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How to Practice

After playing guitar every day for 15 years, I have learned a few excellent exercises that I wish I remembered to do more often. So check out “Play a Solo but You Can Only Breathe During Silence” and 32 other cool experiments that should bring your practice sessions to the next level.

Here is a free PDF tally-sheet / checklist. I am going to keep mine in the practice space and tick off the boxes as I remember to do them. This will also help me to remember what I am forgetting to do. Also, I didn’t add “Play with a Metronome” because I believe that should be a part of every exercise.

Play in the Mirror

Ever record a video of yourself playing? Its both insanely funny and absolutely horrifying watching yourself unconsciously making weird guitar faces. Like anything else, you can control how you look with a little bit of practice and repetition. Its also quite interesting to watch the reflection of your fingers moving, which doubles as a way to STOP looking down at the fretboard while you play.

So go sit or stand in front of that mirror and desperately try to prevent what can only be described as “John Mayer face“. Unless thats your thing of course, it certainly works for him!

Play with the Lightest Touch Possible

For me, learning this skill was side-effect of playing all the time and my girlfriends getting pissed off because a movie was on or it was late at night. So I started to experiment with how I could make noise while using the lightest possible finger pressure. Kind of like turning down the volume switch.

I did this with both playing lead and playing chords and I eventually started to realize how much unneeded pressure I had been putting my fingers through prior to this learning this new skill. So do your own experiments with finger placement, finger pressure, overall hand pressure, etc…

Bonus: Try to play a note and lift your finger as little as possible from the string after playing it. Just enough that you are not muting it, but close enough where you can hit it again with the smallest possible distance of finger movement.

Play a Solo but You Can Only Breathe During Silence

I cannot remember exactly where I heard this game but it is a great way to add some air (get it?) to your playing. But seriously, one of the main differences between a good soloist and a beginner soloist is phrasing. When.we.have.a.conversation.we.don’t.talk.like.this.with.all.the.words.crammed.together.and.never.shutting.up.

But way too often, a person with a guitar will play a continuous stream of notes without pause and without a break, and without a clear consciousness of adding some space and silence to make the licks sound better by contrast.

So try this: play a solo but you can only breathe during dead silence. Bonus points for doing this while a metronome is ticking away!

Sing Each Note As You Play It

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Of course in the beginning you will be playing the note first and then matching your voice to its pitch, but after a little practice you will find yourself hearing the sound of the note before you even play it. With even more practice you will find yourself hearing the interval (the space between the two notes you chose) before you even play it. And that is where you want to be!

This exercise goes hand-in-hand with the next one:

Play a Melody that you Hummed First

The end goal of every musician is to shorten the distance between the music that you hear/create in your head and what your body needs to do to make your instrument play it. This exercise is also self-explanatory and like the last one, you will naturally suck at it when you first start. But stick with it!

You don’t have to start by humming that insane solo that you made up while sitting on the toilet seat (but record that humming for later). Start with something simple: two or three notes. Sooner or later, you will be humming into your phone’s recording device and busting out those melodies when you get back to your practice space!

Play Only on One String

This is a great exercise for both skill building and creativity. Amazing creativity is said to come from limitation and what better way to try this than to limit yourself to just one string. You can play a famous melody (Happy Birthday) on one string, try to rearrange parts of a famous solo onto just one string, or just put on a backing track and use that single string to go crazy.

This exercise will help you to better understand intervals and as a bonus, if you can become proficient on a single string then you can pick up any stringed instrument in any tuning and play something. A valuable skill and a great party trick.

Solo Only in the Open Position

The open-position of our guitar is something that a lot of people forget about. We tend to stay there when we are beginners and then we become “too cool” for it. But the reality is that all the really good players know how to absolutely utilize-the-shit out of it.

And there is a reason for it. It is probably the most versatile part of your guitar, strictly based on the amount of open string combinations that a good player can intertwine with their fret soloing. This skill also comes in handy when using a capo because all of those cool open string solo combos now have their unique color that you can’t get without a capo.

