Guitar practice

By mic on 2/15/2010

A lot of my recent posts have been technical in nature: MIDI specifications, multitap delay designs, etc. It is time to write some more interesting posts starting with some info on my practicing of the guitar. I am, for the most part, a "sloppy" guitar player. Even though I took some guitar classes some fifteen years ago, I always played for fun and rarely actually practiced my guitar technique. About twenty years of playing now and I can pull together some relatively complex solos by famous guitarists and even compose and improvise, but I can rarely do so cleanly. I have a ton of speed in the blues licks I learned a long time ago and played in jam sessions forever. I lack good speed in blues licks that employ slightly different techniques (arpeggios, string skipping, etc.) than what I am used to. I should have been good at some of that. I fingerpick most of the time, so I should not have much of a problem with arpeggios. Apparently though, I lack variety in my technique. I should have put more effort in the past in practicing a larger variety of licks and patterns, including arpeggios. Not to mention that even the licks I know well are not always clean.

About a week ago I decided it is time for more formal practice. I looked around on the net and downloaded a copy of the "Guitar Practicing Secrets Ebook" (check out Tom Hess Music Corporation (www.tomhess.net). I cannot say if this book is better or worse than other books out there as I have not looked around that much. It serves my purposes well though.

I skipped through most of the introduction. I have played enough to be able to understand where my problems are. I also skipped part on "creative arpeggio application" as this is not what I was looking for right now. I am sure that I will be coming back to that part. It looks useful, but probably belongs later on in the book. I read through most of the following pages. I find the order of articles a bit strange but I like most of what is written there. I went straight to "right and left hand synchronization". The first problem that I wanted to tackle was my articulation of simple pieces and hence I went for the simpler exercises directed at building the most basic of techniques.

Now I spend about an hour each day going through each of the exercises. I set up my metronome at about 60 beats per minute (BPMs) and play one of the exercises for a minute or two. I move to 70 BPMs and repeat. I am aware of each individual note, hand positions, pick accents. I increase the BPM to 80, 90, 100, and 110. If I am playing eighth note triplets, 110 BPMs is where I lose awareness of each separate note, but I am still aware of "phrases" such as the triplets themselves. At that point I begin to rely on muscle memory rather than pay attention to the technique itself, but since I have played the particular pattern the right way for some time, my technique is still good and the notes are still clean. At about 130-140 BPM I begin to lose the phrases and my muscle memory fails me.

How fast I can play obviously depends on many things and not just on the beats per minute. It depends on the specific pattern, how tired my hands are, how tired my brain is, etc. One way or another, the end result has been a significant improvement of my technique and articulation. There are only four exercises in this two page section of the book, but over the years I have compiled a significant list of licks and exercises. I have started applying the same idea to more complex licks – play clean at slow speeds with a metronome, acquire muscle memory with good technique and articulation, move up in speed, try speeds at the edge of awareness and muscle memory. I have even started applying the same idea to full guitar solos. At this point I choose only structured guitar solos with relatively simple rhythmic patterns. The solo from Smoke on the Water for example is short and well structured (I am picking on songs that are well-known). Steve Ray Vaughan’s performance of Little Wing is longer, more difficult to remember, and has dynamic nuances that I do not want to pay attention to yet. This solo carries the whole song after all. Thus, for now I am playing the Smoke on the Water and ignoring Little Wing.

Playing simple exercises is tedious, but necessary. Playing simple licks is also tedious. It is just a bit more fun. Different licks employ different techniques and allow for further improvements to my playing. Playing well structured solos could be a lot of fun since I can actually download Guitar Pro tabs, mute the solos and play with accompaniment. At some point I would want to take this practice thing even further: for me that would be combining the licks I know or would learn in some fashion that formally targets "learning". I looked down in the book and I liked the piece by Randy Johnson on "Going Deeper than Scales and Modes…". This article shows a "partial" list of techniques (it looks pretty “exhaustive” to me). This is not unlike creating my own list of "licks" that employ all these various techniques. I have had a list of licks and techniques in my head forever, but never thought of formally putting it in one place and trying various combinations. If I do so I will likely improve not only my articulation, but also my improvisation. Having a structure to my learning will obviously help.

authors: mic

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