How To Practice Deliberately on Guitar

Posted on February 10, 2012 by


Corbett Barr recently outlined some of the characteristics of deliberate practice over at Expert Enough. It inspired me to take the framework he laid out and describe how I use those principles to practice guitar deliberately.

1) You must be motivated to attend to the task and exert effort to improve your performance.

It goes without saying that if you aren’t motivated to practice frequently and deliberately you will not make much progress towards learning any skill.

I practice guitar on average 35 minutes a day. I have maintained this pace for over 3 months and have accumulated about 60 hours of deliberate practice. Even though learning how to play guitar is a dream of mine I have struggled to find the motivation to practice on a regular basis. Learning a musical instrument as an adult has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life.

If you are really struggling to get motivated you may want to ask yourself why you are doing it. Are you really passionate? Is it your dream? Or are you doing it because you feel that it is the “right” thing to do.

The skills that I have made the most progress towards are the ones I was most passionate about AND the ones I was motivated to practice regularly. Rock-climbing, downhill skiing, kitesurfing, cooking, home-improvement skills, writing.  These are all areas that I wanted to have more skills. I wanted to be better. I loved the process of learning.

Once you have found an area that you are passionate about then the secondary factor becomes motivation. If you have a strong passion then you may not need to think about motivation. To you, passion and motivation are entwined and the act of practicing will seem natural. The lyric from John Mellencamp Bryan Adams,

“I got my first real six-string
Bought it at the five-and-dime
Played it till my fingers bled
Was the summer of 69”

comes to mind. He didn’t need to think about motivation. He had one thought on his mind. Learn how to play guitar and make music and nothing was going to stop him.

Personally, I struggle to find the motivation to practice even though I am clearly passionate about learning the guitar. For me, I found setting a SMART goal, tracking my minutes of practice and using a commitment contract provided the motivation I needed. If you want to learn the specifics of how I motivated myself check out my article at Beeminder’s Blog on the subject.

For others they may need to make a partnership with someone to help motivate each other, hire a teacher to provide some external motivation, or use a Stickk goal. The truth is that there are an infinite number of ways to motivate yourself through internal or external techniques. The key is to realize that just because you are struggling to find the motivation doesn’t mean that “you aren’t cut out for it” or “aren’t disciplined enough.”

2) The design of the task should take into account your pre-existing knowledge so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.

When I started learning guitar I knew absolutely nothing. I had never learned a musical instrument or how to sing. I had no knowledge of the musical scale or the language of music. I bought a couple entry level music books and I realized that I wasn’t even equipped to get past page 1 of most of these books. Even though they were listed as entry level they assumed a certain knowledge base that I was missing.

I turned to the internet and after some Googling was able to cobble together a rudimentary knowledge of the musical scale and vocabulary that would be required to start learning. I learned about the basic structure of the guitar. Body, neck, frets, strings. I learned that the strings are always describes from High to Low, with High being the bottom string and Low being the top string. I learned that each open string could play a note and that in order from high to low they were E B G D A E.

This is where I started. At the beginning. Did I want to start playing chords, learn a song, practice a familiar riff? Yes. But I wasn’t ready. Could I have jumped right to that level? Sure. I could have focused all my effort on learning a couple chords and one strum pattern of a familiar song and practiced it over and over. Eventually I would have been able to play that song. Only that song.

There is a big difference between memorizing and understanding. Practicing one song and playing it over and over is memorization and will not take you very far. Learning and understanding how music is created will lay a foundation that will allow you to understand why that song works the way it does. It will allow you to riff and jam around that song and create your own music in a similar style. Learning a bunch of different chords and a variety of strum patterns will give you the tools to learn new songs more quickly when you are ready.

You have to start at the beginning and create a solid foundation. Could you focus all your energy learning Stairway To Heaven or one really sick blues riff? Sure, you could. You could do that in a couple months and if you and I were in the same room someone would probably think that you are a better guitar player. I mean, you just played something that they recognize and sounds like music to them. All I can play is a couple chord progressions and some scales. I sound like a 6th grader practicing guitar and you sound like a rock star.

The problem is that you will probably fall in love with that song and every time you pick up the guitar you will play it. You will be one of the most baddass guitarists when it comes to playing that song. I will continue to plug away and build a solid foundation. Scales, Chords, Alternate picking, Hammer-ons, Pull-offs, Slides. I will build the muscles and dexterity to play  the strings from high to low and up and down the fret board. You will keep practicing your song. Then one day I will try to play your song and it will be easy for me to pick it up. And then I will learn another song and another song. In addition to learning songs I will be able to create my own music because I have built a foundation. I understand what I am playing, I am not just playing by memorization.

3) You should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of your performance.

The need for feedback can not be overstated. The phrase “poor practice makes for poor performance” comes to mind. There are two basic ways to get feedback. You can judge yourself or have someone judge you. They both have pros and cons and you are probably best off using both.

I do most of my practice at home and I have not had any lessons or a teacher. As a result I have had to rely on myself to provide a feedback loop on my practice performance. I am extremely self-critical and am constantly processing my own results as I practice. Over time my ear has become more sensitive and I can tell the difference between a well played note and a buzzing note. When I play the C chord I can tell when I am holding down all the notes correctly or when I am touching one of the nearby strings or strumming the Low E when I am supposed to bypass that string. I can hear when I have fallen behind or gotten ahead of the metronome. I pay attention to all of these factors while I am practicing and am constantly adjusting my fingers or tempo as I play.

In addition I have recorded myself playing on video so that I could see and hear myself independent of actually practicing. If you are like me, and think that your own voice sounds horrible when played aloud, wait till you hear yourself play a musical instrument. As tough as it was to sit through, it was a highly valuable experience because I could hear more errors in tone and rhythm then when I was playing and listening.

Whatever you do, don’t spend too much time practicing anything without getting some feedback.

4) You should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

When I first started practicing I spent almost all my time playing two different sequences. One was the C Scale which ran up and down all the strings using the first 3 frets. The second was a blues riff that used the bottom two strings and required a significant amount of finger movement for me at the time. I worked these two pieces over and over and over. I focused on placing my fingers properly so that the note would ring cleanly, I focused on controlling my tempo so that each note was evenly spaced, I focused on reading the notes off of the sheet music while I played so that I could start making the connection between the written notes and the sounds.

In that first month I drove my wife crazy as I repeated the same sequences over and over. I actually remember when I allowed myself to graduate to the next tune, to page 2, and my wife was excited. “Finally!” she said, “something different.” Of course I wrapped up that session by reverting back to those original sequences.

That is one of my recipes for learning. I build muscle memory by repeating the same or similar actions over and over until they become routine. Next I build off these actions by slowly introducing complexity. Then as I am fatiguing and losing focus I will push myself a little bit further by regressing back to the “simpler” version. After trying the more complicated sequence the original routine will seem easier and familiar.

For example, I have been working on a series of exercises built around the A minor pentatonic scale. First I needed to learn all the notes of the scale and how to progress from high to low and back again hitting only the notes in the scale. Once I was comfortable with that exercise I started introducing complexity like skipping strings and doubling back. Since they are more complicated and require finer motor control I have to go slower.  Right now I can run up and down the A minor scale at about 140 bpm, but I can only do the A minor alternating string exercise cleanly at 80bpm. When I try to do the A minor scale with hammer-ons and pull-offs I can’t even keep a steady rhythm yet.  Of course, three months ago I didn’t even know what the A minor pentatonic scale was so I know I am making progress.

If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy:
Pushing Through a Learning Plateau on Guitar
4 Tips For Maximizing Your Practice
My Daily Guitar Practice Routine
300 Hours of Deliberate Practice on Guitar