No doubt about it, playing rock guitar is the epitome of cool. There’s something about the screech and squeal of a Fender “Stratocaster” through an old tube amp or the low, throaty growl of a Gibson “Les Paul” through a Marshall stack that captures the imagination and thrills the soul.
But there are times when learning to play the guitar can be frustrating too. That’s why I put together five practice tips to help you master the guitar.
1. Frequency: Practice everyday. Seriously, no excuses accepted! It’s far better to practice a little bit everyday than cramming all your practice time into one or two long session a week. So even when you’re dead tired or bogged down with homework, pick up your guitar and play. Five to ten minutes a day is an excellent starting point. Before you know it, you’ll be eagerly anticipating those small musical respites during the busiest of days. And you’ll be a much better guitarist to boot!
2. Slow It Down: Most kids are enamored by speed. It’s only natural. They see videos of Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, or Stevie Ray Vaughan shredding the fretboard, and they subsequently connect speed with mastery. I understand. I was the same way when I started learning the guitar, but I’m here tell you those players spent thousands of hours mastering the basics (like rhythm, pitch, expression, and a musical vocabulary) before they learned to play fast. I’m also here to tell you that few things sound worse than a half learned riff played slipshod at breakneck speeds.
So whatever your working on, slow it down!
When you’re learning a new riff or a tricky lick, start at 60 bpm. Clap out the rhythms. Then play it on the guitar. Once you can play it cleanly and effortlessly at 60 bpm, increase the tempo by two beats. Rinse and repeat until you can play it at full speed. By following this process, you’ll internalize the inner workings of music like rhythm, tension, and release.
Do this long enough and someday some kid might watch you on TV and mistake your speed for mastery.
3. Chunk It: Whenever you encounter a new piece of music, break it down into bite-sized chunks. For example, let’s say you’re learning a 12-bar blues in the key of G. Start with the hardest part first. This is usually the turnaround found in the last measure. Start their and don’t skimp over the hard stuff. If the entire measure is still too difficult, split it in half and focus on the first two beats. Turn on the metronome and play along at a comfortable tempo until you can play it five times in a row without a mistake.
Once you’ve tackled the turnaround, the rest of the tune will be a breeze.
4. Always Practice With a Metronome or a Backing Track: Practicing for 15-minutes with a metronome or a backing track is worth more than an hour of practice without. Live by this rule, swear by it, and you’ll separate yourself from 95% of the other kids trying to learn to play guitar.
The reason is simple. Music is all about rhythm. Without rhythm, it’s just noise. And nothing helps you develop a better sense of rhythm than playing with a metronome or a backing track. Personally, I prefer to play with a backing track, but I always carry a metronome on me.
For backing tracks, I recommend I Real Pro for Mac and OSX devices. It costs around $25, but this backing track generator is worth every penny. If you don’t have a Mac or OSX device, youtube offers a wide selection of free backing tracks.
5. Listen, Listen, Listen: Spend some of your practice time each day listening to the masters of the guitar. Check out your favorite guitarist. Engulf yourself in his or her music. Then, find out who influenced them. Let’s take blues master Stevie Ray Vaughan as an example. Vaughan was a brilliant Texas blues rock guitarist. The guy was sheer force of nature on the guitar. Featuring virtuosic tremolo picking, blazing speeds, and soulful playing, Vaughan was the most influential guitarist from the 1980s.
But even he had his influences.
Vaughan developed his signature style by immersing himself in the sounds and stylings of Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, and Albert King.
Spending a little time each day listening to your favorite players–and their heroes–will cultivate your ear and help you develop your own signature sound.