Play the Guitar Percussively

The guitar is an extremely percussive instrument. You can smack different areas of the body like a drum. You can slap the strings with your thumb. You can scrape and rake with your pick. You can flick at the strings with your picking hand in multiple ways. You can use all kinds of different muting techniques to really get a really nice “popping” sound.

Those are just a handful of examples. Think about it like this, can you do anything like that with a piano? Or a saxophone? So utilize everything that makes your instrument unique and you will surely create some really cool music! Like this dude I used to watch in the NYC subway who strapped a tuna-can lid to his guitar.

Record Yourself

Every single musician on the planet knows that immediate “what the hell is happening” moment as soon as the recording button lights up. Its a truly amazing phenomenon. No matter how good you think you are, you will be undoubtedly worse as soon as the actual pressure to “get it perfect” starts grinding away at your senses.

Your fingers will be betray you. Your voice will betray you. Your very mind will reel in horror as you start “take 25” of a song that you could play perfectly when not being recorded. But like anything, it does get better. You just need to keep practicing being in that high-pressure recording situation and you get more comfortable with those feelings and pushing through them.

But remember, every person experiences being worse when the pressure gets turned up, even those guitar greats you idolize. The trick is, they are so good that even at their worst, they are still good enough to make it happen. Aim to be that good.

Play a New Cover Song

One of the things I have been doing lately is torrenting, I mean, uhhh, legally purchasing compilation albums at the Pirate Bay store. Something like “hits from the 90’s” or “Now Thats What I Call Music!” etc…

Adding these albums to my shuffle playlist has really made me understand that there are 100’s of songs that I LOVE that I have not even covered yet. I am sure you are the same way. I would recommend making a list and anytime you think of one or stumble upon an old favorite on the radio, write it down. Covers are a great way to learn new chords, understand music-theory patterns, and to make friends at social events. You’re my wonderwaaaaaaaallllll!

Play Standing Up

I am a firm believer in playing the guitar as often as possible. So when I am sitting on the couch watching movies with my girlfriend, I also usually have an acoustic in my hand, playing quietly. Sometimes I play laying down in bed. I even once heard that Jimi Hendrix played on the toilet!

But don’t forget that if you want to play stages, you most likely will have to get comfortable playing standing up. This change, at first, will make everything feel different; so it is important to start practicing that way now! Experiment with your guitar strap and try different positions to see what feels most comfortable.

Play with a Capo

This was another subject that I used to be really stubborn about. “I don’t need a capo maaaan, my fingers are the capo maaaaan!” But honestly, capos are not just a cheat for lazy guitar players who still believe that barre-chords are impossible.

Capos are a great way to make your guitar sound fresh. Because once you slap that bad-boy onto your fretboard, you have a whole new world at your fingertips. For one, you have an entirely new arrangement of ringing-out open strings that create amazingly fresh chord variants. Sounds that you probably haven’t had a chance to hear or experiment with yet.

Also, if you are a singing guitar player, move that capo around a bit and sing your tunes at different parts of the fretboard. This will open a lot of cool possibilities and room for experimenting.

Play a Solo from a Guitar Legend

I used to think that learning to copy a solo from a guitar legend was a cheap thing to do and would make me sound unoriginal. But just like with the guitar cover tip above, there are so many cool things that can be learned by trying to emulate others.

This is another good subject for list-making, so get a piece of paper or open up a doc on your phone/computer and start compiling a list of all the cool little solos that hit you just right. They could be long ones (Sultans of Swing) or shorts one like that killer little solo from Bryan Adam’s “Everything I do” that I totally used to love when I was a 12 and crushing on the girl in homeroom.

Play with a Slide

Both steel and glass slides are very reasonably priced and having one in your guitar drawer is a must. Slide guitar is a very different way of playing the guitar and many of the techniques that you will use, and sounds that you find, can be brought back into your non-slide playing.

It is a great way to experiment with different tunings. It is also a great gateway into playing different kinds of guitars like Lap-Steel or Dobros. The real cool thing about slide-guitar is how easily it can imitate the singing of the human voice and this kind of practice is going to help your ear and your playing in hundreds of different ways.

