You want to become a good guitar player and know that you need to practice every day, but your practice routine is boring and uninspiring? You find yourself daydreaming or playing songs when you should rather be doing your exercises? How the heck virtuoso players have managed to become good players if practicing is so dry and tiring?
There was a time I believed that there was some "magic" trick that could give me virtuoso technique with a little practice because, I thought, nobody can force himself to go through such a boring routine every day. Well, I was wrong on (at least) two things. First: the way to become a good player is precisely to practice, practice, and practice some more, and there is no other way. Second: practice should not be boring. What gave good players their edge is that they have found ways to make their practice enjoyable so that they actually look forward to it rather than dreading it.
In the following I am assuming that you already have a practice schedule and that you are following it every day. It does not matter if it’s a 10-minutes or 10-hours routine, if it is written down or it is only in your mind; the important thing is that you are practicing every day and following some sort of schedule. I will not show you how to come up with a practice schedule because 1) it is not something we can cover in a paragraph (and I want to show you the fun stuff); 2) there are already good resources on the web about this; and 3) there are so many schools of thought about practice that nearly whatever I can say about it be may contradicted with some illustrious example (such as “hey, Yngwie Malmsteen says that he never practiced in his life”).
So, let’s just assume you have a practice routine and you want to make it more fun. Here is a short list of some tricks that may help you enjoying your practice. I am not trying to be comprehensive here since there are so many possibilities that I cannot list all of them. These tips have different impacts on different persons, so feel free to pick and choose the ones that sound interesting to you.
1. Organize Your Exercises
Let me start with a consideration: if you have the guitar in your hands but you are not playing, then you are wasting time and not having fun. This happens whenever you are trying to decide what exercise to play next or search through your tab collection for a particular exercise - and this happens often during practice time. I call this "pointless thinking". You are wasting time and energy, and this disturbs the flow of practice.
Thus, the first step to make your practice more enjoyable (and efficient) is to minimize the pointless thinking. Here's a system that, even if not original or groundbreaking, will help you getting started as soon as you need to practice. Prepare a number of folders, and label them with the categories of the exercises you want to practice ("Scales", "Arpeggios", "Tapping", etc). Fill the folders with all the exercises you have of that category. Whenever you want to practice some scales, take the "Scales" folder and practice the first exercise in it. When you are done, put the exercise you just practiced at the bottom of the folder, and the next time you open the folder you will find another exercise. This way you can cycle through all your exercises effortlessly, and avoid the boredom of practicing the same thing over and over again.
2. Write Your Own Exercises
While practice is a necessity to become a good musician, nobody said that you couldn’t be creative and original in what you practice. I agree with you that there is not much fun in playing the same scale up and down a thousand times, but the solution is not to give up practice altogether. The solution is to make this scale more interesting to play. Every great musician in the history of music has written some "etudes" i.e. pieces of music that can double as technical exercises (but are more fun to play). The purpose of writing an etude is twofold: 1) you get to practice the skills you need in a musical context rather than as a purely technical exercise; 2) you strengthen your ability to actually use what you learned in composing real music.
Writing etudes or inserting technical elements into songs is a system used by many contemporary musicians too. Some guitarists write solos containing technically challenging passages so that they can practice them every time they are playing with their band. I suggest you try and write some of your own solos or songs with this idea in mind- start with short and simple pieces and gradually make them longer and more complex. You can fill your etudes with as many technical difficulties as you want, but strive to make them musical rather than mechanical sounding. The simple fact that they are pieces of music and not "plain" exercises will motivate you in mastering them. And after you master them you can show them off to your friends.
3. Learn ONE New Thing
Sometimes the sense of boredom while practicing comes from the fact that you know all your exercise by heart and inside out. Every once in a while you need something NEW. Fantastic, then here's the way to do it. Learn ONE new thing. It can be from a book, from an online article, from a YouTube video. The important thing is that you learn only ONE new thing. For example, you may learn a new chord (a single voicing) or a new scale (a single pattern), or a new music theory concept, or a single new technique. Then spend your practice time of the day trying to integrate this chord/scale/technique/concept into your playing. Fit the new chord into a song you know, or compose something around it. Use a new scale to improvise on top of your backing tracks, or create some new backing tracks that will fit this scale. The important thing is to explore all the possible aspects of this single new thing that you are learning today. Write licks that you can reuse in improvisation, or use it as a starting point for a song.
