guitar practice

As some people might know, I’m a bit of a guitarist. I’d not practiced in a very long time, though, so it was painful to recently pick up the guitar and hear how my playing had degraded.

In the last few weeks, though, I’ve practiced at least a half hour every day and can hear myself improving – and can also measure it.

One reason I found it so easy to stop using the guitar over the last few years is that, whenever I picked it up, I would not know what to play. I would find myself playing the same stuff over and over. Satriani’s Tears In The Rain, Albeniz Isaac’s Leyenda, and Francisco Tarrega’s Recuardos De La Alhambra being some favourites.

Much as I like those tunes, I’m really a speed guitarist at heart. I like to work at tunes such as Steve Vai’s Eugene’s Trick Bag (good tab, by the way!), Cacophony’s Speed Metal Symphony and Yngwie Malmsteen’s Black Star.

Those songs (search for the MIDI files) are incredibly difficult to play. You need to be a very dedicated practicer.

Fortunately, I’ve found a practice method that seems to work for me.

Instead of aimlessly plucking away with no particular goal in mind, or launching into the deep end of a fast lick, I break down tunes I want to learn into very short segments – usually only one or two bars in length. Then, write them into a MIDI sequencer (I use Rosegarden, but you could use Cakewalk or Cubase if you’re not using Linux), and start practicing.

Now, here is the important part. No matter how well you think you know something, always start practicing it very slowly. I write my practice segments in semi-quavers, with a 90 bpm, which is fairly simple to play, even with the trickiest tunes. Once you’ve written the segment, copy it and paste it about 15-20 times, until it’s a minute or two in length. Make sure to quantise the notes afterwards so the notation isn’t all screwed up!

Once you have a list of practice segments, write them into a spreadsheet. For example, here are five I am working on at the moment:

  • A Major scale
  • String-skipping exercise (Total Guitar magazine 130, page 10)
  • A Minor arpeggio
  • E7 Arpeggio
  • A Harmonic Minor arpeggio

Once you have the list, it is time to go through them one by one.

Look at the first riff. Play the riff once. Is it comfortable? Could you use a different fingering easier? The E7 Arpeggio mentioned above, for instance, is the second arpeggio in Steve Vai’s “Eugene’s Trick Bag”. There are a few different ways of playing that. I found a comfortable one after trying out a few variations, and that has helped me immensely.

Hit “play” on your sequencer. Let the first copy of the practice riff play through without you copying it. This will set it into your mind. Now, play along with the rest, being very careful to pick the notes cleanly, and fret the notes so they ring clearly.

If you think you played it very easily and clearly, then select all the bars, and increase the tempo by one beat. For instance, increase it from 90 to 91. Then, play it once again.

If you made any mistakes or think it was a bit muffled, then leave the speed as it is, but play it through once more, trying to keep it clear.

If you found it bloody impossible to play, then reduce it by one beat (90 to 89, for example), and try to play it again. Don’t worry about it – it will get to a speed that you can play eventually.

Once you’ve finished with the first riff, carry on to the second, then the third, etc. With the five exercises above, for example, I’m usually finished a run through them after about twenty minutes.

Make sure to note the bpm that you end up with for each riff. Place these numbers in a column of your spreadsheet next to the exercise’s name. You can use these numbers to track how well you are progressing day by day.

Don’t over-practice. It should be sufficient to go through the above exercise’s once per day. Speed will come gradually, and it will be very comfortable and effortless when it does.

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