Everyone's schedule is different. We all have different demands, work days, school obligations, the list goes on. Depending on what stage of life you're in, it might be quite tricky to find meaningful, regular practice time with goals being the major focus. Even if you have hour upon hour per day, it is easy for an entire day to turn in to a noodle-fest.A number of months ago, I was really struggling in my practicing. It seemed like every time I picked up my guitar, it was to teach, play a gig or record something for an album project and I started to feel like I was just recycling the same stuff over and over again. I knew most people would never be able to tell, but I was very unsatisfied with my playing and annoyed that I didn't feel like I had any real time to learn and implement new ideas and techniques. I've always been the kind of player that required a lot of time to 'woodshed' an idea and really commit it to my playing. I used to be able to practice 6-8 hours per day on some days, and while I could have been much more efficient with my time, at least the time was there!
I decided to change my thinking a little bit. We've all seen those goofy ads in the magazine rack at the grocery store: "6 weeks to better abs" or "lose that gut in 1 month," etc... That got me thinking! Why couldn't the same thing be done with guitar playing? There are a ton of exercise plans out there that offer the hope of results when the program is followed with precision and dedication. I'm not sure how well most of these diet/exercise plans work, but the concept seemed like a good one. Set a mid-term reasonable goal with a deadline, practice a set amount of time per day, track my progress, and then, when I have reached the deadline, evaluate where I want to go next. So, I started to write down little slogans or ads about my guitar playing that I wanted to see improved upon. For example, instead of "6 weeks to better abs" it became "6 weeks to cleaner sweep picking," "1 month chord boot camp" or "8 weeks to greater endurance with legato playing."
After I made my list, I decided that I was going to spend 30 solid minutes each day, 5 days per week doing a "guitar workout" that directly propelled me to a 6-week goal. I've done a number of these plans and just finished a workout plan called "6 weeks to cleaner sweep picking." I designed my own exercises, (using a variety of resources of course) crafted a number of different application scenarios, and stayed true to my 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week for 6 weeks and I can truly say that I am very excited about this method of practicing. My next program will be the "1 month chord boot camp" though I am not quite sure how it will look just yet!
This article is not meant to design any one program for you, but rather to show you how to design your own programs, set your own goals, and evaluate your progress. I can speak from experience that this way of disciplined, goal-oriented practicing is more efficient and beneficial than any other way I have ever gone about practicing so far. The great part about this way of thinking and planning is that it works at any level of guitar playing. Get ready to think critically and honestly about your own playing and let's get some work done!The Benefits of Designing Your Own Programs
You know your own playing. You know what you need to work on, you know what your strengths are, and you probably have a pretty good idea of where you want to go long term. It can be quite daunting to look at a long-term goal while seeing where you are in the present. Sometimes it leads to discouragement, but it almost always leads to long, pointless practicing with no mini (mid-term) goals or milestones in mind. Now imagine if you could (or maybe you have seen something like this already) go down to a gas station or find something online that had a bunch of "X weeks to better X" plans for you to work through as a guitarist. These might work, but the people that designed these plans have no idea where you are at in your playing. Only YOU really know. When you design your own plans, you are not just inventing something out of thin air. You are pooling all of the resources you have available to you as a practicing guitarist, and organizing them in a way that helps you stay on task for a very specific time frame. Once you have come up with your slogan or goal statement, go searching for resources that will help you with your plan. We'll talk more about this in a little bit.Coming to Terms With Your Playing
Even though we know where we are at with our own playing, there is a certain amount of delusion that we all carry with us as guitarists. A few examples of these delusions are as follows: Practicing means going in to your music room and playing as fast as you can for 15 minutes, strumming a few familiar chord progressions, then walking away feeling pretty good about yourself. Or you decide to spend all you have got on the first 30 seconds of that 2-minute guitar solo , or you start giving away all your licks with absolutely NO musical context during a sound check! Believe me! I only know about these states of total delusion because I've been there! If these programs are going work, we have to slow way down and really examine the fine details of our playing. We have to strip everything back. There is no room for medicating ourselves by over-indulging in the things we already know how to do.
Regardless of what your plan(s) end up being here are a few questions to ask yourself regularly when examining your own playing:
Am I playing in time? Whether strumming, finger picking or shredding it is all too easy to get over confident with your technique, speed and efficiency if you're not checking yourself against a metronome or other steady players.
