PHOTO: Cindy Moorhead
How many times have you sat down with your guitar intending to practice, only to wind up playing a long noodling session?
Maybe you don’t know what to practice or can’t decide what aspect of your playing to work on.
If this sounds familiar, read on. We’re going to help you create some simple guidelines that you can follow during your practice session. We’re also going to equip you with plenty of examples to help you get started on the road to Power Practicing!
There are three fundamental factors that are often responsible for making or breaking a practice session. They are location, materials, and time allotment.
Where you practice can be just as important as what you practice. Find a room where you’ll have the fewest distractions—e.g. television, computer, clutter and conversation. And while you’re at it, park your cellphone in another room so you won’t be bothered by incoming calls or texts.
On the other hand, if it’s impossible to isolate yourself, try playing through a set of headphones to help block out distracting sounds
Second, make sure all of your equipment—including guitar, amp, recorder, tuner and metronome—as well as materials—method book, magazines, paper and pencil—are within reach.
3. Time Allotment
Finally, remain acutely aware of how much time you’ve used and how much you have left. The last thing you want to do is waste all of your time with the first item on your practice list. A timer can be a valuable tool to help you keep track of the time you spend on each task.
CREATE A PRACTICE SCHEDULE
Often the hardest part about practicing is knowing what to practice.
In times of indecision, it helps to have a set routine that you can follow or customize to suit your schedule or practice requirements.
No matter what style of music you play, there are five areas of technique that should receive regular attention:
1. Single-string Technique (e.g. scales, arpeggios)
2. Chords and Rhythm
4. Ear Training
5. Sight Reading
The first three speak for themselves, but the last two bear some explanation.
Ear training is the art of listening intently to music, which is what you do when you cop licks or chords from a song. Refining this talent will hep you to get the music you hear in your head out through your fingers and onto the fretboard of your guitar.
Sight-reading isn’t necessarily limited to the reading of notation on the staff. It can also be as basic as following the chord symbols above the handwritten lyrics of a song. But the more you know about reading and transcribing music, the easier it will be to communicate with other musicians.
When creating your practice schedule, you might start with a five-minute warm up, followed by a 20-minute single-string workout and a 10-minute improvisation session. You can then practice chord voicings in time with a metronome for five minutes, read through chord charts or lead sheets for another 10, and use the remainder of the hour to pick out licks by ear from your favorite songs.
Keep in mind that it’s best to spread out your sessions throughout the day. Twenty minutes three times a day, or a half hour in the morning and a half hour in the evening are good ways to break up your schedule. Don’t try to cram all of your practicing into one day either. A half hour every day will produce much better results that one four-hour session a week.
FIGURE 1 shows a sample 10-hour practice schedule spread over a week’s time. Notice that not every subject is included in every day’s routine, but each one started with a short warm-up. This is crucial and should not be overlooked. It not only physically warms up your hands to ward off muscle damage but also puts your hands “in sync” with one another, establishing precision for that session.
FIGURES 2A–E offer some examples you can warm up with. Practice them slowly and with a metronome.
Now that you’re warmed up, let’s look at the nuts and bolts of practicing each of the five subjects.
SCALES, ARPEGGIOS and INTERVALS
All melodies are made up of some form, or combination, of scales, arpeggios and intervals, so it makes sense to categorize your single-string technique as such.
Ideally, you’ll want to practice as many scales as possible (including major, minor, pentatonic, blues, modal and so on), a variety of arpeggios (triads, major 7th, diminished, 7th, etc.), and intervals (diatonic leaps within a scale, such as 4ths, 6ths, etc.) in as many positions on the neck as possible.
An effective way to combine all three into one quick exercise is to first play a two-octave scale in one position, ascending and descending in steady eighth notes, in time with a metronome or drum machine (FIGURE 3).
Then play a sequence of that scale (FIGURES 4A-B), the arpeggio built from the root of the scale (FIGURE 5), an intervallic sequence (FIGURE 6), and finally, a few spontaneous licks from the same scale patterns (FIGURES 7A–D).
The metronome setting should be as slow as needed to perform all of the above without mistakes, Try increasing it a notch or two each day, and keep a logbook so you can chart your progress.
