Active Practise: 5 Ways to Level Up Your Guitar Playing
As a guitar player it can be easy to fall into the habit of playing the same old licks and riffs instead of pushing your musical boundaries and playing outside of your comfort zone.
The best way to improve yourself, not only as a guitarist but as an all-round musician, is by applying yourself to a practise routine designed to bolster your skills and overcome weak points in your technique and musicality.
I’ve used these 5 methods to help students overcome plateaus in their playing and ensure that they are always improving and growing as musicians. By applying them into your own practise routines, you’ll be able to achieve the same consistent improvement.
1. Slow It Down
Without doubt the most crucial skill an active, performing guitarist can have is an excellent sense of time.
When looking for professional gigs, be it depping for live shows or session studio work, you won’t be hired on the strength of your sweep picking chops or ability to play technical licks, but rather your ability to keep time and lock in with the rhythm section.
This is a skill that goes underdeveloped in many guitarists as they don’t take the time to actively improve their time keeping.
One of my favourite ways to improve sense of time is by practising parts at a much slower tempo - even if you can comfortably play them at full speed. It sounds very easy, but most guitarists will struggle at first to really lock in when playing at very slow tempos.
Playing at slow speeds forces you to feel the space between notes and how the phrasing of a passage lines up to the beat. It gives you a much better understanding of how rhythm and phrasing work within a piece of music and will help you better understand timing in any piece of music you hear.
This is also crucial for live work and playing with others. All drummers will have their own feel, often playing around the beat. By improving your sense of time you’ll be able to better lock in with their feel which will have a huge impact to the overall sound of the band.
2. Record Yourself Practising
When you’re playing guitar, it’s very difficult to objectively gauge how you sound. Not only are you half distracted by actually playing, but because you’re audiating you’re also hearing a lot of how the passage should sound as opposed to how it actually does.
For this reason, it's important that you record your playing. If you don’t already have one, invest in a good audio interface so that you can record your playing at home.
Get into the habit of recording new parts that you’re working on with just the click track and then listen back critically. Examine all aspects of your playing to find what you need to improve:
Are you locked in time with the click?
Are your bends pitched correctly?
Does your vibrato sound even?
Does every note ring out clearly?
Is your picking hand in time with your fretting hand?
At first you’ll likely be a little surprised at just how different it sounds being played back compared to how you thought you played it.
By doing this regularly you’ll very quickly pick up on what needs improving in your technique so that you can isolate that aspect of your playing and work to improve it.
As an added bonus, this will be massively beneficial to getting used to recording to a click in studio conditions, which will pay off when you come to recording your own music professionally later down the line.
3. Set Firm Goals
Being able to critically listen back to your playing also helps inform another important part of active practise: setting firm goals.
By having something to work towards you’ll always be improving as a player and avoid hitting the plateau that many guitarists do.
This can be as simple as improving your vibrato on wide bends or as difficult as trying to learn to play complex, polymeter Meshuggah-style riffs.
By constantly reappraising your technique and your skillset, you’ll always be able to find weak spots to improve upon as well as gaps in your knowledge to plug.
It’s also a good idea to listen to lots of great guitarists across many different genres, as this will inspire you to continue learning music outside of your comfort zone.
4. Frequency & Consistency
The human brain tends to digest and process information better with frequent exposure, and this is definitely true of learning guitar parts and techniques.
Rather than having one long practise session each week, most people will improve faster if they were to practise for 30 minutes every day.
By practising for shorter amounts of time, it also makes you focus on what you’re trying to improve, rather than just noodling around.
Finding the time to fit this around a busy job or school studies can be difficult, so forming a habit around practising at the same time every day can be helpful.
With shorter sessions, it's important that you plan what you’re going to do in that time and remain goal focused.
I find it helpful to write out what I’ll do during a practise session and stick to that schedule, for example:
5 minutes: warm ups - scale runs and picking practise
10 minutes: Half speed sweep picked arpeggios with gradually increasing tempo
10 minutes: Wide, multi-note bend practise with tuner for measuring correct pitch
10 minutes: Ear training, transcribing a couple of bars of music by ear
5. Learn Music You Enjoy
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you should make sure that you’re learning music that inspires you and motivates you to pick up the guitar.
Spending all of your practise time challenging yourself and working on abstract technique exercises is hugely important, but it's also a sure way to suck the fun out of playing.
Whether or not learning the songs you want to play will expose you to new ideas and techniques, it is important to just enjoying playing the instrument.
Make sure that you’re splitting your practise time between improving your technique or musicality as well as playing music that makes you feel good - if you don’t enjoy your practise time you’ll burn out and become unmotivated.
Some days you’ll naturally feel less motivated than others and, no matter how much you try and pump yourself up, 30 minutes of technique practise just won’t seem achievable. When you have these days, allow yourself to just have fun. Even if you haven’t achieved what you set out to in that session, every minute you spend playing is a minute you’ve spent improving.
About the Author
Scott Ronald is a musician and guitar teacher with over 7 years’ experience touring and recording. He has played all over Europe in venues ranging from dive rock bars to large festivals and arenas.
He is also the editor of GuitarGearHeadz, a guitar and pro audio review and comparison site that helps guitarists make informed purchases.