Am I playing in the right key? Always be checking the note choices you are using when you’re playing with people. Blowing through licks based on muscle memory (what you already know well) sometime results in really wrong sounding “good” licks. This may seem obvious, but just make your playing always makes sense musically -- even with technique building drills. If you get to make your own exercises, why not design them to be musical?
Is my playing 'clean'? Start keeping track of when you play dead notes, or have unwanted string buzz. This happens to every player. Maybe you need to woodshed a specific line for awhile to commit it to your playing but don't be afraid to rework or simplify something so that it comes across cleaner, and at the same time, set the more challenging task aside for a future goal.
Do I regularly listen back to my own playing? All of these questions can be answered with greater accuracy when you don't have to play and listen at the same time. Since we all listen to other people's playing, recording yourself and listening back to your own playing gives it a certain context that is very important for consistent improvement. If you own a laptop, odds are you already have the ability to record yourself well enough to help you examine your playing in greater detail.Coming up With the Slogan for Your Program
It may seem somewhat corny, but coming up with a good slogan for your plan does a few things for you. First, it states what you hope to accomplish. Second, it gives you a set period of time before you stop and evaluate. Finally, it gives you something to repeat to yourself and keep you motivated! Remember, you only have 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week for the length of your program so you must set goals that are attainable. You are certainly allowed to do additional practicing and playing outside the current program you are working on, but I strongly encourage you do limit each program to the time constraints I have suggested. 30 good, highly-focused, well-planned minutes per day with two 'days off' per week is better than 4 hours per day of semi-burnt out meandering. Once you have put in your intense 30 minutes, then by all means, learn that song, jam with your friends, hang out on JamChat, but save the work that is specific to your plan for the time you have set aside for it, and then take a break! I have compiled two lists of potential slogans. The first list is made up of plans that could work very well under this program. The other list's content is probably not attainable for this type of short/mid term practice format. Here are the lists:
List 1 - Workable Slogans (as long as they are unpacked and mapped out)- Understand and apply the CAGED system in 4 weeks.List 2 - Probably Nots
- 6 week alternate picking workout plan - increase efficiency and speed.
- Clean up two-handed tapping in 2 weeks - muting and improved technique.
- 3 week 7th chord crash course - learn and apply the basic 7th chord shapes.
- 2 week strum pattern study - steady strumming and increased variety.- Write 3 songs in 5 weeks.
- Master finger picking in 8 Weeks.
- Finish my album in 3 months.
- Learn and apply the style of #insert genius guitarist# in 6 weeks.
Each of the slogans in list 1 are pretty narrow focused yet are somewhat general in their language. They need to be unpacked more and some planning needs to be done so that the practicing is efficient and specific things are learned and applied. That said, all of list 1 represents plans that are not too daunting, and (as I will guide you through shortly) easily poised for success.
List 2 contains many things that would be too hard to do intensely for 30-minute episodes. You also want to be careful of words like "master" because it is difficult to measure whether or not you have mastered something. It is easy to evaluate whether you have learned or improved on a concept or technique. You also want to be careful not to make things to general or huge! Learning the style of someone's playing is not possible to do in a few short weeks. You might be able to pick up on and apply certain aspects of their playing, and you should always be doing practicing and learning of this nature, but it is not for THIS type of practicing. We're looking for things that you can do that focus on improvement over short and medium lengths of time and are easily measured.Gathering Resources and Creating the Details
Once you have settled on a slogan (plan) and mid-term time frame, it is time to start compiling and organizing all that you need to make your program a success. All materials, resources, and details should be organized, easily accessible, and planned out BEFORE you even start your program. The types of materials will vary greatly depending on the plan.
For my "6 weeks to cleaner sweep picking" program I created 4 news drills out of the 5th and 6th string root major and minor arpeggio shapes. I went in to Guitar Pro and actually tabbed them out for my own reference so that I could have them easily accessible during my practicing. Once I learned and memorized each drill I set a slow starting practice tempo to begin the program. Then I set a six-week goal tempo that I hoped to be at by the end of the program.