This process can be used for any scale and in any position on the fretboard. Try applying it to some of the scale and mode patterns found in FIGURE 8.
Concentrate on alternate picking for these examples, but also experiment with economy picking and hybrid picking (a combination of pick and fingers).
The amount of practice time you can afford will determine how many scales, positions and keys you can cover. In regard to legato techniques, a good goal is to learn one lick per week that employs hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends and/or slides. Play that lick 20 to 30 times a day for a week, and you’ll never forget it.
CHORDS AND RHYTHM
As a guitar player, having a good working knowledge of chords and a strong rhythmic feel will always be two of your most valuable assets. By their very nature, chords and rhythms go together, so it only makes sense that they should be practiced that way. When you are practicing chords, always have a metronome or drum track playing to help you keep a steady tempo.
Here’s a good chord voicing workout. Set your drum track to a moderate rock beat, funk groove or blues shuffle, and choose a key. For this example, let’s choose the key of A. Start in open position and play every A chord voicing you know all the way up the neck (FIGURE 9), in rhythm, one chord change per measure. Without stopping, follow the same procedure with an Am7 chord (FIGURE 10). Do this with as many chord types as you can think of, then slow the tempo down and go through the procedure again using new voicings that you are currently learning.
To help strengthen your meter, program your drum rhythm to pay a measure of silence every other bar. This will force you to rely more on your internal clock and help boost your confidence in your ability to keep time.
A great way to get the most out of your practice time is to work on two or more things at once. Playing through a chord chart or playing just the chords from a transcription are two excellent ways to combine sight-reading with rhythm guitar. While you’re doing this, try to be creative in your rhythms, chord voicings and lead/rhythm fills.
The art of improvisation requires confidence, creativity and an almost intuitive grasp for musical flow. To develop these elusive attributes, you’ll want to prepare yourself for as many musical situations as possible. Here are some practical, hands-on methods to help you do just that.
Although the infinite number of chord progressions and shifting key center possibilities can be mind boggling, it’s possible to categorize music into one of three tonalities at any specific time: major, minor and dominant. It only stands to reason that if you work on mastering the art of improvisation in all three categories, you should be able to solo in any situation.
A straightforward method is to record yourself playing a one-chord vamp, such as Gm, for five minutes, using a metronome or drum track to keep your tempo solid. Then play the recording back and solo over it, using all the G minor devices you can think of. It helps to have a “laundry list” of scale and arpeggio possibilities in front of you (FIGURE 11).
Repeat this same procedure over a Gmaj7 chord for a major tonality, and a G7 or G9 for a dominant tonality. It’s a good idea to spend some time going back and forth from your natural rhythmic phrasing to playing steady eight notes. Playing steady eighths increases your stamina and strengthens your ability to think on your feet. A good routine is to practice one key per day, and to use a variety of feels: rock, blues shuffle, 12/8, ballad, funk, etc.
Along the same lines as the tonality drill is the recurring chord progression exercise. This process involves improvising over a collection of “mini” chord progressions that you see again and again in a variety of tunes. Included in this category are the ii-V-I and I-vi-IV-V progressions, blues turnarounds and others.
FIGURE 12 shows a few of these common mini-progressions along with some suggested scale ideas. These should be practiced in the same manner as the tonality drills.
In addition, other excellent practice methods include writing your own chord progressions to solo over, using play-along jam tracks or just jamming along to the radio. For inspiration, expose yourself to a wide variety of musical styles and listen to how all types of instruments approach the art of improvisation.
Any time you listen to music intently you are training your ear. The music you listen to inspires and teaches you and plays a large role in the ongoing development of your personal style. Some would say a good ear is a musicians’s most valuable asset.
In the practical sense, you want to develop the ability to transport the music you hear in your head onto the guitar. To that end, here are some ear-training exercises that you can add to your practice schedule.
• During your warm-up session, try singing along with the notes you’re playing. Also, try singing any pitch that comes to you and playing it back on the guitar.
• In your single-string workout, take some time to play one-octave scales and arpeggios slowly while you sing or hum along. When you practice at faster tempos, sing and sustain the tonic note of the scale or arpeggio you’re playing.