Play to Backing Tracks / Other Musicians

The internet has thousands of free and good backing tracks so there is no reason to neglect this extremely important part of practicing. Backing tracks are also essentially a really awesome metronome. Playing to a backing track is the opposite of noodling around aimlessly and only one will prepare you for playing on stage with other people.

Many backing tracks also have chord charts you can follow so you can practice chord tones and use different musical mentalities to approach soloing over chord changes. Of course, playing with other musicians usually trumps playing with backing tracks (as long as they are good musicians who can keep time and have some understanding of communicating musically). But when you don’t have that around, put on a track and learn to play in context.

Play Brand New Chord Shapes

I believe it was Clapton who said that he used to go through the Joe Pass Guitar Chord Book as a part of his practice and creative process. For people unfamiliar, Joe Pass created a book full of chord shapes where none of them are labelled and fall under broad categories like “sound like major” or “sound diminished”.

Its a very cool book and whether you have it or not you can still utilize this exercise. Throwing your fingers into new and unfamiliar shapes should be a never-ending goal of every guitarist. It will help your ear to find new sounds and it will help your muscle memory as well. Think of it like “Twister” for your fingers!

Bonus tip: Don’t just practice throwing your fingers into a new shape over and over again from thin air. Practice going into that shape from familiar chords that you already know. This is better for muscle memory and a great way to find new chord progressions.

Play Through an Old Scale in a New Way

Even something as simple as the C major (diatonic) scale is an endless world of different finger and string combinations. You can work it out on one string, you can work it out in a way that skips strings, you can work it out into three notes per string, or four notes per string, or three notes per string ascending and then two notes per sting descending, or two notes per string ascending and then three notes per string descending, etc… Or play two notes at a time, or for every note play the octave on another string. Or do everything I just wrote stutter-style, or triplet-style. I could go on and on.

There is no such thing as saying “Check. I learned my scales. Done with that!” and the many, many people who do unfortunately think this way are the ones who are always bitching on the internet about “why don’t I sound good after learning my scales!” or “I sound so mechanical and its all the scales fault, so trust me, don’t learn them!”. And don’t even get me started on the fact that we don’t just learn scales to organize notes.

Our fingers have muscle memory and if you only teach that memory to think in one way, then you are going to be a one-trick pony. There are endless ways to practice scales and the best way to find new ones is to challenge yourself to do something differently.

Play Along to a Random Music Playlist / Radio

This is one of my favorite things to do and when I was doing it as a beginner guitarist I had no clue I was getting better from it. I was just doing it because I had a guitar in my hand and I also wanted to listen to music. Soon I realized that I was using my ear to find the key of songs that I had never even heard before, and it worked even with hip-hop and electronic music.

Knowing my pentatonic shapes also really helped back then because if I could find a couple “right” notes then I could try them out in the context of different shapes. Through trial and error I was able to narrow down where I was and where I needed to be next.

Before I knew it, I was able to reproduce the melodies I was hearing after very few mistakes. I was even able to pick out the chords behind played, maybe not exactly with the extensions, but good enough to have an overview. As I branched out and started playing with other musicians, these skills were invaluable and led to a lot of great sessions.

Play Only with Your Fingers

There is something magical about playing with only your fingers. It is hard for me to put it into words, but its kind of like the difference between driving an automatic car and a manual stick-shift transmission.

So put down that pick, pick up that guitar and get those hands dirty. You will find yourself playing things with your fingers that you never stumbled upon when playing with a pick. Its a very interesting phenomenon that I can’t explain, but its true.

Also, for those who only play with their fingers, pick up that damn pick sometimes! There is also a beauty in pick-playing that cannot be expressed with fingers alone.

Play Guitar Simon

I used to try to explain this game to people on guitar forums and it was just too hard. Which is funny because it is a very simple game. I am not saying I am the sole inventor of this game, but I definitely wasn’t told about it, I just kind of started doing it one day and then game up with the name “Guitar Simon”. Simon was a memory game from when I was a kid. (Its funny too because I never even had one, just saw the commercials every day.)

