of information so readily available is an achilles heel for some people, as it is so easy to fluctuate between the different lessons that are available online. A large number of the people that come to me for tuition vouch for this, too, often expressing how easily they can be distracted away from their primary focus by another lesson or resource that is available on the internet; we can be like kids in sweet shops, basically!
The solution? Have a focus, and a goal. To begin with, that goal might be learning the chord shapes to your favourite Ed Sheeran, Pink Floyd or Eric Clapton song, possibly even a lick or a phrase to your favourite George Lynch solo. Whatever that focus is, set a goal and don’t deviate from it until you achieve what you set out to achieve. This can be hard, especially since there will undoubtedly need to be a moderate to large amount of repetition, but keep yourself aligned with your goal and try to practice it effectively. This takes me on to point 2…
2. Little and often is best
Like most things that involve motor skills, guitar requires regular practice to develop the essential strength and co-ordination needed to play the instrument. Where most people (including myself!) have failed when it comes to developing technique is that they lack consistency in their aproach to practicing, from both a time and a focus perspective, as mentioned in the above point.
So, if you are a person with an extremely busy life, a person with lots of time to practice but dont know how to use your time effectively, or a parent trying to assist their young child when learning to play the guitar but dont know where to start, please do not despair, I may have the solution for you!
For all of my students, particularly the younger ones, I recommend 4-5 days practice, for at least 15 minutes per day. That might not seem a lot, but the emphasis is on the fact that younger people (taking into account the average attention span of a young learner) and older people (taking into account a possible lack of spare time) will be visiting the guitar on a regular basis and reinforcing those all important motor skills, as well as challenging their memory of that week’s lesson and the content from within it. Naturally, the more time you invest in your practice, the more you should improve. To begin with, 15 minutes per day should be enough to get you, or your child into the routine and give them ‘the bug’.
When it comes to what to practice, then we need to realign ourselves with the goal(s) we have set. You might have a goal set to you by your guitar teacher, maybe even yourself, but it is important to focus your time on an area that needs development. To help keep your practise sessions productive, I recommend using what I call the ‘Minute Method’, which leads me onto the next point.
3. Manage your time effectively
Once you have your 15 minute practice pencilled in to you day-to-day routine and your mind set on your goal, the next step is to master how that time is spent. This is the point where you need to reduce the likelihood of being distracted by anything, so all phones and tablets should be turned off, and the door of your practice space should be closed.
I mentioned in the previous point what I call the ‘Minute Method’. To elaborate, this is basically an approach I take when practicing, to break up my practice and ensure that I am managing my time as effectively as I possibly can whilst keeping myself engaged with what I’m trying to learn. Let’s say I was working on my tapping technique and I was practicing this lick;
Because this lick is only a few seconds long, it doesn’t seem obvious to me why it would be beneficial to practice this for any longer than a minute each time I pick my guitar up to practice. The reasons for this are;
a) On it’s own, it isn’t that much of an interesting part.
b) The number of repetitions of this one lick you could play within one minute is huge (if you were to be practicing this lick at 60bpm, each group of sextuplets would be played a total of 60 times within that one minute; that’s a lot of repetition!)
c) A number of guitarists would struggle with the stamina and co-ordination needed to play this lick well at first, so short practice increments are best so not to develop bad habits.
With this in mind, short bursts of practice for one minute should give plenty of opportunity for concentration, and between each minute, time to reflect on any strengths and opportunities to help guide your own progress. For larger passages or phrases, I take a similar approach but with larger increments of time, usually not exceeding 5 minutes.
The above is only an example, so what if you aren’t working on tapping? What if you are trying to learn a lick but for whatever reason it doesn’t seem to be happening for you?
4. Set realistic, achievable goals
The idea of this is a simple fact of teaching and learning; if we don’t feel like we are mastering what it is that we are trying to practice, therefore ‘getting it’, then it is very easy to become lethargic and disengaged with our practice, which will eventually lead to a lack of progress. We need a sense of achievement, and for this sense to be realised, we need to make sure that we are setting realistic and achievable goals. It is no good taking a piece, for example the Flight of the Bumblebee, then trying to play that at full speed if we have only been practicing our alternate picking for 6 months; unless we have 10 hours a day spare to practice, it isn’t going to happen quickly.
To develop a great technique on guitar, it takes months of repetition, patience and consistency, with gradual increments in speed/difficulty as you slowly progress up to your goals. It is this fact that helps me evaluate how much time it may take me to learn something, and if I’m ready to attempt the challenge I’m considering.
In the instance of choosing not to focus on a particular song; it is important to try and avoid feeling ‘let down’ if we temporarily avoid learning a song due to it’s difficulty. It shouldn’t be a negative, it should be a positive, as we have firstly identified something in our playing that needs work. Secondly, moving onto something easier will make the process of celebrating our achievements easier. Since the song will be a little easier, the frequency of that feeling of reward will increase, motivating us towards our next challenge and keeping the process of learning guitar positive, fulfilling and most importantly, fun. This is the exact reason for setting realistic, achievable goals.
5. Be patient, enjoy the journey and think of the cash machine!
Learning an instrument will be a fun, rewarding, enlightening and exciting experience. It can also be a trying, emotional, stressful and challenging experience. It is very important at this point to recognise that there are millions of guitar players in the world. Every one of us has struggled, and continues to struggle with our goals from time to time. Just don’t loose focus, and remember that patience is definitely a virtue. Also, whenever we do something well, even if it is the smallest thing, we must remember to pat ourselves on the back and to cast our minds back to genesis in order to acknowledge the success of the journey thus far!
I often use the following metaphor with my students (anybody that knows me will tell you how much I love a good metaphor!);
Learning guitar is like having a bank account. If we invest no money into that account, we’ll never accumulate the funds to buy the things that we want. In other words, the more money that we invest in the account, the more of a financial growth – or outcome – there will be, meaning we’ll be able to afford the things we want in our lives. Sure, things happen that get in the way of our saving, but as long as we keep our investments up where we can, the more and more that account will grow.
Swap ‘money’ for ‘time’ and ‘account’ for ‘guitar’, then we’re there!