8 Things That Will Improve Your Guitar Playing
Any guitarist who takes their craft seriously—be they complete beginners, masters of their craft, or anything in between—wants to be better at it. Ultimately you will never be a better guitar player without the desire and drive to become one; there are no quick fixes here.
What you can do is make efficient use of your practice time. You’re going to be working hard to become a technically proficient guitarist regardless of your methods, but with clever use of your time you can see more improvement out of 15 minutes a day of carefully thought out practice than hours a day of aimless noodling.
Our 8 Things in Brief
Dedicated Practice Time
Learn Something New
Practice Chord Changes
Use a Metronome
Try Different Guitars
Play Guitar Every Day
1. Dedicate Your Time
Don't just practice, practice hard!
Have an old cheap guitar you can leave lying around the house and can pick up at a moment's notice. It's much easier to play every day when there's no fuss involved.
When trying to improve your guitar playing, it is essential that you dedicate some time to practising; truly dedicate. It’s not enough to simply pick up a guitar and pluck away, perhaps playing along with a song or idly strumming out random tunes while you watch television; you need to focus on your playing.
The key here is that if you can play a particular song or a certain scale with such ease that you can do it casually and without really thinking about it, that's great, but once you’ve reached that point you’re no longer getting anything out of doing it. It's like exercising; if you're not struggling, there's no benefit.
Try to regularly set aside a little time to just focus on your guitar playing, even if it’s only ten minutes every other day. If you can comfortably play a particular scale, focus on playing it faster, or more accurately, or try a different scale. Just make sure the guitar has 100% of your attention for the duration of your practice session.
It's like exercising. If you're not struggling, there's no benefit.
2. Master Something
Don't just learn it, perfect it.
Though you shouldn’t spend all of your guitar practice trying to do one particular thing to perfection at the expense of all other areas, it’s good on occasion, to get laser focused and really nail something.
It could be a tricky solo, a new scale, a difficult chord progression, a style of picking, or anything that you’re not already a able to do with practised ease. Really pay attention to your technique and accuracy when trying to master something on your guitar. And don’t feel like you have to be completely satisfied with your ability to play the thing you’re trying to master before you can do anything else. It’s fine to take a break from time to time to practice other things and come back to it later.
3. Keep It Fresh
Stuck in a rut? Get a new rut!
What's Your Favourite Thing to Practice
While attempting to master something on your guitar can be a great exercise in focus and accuracy, you should always be open to trying something different. If you’re playing a lot of the same few songs, add some new songs to your list. If you know a lot songs but they’re all from the same genre, try something from a different genre.
As with the previous point, you should be looking for something that is a little outside of your comfort zone. There’s no point talking a break from playing complicated arpeggio folk songs to try a few power chord driven punk numbers that will take you all of two minutes to master.
Don’t be afraid to do the bare minimum when learning something new. If you find something you like then by all means, focus on it, master it if you wish, but generally speaking the important thing is to try new things, get competent at them, and move on. There’s no sense in slaving away trying to perfect a song you’re never going to play again once you've nailed it.
4. Scale It Up
Scales might not be your thing, but do them anyway.
It’s easy for some musicians—especially rhythm guitarists—to dismiss scales as something that is only really necessary for lead guitar players who will spend half their time “shredding” in the middle of the stage. The truth is, for those kinds of guitarists, scales are essential, but for everyone else they still carry huge benefits.
For one thing practising scales will improve the dexterity of your fretting hand, allowing for a greater range of chords. It also can’t be underestimated just how much more enjoyable playing guitar is when you're so technically proficient that you feel like you can’t miss a note, and having an agile, strong fretting hand will give you the confidence to feel that way.
If it helps, don’t think of it as practising scales, think of it as taking your fingers to the gym.
5. Practice Your Chord Changes
Because nobody like an errant A in their Em.
Specifically while strumming, that is. Obviously, being able to comfortably change chords is a must for any competent guitar player, but the timing aspect of chord changes is often misunderstood. More often than not, when a guitarist struggles to make a smooth chord change, they assume their fretting hand is the problem when it's actually the strumming hand's doing. Learning to coordinate your strumming hand with your chord changes is one of the single hardest things to master for those to whom it does not come naturally, and it can make a huge difference to your playing.
Of course, this is assuming the chord change itself is technically sound. No amount of perfect timing on the strumming side will cover a chord change that takes a full bar to complete and hits three wrong notes on the way. Be sure to try many chord combinations, and don’t pay any attention to how melodic your playing sounds during this exercise; it's not about ear-pleasing chord progressions at this point.
And if you get to a point where you can smoothly move between all the chords you know without issue, add some more chords to your arsenal. There are always more chords.
6. Keep Time
Train your body to be an atomic clock of guitar playing godliness.
This can’t be stated enough, but always use a metronome, click track, drum beat, or backing track when you’re practising. Whether you’re doing scales, playing a song, or just jamming away, have a beat to keep time to. The more you practice to a timed beat, the more accurate your internal rhythm will be. With enough practice you may find that you can keep an accurate tempo without a beat at all, but at the very least you need to able to consistently keep in time if you ever hope to record music or play with other musicians.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go out and buy a metronome to keep yourself in check. If you’re playing along with a song you already have your beat, otherwise you can easily find click tracks on places like YouTube and in most audio programs. A good number of practice amps also have built in metronomes, not to mention countless free apps that can be downloaded to your phone.
7. Switch It Up
Don't get too used to your trusty old axe; you may have to play somebody else's.
If you plan to perform at all, practice standing up. Unless you expect to be sitting down when you perform, you may as well get used to playing your instrument the way you'll be playing it on stage.
Obviously not everybody has the option to play a multitude of different guitars at any given time, but if you’re lucky enough to have access to more than one, be sure to alternate when you practice so that you don’t develop any playing habits specific to one unique instrument's quirks. It’s worth having a particularly cheap guitar for this purpose alone. When you practice obsessively on the same instrument, you may find that you reach God-like levels of ability with your instrument, but struggle somewhat when you pick up somebody else’s.
Now, obviously we’re getting into true guitar mastery here. As a general rule, if you can play one guitar you can play them all. But if you aim to be a total master of your craft, you may find yourself reaching the stage where the margin for error is so fine that switching from a guitar with low action to one with high action is just enough to throw you off if you've never used a guitar like that before. The same can be said for picking up a budget guitar after practising six hours a day on an exquisitely made 1950s instrument of wonder.
This goes for the circumstances in which you practice, too. If you only ever practice holding your guitar in the classical position, don’t expect to just step on stage with your axe hanging down by your waist and be able to play with the same level of awesome you did at home!
8. Play Every Day
EVERY day. No excuses.
Seriously. Even if you only get five minutes, pick up your guitar every day and keep those fingers nimble. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing guitar, shooting a round of golf, or single-handedly taking down a squadron of Internet n00bs in your favourite multiplayer shooter, it’s all about muscle memory.
Our brains are remarkable organs that can handle a lot of information, but they don’t work like computers. Professional tennis players don’t calculate angles and velocities consciously when they hit a ball, they just know from years and years of hitting tennis balls how it will react if they hit in a particular way. Guitar is the same. If you’re having to consciously think about your playing, there’s room for improvement.
Playing regularly will not only develop “muscle memory” as it pertains to chord shapes and hand placement, it will keep that memory honed. Once you can shape a chord without consciously thinking about where to put your fingers, you’re well on your way to becoming a technically sound guitarist.
But above all, enjoy yourself.
Know your guitars? Why not take our short quiz.
© 2016 John Bullock
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