Anyways, here is the video:

Play the Guitar like a Bass

Pretty simple concept. A bass guitar is tuned the same way as the top strings of your guitar. So grab your guitar and play some bass, you can even look up bass lessons on youtube and just pretend you have one.

In the same way that beginners tend to move past the open-position, many also tend to avoid the bass strings. But when you watch those guitar masters, let me tell you, they have those bass-strings on lock. Knowing how to use them will add contrast to your music which will make your treble notes sound better.

Knowing the mechanics of what the bass notes do to music will also make your chord progressions better and more interesting. Its usually not much either, just a tasteful sprinkling of passing notes and chord tones. Plus you can thumb-slap those fuckers. Hell yeah!

Play a Simple Melody by Ear

Way too many people neglect essential ear-training because their egos convince them that playing melodies like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Happy Birthday are “beneath them”. Nothing could be further from the truth. We all have melodies in our heads that we sung a hundred times as children and have heard a thousand more time growing up. These are the types of melodies that you should be trying to work out on your guitar and it will do wonders to strengthen the connection between brain, ear, and fingers.

Here is a list of simple melodies to get the gears turning. And remember that, like scales, there are hundreds of different ways to arrange these melodies. An exercise that I love to do is to drop my finger onto a totally random string and fret, and then work out the melody from that note. You can also limit yourself to one string, or two strings, or to a certain number or notes per string, etc… Doing this exercise in the open position is also a great exercise.

Play as Fast as You Can

A lot of guitar players struggle with breaking speed barriers. They want to play faster and don’t know how to get there. If you spend five minutes a day playing as fast as you possibly can then, just like working out, you will see gains. The way to do this is with “speed burst”. The way to do this is to start playing your solo at normal speeds and then mentally prepare for and execute a sudden burst of your absolute fastest playing.

Of course “playing fast” has a lot more to do with excellent technique, particular patterns, and a well synchronized left and right hand. However, your muscle memory does play a very large role. So get those fingers pumping, turn up the metronome, and keep moving up in small increments until everything falls apart. Its a really good exercise even for players who have no desire to play fast.

Play with a Metronome at 40bpm

I started doing this after I realized that google has a surprisingly decent metronome. Access it simply by typing metronome into the search bar and the application will sticky to the top of the results. One day I was experimenting and put the speed down to the lowest setting: which happened to be 40bpm.

Man, I don’t know if it because 40 is so slow or if the speed “40” in particular is something that our internal clock is not used to, but there is something odd and awkward about it. Which in turn, makes this an amazing timing exercise.

Play with Your Eyes Closed

I grew up watching movies like Karate Kid, Rocky, and Bloodsport where there were long montages of the hero training in the craziest ways possible. So guess what I decided to do one day? I put a bandana around my head, covered my eyes, and heard my inner Mr. Miyagi telling me “Play Sean-son, why you need to use eyes when the music is blind?”

You can also just wait until night-time and turn off all the lights. Just try not to freak anyone out.

Play in a New Tuning

Pretty self-explanatory. You can try out some common alternate tunings or just go nuts and try to create your own. There are so many possibilities. It also goes back to my earlier statement:”Creativity often comes from limitation”.

Switching up the relationships between the strings is going to put you at a complete disadvantage in the beginning. You will be very limited and you will start to rely on your ears and your brain instead of the familiar patterns that you unconsciously rely on. Music exists in the heart and the mind, don’t just let your fingers guide you.

Play as Slow as You Can

This exercise is obviously on the opposite end of the spectrum from “Play as Fast as You Can”. But it is just as important and, honestly, it is also just as hard. The difference between a good player and an amazing player is usually phrasing. And great phrasing is a side-effect of great timing. If you want to advance your timing skills, it is necessary to experiment with sustaining notes and also using silence as a “note”.

