Dear Guitarists: Practice Every Day Matters
I have a real world jamming story that I’m sure you guitarists can all relate to.
I’ve been traveling quite a bit. I spent a week away from my lodging in Korea, seeing extended family and in-laws as well (that’s always “fun”).
I hadn’t played guitar for more than 2 weeks. I miss playing. After returning to my temporary home, one friend asked me and my partner if we wanted to jam. I said yes.
We jammed and man, I sucked.
Chops were off, bends out of tune, fingers were slower than usual. And the video recording of my play was abysmal!
So let me share some, I believe, important things about guitar practice, and why it matters.
When you don’t play, you lose some skill
To some degree, playing the guitar again is like driving after not having done so in a long time. You can do it, but you might need to brush up on some finer skills.
Unless you’re Steve Vai or someone prestigious as this, you’re probably going to be like me.
You’ll be able to change chords after a few weeks without your axe, and pick strings, but try and bend, phrase, or play in fast, clean sequences, and you may be a bit shaky.
I will call this phenomenon “slippage” going forward.
In a studio environment, it may be a little hard to keep up with the others who’ve been practicing consistently.
So here’s what I’d recommend as a remedy in this case.
What do I do?
See, when we learn something new, our entire brains are fully engaged. But as we do that thing more and more, the execution of that skill gets compartmentalized to a tiny portion of our brain.
In other words, we produce the same result with less energy spent.
As a result, we execute more easily. Like a habit.
However, if we don’t play for some time, that habit-like execution becomes a little tougher, resulting in slippage. The brain needs the stimulation to maintain high performance output. But the beauty is: it may not need that much (though I suppose it depends who you are).
Here are some things to help you keep your skills sharp to avoid slippage.
Do guitar exercises for 5–10 minutes a day
Guitar-specific exercises are good at polishing your skills, but only if done regularly.
Repetition is incredibly important here. If you can play something 20 times straight the exact same way, you’re probably good. But try it a little bit every day to maintain the skill required to execute.
I remember being obsessed with maximizing my time spent playing the guitar. I’d sit for 3 hours or more, trying to iron out my screw-ups: start slow, work the sequence at faster tempo, work it into a song or arrangement, rinse and repeat.
But the truth is this: our brains — and more importantly, hands — only need to build enough familiarity with the skill so it becomes a natural habit.
For many, that’s 5–10 minutes a day on specific skills you are either trying to develop or maintain.
Once it gets comfortable, keep it that way.
If you are a lead player, more than one exercise may be needed. 30 seconds of bending, 1 minute of legato work and tapping, 1 minute of scale runs, and a few more minutes of other things you do as a lead player.
Believe in the metronome
Practice with a consistent tempo and/or beat is overlooked. I downloaded 3 different metronomes on my phone, and use them every time I practice.
The metronome reveals my weaknesses when I play. The problem is I hadn’t played in 2 weeks.
But as soon as I had a drummer setting the tempo for me, I quickly understood what my hands had to do. It was sloppy, but I was able to keep up.
A metronome keeps you honest in your play. Playing along to a song or backing track is similar. If all else sucks, at bare minimum, keep your rhythm on track!
If you can help it, warm up before a jam session
And don’t go crazy. Just make sure your fingers and hands (and shoulders) aren’t too tight, and you feel comfortable in that setting, playing the things you need to play.
My error was I jumped right into a song without any warm up, without even tuning my guitar, and not having studied the songs we had to play.
And we had a little improv session. That was a disaster on my end. My bends were awful and fretting hand was a 16th beat behind in hitting all lead breaks. My slippage was all over the studio after our session. The staff had to clean it up afterwards. This is a joke, of course.
Bottom line is make sure you’re ready before jamming.
Need to jam anyway? Do what you can to shake off nervousness
I still get nervous when I jam with new people.
If that’s the case, I do whatever is necessary to shake off the awkwardness and nervousness. Here’s what I do that works:
- buffer their expectations: tell them straight up if you haven’t played in a while, or have only been playing for a short time. Once they know, they’ll be more forgiving. Most musicians I meet are very understanding, and simply appreciate the fact that they get to play.
- network a little: get to know the people. Don’t pry too hard into anyone’s personal life, but talk music, hobbies, whatever to help you get familiar with the people you play with.
- warm up together: ask to do a warm up with the players. You get a feel for what the players are like, and you get to mess around a little to shake off a little rust. You can also observe the other players and adapt to their styles.
- ask for 3–4 minutes of something you want to do: sometimes, you can suggest something you wanna do to ease jam session nerves. Suggest a song everyone knows, or something easy to play (like a random blues A minor jam). It’ll give you the confidence you need to perform.
The bottom line: practice regularly!
The section above, if you haven’t played much, is a band-aid solution. As much as possible, keep your guitar skills sharp, even if you have to play air guitar, visualize a fret board, or whatever.
Separate your practice into chunks of smaller categories like picking, fretting, chording, or phrasing. Work daily on the skills you need to keep sharp.
For example, my chording and picking are more or less ingrained in my hands. But I need to keep my fretting hand and phrasing technique sharp. Those tend to “leak” more than anything else.
Repetition in this case is really your best friend.
That’s it for today. I need to scale back the frequency of these articles going forward. I’ll be writing about guitarists that I think can get your creative juices flowing in my next article.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in the next blog!