If you’ve been following the Six Steps to Awesome, you have:
Made a commitment to yourself to reach your greatest potential.
Found a mentoror two to inspire you and guide you in the right direction.
Focused your attentionon the details like a laser beam.
Consistently punched the clock in your guitar practice.
Now that you’re in the practice room, what do you do? Practice!
However, many guitarists treat “practice” as an open-ended, “a little of this, a little of that” approach. Although doing a little of this and a little of that is perfectly valid and can be fun, it seldom leads to Status: Awesome.
In the fifth installment of our series, it’s all about efficiency – in planning, approach and execution. We’ll talk about how to get the most out of your practice time through good organization, sound strategies, a clear sense of priorities, and even knowing when to say “when”.
Awesome Step #5: Be Efficient
You’re probably familiar with the popular adage, “Work smarter, not harder.”
Whoever first coined that phrase could have just said, “Be efficient.”
The term efficiency describes how well our time or effort is used for an intended task or purpose. To say that we are using an “efficient method” of guitar practice means that we are able to produce a specific outcome – greater fretboard knowledge, for instance – with a minimum amount of waste, expense, or unnecessary effort.
For those among us who are short on time or energy, efficient practice sessions should be a priority.
Organizing our guitar practice means setting up some musical categories and making sure that we regularly touch on elements from each one. This will maintain our strengths, bring up our weaknesses, and keep us moving forward instead of spinning our wheels.
Instructor Jamie Andreas has written a very in-depth article on this subject: Guitar Practice Organization. In it, she categorizes the practice elements this way: Technique, Musical Skills, Repertoire and Review.
- Technique – exercises that enhance physical technique.
- Musical Skills – a catch-all for the wide variety of things that make up your skill and knowledge base, such as theory, scale work, chord vocabulary, improvisation, etc.
- Repertoire – songs that you’re learning or have learned.
- Review – consistent review of skills, knowledge and repertoire.
Good practice organization will clearly illuminate what needs to be done. It will also make sure that we’re not just focusing on the stuff that we’re good at or the stuff that’s “fun” – both surefire ways of becoming stagnant.
Get Some Strategies
There are a number of effective practice strategies that I recommend regularly to my students. The three tips I’ve listed below absolutely help to cut down on wasted time and effort.
PRACTICE IN SMALL, MANAGEABLE SECTIONS
It is completely inefficient to practice everything from the beginning to the end. This is the standard protocol for newbies, but veteran players should know better.
Instead, work on a few bars of music – or even a few notes – at a time and really master them. Add a few more and do the same. Link ’em together. If there is just one thing that will make your practice more efficient, this is it.
SPEED IS NOT YOUR FRIEND
When learning anything new, speed is your enemy. So slow down and give your brain a chance to absorb the new material.
Going too fast too soon just confuses things and encourages mistakes. Plus – and this irony is often lost on the Speed Racer guitar student – it slows down the learning process by thwarting your ability to develop muscle memory. Inefficient.
Remember that speed is the by-product of accuracy. So focus on being accurate and the speed will come naturally.
FIND THE COMMON ELEMENTS
Let the common elements of chords help you to make smart and efficient changes.
- The common finger strategy dictates that you keep a finger anchored in place if it’s in the same spot for two consecutive chords.
- The common string strategy dictates that you let a finger shift you along a string if that finger is on the same string in consecutive chords.
- The common shape strategy dictates that you to maintain your hand position when it appears in consecutive chords.
If you’re working on improving your chord changing skills, these concepts need to be front and center in your practice. Comprehensive details on these strategies can be found at The Definitive Lesson: Chord Changing Strategies.
Get Your Priorities Straight
Ultimately, the most efficient practice sessions are those that emphasize priorities. We will reach our musical goals much more quickly if we focus on what’s most important.
I like to view this through the filter of the Pareto Principle, often called the “80/20 Rule”.
For the uninitiated, the Pareto Principle refers to the idea that the vast majority of benefits are usually produced by a small minority of contributors.
To use a guitar example, we might say that 80% of the music we play is generated by 20% of the chords and techniques available. It would seem smart then to focus on giving your core techniques and vocabulary (the 20%) the most attention, since they generate the bulk of your music.
Translation: Stop with all the fluff and the stuff that doesn’t really matter. Instead, focus hard on the fundamentals that give you the greatest benefits. This is the epitome of making the most of your practice time.
Here are some guitar studio examples of the Pareto Principle:
- Focus on solid alternate picking first and foremost. Learning to sweep pick and finger tap can be a lot of fun, but those techniques are used 1% of the time.
- Learn to play your basic scales – pentatonic, major and blues – in all 5 positions on the fretboard before you worry about modes and other improvisation concepts.
- Make sure you know your basic chords – open and barre shapes – before you spend time on more exotic chords. Your time is better spent making the basics sound solid and professional.
- And my personal favorite: Stop buying new guitars and learn to play the ones you have. Gear lust is fun but it makes you a guitar owner. Learning to play makes you a musician.
Forget the fluff and concentrate on that core 20%!
Let the Music Come to You
Finally, there are a few situations where patience or even knowing when to stop and regroup is the best approach. This is not to be used as an excuse for lazy behavior, of course; think of it more as stalking your musical prey.
DON’T FORCE IT
Although it’s more common to encounter guitarists who don’t put forth enough effort to get great results, some are actually too intense about their playing. They wind up whipping themselves into a frenzy of frustration over their mistakes.
Remember that learning a new skill – especially a complex motor skill like guitar – takes time and patience. Your brain needs time to absorb the information and your hands need time to sync up with the brain’s commands.
You simply can’t force it.
GETTING BETTER, GETTING WORSE
If you’re like me, you may recall some practice sessions where you started off playing some chords or a guitar riff poorly, but then after some focused practice, it all started to come together and sound pretty good. After a few more passes, inexplicably, it started to sound bad again. Little by little, all manner of things started going wrong.
This is not at all unusual; it happens to everyone. It’s almost like your brain is telling you to “put the brakes on for a while and let me sort some stuff out.”
So do what your noggin is telling you: stop, take a few breaths, clear your mind, and slowly work that riff again from the beginning.
BE A NINJA…TO A POINT
The old Japanese saying, “Seven times down, eight times up” is a testament to persistence. Without persistence, you simply won’t succeed at much in life. Learning how to “keep at it” is a key to success.
But there can be a point of diminishing returns, where the psychological toll of failing at something is greater than whatever lesson you’re hoping to learn. At that point – and you’ll likely know when you’ve reached it – it’s best to walk away and come back tomorrow.
Learning guitar is a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t win every individual battle in short order. Sometimes you win them over the course of days, weeks or months.
Being awesome doesn’t happen by accident. Organize, strategize, prioritize – and know when to call it a day.
If you’ve been efficient in your guitar practice, then I’ll see you at Awesome Step #6: Find Your Zone. Cheers!
QUESTION: Do you generally plan your practice? How would you rate your practice efficiency? Leave me a comment below!