Get these articles in our

9 comments / Posted by Bruce Ohms

Practicing Guitar

Admit it, I caught you looking. Even though some part of your musician’s mind probably was screaming, “There are no ‘shortcuts’ to becoming a virtuoso!” And your musician’s mind was right, at least to the extent that there are no shortcuts. But if you find yourself “stuck in a rut” as a teacher friend of mine used to say, you might need to revisit the basics of your practice routine and make some adjustments. The old cliché “practice makes perfect” leaves a lot to be desired in the real world, because no matter how many times you learn something wrong, it will still be wrong. Worse yet, you might actually be teaching your hands to ‘master’ bad technique. One real ‘trick’ to practicing and mastering your instrument is teaching your hands to perform complex movements without requiring you to monitor every detail, so you can relax and play without your technique suffering. This is why we practice in the first place. But whether you practice good technique or bad technique that is what your hands will learn. In the same way, if you make a habit of inefficient practice routines, the time you invest in learning will fail to produce the results you want. So what can we do to make sure the time we invest into mastering our skills and techniques will actually lead us to virtuosity (or at least help us conquer the next level of our development)?

Planning - You can tell right away when a sports team has a great coach. Why? Because planning matters. It is easier to succeed when you know what to do to get there. But practicing is a very focused activity, and sometimes we can lose sight of the overall objective. Take a half hour once a month to create a new practice plan for the next 30 days. Some teachers suggest keeping a detailed log book where each routine is recorded along with the time spent practicing and the metronome settings you have reached. If this works for you, great- it can be motivating to see your progress on paper. In my first experience with this technique, the numbers didn’t seem to be getting higher very quickly and I started feeling pressured by my own unrealistic expectations. Keep it simple to start. Make a short list of 3 or 4 overall objectives. For example: a brand-new and challenging technique, something to improve your conditioning, a section of music you can play but it needs perfecting, and perhaps a practical application for a new bit of theory to make second-nature. When you evaluate your progress the next month, just subjectively weigh how much improvement you feel you’ve made overall in each category. If you got a little better at each you have succeeded. Your plan should include:

Vocabulary – keep introducing new scales, chords, licks etc. Get an old Arlen Roth book at the used bookstore and learn your clichés. Try them all and adopt the ones you really love.

Music Theory – Blues cats cover your ears… we all need to learn to read music! Tablature makes this a lot easier than it used to be, because it tells you where to play each note on the neck. But don’t stop there. Learn to count out the rhythm figures, so you can really play the phrase as it is written. Accurately executing difficult rhythm figures is the secret to building a fantastic picking/plucking hand. Plus how else can you learn an entire song note-for-note in 15 minutes? And in case you didn’t know it, the ultimate shortcut to learning an infinite number of chord forms is knowing enough theory to build your own.

Ear training – Pick a song and listen carefully. Can you tell exactly which scale or chord the player is using and where it is on the neck? Can you hear the difference between major and minor chords, sevenths and ninths? When you bend up to a note can you hit the perfect pitch every time? Bass players- can you play a fretless?

In Part 2, we’ll look at more ideas you can incorporate into your practice regimen. What helps you in your practice routine? Tell us in the comments. 


  • Posted On January 03, 2017 by Mark Denbow

    Consistency is a big thing for me. When I can nail a difficult riff only 30% of the time, my playing becomes mechanical because all I can think about is that difficult riff coming up and is this going to be one of those 30% of times I nail it. So I like to practice one troublesome riff at a time for a half hour without stopping and try to improve my “batting average.” If you’re confident you can nail it perfectly every time, then you can relax and put some soul into your playing.

  • Posted On December 30, 2016 by Uncle Ralph

    Make sure you want to be a virtuoso, though. I have known (and still know) guys who can play “Black Magic Woman” with every tiny nuance that Carlos ever put into every note, and what they can do that Carlos probably can’t, is to insert blistering Scandinavian Death Metal riffs between the stuff that Carlos played. Then they can pick up a jazz box and play “Twilight Time” exactly as Joe Pass played it (with the occasional Death Metal ornament here and there, also). There are places for players like that, like in recording studios and in other people’s touring bands. I’m not pooh-poohing players who have put in the ten or twenty years of dedicated practice it takes to become crack session guitarists, but you may have noticed that, with few exceptions, these guys aren’t famous. The few who are famous are famous among other guitarists; the listening public generally doesn’t know them from Guy Lombardo.

    If you wanna be a star, learn your own stuff. Learn it rilly, rilly well. If you want to lead the Tonite Show Orchestra, or even play in it, you’d better know how to read music. You’d better know how to read other people’s music and arrange horn and string parts. But if you want to be a rock star, concentrate on your style, the stuff only you know how to play because you’re the only one who’s ever heard it (so far). I heard “Nationwide” on the radio the other day, one of the ZZ Top songs they don’t play every fifteen minutes. There is so much going on in that song. It makes me smile every time I hear it, but none of it is raw technical virtuosity. It’s style. It’s Billy Gibbons’ unmistakable guitar and vocals and the way Dusty Hill jostles and spars with him on the bass lines, and Frank Beard keepin’ it all together while the other guys fart around. And “Nationwide” isn’t their only cool song; there are dozens of ‘em. Yes, a guitar virtuoso could copy Billy’s riffs down to the hemidemisemiquaver, but what he/she couldn’t do is make up any more Billy Gibbons riffs. Only Billy F. Gibbons can do that.

    I heard an interview once with Kaki King in which she said, “Do what YOU do. You don’t have time to become every guitar payer you’ve ever heard.” To which I would add: “You’ll be lucky if you have time to become the one you are.” So, before you head down the road to technical virtuosity and craftsmanship, make sure it leads where you want to go and you want to go where it leads.

  • Posted On December 30, 2016 by Kenneth Fasken

    Awesomeness ! Thanks for the extra push .
    I realy do love my Carvin gear .

  • Posted On December 30, 2016 by Robert Harper

    I want to thank you for the advice on reading…“accurately executing difficult rhythm figures”….this is what I’m going to tell my college instructor I need to focus on in our private one on one course…….It also reminds me while I’m practicing to remember that I’m "teaching my hands to make complex movements " ……PRACTICE is GOOD!
    Robert Harper

  • Posted On December 30, 2016 by Jim Colbert

    I’ve been a bass player for nearly 40 years now and for the most part I pick up my bass and just roll my fingers hands over the fretboard (un-amplified)playing whatever happens to come out.Excluding band rehearsals I do this oh 3-4 times a week.Of course I get to fun stuff amplified later.Practice DOES help me find my way around the neck with ease comes in handy on those dim kit gigs on stage.?

Leave a comment

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing