Ideally, practicing guitar should feel like a combination of playtime and meditation.
Focusing too hard on one’s perceived goals can end in frustration and discouragement. Although everyone learns and refines their abilities differently, I have uncovered some approaches to the instrument that will hopefully inspire a few readers out of a rut.
#1 Woodshedding: We’ve all heard the term, but I submit that it should be taken rather literally. There should be a sharp contrast between practice and performance. Your loved ones aren’t always going to want to listen to you practice, and one's awareness of listeners will influence how you play, and prevent you from plunging into the necessary depths of repetition. Depending on one’s circumstances and means, this can mean a lot of different things, from practicing out in the woods to playing in a closet with headphones on. The important ingredient is relative isolation and minimal distraction. The near-mythical blues-man, Robert Johnson was said to have honed his skills in a graveyard at night. Personally, I built a 10X8 shed in my backyard. It has greatly contributed to my domestic bliss.
#2 Pick a Pose and Stick with it: Stand, sit in a chair, cross-legged on the floor (my favorite), whatever, just be consistent. If you’re the type who practices sitting, but performs standing, then wear your strap high enough that the guitar stays in the same position in both situations. You’re cultivating a massive amount of fine motor reflexes, and even the slightest change in angle or distance may drive your fingers off their marks. As with everything, back-straight, too. It’s as important to cultivate the auxiliary muscles that allow you to play for long periods of time as it is the ones in your forearms and digitals. Also, remember to stretch.
#3 Metronomes, Beats, and Drones: Learn to love your metronome. At first, it can justifiably feel like a nagging music teacher, but once you’ve tightened up your time, it disappears. When you’re playing right on the beat, you won’t notice it when you’re picking, and will come to appreciate it when you aren’t. Make sure to select a sound that cuts through, but doesn’t irritate you. I like a wood block. In Latin music, the “clave” behaves fairly metronomically in performance as well as practice.
If you desire a little more complexity than a straight metronome, many of the available IOS apps out there include beats and rhythms, as well. You can even edit them to your liking. If you’re into “looping”, you can make a beat yourself by strumming on muted strings or knocking on the body. It’s the next best thing to a flesh and blood drummer! Try some odd time signatures to really work your brain.
Polyphony, harmony, and the potential for modulation are linchpins of western music. Therefore, it’s understandable that drones are rarely employed during practice or performance. However, the fact remains that the majority of popular music does not change key, or modulate, mid-song. If there is a static tonic, playing over a drone, at least during practice, can greatly enhance your intonation, especially when playing slide. In Indian classical music, an instrument called the Tanpura (basically a giant Sitar) subtly alternates between the I and V to create a marvelous sonic backdrop for the singer or instrumentalist. There are many Tanpura recordings in various keys available on YouTube, as well as apps, that can greatly enhance your sense of what it truly means to be in-tune. I made my own Tanpura-like recording to play over with a harmonica and singing bowls.
#4 Listen to Everything: However Herculean this might seem, it’s always worthwhile to stop and appreciate the sounds around you. After all, our brains need only to start organizing these sounds to create music. As the American transcendentalist, Thoreau, put it, “Music is perpetual, and only the hearing is intermittent.” Many believe that music originated in our species via the mimicry of bird and animal calls. In our contemporary context, many start by learning the themes to their favorite TV shows. However you choose to do it, placing the whole world on a musical spectrum will undoubtedly enhance your musicianship.
One of my favorite exercises involves transposing music performed by other instruments onto the guitar. Chinese zithers, saxophones, and fiddles all have their own lessons to impart. James Brown would say, “that’s not a guitar! It’s a drum!” Sonny Sharrock regarded himself as a “horn player with a really f***** up ax”. One of the guitar’s greatest strengths is its versatility and ability to fill the role of other instruments (especially with a pedalboard). It is the mocking bird of the musical world.
#5 Sleep on it/Know when to Step Away: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked away from the guitar in frustration only to return and find my fingers imbued with a previously elusive dexterity. Something magic can happen in that time away. Connections are cemented in the brain. Let the tune that you’ve been working on serve as the soundtrack to your internal dialogue throughout the day. Let it be the last thing you hear before going to bed. Keith Richards claims to have written the first verse of “(I can’t get no) satisfaction” in a somnambulant (possibly inebriated) state, having found a “ghostly” recording beside his bed upon walking. Paul McCartney originally dreamt “Yesterday” as a melody for a string ensemble that he later had to be convinced he had written.
#6 Play the Gear that Inspires You: Your main ax should be an extension of your unique style, tastes, and preferences. It should make you want to pick it up whenever you look at it, and not be so precious that you fear taking it out into the world. Rather than doing everything for you, it should push you to cultivate your touch and technique. It should be well suited for the music you already love, and adaptable to the sounds you have left to explore. This could mean a lot of different instruments for a lot of different players. That said, posed with a desert-island scenario, here are my two picks (electric and acoustic) from our current inventory:
For me, the semi-hollow, double-cut style electric is king, and no one makes them better than Collings (sorry, Gibson). The super light-weight, laminate construction on this one make it extremely comfortable, resonant, and sufficiently feedback resistant when I want to rock out, Black goes well with everything and the tastefully aged hardware makes me feel like we’ve already been on a journey together. The Lollar dog-eared P-90s are clear, warm, and transparent enough to foreground the subtleties of my right hand technique.