Guitar Practice Lesson: How To Play Guitar Without Making Mistakes
by Tom Hess
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Every guitarist begins practicing something new on guitar with ONE goal in mind: 'To play it right'. If you are practicing guitar correctly, the time will come when you are able to play whatever you were practicing ‘exactly’ as you want. When this occurs, you become excited, and that's great... well, kind of. As you advance and become a better musician, your feeling of 'excitement' often changes into fear - a really big fear. When you start wanting to play on a bigger level, such as performing for your friends or on a stage, you become afraid that you might make mistakes... embarrassing, reputation-damaging mistakes.
And THIS is when problems start…
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It's a strange, but common thing that a guitar player who is better now than in the past is now 'fearful' of making mistakes instead of 'excited' about playing guitar better than before. These crippling guitar playing fears affect most guitarists as they discourage intermediate players from pushing themselves to become advanced. These same fears also sabotage potentially successful music careers of truly great guitarists.
As a real life illustration of this, I have a student I've been mentoring who recently had the opportunity to join a band and go on a really cool concert tour in Europe. Although he had been preparing all his life for this ‘exact’ moment, he nearly passed on it out of fear of not being ‘good enough’. After confronting him about this, I helped him to understand exactly why he felt the fear that he did and trained him to practice guitar much more effectively than he was doing up until that point. I'm happy to say that this student conquered his fears and went on to audition for the band, get the gig, go on tour and have the time of his life becoming the 'rock star' he always wanted to be.
What was the secret to his success? More importantly, how can YOU avoid this fear from paralyzing your guitar playing as you become more advanced as a musician?
The reason why guitarists often feel ‘more’ insecure about their playing the better they become, is because they spend all their time practicing to ‘play things right’, vs. learning to ‘never play them wrong’. Here is the difference between the two types of practicing and an explanation of how they affect your guitar playing:
'Playing It Right' - this is the first level of practicing guitar that everyone must go through when first learning to play something new. Your initial goal is to simply get the notes under your fingers, build confidence in your ability to play the music and ‘nail’ whatever you are trying to play. Most guitar players get ‘stuck’ at this level of practicing and assume that all their mistakes will eventually disappear on their own. This is FALSE! Mastery will not happen by itself, until and unless you go to the next (higher) level of practicing, which is:
'Never Playing It Wrong' - After you learn to play something in sterile isolation (such as in the sterile environment of your practice room), you must start practicing ‘for the real world’. There are 3 ‘real world’ contexts that you need to prepare for: performing on stage, recording yourself and integrating your musical skills together. Whenever you are done learning to ‘play it right’ with a practice item, you must ask yourself: “what is the ultimate goal/situation in which I will use this item in my guitar playing?” The answer will tell you exactly how you should practice that item next in order to fully master it and ‘never play it wrong’.
Here are some examples of how to practice guitar in this way:
Practice Guitar For Live Performance:
To practice guitar for live playing, you must anticipate what situations come up most often during your live performances and simulate those as much as possible during your practice sessions. Some of the most obvious things you need to prepare for include: playing while standing up, playing in the dark, playing with distractions, playing with other people watching you, playing guitar outside (to get used to playing in a variety of weather conditions) and playing on different guitars and amplifiers (if possible). Of course, the above list is NOT all-inclusive - use these ideas to make your own list of situations to simulate while practicing.
When you take any practice item that you’ve merely learned to ‘play right’ and put it under the stress of any of the situations above, it will often fall apart. It is GOOD to have this happen while practicing, because you now know exactly what needs to be improved in your playing to learn to ‘never play this item wrong’ in that situation.
Practice intentionally putting yourself into each of the contexts above and practice becoming confident at playing through them. The more you practice in this way, the better and more reliable your guitar playing will feel.
Practice Guitar For Recording In The Studio:
The skill of ‘recording’ your guitar playing is something that virtually never gets practiced and this is why so many guitarists are scared to death of recording themselves. Just when you ‘think’ that you have learned to play something, as soon as you are put to the test of recording your playing (either on audio or video), you freeze up and start making mistakes that you typically do not make in your normal practicing. Sound familiar? Of course it does - we’ve all been there :)
To improve in this area, you must do 2 things. The first one is the most obvious and the simplest one: get into the habit of REGULARLY recording your guitar playing (on audio and video). Challenge yourself to play as perfectly as you can in as few takes as possible. This one point will go a long way towards helping you play confidently and accurately in the recording studio or similar situations.
Second, there are lots of very specific nuances of your guitar playing that you must practice and refine to have your recordings always sound good. I explain what many of them are in this free guide for recording guitar in the studio. Make time for practicing them on a regular basis to improve your skills in this area.
Practice Integrating Your Musical Skills:
Even if you don’t intend to perform or record the music you are practicing, you still need to work on ‘consistently’ applying what you learn into songs and/or guitar solos. Doing this requires you to stop ‘only’ practicing licks and exercises in isolation, and learn to creatively combine them with other techniques. For example, after you learn a new arpeggio shape, you must practice creatively applying it with other techniques, using a variety of tempos and rhythms. You must also know the best musical contexts to use that arpeggio in while improvising. Watch this video about the best way to practice guitar to learn more about this kind of practicing and how to do it.
Depending on your goals with each item in your practice schedule, you may need to practice it in all 3 contexts above or just 1 or 2.
How To Put All Of This Together:
Follow the steps below to apply these elements of effective guitar practicing into your playing:
Step 1: Become clear on what goals you want to achieve in your guitar playing in the medium to long term.
Step 2: Become clear on how each item you are practicing is helping you move towards your goals in step 1. If you don’t know what specifically you are trying to achieve by practicing a certain item, don’t waste time practicing it!
Step 3: Follow a highly effective guitar practice schedule that will organize all of your practice items into a perfect blueprint that ties together your short/long term goals, skill level, practicing preferences and challenges.
Step 4: Always ask yourself: “what is the ultimate goal/situation in which I will use this item or music in my guitar playing?” This will help to direct your practicing towards your goals and will help you to go from merely ‘playing it right’ to ‘never playing it wrong’.
By applying the above steps into your guitar practicing on a regular basis, you will notice your fear of making mistakes disappear. The fear will be replaced by confidence, conviction and excitement as you make more and faster progress towards your goals.
To get lots of help with making your guitar practicing highly effective, check out the guitar practice schedule generator.