The best way to do that in the beginning is to practice playing lead as slow as you possibly can. This exercise usually results in lots of empty space. And in that empty silence, we tend to think more about the next notes we will play and also how we will phrase them. Its kind of like thinking before you speak.

Play Outside of 4/4 Timing

“Oh no! Timings outside of 4/4!?! C’mon Sean, the list was great up until now, but this one sounds like… really hard man!”

Yes, this one sucks and is hard. But hey, isn’t that the whole point of getting better at something? If you want to have serious skills at anything, you need to be able to find things that will really push your boundaries and most of the time those things suck.

It can be as simple as switching to 3/4 timing or you can get really crazy and start playing around with some really crazy time signatures like 1/√π/√⅔ (wut???). I won’t list them all here and scare you away, but you know where google is and there are plenty of great tutorials online if you want to get started.

Play Licks from a Guitar Legend by Ear

This is also known as “what every guitarist did before the internet”. Your guitar heroes wore out their record collections utilizing this “learn by ear” method and, let me tell you, the gains made were extraordinary. This is a great example of how technology makes our lives easier, but many times we lose something valuable in the process.

“How did they do it!” you ask. Simple: Trial and Error. Repetition. Practice. Practice. Practice. Does this mean we should all throw our computers out the window and stop using the “easy” methods? Hell no. We use both.

Play a New Exotic Scale

There are so many crazy scales out there. How about the Pentatonic Hirajoshi scale? Super Locrian anyone? Oh man, I love the sound of this Geez Scale (sounds made up, right?).

Just like learning new chords, you never know what kinds of cool sounds you can pull out of the 12 notes of music, until you try them. If you experimented with a new scale every two weeks, you would learn 26 a year. And if you really want to take things to the next level, learn how to stack the notes of any scale into the Roman numeral chord structures. Now you are cooking with gas!!!

Play New Chord Inversions

Don’t sleep on simple triad chords inversions. Just a simple C major chord can be played a hundred different ways and the majority of those shapes are moveable into other keys. I once learned a really cool way to find new chord inversions and it is also a great learning exercise. There is also no greater feeling than learning something new all on your own, without the aid of a chord book or being shown by someone else. You really feel like you own those inversions.

Its really amazing how simply rearranging the same notes can bring out an entirely new vibe to a common chord. Also, a healthy knowledge of chord inversions is the quickest way to start adding funky bass lines and interesting chromatic bass runs to your rhythm playing.

Sight-Read a New Chord Chart

I think every serious guitar player, even serious bedroom players, should own a Jazz Real Book. It is a great way to have hundreds of chord charts at your fingertips. And unless you are a serious jazz person, you will likely have no clue about 75% of those tunes. I think Real Books go for about 20 bucks, the price of a cheap guitar lesson. But there are many editions so make sure you get the one labelled with a 1 or I. The later editions get a bit more… uh…. abstract.

With a Real Book, I just flip it open to a random page and try to play through the chord chart in that moment as best as I can. And if you don’t know the extensions you can simplify the chords: D9(#11) can just be a D7 for example. And if jazz chords are still way above your skill level, you can simply google any new song and try your best to play through it in that moment.

Bonus tip: Play through your mistakes. Pretend you are on stage and “starting over” is not an option. Learning to cover your mistakes and recover (all while keeping the time) is a crucial skill to have!

Sight-Read Sheet Music

This is another reason for buying a Real Book and I swear I am not being paid by Big Jazz (yet). But seriously, I think that learning to play the melodies of jazz tunes is a really great way to learn reading music. Many of the easier standards have melodies that are quite simple and a great way to start.

Learning to read sheet music is obviously not easy, but it starts like anything else, with a guitar teacher or with a good online tutorial. As a matter of facts, the basics are quite simple to learn. The harder part is “putting it into practice” and you will naturally be slow at first. But we all learn to crawl before we learn to run. I personally used to be a lot better at sight reading and kind of let me skills get rusty. But even having a very basic understanding of how to sight read music is something that will aid you in your journey and you will be happy you put in that effort.

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-Sean

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