How To Skyrocket Your Guitar Playing By Tracking Your Progress

by Mike Philippov


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How effective is your guitar practicing? Do you know for sure if your guitar playing is getting better from all of the exercises and guitar practice materials that you spend so many hours working on? Many guitar players can tell if they are playing better now than they could 3-5 years go, but few can really know with confidence whether or not they made real progress within the last 4-6 weeks of practicing guitar. Although it is important to be patient in the process of achieving big results on guitar, you cannot wait for several years to go by in order to know if the way you’ve been practicing guitar was effective or not (because doing so wastes a lot of time). If you want to maximize your chances of becoming a great guitar player, then in addition to having the right things to practice, you also need to be able to know in the short and medium term whether or not your guitar practicing is productive. In order to do this, you must get in the habit of consistently tracking your guitar playing progress.

Although many guitarists understand the above fact, it is unfortunate that most musicians make little, if any, attempt to measure their rate of improvement on guitar. The few who do usually limit this process to keeping track of their metronome speeds of playing certain exercises. Although the latter approach is better than nothing, it doesn't show the entire picture that is needed to determine whether you are making REAL progress across all of your musical skills or if you are simply “treading water” by going through the motions of practicing guitar.

In addition, the approaches often used for tracking the progress in the more tangible areas of guitar playing (such as guitar technique and music theory) will NOT work for the “intangible” skills such as rhythm guitar playing, improvising, musical creativity, phrasing and songwriting. These skills are intangible because progress with them cannot be easily quantified in specific terms (compared to recording your metronome speed when measuring your technique or checking if you understand a specific music theory concept). Nonetheless, tracking your progress with these intangible skills is extremely important if you want your guitar playing to improve more quickly. In this article, I want to share with you one very effective method you can use to track your improvement in these important areas.

The process of monitoring your guitar progress with intangible skills consists of two main steps. Below I will describe what the general steps are and then demonstrate the way they can be applied to tracking your results with several areas of your guitar playing.

Tracking your progress with intangible musical areas consists of the following points:

  1. You need to divide the bigger, more general skill into smaller and very specific elements that ARE tangible and concrete. Master each one in isolation and then test yourself by applying them all together in the context of performing the overall intangible skill (more on that later). As you test your ability to apply the smaller components of a larger skill you will get a much clearer idea about your guitar playing progress.
  1. Record your guitar playing periodically and study your recordings looking for clues (objective patterns of flaws) in various elements of your skills.

Both of the above steps are equally important, however the order in which they should be followed isn't always the same (more on that below).

As you read the rest of this article you may notice that the steps described for tracking your guitar progress have a lot in common with the points you need to follow when solving ANY challenging guitar playing problem (you can learn more about that in this video on solving guitar playing problems).

With these tools in mind, here are some examples of how the above steps can be applied when tracking your guitar playing progress with intangible musical skills.

Rhythm Guitar Playing

Most people consider rhythm guitar playing to be a “single” skill and because of this they have a hard time tracking their progress and improving their ability in this area. The fact is that rhythm guitar playing can and should be broken down into many skills that are tangible in nature. A few of the elements of rhythm guitar playing include palm muting, pick articulation, mastery of playing in odd meter, picking hand endurance and consistency of playing in time. By breaking down the broad skill of rhythm guitar playing to a set of tangible sub elements, you can now set specific goals for yourself for improving with each of them in order to enhance your overall skills in this area of guitar playing.

By creating smaller and specific goals as described above, you can now practice in a way that will give you immediate feedback on how effective your efforts are. For example, if you make it a goal for yourself to improve your picking hand endurance during longer periods of playing rhythm guitar, you will know in 4-6 weeks whether or not you have made progress towards that goal. This is much different from spending months practicing general rhythm guitar exercises only to end up wondering whether or not you are a better rhythm guitarist now than you were a year ago.

You should monitor your progress on these micro goals by creating audio recordings of your guitar playing. By listening critically to your recordings (over a period of time), it will be even easier to see how your playing has improved.

Improvising

Similar to rhythm guitar playing, improvising is a great example of a general area that consists of MANY different skill sets. Although it is largely a “creative” skill, improvising can be broken down into a set of specific elements that are quite easy to track progress with in a tangible way. Some of these elements include (but are NOT limited to): knowing what notes are in the chords you are soloing over, knowing the notes on the guitar fretboard very well, being able to come up with identifiable melodic phrases and being able to hear “in advance” what you will play next before you play it.

From this point forward, instead of going through the motions of general improvising and “hoping” that your skills in this area of guitar playing are getting better, you can proactively track your progress with each element that contributes to your larger goal. In addition to making your progress a lot more transparent, practicing in this way will enable you to make a lot more progress along the way.

To see an example of how to practice guitar fretboard visualization in a way that will help your improvising, watch this video on how to learn notes on guitar.

As you practice in the way described above, track your progress by creating regular recordings of yourself improvising and then spend a lot of time critically listening to them, looking for “patterns” in the ways you approach improvising that make your guitar playing not sound as good as you would like. If you do not have a lot of experience objectively critiquing your own guitar playing, start by asking yourself this question: “what would I change about my improvising to make it sound better than it does right now?” Answer this question as specifically as you can and then seek out the resources that you need to successfully practice towards that specific micro goal. The key is to continue repeating this process on an ongoing basis in order to have constant feedback available to you along the way.

Lead Guitar Phrasing

The topic of lead guitar phrasing (the ability to apply musical expression to the notes you play) is something that many guitar players struggle with. To start tracking your guitar playing progress in this area you must identify what micro elements of this skill you need to improve the most. You will have an easier time doing that if you begin by making a recording of your guitar playing first and then critically listening to it afterwards (or better yet – having someone with more experience listen to it). If you are doing this on your own, ask yourself the same question as written above in the section about tracking your guitar progress with improvising and this will point you in the right direction to identifying the tangible nuances of phrasing you need to work on (and track your progress with).

The most common elements of phrasing that guitarists need to work on include a lack of (or very poor) vibrato, lack of application of ornamental techniques on notes and not being able to make the phrasing fit the song. Test yourself by making regular recordings where your focus is on observing how well you are improving with each element of guitar phrasing.

Musical Creativity

In many ways, the process of tracking your progress with musical creativity is very similar to the steps you would take to track your guitar playing progress with any of the other skills listed above. I have written a detailed article about musical creativity where I address some of the challenges that guitarists usually face when practicing this area of their guitar playing. If you haven’t read that article, I suggest to do so now, and combined with the examples and the concepts that are discussed here you will understand even more about how to track your progress in this area.

It’s important to mention that the elements of each of the larger intangible musical skills discussed in this article are NOT the complete list of things you must practice and track your progress with. They are only an illustration of the general steps you need to follow in order to successfully measure your progress with skills that seem difficult to track.

As you apply the general practice approach described for monitoring your progress into your guitar practicing, you will notice much faster improvement in all areas of your guitar playing and this will create a greater sense of confidence in your potential to become the guitar player you want to be.

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

Article: Musical Creativity
Video: How To Learn The Notes On Guitar

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