We all love to sound great. Being good at something gives us a sense of confidence and purpose.
The problem is that you can’t get better by doing what you’re good at.
The first tenet of my philosophy of effective practice is to identify your weaknesses. Here is how you can do that.
- Record yourself on your phone or computer (1-2 minutes)
- Listen to it as if you were listening to someone else – You are much more likely to be honest about weaknesses in someone else’s playing than in your own.
- Examine the most basic elements of your playing. Boil it down to the bare essentials;
- How is your rhythm? How does the basic timing FEEL? Does it feel relaxed and confident? Does it feel anxious and unsteady? Are you overplaying your abilities?
- If you recorded yourself improvising, how do the notes sound? Are you inspired by the note choice, or do you hear yourself repeating patterns that you’ve played a thousand times?
- If you recorded yourself playing a composed song (either yours or one that you’ve learned) how do the notes ring out? Are there any choked notes that you can hear?
- How is the overall tone coming from your fingers?
Pay attention to the minutiae.
Don’t be nice. Brutal honesty is much more constructive. Remember, you are pretending to criticize someone else. This criticism is extremely valuable.
If you are brave, then share the recording with a friend who plays guitar, preferably someone who is better than you. Ask them for criticism, and share with them that you want them to really dig into any flaws they hear.
I want to mention something here; I’ve seen people use online forums like Reddit or Facebook to ask for advice, but I’d keep it closer to home than that. Generally speaking, you can get some good advice on these forums mixed in with lots of bad advice. If you can be more focused in your request for feedback towards one or two trusted advisors who are willing to give you honest feedback, you’ll be in better shape. You’ll also avoid the incessant impulse to refresh the page to see if you have notifications which accompanies social media posts.
Once you’ve collected this data, it’s time to use it to shape what you are going to practice.
Chances are (if you are being honest with yourself) that you found lots of things that you could improve on. Now comes the part where you need to systematically come up with ways of practicing these things.
Work On Timing
For example; let’s say you want to work on your timing (which everyone should be doing anyways). Simplify it. Go slow. Practice with a metronome on – go extremely slow and play one note in quarter notes. Then eighth notes. Then go as fast as you can without getting sloppy. Then go as slow as you can without rushing. Focus on that one note and the way your time fits in with the metronome.
Invert Your Licks
If you are stuck always repeating the same ideas, reverse the way you typically practice scales or arpeggios etc.. Extract the licks you constantly repeat and invert them; learn to play them backwards. This inversion will help you break those habitual patterns and will lead to new ideas.
If you’re having trouble coming up with new ideas, then start transcribing. Transcribing is a huge source of inspiration and something you should be doing anyways in order to be a well-rounded player. It can be specifically useful when you feel stuck because you can externalize your focus on someone else’s playing.
To effectively transcribe, start by selecting an achievable solo. Don’t try and transcribe the craziest solo that you can find – start with something that’s musical and at a skill level that isn’t too far above what you can already play. Once you get into a groove with transcription you can shoot for harder goals.
Get a program that can slow down audio. I suggest Anytune Pro. This is what I use and it has all the functionality you’ll ever need. Full looping and slow down is really all you need, so there are many other options also.
Transcription will simultaneously address many areas of your playing that need work, assuming you’ve chosen a worthy player to emulate. I’ll be dedicating a future article completely to transcription, but it is worth mentioning here since it is so important.
Listening and practicing deliberately in this way will give you a potentially infinite source of things to work on. Think creatively about how you can practice and you’ll never run out of ways to change things up and improve.