Let me stress this again: only one new thing, otherwise you won’t be focused enough to actually learn something useful. Tomorrow you can have something different, but today stick with it.
4. Systematic Variations
You do not always have to practice an exercise the way it is written. In fact if you play always your exercises precisely as they are, you are missing the best. Let's assume that you have a scale sequence, and you have it tabbed down on a major scale pattern. For a change you can play the same sequence on a minor scale pattern. In fact, if you know the patterns for all the modes, you can play each day a different version of the same exercise. How's that for fighting boredom?
The important thing is that you get the concept behind the exercise, and then you can apply the very same concept to all kind of scales/chords. If you want a practical example of how to play the same idea in different ways, check out my two articles "Ideas without limits part 1" and "Ideas without limits part 2".
Other ideas for creating systematic variations are:
- Take one exercise (scales are good) that you have always practiced in quadruplets and play it in triplets - or vice versa. Of course all the accents that you put on the first note of every quadruplet will be displaced.
- If you can already master the division change from 3-plets to 4-plets and vice versa, then learn how to play 5-plets and start again. Quintuplets are used a lot more than you think in modern music.
- Play the exercise backward (from the last note to the first).
5. Create Practice Cycles
As we discussed above, minimizing the pointless thinking during your practice is super important. The folder system I described before is one way, but there are others. Since we have just seen how to expand exercises with systematic variations to different scales/chords, let's see also how to implement them into our practice without pointless thinking. Notice that there are 7 chords for each key (major or minor) and 7 modes for each scale. There are also 7 days in a week, which suggests that you can make Sunday your "Ionian day", Monday your "Dorian day", etc. In that day you can play only the patterns relative to that mode, or improvise only in that mode, or study the chords relative to that mode.
If you want to get really really hardcore on that, there are 12 months in a year, and 12 major and minor keys. You can do exercises in C major and minor for all January, C# in February... :-)
6. Apply in improvisation
Ok, so you can play this scale fast as lightning? Fine, fire up a backing track and see if you can fit this blistering scale into a real solo. Everything you can use in improvisation becomes instantly more useful. There are days that I spend doing nothing but improvising, rather than rote practicing. You need to do the same. The important thing is not technique, but the application of technique. You can be the faster player among all of your friends, but if you cannot play this fast scale in a real solo, then who will know it?
Notice that in the days that you are practicing by improvisation (I suggest one or two days a week) you do not need to discard your usual practice schedule. When it's time to practice scales, improvise using only scales. When it's time to practice arpeggios, improvise only by arpeggios. Extract the ideas behind the exercises and use them in improvisation.
7. Don't Practice for One Day
Sometimes the best practice is to not practice. Now, before you all throw your practice schedules to the wind, let me specify that this should not be the norm. You DO need to practice a lot. The point is that the final goal is not to break the guitar speed world record, but to make good music. This means that sometimes you need to stop to get some distance from what you are doing, understand if you are going in the right direction, and make the necessary adjustments. If you cannot bring yourself to take the guitar and practice your exercises for one day, maybe it's better to dedicate this day's practice time to review your goals (you should always have some goals otherwise your practice is pointless) or to revive your motivation.
Remember that you need a balance between practice and playing. With practice you increase your mechanical dexterity and your skills. It's only by playing that you learn how to make real music out your skills, though. While "practice, practice, practice" is necessary to become a good player, it is not sufficient by itself. In my another article titled 8 reasons why your guitar improvisation does not sound like music I have explained in detail some of the things you can do to make what you play sound more like music rather than a meaningless stream of notes.
As I said above, different persons react in a different way to these tips. It's better to get ONE idea from here and implement it TODAY than to get all of them without actually doing anything in practice. Remember that the way to mastery and self-expression goes through practice, and it is the only way to get there.
As usual, take from here the suggestions that can help you and leave the rest. Take some time to experiment with these ideas and see which ones work for you (since every person is different, I can not tell you which ones will do for you). Take your practice into your own hands; do not rely too much on other people, and above all, BE CREATIVE and HAVE FUN.