Are You Effectively Building Technique When Learning Guitar Songs?

Let's face it…the reason why most people pick up the electric guitar initially is to learn songs. I know that's what I did. When I first started playing guitar my goal was to play the songs of my favorite band (which at the time was Metallica). And I had a lot of fun doing it! :-)

As well as doing it for the fun aspect, learning guitar songs can be tremendous for building your guitar technique. Each song you learn can provide valuable technical training that elevates your overall guitar playing. (If you learn the song in a way that builds technique).


What Type Of Practicing Builds Technique?

I define building technique as any type of practicing that causes you to elevate your technical ability. [SIDEPOINT: Master guitar teacher Jamie Andreas calls this type of growth "vertical growth". If you're unfamiliar with this term, I recommend reading this article on Vertical and Horizontal growth].

For most people (including myself), I've found that the following things will build tremendous amount of technique when learning guitar songs…

Doing many perfect repetitions of a small section of a song done with very economical technique, in a very relaxed way, over a wide range of tempos.

In order to do this you need to be able to…

  • Have a high degree of awareness as to what both hands need to be doing as you play the section.
  • Relate what you are playing to the beat. This means understanding where each note of the section lies relative to the beat. This will allow you to play the section to a metronome. And this allows you to practice the section at a wide variety of tempos.
  • Have the patience to learn a small chunk of the song at a time.


What Many Guitarists Do

Many guitar players think that learning challenging songs is a great way to build technique. I mean…if you learn a hard song, it should make you technically better right? Unfortunately it's not that simple, because HOW you practice will determine your technical growth. And often guitarists learn songs in a way that just won't build technique in an effective way. In fact, they often learn songs in a way that guarantees their lack of technical progress!

Here's an example of what many guitar players do when learning guitar songs…

Step One:

They get some guitar TAB of the song they want to learn.

Step Two:

They get some of the notes under their fingers and then try to play along with the CD.

Step Three:

They repeat Step Two (making lots of mistakes along the way) until they can play along with the song. Or until they give up when they reach a hard part of the song! :-)


Mission Accomplished Right?

The approach above has some serious flaws in terms of building guitar technique…

  • You are relying only on your CURRENT technical level. If you try to learn a song (using this approach) that is way harder than your current level, you will most likely not be able to play it. Or you might be able to play it with a very tense technique. Either way, no positive technical growth has happened.
  • You are only really practicing the song at one tempo. (The tempo of the song on the CD). And this means you won't be developing your rhythmic ability much. (And rhythmic ability is a HUGE part of developing your guitar technique).
  • You are probably not consciously aware of what your hands are doing when you practice the song. This makes it hard to analyze your technique and make improvements to it. (It's virtually impossible to make this sort of analysis when playing along in real-time to the CD).


Some Symptoms That Your Current Approach To Learning Guitar Songs Is Not Building Technique

Here are a few tell-tale signs that the way you are learning songs is not building technique in an effective way…

  • You can't play sections of the song in isolation.
  • You can't play the song at a speed slower than the CD.
  • You can't play the song along to a metronome only.
  • You can't tap your foot as you play the song.
  • You are not consciously aware of what both hands are doing as you practice the song.
  • You know bits and pieces of a lot of songs, but struggle with learning whole songs.


An Exercise

If you feel that the approach you've been using to learn songs hasn't been good for technique development…don't beat yourself up. You're in the same boat with a LOT of guitarists out there. :-)

Here's something that you might want to do. (I recommend finding a good guitar tutor to help you do this)…

  1. Choose a small section of a song that you are currently learning.
  2. Work out what fingerings you will use to play the section. Write these underneath the TAB.
  3. Work out exactly how you will pick each note/chord of that section. Write the picking motions you will use above the TAB.
  4. Learn the section of the song without a metronome at a VERY slow speed. Be sure that you are using the correct fingerings and picking motions.
  5. Once mastered, practice that section to a metronome at a very slow speed. (I often like to start as low as 40 bpm!). If in doubt, ask your teacher for advice on how to practice the section along to the metronome.
  6. Slowly build the section of the song up to performance speed (or faster!) over a period of time. I like to do this in a VERY gradual way. (That way I get to practice the section at as many tempos as possible).

If you've never done this before, it will probably seem like it will take you 10,000 years to learn the song. But remember…our primary goal is to use the song to build our technical ability. Being able to play the song is a secondary benefit. :-)

That's all for now. See you next time!

Return To: Guitar Technique
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