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What is the point of practising guitar?

By Sam Russell

Have you ever wondered what it is you are trying to achieve when practising guitar? Yes, you want to play your favourite songs, or maybe play a solo faster, but what is it you are specifically trying to achieve when practising?

I was thinking about this for my students recently, and came up with the following definition:

Practising is the method by which we take a conscious thought process and turn it into a subconscious process

Ok, that sounds cool, but what does it really mean? First we will talk about some analogies so that you can understand the concept of practising, then we will look at how you can apply those concepts to your guitar playing, so that you can learn to play guitar a lot more effectively.

The difference between someone who is a master of something, and an amateur at something, is that the master consciously thinks of high level concepts, and the amateur consciously thinks about very low level concepts. The master musician thinks about how to recreate a specific human emotion in music. The amateur musician thinks about how to hold down an E minor chord so that it doesn’t buzz. The master martial artist thinks about how to “be like water” when facing an opponent, the amateur martial artist thinks about how to rotate the ball of his foot to transfer power via his hips into a punch.

There are several things in life that you have already mastered to a very high degree. For example, everyone reading this is a virtuoso at tying their shoe laces. You are a master at brushing your teeth. You are a world leader at drinking coffee.

Now yes, I will admit, becoming a great guitar player is a lot more complex than tying your shoe laces, but I will address this in a minute.

Why are able to do all these things… without having to consciously think about them?

When you first learned to tie your shoe laces, you practiced consciously, deliberately and with a specific goal. You probably wanted to give up at several points… but you never did. You kept trying until you got it right.

After you were able to do it once… you did it again, and again, and again.

You never stopped practising. Everyday, you re-enforce shoe lace tying fundamentals. At least twice a day!

… If you put that much repeated dedication into your guitar playing (or anything else in your life you want to improve at for that matter), do you think you would improve?
You would!

So how does this apply to practising guitar?

First, we need something specific to practice. Before starting to practice, you should choose something specific that you want to work on and improve. For example, rather than sitting down and playing a bunch of chords, maybe you decide: “For the first 5 minutes, I want to get this E minor chord ringing out more clearly, so I am going to work out what is making the notes sound buzzy and where that muted thonk noise is coming from.”

If, when you go to practice, you pick up your guitar and just do “stuff”, you have lost before you even started.

Second, our practice needs to be conscious and deliberate. This is where a lot of people fall down. They try something, they cannot do it, think it is impossible, or not for them, or whatever and either put up with it sounding rubbish or give up.

Laws of reality: Cause and effect!

Once we have chosen the specific area of our playing that we are going to work on, we then have to work on it. This means keeping our brain fully engaged and focussing on the task. If we are improving the chord that we are playing, that means focussing on where our fingers our place. Focussing on the angle our fingers make to the strings. Looking at our hand position on the back of the neck.

Think of every variable you can that could affect the item that you are working on, and then put just 2-3 minutes of intense focus on that singular variable. Do that daily for two weeks and watch how your playing starts to improve.

This conscious and deliberate practice starts to write a “program” in our brains. The more conscious and deliberate practice we do, the better our brain gets at running this program. This process is how we start to master things. Once you master that item, and by breaking it down into small highly focussed areas, you will master it; you can then move to the next level up and use the exact same process to master that.

Once you get the hang of this process… your progress is unlimited.

About the author: Sam is an instructor at the West London School of Guitar . If you want someone to help you with the process of learning to play guitar, then get in contact today for a free introductory guitar lesson.