How To Get Better

In a life-long pursuit like learning the guitar, it’s easy to become obsessed with getting to the next level. Sometimes, when it’s really grooving, you’re conquering new material with ease. Other days, it seems like you can’t grow beyond your current limitations or, worse, even play what you could easily play before. But if you care enough to dedicate yourself to this, you’re signing up for a life-long quest to ”get better”.

There are as many ways to learn the guitar as there are guitarists. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to learning the instrument, here are five tips for moving the ball down the field.

1. Slow and Steady Wins the Race

“You have to learn to walk before you can run”, goes the old saying. If you’re running into a challenging bit of material, particularly one with any speed involved, you have to master it at slower tempos before you can bump it up. Once things really get cooking you just don’t have the time to pay attention to details like picking motion or clean fretting. So you have to really groove this feeling at a lower tempo until it’s automatic and reflexive.

Metronomes are great tools for monitoring your tempo, but they are also great ways to track your progress. Write your current ”top speeds” down in a little notebook and watch your skills progress over a couple of weeks or months.

You may not notice an improvement in any one practice session, but if you look back to where you were a few days or weeks ago you may be surprised at how far you’ve come.

2. Embrace the Details

Sometimes playing at slower tempos can be downright boring. C’mon man, you’re trying to learn some face-melting solo and here you are knocking around at 80 bpm trying not to fall asleep at the fretboard. When things are this slow, it’s really easy to start tuning out because it isn’t very fun.

When this happens, it helps to start getting hyper-focused on really small details. How does your picking tone sound? Should you change the pick angle? Does that phrase sound better legato style or with every note picked? Which notes should get accented and which shouldn’t? What’s the right guitar tone for this piece?

There’s an amazing world of detail in every bit of music. It’s like turning a microscope on something that looks totally barren and seeing a new world of activity emerge that you couldn’t see before.

It takes a lot of patience to do this but with some discipline you’ll get better and better at it. What’s even better is that you’ll start tuning your ears for all sorts of nuances you couldn’t hear before. Not only will this change how you play but also how you hear yourself and other musicians.

3. Make it Harder

When you’re first learning a new piece or technique, it can feel really awkward at first. With a little practice you move to the next stage where you’re past the stumbling phase, but don’t quite have it mastered.

This is a really tenuous phase. Things could go either way at this point. You may break through to the next level, or you may start to get frustrated with your lack of progress.

If you’re hitting the point where you’ve been practicing it for a while and still don’t feel like you’re progressing, try altering what you’re playing in some way to make it harder.

How do you make it harder? That’s where your creativity comes into play. You could try playing it with a more challenging picking pattern. Or you could try playing it in a more challenging location on the neck. Heck, you could try playing it with your eyes closed, or laying flat on your back. It doesn’t really matter what you do so long as you mix things up somehow.

This seems to break the brain out of its rut and you’ll often find that you can return to the original challenge and tackle it much more easily.

4. Exploit Variations

Once you feel like you have a handle on new material, the real “good stuff” happens when you start messing with it and putting your own stamp on it. Here’s a little picking exercise I got from a Paul Gilbert lesson:

Pay attention to the picking pattern on this one. It’s trickier than it looks.

Paul’s alternate picking is unmatched and going through his lessons made me realize how much work mine needed. I’ve found several of his lessons pretty challenging. At first this pattern felt really weird (I would use a lot more economy-picking than he does.) But once I started to get the hang of it, I wanted to make sure I didn’t get stuck just working on that one pattern so I started moving it up and down the neck:

Here’s the same basic pattern up the neck in the A minor pentatonic. The transitions make this even trickier than the first lick.

This definitely made the lick a lot more challenging to play which made me a better player. Instead seeing that lick in one place, I could see a larger pattern that I could apply anywhere.

Moving a pattern around on the neck is just one variation. There’s virtually an unlimited number of other variations:

  • Change the timing. Triplets to 16ths or vice versa
  • Play it all legato style
  • Play it fingerstyle
  • Play it with tapping
  • Apply accents
  • Vary your attack and dynamic

5. Take a Break

Sometimes, you just need to put the guitar down and do something else for awhile. When your frustration starts setting in, you’re going to run into diminishing returns as you keep bashing away.

At times like these, just put the guitar down and walk away. Go experience life in some other way for a bit and when you come back you’ll be refreshed, renewed and eager to play again.