I also printed out Nick Kellie's article: "Unusual Arpeggios Pt. 1," learned all the shapes and recorded chords with a click track to play over using the shapes Nick detailed in his article. Lastly, I created 3 new drills using 3 string triad arpeggios and designated starting and ending tempo for those as well. For further application (planned towards the end of my 6 weeks) I chose the backing track called "The Play Anything Track" available under my backing tracks section on JamPlay. This track allowed me to practice what I'd learned and improved upon in a musical context without having to focus too much on complex chord changes. I could zero in on improving my technique.
At this point, I felt like I had enough to keep me busy for 30 minutes/day for 5 days a week. Also, to really drive home the point, all of this work was completed prior to starting the program. I had learned all of the drills and shapes, organized all the materials, recorded my practice chords/primitive music beds, chosen my starting and hopeful ending tempos. With this type of prep work, my 30 minutes per day could be spent playing and not sifting through web pages and magazines.
It is really important when gathering and creating the materials for these programs that there is a blend between pre-created and original resources. They both offer something unique in the learning process. The stuff you create based on knowledge you already know or are in the process of learning will help you better apply what you know creatively. For example, even if you have to look up and learn the 5th string root 7th chord shapes using the Chord Library on JamPlay, you can create chord progressions and chord melody drills using your ear based on the materials that you found online. Once you have created them, you can use the 30-minute workout time to commit them to your playing.Planning the Calendar and Keeping a Journal
Now that the resources have been compiled, organized and learned, you can start planning out your time. If you've chosen 6 weeks, you can create an outline of what you plan to do each week. You can also write down any little goals or notes to yourself to think about when practicing. Here's what mine looked like for the sweep picking plan:
Week 1 : 5th and 6th string root arpeggio exercises at starting tempo. Try to increase 3-5 bpm per session. Minimize dead notes at slower tempos. Use less gain so I don't cover up my mistakes! Write down ending tempo.
Week 2 : Nick Kellie's Unusual Arpeggios played over my pre-recorded chords so I can hear how they work over the chords. Rather than increasing bpm, I will work with different note divisions and phrasing ideas within the constraints of the positions outlined in the article. < /p>
Week 3 : Triad Arpeggios. Practice these drills with starting tempos increasing 3-5 bpm per session as well as experiment with phrasing over a click track.
Week 4 : Try my hand applying the work from weeks 1, 2 and 3 with the "Play Anything Track." I have 30 minutes per day for 5 days straight to play over the same backing track using nothing but the arpeggios I have been working on (This almost drove me crazy because I kept wanting to just revert to 'jamming' mode).
Week 5 : Focus back on week 1's tasks but focus on pushing closer to my goal tempo while still being clean and precise. Try to push the click up past where I was on week 1, but be open to slowing things down if I get sloppy. Stop the click track and work on problem areas on technique if needed.
Week 6 : 10 minutes of playing through week's 1, 2, and 3 exercises as close to my goal tempos as possible. Record each 30-minute practice and listen back so I can evaluate my technique, tone, musical taste etc.
Each day, at the beginning of the 30-minute session, I would spend a few minutes reviewing the previous week's materials (except for week 1) so that I could keep things fresh and keep my muscles and brain focused on the same stuff.
My journal consisted of basically what you see above with outlines of what each week would look like with some reminders of what to watch out for. I also wrote down all my ending tempos for each week, and kept the recordings from the last week.
Upon listening back to parts of those recordings, I clearly felt like I had "cleaned up my sweep picking in 6 weeks." Each one of these that I plan out and execute are very hard work, and it is tougher than you'd think to stay on task for 30 good minutes per day, but it has been well worth it!Executing the Plan
Remember, just like someone training for a sport, that this 30-minute 'workout' plan is just one aspect of your musical development as a guitarist. Don't feel like that you can't work on other things just for the heck of it outside of what you are working on in your plan. Just make sure that you are sticking to your plan during your 30-minute time slots. You are also free to not touch your guitar at all outside your program. This may be necessary to avoid burnout for the first couple programs you come up with.
For all of the plans I have completed so far, I have been able to pretty much stick to my initial calendar. There were a few times where I would sneak a few extra minutes in during a day to try and smooth over a rough spot or to try to make things stick a little better, but for the most part 30 minutes was all it took.
If you get to the point where you feel like the work you have planned is either too daunting or not challenging enough and you're in the middle of a program, complete the work for the day that you are on, and then take an intentional 'break' from the program to gather/prepare additional materials or refine your direction. It's okay to do some correction along the way, but make sure that it's not happening during your 30-minute workout time. You want that time to be reserved for intensely focused playing.Another Example
Let's look at developing a plan that is less focused on improving technique like my "sweep picking" program and look at developing a program that is focused on committing concepts to your playing.