• Play any root-position chord at random and sing the tonic note.
• Think of a well-known melody (for example, a nursery rhyme, Christmas carol, or oldie hit song) and try to play it in the key of C without “fishing” for the notes.
• Start playing a CD track or an MP3 in a random spot. Let it play for a few seconds and then pause it. Pick up your guitar and try to play back any part of what you just heard. Replay the section of the recording and check your accuracy.
• Sit back-to-back with another guitarist. Choose a key and have him or her play a short lick. Contemplate it for a moment and then play back what you think you heard. If you make a mistake, repeat the entire process until you play it perfectly.
You might want to take advantage of the many ear-training methods that are available on CD and online. Also when you listen to music, try to establish the tonal center and sing it. This can be quite challenging, as some songs (especially in jazz and classical music) modulate to different keys. If the song structure is simple, try to sing the root movement of the chord progression (the root of each chord). And don’t forget, one of the best ear-training drills is to figure out licks, riffs and chords from your favorite tracks.
Any information that is translated from the written page and played on the guitar is a form of sight-reading. The greater your ability to read and notate pitch and rhythm, the more equipped you are to learn and retain new musical ideas and to communicate them to other musicians. You don’t need to be the world’s best sight-reader by any stretch of the imagination. What’s more important is a basic understanding of music written on the staff (and tab) and the ability to translate it to your instrument. The speed at which you do this is of little importance in the beginning. You’ll improve through sheer repetition and experience.
Here are some ways you can incorporate sight-reading into your power practicing schedule.
For a guitarist, probably the most practical and beneficial way to develop sight-reading at any level is to transcribe music. What better way to keep a log of your favorite licks and riffs? And when you transcribe a solo (yours or someone else’s), you get a personal, in-depth look at the player’s style.
• Transcribe one of your own licks in standard notation and tab. If you’ve never done this, notate the tab and fill in the note heads on the staff first, then add the stems for the rhythm. If you’re unfamiliar with writing in standard notation, check out Gardner Read’s Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice, Mark McGrain’s Music Notation, or similar resources.
• Transcribe any new licks you’re learning and actually read the notes on the staff as you play them over and over. You can also transpose these licks to the key you’re working on in your tonality drill and use them there.
• Transcribe any new chord voicings you are learning.
When it comes to developing actual sight-reading skills, it’s more important to take in large amounts of different pierces of music than it is to play only a few perfectly. Keep a collection of songbooks, sheet music and chord charts nearby when you’re practicing. During short breaks in your session, grab a book, open it to a random page and start reading the chords or the notes.
You can also isolate a short passage of any piece of music and (with a metronome) play through it very slowly and perfectly. Play through it a second time a little faster, and don’t worry too much about mistakes. Play it a third and final time very fast, just grabbing what notes you can. Move on to another passage and repeat this procedure. This routine is excellent for training your eyes to keep moving ahead and not focus on mistakes.
Some of the finest players in the world claim that they do their best practicing in their minds. What they’re taking about is the art of visualization—or the anticipation of a positive outcomes in a future event. Applying this age-old concept to your practice routine can produce amazing results. Plus, it’s a way to practice while you’re away from your instrument.
Here are a few examples:
• Play any chord on the guitar. Visualize your fingers moving to another chord, and then physically make the move and play that chord. This “keeping your eye on the target” method greatly increases accuracy in your playing. And with practice, you won’t even have to look at the guitar neck. You’ll simply “feel” the move before it happens.
• Find a lick in tab or notation that you want to learn. Before touching your guitar, visualize where on the neck—what strings, what frets—you will play it. Then visualize your picking hand playing the appropriate strings. Try to feel and hear yourself playing the lick perfectly, and then physically perform it. This greatly speeds up the learning process, as you are preventing the “programming” of mistakes into your memory.
• While away from your instrument, picture yourself playing a song you know well. Try to play it all the way through in your mind.
Keep up the visualization and ear training practice, and soon you may be able to learn songs you hear simply by imaging you have your guitar with you. Now that’s power practicing!