As a new guitar player, progress comes quickly. You go from knowing absolutely nothing to knowing a handful of chords to being able to strum your favorite songs.
But somewhere along this path things begin to stagnate. Before you know it, months have gone by and you’re still playing the same 5-10 songs. Stagnation has set in. But why?
Long story short, it has to do with two competing regions in the brain. A study done at four universities found that two areas of the brain compete for control over behavior when a person is deciding on short term vs long term reward.
The region of the brain more associated with emotions is more active when participants were taking the short-term reward. The region associated with logical thinking was more active when the participant took the long-term reward. In short, the emotional region wants you to play Stairway to Heaven for the thousandth time, and the logical region wants you to learn all the modes so you can solo like Joe Satriani next year.
The reason your progress stagnates is because you spend too much time playing what you already know and too little time learning new material and concepts. In other words, too much time doing what is easy and too little time doing what is hard.
How to defeat your own brain and get better at the guitar.
Step 1 - The Pomodoro Technique
Something I use to satisfy both regions of my brain is a Pomodoro timer. I use it to break up my practice sessions. The pomodoro technique is when you use a timer to focus on a specific task for 25 minutes and then when the time is up, you take a 5-minute break.
The way we can apply this to practicing the guitar is to work on something hard for 25 minutes, then your 5-minute break will be playing something familiar that you enjoy. Stumble your way through that solo for 25 minutes, then relax and play something you’ve already learned for 5 minutes. It’s also a good way to make an hour of practice fly by. 25 minutes goes by quickly when you are focusing.
So now that we’ve set the framework for the practice session, it’s time to address how you practice.
Everyone knows the way you get better at playing the guitar, or anything for that matter, is to practice. The problem is that practice is a very broad term. While playing Wonderwall is technically practice, it’s not getting you any better at playing the guitar overall. In fact, it could be making you worse.
What you are searching for is called Deliberate Practice. Deliberate practice is a type of practice that is hyper-focused and has a specific goal of improving performance. It is also defined as “Practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort.”
It boils down to getting out of your comfort zone.
For guitar practice, this means taking on new, more difficult songs. Break the song up into sections, and work on different sections slowly and methodically until they are learned. It sounds easy on paper, but in reality, it is very taxing to the brain. But, doing this day in and day out will lead to progress over the long term.
Interleaving is when a student mixes in different techniques, concepts, or excerpts into their practice session.
So, the commonsense approach to learning a song, often referred to as blocked practice, goes like this:
- Learn the Intro
- Learn the Verse
- Learn the Chorus
- Learn the Solo
You get the idea. You’d start at the intro and move on to the verse once you’ve learned the intro. The problem with this, is that you can end up knowing the intro to 100’s of songs without being able to play one song completely.
With interleaving, you might start learning the intro and work on that for a while, then switch and try learning part of the solo. When that starts getting stale, switch and start learning the verse. Just keep jumping around from section to section in no particular order.
Another example might be trying to practice a song for a bit, then jumping into some scales for the key of the song, then go back into the song. Or you can work on learning several songs at once, jumping between them while trying to not spend too much time on one particular song or section.
Spaced Practice and Recall
Technique wise, it is usually a little easier to play something when you sit down for your next practice session as long as you haven’t waited too long. Spacing your sessions out is key. It gives your brain time to forget just enough. When you sit down to practice again, you are forced to recall the notes and rhythms that make up the song. When you do this, it forces the brain to retrieve this info and form new connections that make the learning more permanent.
A good tip for when a piece of music is giving you a lot of trouble is to move onto something else for a few days. Keep several songs in rotation so you always have one that you haven’t practiced for a day or two.
Most students use rereading as the #1 method of learning. For guitar, this is like when you play the song over and over while looking at the tab. If you want to really learn the song, periodically try to play the song without looking at the music. Force your brain to retrieve the notes, rhythms, and fingerings after you’ve given yourself enough time to forget just a little.
Applying This to your Practice Sessions
This type of practice can be used for more than just learning how to play songs. You can apply it to learning new techniques or mastering all of the different modes. Though, learning songs can be a sort of catch-all method to learning techniques and scales.
For example, the solo to Light My Fire by The Doors. The solo uses the Dorian mode, so while learning it you will get a good idea of how this mode sounds and what flavor it brings to the song. This solo also uses techniques like hammer on’s and pull offs, legato picking, double stops, slides, and bends. It also has some challenging rhythms. While practicing all of this stuff separately might work (I don’t recommend it), it doesn’t put the techniques or theory into a musical context, and it will be extremely boring to practice.
Think of each song as an introduction to new musical concepts, chord shapes chord progressions, scales, picking patterns, and rhythms. With each song you master, you add a few of these to your arsenal of skill. Eventually you build up so much skill and knowledge that new songs don’t take as long to learn.
If you want to get better at the guitar, force yourself to learn harder songs. Sit down and learn the first two measures of a solo. Then add on the third measure. Keep going until you get to a section that feels impossible to play. Work on that for a while then jump to a different section altogether. Mix it up. Take a break, come back later and try again without looking at the tab. Focus on the specific things that are challenging to you.
This is hard to do. It is mentally taxing. But it is a sure-fire way to improve at the guitar.