How To Practice Guitar
As I've been teaching private lessons more frequently and to a wider variety of students, the foundation of every lesson regardless of their abilities, goals, or repertoire, is how to practice. So for this lesson, we're going to discuss the elements of a focused, deliberate practice method, and then apply it to a piece of music.
Practicing serves three purposes:
- Improve your facility on the instrument.
- Expand your repertoire.
- Maintain and develop your current repertoire.
Music is a form of expression. The most direct way for us to express any ideas to the rest of the world is by speaking. After all, most of us use our voices every day to speak to one another, so much so that we don't have to think about what word to use, what sounds form that word, how to produce those sounds, etc. We've been practicing speaking from a very young age. By this point we simply think it, and it happens.
Now let's say the ideas we want to express are musical, and we want to express them through the guitar. Now we've placed two barriers between our ideas and the rest of the world: The first being music itself, understanding the fundamental concepts of how music is organized. The second is our instrument.
The long term goal of practicing is to master the guitar so it is no longer a barrier between the musical ideas in your head, and the ears of your listeners.
In other words, learning the guitar is very much like learning a new language.
- You have to learn the vocabulary--notes, scales, chords.
- Then you learn syntax of music, putting together notes, scales, and chords into progressions and phrases.
- Finally you learn how to string those phrases together to make complete musical statements in a solo or an entire song.
- Simultaneously you must learn how to physically play the guitar, which is your new voice, allowing you to eloquently speak this language.
What To Practice
One of the most basic building blocks of musical vocabulary is the major scale. A scale is simply a way of organizing musical sound into a pattern of pitches and intervals. In turn, the pitches and intervals used in any given scale can be organized in melodies and harmonies, ultimately creating a piece of music.
When you learn a scale, your ear becomes familiar with the sound of this pattern. For example:
Did you sing that scale to yourself as you read the syllables? That is called solfège, and if you've seen The Sound of Music, or had a music class in elementary school, you're probably familiar with it.
Taking this a step further, how do you sing: Do-Mi-Sol?
This time I skipped a couple pitches, and the resulting intervals create an arpeggio, or the basic structure of a chord.
Just as we've engrained this pattern into our brain for singing, we need to be able to produce it with the guitar. In other words, we need to know the fretboard so well that we can play a scale, arpeggio, or any other sort of interval as it comes to mind or is required by a piece of music.
Learning scales on the guitar is, in my opinion, the best way to learn your way around the fretboard. I require all of my students to learn a scale method I presented in a previous Woodshed Wednesday post: 7 Major Scales/Modes for Guitar. Learning these seven scale patterns will allow you to play every major mode in every key anyplace on the fretboard. With slight modifications, you can expand your vocabulary to include all your minor and altered scales, and their respective modes.
Along with scales, it's important for all guitarists to learn chords all over the neck. How many ways can you play a C major chord? To answer that question, you need to understand what notes are in a C major chord and where they are on the neck. Again, learning your scales will help you learn the entire fretboard, making this process much easier. And more importantly, knowing how to quickly find a new chord is a better skill to develop than simply memorizing a bunch of chords.
Now, how do you know what scales and chords to practice? Well, how about taking a piece of music and deconstructing it to it's most basic pieces--scales and chords? By learning a piece of music, you have all the elements of a good practice routine at your disposal:
- Fundamentals of guitar technique--picking, finger independence, changing chord voicings, etc.
- Fundamentals of music--scales, arpeggios, chords, playing over changes, sight reading, etc.
- Repertoire--learning new songs, transcribing, practicing what you know.
How To Practice
Now, let's practice a piece of music together. For this exercise, we'll work on the second movement of Bach's Sonata II for Solo Violin in B minor, "Double."
I've played these Bach violin sonatas and partitas on electric guitar since college. They supply a virtually endless amount of practice material. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is complex, yet easily broken down into fundamental pieces. You can learn to play it mechanically, and once it's under your fingers, really explore the expressiveness and beauty of the piece.
Here are the first four measures, transcribed from a book I own.
Now, we could simply read through these four bars a dozen times, gradually getting better with each pass. Use a metronome, start slow, gradually build speed. You will learn the piece perfectly fine.
For this exercise, however, I'd like to incorporate some harp-like scales with ringing, overlapping notes and open strings. It'll transform the piece to something uniquely guitar-esque. This technique is probably new to you, therefore a perfect excuse for methodical practice!
Below I have dissected the first two bars of this piece into ten chords. The sixth chord is really just a passing tone between two other chords, but practice, we're going to treat it as it's own chord. I've included TAB so we can all use the same voicings.
The first chord should look familiar. It is simply a Bmin chord in 7th position. The second chord is also fairly simple, a C#dim. However, we're going to play it with an open E string. The third chord, an F#7(b9), is a little funky and requires barring the D, G, and B strings with your first finger but allowing the high E string to ring open. You also have to stretch your fourth finger out to grab that F# on the G string. It's a little awkward, but you'll soon see that this is our first instance of the "harp-like scale" technique and the end result is pretty cool.
Before we go any further, practice slowly changing between these three chords. Once you can smoothly transition between all three, continue the process for the rest of the chords until you can play through the entire ten bars fluidly.
Now let's go back to the piece. In the example below, you'll notice ten brackets grouping the notes. Each bracketed section corresponds to a chord in the example above.
Since our left hand is accustomed to the movements from one chord to the next, all we have to do is pick the notes like we're arpeggiating chords.
Note that the second chord might feel tricky at first, because playing that G on the B string followed by an open E string is a little unusual, but it creates the desired legato effect. Additionally, the open E string at the end of the second bracketed section allows us a moment to move the third chord. In fact, nearly every left hand move will happen while an open string is ringing.
Introduce the picking in slow, deliberate movements. First, work on each bracketed section individually, gradually increasing speed with a metronome. Then slow the tempo down and start stringing them together, again gradually increasing speed.
Once you have these two bars down, see if you can continue this technique throughout the rest of the piece! You can also apply it to a Coltrane solo or Eddie Van Halen riff. The purpose here is not just to learn this Bach piece, but to learn how to practice.
Practicing deliberately is the most important skill you can learn as a student of the guitar, or any instrument, or just about any other skill. I hope this will give a focused purpose to your practice time, and reward you with better results.
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