How many exercises do you practice on guitar? If you are like many guitar players, the answer is “too many”. In today’s internet era it is far too easy to get hundreds of guitar exercises on any topic imaginable at the push of a button. However, in the never-ending quest to find more guitar playing materials, most guitarists find that their musical skills don’t go anywhere, no matter what they try to do to overcome this problem.
As common as this issue is, the majority of guitar players react to it in a totally opposite way from what is correct. Most musicians make the false assumption that their guitar playing would progress more quickly ‘if only’ they had more/new/better exercises to work on. However, since no energy is directed on discovering the best way to PRACTICE these exercises, the time spent practicing delivers very slow improvement.
Rather than constantly seeking to expand your list of guitar practice materials, you will improve your guitar playing much more quickly if you focus on getting maximum results from the items you are already learning. Doing this will give you 2 important advantages:
1. You will improve as a musician in less time, simply because you will have a smaller total number of exercises to work on.
2. Whenever you face a real challenge in your guitar playing, you will know exactly what needs to be done to create your own exercise to deal with the issue.
The Way You Practice Guitar Matters More Than The Exercises You Work On
When you practice guitar, you must be able to clearly explain (at least to yourself) the reasons why you are working on a particular practice item at any given time. Being able to give such an explanation helps to keep your practicing directed in a specific path, instead of letting it become a random and unfocused waste of time.
To explain more clearly what I mean, consider a very common example of practicing scales on guitar (something that all guitar players have done at one point or another). Although virtually everyone understands that scales are an important item to practice for musicians, few guitar players consciously know how to direct their practicing of scales to help them improve the following specific areas of their musicianship:
1. Learning to play guitar fast
2. Learning to improvise guitar solos (or improving their ability to do so)
3. Visualizing the guitar neck completely
4. Expanding their creativity in music
A specific list of actions is needed to help you achieve each of the above objectives. To make that happen, your mind needs to act as a compass to direct your hands to take the appropriate steps during each practice session dedicated to scales. When doing this, it is necessary to set specific miniature objectives for every individual practice session. To avoid any misunderstanding, these “miniature objectives” are NOT the same thing as the big, long-term vision you want to reach as a guitar player (several years from now). Instead (as described above), they are similar to a map and a compass that tells you exactly how to move (what actions to take) to reach a very small specific goal. When you become comfortable doing this, you will see that it is very possible to get better in many elements of your musicianship with only one guitar practice item. However since most guitar players do not have this mindset while practicing, their practice sessions often turn into little more than a mindless list of items to play through, with no understanding of how each exercise is (or should be) bringing them closer to their goals. This alone accounts for a huge portion of the reason why most musicians never realize their guitar playing potential.
The skill of being able to set individual goals for each item in every guitar practice session does not come intuitively to most people and this is also why studying guitar on your own is a poor choice for many musicians. However, regardless of whether you take guitar lessons or not, by making an effort to go through the above process in your practicing will already improve the results you get in your guitar playing.
To illustrate the above process in action, I will describe a few examples of how it is possible to use a common guitar practice exercise such as scales to grow as a guitar player in a variety of areas. As explained earlier, this will be achieved by focusing your mind on a specific list of objectives in every practice routine.
Using Guitar Scales To Learn The Fretboard
When you practice scales to improve your ability to visualize the guitar neck, your focus should become much less on the physical aspect of your guitar playing and much more on memorizing how the shapes of the scales you are practicing look (visually) in EVERY area of the guitar, regardless of what key you are in. When your mind is actively engaged in this task, you will have no choice but to be 100% focused on what you are doing, rather than going on autopilot with your hands while practicing scales.
Using Guitar Scales To Improve Your Guitaristic Creativity
To become a more creative guitar player from practicing scales, one approach to take is to force yourself to ‘create’ multiple new scale sequences, patterns and phrases out of scales. This is different from simply playing the scale shapes themselves up and down in a mindless, uninspired fashion. You can keep yourself busy for many months doing only this task and come up with hundreds of new scale sequence ideas in the process. The point behind this advice is to illustrate yet another way of how your mind is consciously focusing on a completely different set of tasks when working on a unique mini objective.
Using Guitar Scales To Refine Guitar Technique
If you practice scales, trying to refine your physical guitar playing, you must consciously focus your mind on each element of great technique in turn: minimizing extra tension, avoiding excessive hand/finger motions, picking articulation and the ability of both hands to work in sync. The main thing I want you to understand here is the critical distinction between working on scales specifically to improve in one of the elements above as opposed to robotically moving your fingers through dull sets of fingering patterns that most guitar players do. Understanding and applying this difference is what it takes to more effectively train your hands for better guitar playing with scales.
Using Guitar Scales To Become A Better Improviser
Among the many things you need to practice to learn to improvise on guitar, one of the things you must become proficient in is the ability to play scales all over the guitar accurately and easily. To specifically practice this skill, one of the things you should do is work on each scale position for several minutes at a time, coming up with licks and phrases from it, while temporarily restricting yourself from using any of the other shapes of the same scale. After a few minutes of practicing in this way, move to another shape of the scale and repeat the process. Obviously this is not the only way you should practice scales to learn to improvise guitar solos, but the main thing to understand here is how your focus is different when practicing scales to improve your improvising in contrast to working on scales to progress in some other element of your musicianship.
So far in this article I have given you examples of how you can use a single guitar exercise to grow in a variety of elements of your musicianship. By choosing where to focus your attention in a guitar practice session, you can achieve a variety of objectives. It’s important to mention that these general approaches can be used with ANY exercise that you practice on guitar (and aren’t limited to only scales) in order to refine any musical skill that you think of. The more you do this, the more you will realize that your guitar playing progress isn’t affected by “the exercises” you practice on guitar, but rather by HOW you practice whatever it is you are working on.
In order to get the most out of this approach to practicing guitar, divide your attention to working on a unique “daily goal” during each day of practicing. This will enable you to cover everything without trying to cram too many things into each guitar practice session. For instance, set a specific goal for an item such as scales for Monday’s practice session, then work on scales with a different focus on Tuesday and continue in this way through the week.
One last point I want to make about this general approach to practicing guitar is that having a lot of exercises is NOT a bad thing in and of itself. In fact, multiple exercises are often necessary for more productive practicing, but it is still critical for you to learn how to get maximum value from only a single practice item. After you begin to practice guitar with this mindset, your rate of progress will skyrocket and you will amaze yourself by how much faster you will move towards your guitar playing goals.