The Secret To Making More Progress With Any Guitar Playing Exercise

by Mike Philippov


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See if this sounds like you: After playing guitar for months or years, you have accumulated a large number of exercises in the process of trying to improve your musical skills. However, despite your best efforts, you have also found it challenging to consistently improve your guitar playing using those practice materials. Even though you may practice guitar on a regular basis, the progress only comes at a painfully slow rate. Does this sound familiar?

This situation is extremely common and unfortunately most people react to such a problem by doing exactly the opposite from what they SHOULD be doing. Most guitar players assume that the materials they are practicing are ineffective and begin to search for “more” guitar playing exercises to improve their musical skills. As a result, guitarists quickly end up with more exercises than they know what to do with, and without knowing “how” to work on each item, the time spent practicing is largely wasted.

If the above sounds like you, then the truth is that you do not need nearly as many guitar exercises as you think. What you do need instead is to learn how to practice guitar in such a way that enables you to improve a variety of musical skills with only a “single” exercise. When you do this, 2 things will occur:

1. You will get better at guitar more quickly because you will not need to overwhelm yourself by working on many different exercises.

2. It will be much easier for you to create your own guitar playing exercises (when necessary) that are targeted to your specific problems.

How You Practice Guitar Is More Important Than What You Practice

In my video about the best way to learn guitar, I explained why it is critical to be able to answer the question “Why are you practicing this?” about every guitar playing exercise in your schedule. Having an answer to this question helps to ensure that your guitar practice sessions do not turn into mindless noodling. In addition, this question means that any practice item can be used to develop different skills in your guitar playing, depending on “how” you are practicing it.

I’ll give you a perfect example of this by using a universal guitar practice item that you are no doubt familiar with: practicing scales on guitar. Most people already know that practicing scales is “useful” as a general guitar playing exercise, but few know exactly “how” to practice scales in order to achieve the following specific objectives:

  • Improve guitar speed and technique
  • Increase improvising skills
  • Improve guitar fretboard visualization
  • Improve musical creativity

In order to use scales (or any exercise) to improve any of the above listed musical skills, you must use your most important guitar practice tool: YOUR MIND. What this means is that before you begin to practice anything on guitar, you must have SPECIFIC micro goals you want to achieve with that particular practice item during that day’s practice session. This is completely different from the general “long-term” goals you have for your guitar playing and these micro-level goals direct your mind on HOW (and why) you are going to be practicing that particular exercise to develop very specific skills. When you do this, it becomes possible to use a single exercise to get better at many elements of guitar playing. Most guitar players do not have this clarity and their practice items simply become mindless things on their practicing “to do list”. This is one of the main explanations as to why so many musicians practice guitar for years without making progress.

The ability to accurately set very specific micro-level goals for each guitar playing exercise in every guitar practice session is not something that comes naturally to most people and this is one of the reasons why most guitar players have trouble getting better at guitar on their own. However, even if you do not have a guitar teacher, you can make your guitar practicing more effective by at least “making an effort” to go through this process to the best of your current ability.

To show you some examples of how exactly to do this in your guitar practice, here is a short non-inclusive list of ways in which you can use guitar scales (sticking to the same general example that most guitar players are familiar with) to improve a diverse set of musical skills. This will be done by consciously directing your mind to focus on an appropriate set of things in each practice session.

How To Improve Your Guitar Technique With Scales
As your hands go through the motions of practicing scales, your mind should be focusing on elements of guitar technique: efficiency of movement, relaxation, synchronization and picking hand articulation. To see an example of how to use scale sequences to practice one of the elements of guitar technique, watch this free video on how to practice guitar picking technique. Simply practicing scales by mindlessly moving your fingers around the guitar will do little to improve your guitar playing. However, as you can see demonstrated in the video above, if your mind is engaged on specific micro-level goals while practicing guitar, then you will be able to train your hands to play guitar the way you want.

How To Improve Your Guitar Improvisation Skills By Practicing Scales
Although there are a lot of other very important skills to be practiced for improvising (that have nothing to do with “playing scales”), the foundation of all good improvising is the ability to play scales fluently and without mistakes. One approach to practicing to develop this, involves restricting yourself to improvising in a single scale shape over a series of chord changes to master it fully and fluently (and every few minutes switch to another scale shape in the same key). There are many more ways of training for this specific skill (I talk about them in detail in my course about practicing guitar scales), but the point here is that your mind needs to be focused on completely different tasks while practicing scales to improve your improvising as opposed to how you would practice scales to improve your guitar technique.

How To Improve Your Guitar Fretboard Visualization By Practicing Scales
When you practice scales to improve your visualization of the guitar neck, your mind needs to be focused less on what your hands are doing and more on how the notes of the scales are laid out in specific scale shapes all over the guitar. More specifically, you need to be able to play ALL shapes of a particular scale ALL OVER the guitar neck and be able to know what each shape will look like in your mind’s eye before your fingers even begin to play it. This will get your mind thinking more about where the notes are on the fretboard for any position of the scale and will prevent you from going on autopilot while practicing (as happens very often for most guitar players). You can learn more about this topic of practicing guitar in this free video on learning guitar fretboard visualization.

How To Improve Your Musical Creativity By Practicing Scales On Guitar
When you practice scales with intention to improve your guitar playing creativity, your mind needs to focus on creating unique sequencing patterns from a scale shape instead of simply playing the scale up and down. The result of challenging yourself to play scales in ways that you don’t normally practice them will enable you to use them much more creatively and fluently in any musical context.

As you can see, there are many ways you can get better at guitar with only a single practice item simply by rotating what you choose to focus your mind on while practicing guitar. In addition to scales, you can also take virtually any guitar playing exercise and practice it in different ways to improve skills such as your knowledge of music theory, ability to play in time, your ear training, your guitar speed and other skills without needing different exercises to reach each of these goals. In order to do that, you must do 2 things:

1. Learn exactly how to practice in general to develop “specific” skills on guitar
2. Keep your mind engaged on the precise micro-level goal you are trying to achieve

As you learn to do this and begin to apply it on a daily basis in your guitar practicing, you will realize that you can stop worrying about accumulating more and more practice materials and instead focus on learning how to get the most out of the ones you already have.

Break up the focus on each individual “micro” goal on different days of the week. This way you can practice the same exercise every day but do so in entirely different ways each time. For example, if you practice scales every day of the week, on Monday you can practice them by focusing ONLY on building your speed. This will require your brain to be focused on a certain set of things. On Tuesday, you may practice scales focusing on becoming better at improvising and on Wednesday you will move to focus on improving your musical creativity with scales. Continue alternating your micro-level goals in this way from day to day for maximum improvement in your guitar playing.

All of this being said, it would of course be a mistake to assume that having multiple guitar playing exercises is somehow “bad”. The lesson I want you to take away from this article is that you need to learn how to practice guitar in such a way that you can extract numerous benefits from “any” exercise you practice. When you learn to do this, there will be no stopping you on your way to becoming a truly amazing guitar player.

To get more help with improving your guitar playing, study these resources:

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