Our slogan for this example will be "3-Week 7th Chord Crash Course." Let's say that the player designing this program has learned a few 7th chords here and there, but hasn't applied them much and isn't to sure of the theory behind how to apply them in a musical context. Because there are a lot of different ways one could take this program over the course of 3 weeks, we should spend some time looking for and pouring through resources to get an idea of what exactly what we're going to practice during the program.
Kris Norris' lesson 36 on diatonic chords in G major not only outlines major, minor and diminished chord shapes, but also goes through 7th chords and inversions with in the key of G major. So with this lesson, we have a guide on how to play a good deal of 7th chord voicings as well as some theory background that will help us apply them. So we'll add this lesson to our prep work and materials. We'll also print out the supplemental content and play through all of it until we have a reasonable grasp on the positions.
Next we'll drive down to our local music store and pick up a Real Book, or (Fake Book) containing loads of classic Jazz standards. Pick out 5 songs that look interesting, not too difficult and in keeping with mainly 7th chords, see if you can find some performances of the songs online and ear mark them for material to work through during your 30 minute 'workouts.'
Finally, create 5 of your own simple chord progressions using what you've learned from looking over the songs, working with Kris' lesson and other miscellaneous knowledge you may have tucked back in your brain.Here's what this 3-week plan might look like:
Week 1 : Play through the supplemental content in Kris' lesson to a click track. Pick starting tempos and shoot for ending tempos increasing the click at a reasonable rate. Do this for the first 15 minutes of each 30-minute segment. Then, for the last 15 minutes, play through a different one of the 5 songs you've selected from the Real Book. Don't worry about playing each song in time, just focus on getting comfortable with the chords and switching positions. If you take 1 of the 5 per day, by the next week, you can work on playing the progressions in time.
Week 2 : In the same order you worked through the songs in week 1, devote 30 minutes (1 song per day) for each song this week. Play slowly to a metronome and keep time. Experiment with different voicings. The nice thing about most of the songs in a Real Book is that they are short. You can focus on a small group of chords in a musical context.
Week 3 : Using your own chord progressions (maybe after pouring in to the Real Book a little, you've discovered some cool chord transitions that you want to apply to your own progressions), play and record 1 each day. Listen back to them and evaluate your technique, your choice of chord voicings and your overall comfort with playing moveable 7th chord shapes.
Both examples shared here illustrate the process of setting goals, time frames, and collecting and pouring in to resources in preparation for concentrated, intense practicing. Hopefully seeing a couple examples here will spark some ideas of what you might like to focus on in your own playing. It has been very helpful for me to identify an area I'd like to work on, do some preparation, and then do short, intense practices that drive home the stuff I'm learning.
A note about finding and creating resources: It's easy to burn a lot of time looking for things to practice. Always keep your slogan in mind when you're surfing or looking for a new book or video. Especially with the Internet, there are so many things out there that your browsing for material for your next program can easily turn in to a couple hours spent watching entertaining YouTube videos on master shredders. Keep YOUR playing and goals in mind. Also, if you have a certain direction that you want to go, but don't know where to start, ask someone for ideas. Your resources don't need to be limited to written drills, information, or videos. Working with a live person in preparation for building a program can be quite valuable and may help you create some more original material to work with as you practice.
Assuming your list of 'slogans' is at least a few points long, give yourself enough time between programs to rest, apply what you've learned in a less intense fashion and adequately prepare for the next program. I've found that back-to-back programs lead to quick burnout and I also seem to feel ill prepared for the 2nd of the two programs if I haven't taken enough break. I have felt like at least 1 full week off gives me enough time to not play for a few days, and also enough time gather and prepare enough material for the next program.Measuring Your Progress
The best way to measure your progress from the time you start your program to the time you finish is to make periodic recordings of your playing during the course of the program. Without using a lot of punch ins/outs, make recordings of your honest efforts while you're in the thick of one of your 30-minute sessions. When you review your recordings as well as review your starting and ending tempos for certain exercises, the areas of improvement should be pretty obvious.
This way of practicing takes some getting used to! Try a few, stick with it, discipline yourself in the process, and have fun and be creative with it!