Why You Need To Think While Practicing Guitar

It's not complicated improving your guitar playing. In fact it's pretty simple. All you need to do is follow these three steps…

  1. Think of some area of your playing that you'd like to improve.
  2. Understand what changes you need to make improve in that area.
  3. Do the necessary repetition (i.e. practice) until those changes become permanent.

So why do so many guitarists struggle with improving in a consistent and predictable way? And why do so many players hit a certain level but never really get better?

Well, it's not hard to understand why. The first step is very simple (most guitarists can think of plenty of areas they'd like to improve…I know I certainly can!). But the last two steps require intense focus and concentration…and of course, having to think about what you are doing.

Why Are Guitarists Resistant To Thinking?

Jimmy Bruno QuoteA common trend I notice when teaching guitar is that many players don't want to think while practicing. They believe that if they think or over-analyze what they are doing then their playing will suffer.

And guess what? They are absolutely right. If you think too much while playing, your ability to play in a natural and relaxed way will definitely suffer.

But they are missing the whole point. Practicing guitar is not the same activity as playing guitar. And until they understand the difference, they will continue to enjoy slow progress.

An Example - The Guitar Lick That Pisses You Off

Let's imagine that you've been trying to learn a fast guitar lick. You've been practicing everyday for a while, but you still can't play it up to speed. And to be honest…it's frustrating the hell out of you!

This is where thinking and being analytical will really help. Here's a few things that I would do myself if I had the same problem…

Step One: Become Aware Of What Picking-Hand Motions You Are Using

Close your eyes and imagine yourself playing the lick very, very slowly. (Take a few seconds to visualize yourself playing each note). As you play the lick in your Mind's Eye say out aloud what pick motion is being used to play each note. If a note is not picked, then say what technique is being used to articulate that note.

If this was hard for you to do, then you probably haven't been focusing on the picking-hand a lot when you have been practicing. And that's a problem because if you're not aware of what your picking-hand is doing, then how do you know it's not doing something that is preventing you from playing the lick up to speed?

Now that you've visualized playing the lick, the next step would be to actually play the lick slowly while watching your picking-hand very closely. You need to be paying very close attention to what you are doing. And you especially need to be looking for things that you are doing with your picking-hand that are preventing you from playing the lick up to speed.

Step Two: Become Aware Of What Fretting-Hand Motions You Are Using

For this step you repeat what you did in Step One, but this time focus 100% on your fretting-hand.

Step Three: Become Aware Of The Changes You Need To Make

Once you've analyzed both hands, then you now need to make some changes to what you are doing. If you did the first two steps thoroughly, then you probably noticed some things that could be improved or refined. (Side Note: If you didn't notice any then you would need to go through the first two steps with your guitar teacher).

I should point out here, that when you notice things you need to change, that you should write them down. This is to make sure that you remember them all next time you go to practice the lick.

Step Four: Implement The Changes

For this step you will practice the lick on a daily basis making sure that you are implementing the changes you wrote down in Step Three. This will generally mean doing the following each time you practice the lick…

  • Quickly reviewing the changes you need to make before you start practicing the lick.
  • Practice the lick while paying extremely close attention to what both your hands are doing. In other words, you need to be paying attention and thinking about what you are doing for the entire practice session. The aim is to check to see that you are consistently implementing the changes for each and every repetition of the lick. Don't allow your mind to wander. You need to constantly monitor what you are doing.

I need to make the very important point now that I have over-simplified things. For this example we just looked at the basic motions of the left and right hands. Of course, there are numerous other possible reasons why a guitarist might be having trouble playing a guitar lick at fast speeds. But hopefully you get the general idea of just how important it is to be analytical and think about what you are doing when practicing. If you don't think you won't notice the changes that need to made in order to improve.

Isn't This Just Common Sense?

You might be thinking right now…"Hey, isn't this freakin' obvious!". And I guess it is. But I know from my teaching experience that many guitarists don't think enough when they practice. They just don't pay enough attention, and they constantly allow their mind to wander when they practice. And this leads to extremely poor results from the practice that they do.

Help…My Brain Is Exploding!

Many of my students initially find it very challenging to pay close attention to everything they do while they are practicing. They often feel quite tense because of the level of concentration required.

It is important to realize that this initial feeling of discomfort is perfectly normal because they are doing something they haven't done before. But the good news is that it gets easier, and they eventually learn to be extremely focused and relaxed at the same time. And this is often the point when real progress can be made!

A Few Last Words

Although practicing with the level of focus that truly produces results is very demanding, and for some people not all that enjoyable, it is the price that most of us need to pay to get better at the guitar. And I don't know about you, but I'd rather work hard and progress rather than spending years and years not really getting better!

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