If you play guitar (and as you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you do), ask yourself the question “what is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to master?” Which technique is the one that stopped you in your tracks the most? The one thing that, more than any other, made you question whether or not you were cut out to play the guitar.
For many players the answer is “mastering my first barre chord”. Cast your mind back to when you got your first ever guitar. It was probably some cheap thing with an action like an egg slicer and which made your fingers feel like you’d been attacking them with a meat tenderiser. You got your first few chord changes down & even mastered a couple of songs but then then came the dreaded F chord & suddenly all progress seemed to stop. It was an impossible challenge, wasn’t it? Made even more so by having a guitar which seemed to be fighting you. But, assuming you didn’t quit, you eventually mastered it and now it seems easy-peasy right? Seeing an F chord (or any other barre chord) in a song doesn’t make you abandon that tune in favour of something easier these days. Why? Because you practised your way out of the difficulty.
And therein lies the point of this particular blog post. KEEP PRACTISING! I was having a conversation with a semi-pro guitarist friend of mine recently who told me he would love to play some fast, shred-type licks in the style of Joe Satriani but (in his words) his fingers just weren’t capable of playing that fast. I pointed out that once upon a time his fingers weren’t even capable of playing an A to D chord change, but practice meant that he did eventually conquer this and many other things. His response was the classic “Oh, but that’s different though…”
Well, he was right – it IS different. When you are learning the first few chords on the guitar, or even getting to grips with your first barre chords, you have no back catalogue of easy stuff to retreat into. You haven’t yet built up a sufficient “comfort zone” to take refuge in when the going gets tough. You are faced with a stark choice – practice the stuff you’re finding difficult or give up playing. Some people do give up – playing a musical instrument isn’t for everyone, after all. But those who grit their teeth and keep at it eventually succeed in their ambition to play the instrument they love.
It is at that point that a curious thing happens. A lot of guitarists get to a point when they no longer consider themselves a “learner” any more. They get out of the habit of practising and striving to conquer new techniques. Now they no longer face the choice of either tackling something they find ridiculously difficult or giving up altogether. It’s now a choice between tackling something ridiculously difficult or playing something easy that sounds pretty good. It takes a lot of self discipline to pick up your guitar and confront the frustration of a tricky new technique when you can just as easily play something which makes you feel good about yourself because you are good at it. This is especially true if you play as a hobby – you come home from work after a hard day and you want to relax by picking up your guitar. Who would want to do anything which feels like “work” in that situation? This is what puts many people off sitting down and working on expanding their skill set.
Well, here’s the thing… it needn’t be a chore to practice. The common misconception is that you need to do hour upon hour of dedicated practice in order to make any headway. This is not the case! You have worked very hard to get to the level of proficiency you are currently at, so enjoy it! Play your favourite easy pieces and have fun doing so. Feel justifiably proud of what you’ve achieved but set aside a little time – say 15 minutes per day – to work on that niggling difficult technique you are struggling with. That’s all it takes, trust me. The key with practice is to focus it. Focus on what exactly it is that makes the thing you’re finding difficult, difficult. Analyse what you’re doing in minute detail and, if necessary, enlist the help of a good tutor to cast an impartial eye over your playing. Whatever it takes, identify the root cause of the problem you’re encountering and then do a few minutes each day to eradicate it.
You’ll need to trust that, although it’s going to take some time, you WILL get there. You did it with barre chords (or whatever else slowed you down in those early days of your guitar playing adventure) didn’t you? Well you will do it again if you keep at it. It’s going to mean being methodical, practising to a metronome, setting yourself small achievable goals along the way, and accepting that some days you might just be having an off-day when it just isn’t happening. Just don’t give up. I’ll guarantee that within a few months to a year (yes… that IS the time-scale you need to be thinking in) you will notice real, genuine progress. Once that happens, you will be more enthused about your playing than ever before. Remember that thrill you got in the early days, when you finally mastered your first song? When you could actually play along with some of your favourite tunes? When you first got into a band and realised you really were a “proper” musician now? Well, get ready to re-discover that feeling all over again. It’s addictive.
As it happens, I’ve been tackling one of my big-bears recently. I always had a problem with sweep picking. I can do it, but not brilliantly – I can do a single arpeggio this way, but stringing together numerous sweep-picked arpeggios in a solo (a la Yngwie) has always been a bit of a struggle. Last Christmas, I decided that 2015 was going to be the year I remedied this, so I’ve been setting aside 10-20 minutes a day to work on this technique. In January I was plodding away at metronome speeds of 60-65 B.P.M. Now, as I type this at the back end of July, I’m up to speeds of 100-110 B.P.M. That, ladies & gentlemen, is progress. I’ve got a way to go yet, and there have been times when I’ve thought “Am I REALLY getting anywhere with this?” But the advantage of using a metronome is that, as well as making sure your timing is accurate, it gives you a way of quantifying your progress over time. When I have an off-day, I just tell myself that even though I can’t manage the speeds I was doing the previous day, I’m still a long way ahead of where I was two months ago. This provides me with the necessary reassurance to maintain my enthusiasm & keep me at it.
So… to summarise. Practice every new, tricky, difficult and even seemingly impossible technique with the same zeal you applied to mastering your first tricky chord change and there will be nothing you cannot play. That’s a promise. Now, where’s that metronome. I have some arpeggios to work on.
Until next time, have fun & KEEP PRACTISING!