Core Location: Nucleus
We touched in on our 10 point guitar practice system (GPS) in Ground. This Nucleus resource is an expansion of that session.
These are 10 practice zones. Our goal is to create individualized practice paths using these areas of focus, and ultimately to make sweet music. To make music, we practice.
In a practice we session, we typically don't hit every zone. We typically hit 3-4 per day. Over time, points on the wheel can and do start to merge: we read melodies, strum songs with others, get to know our board via soloing & chord exploration. Yet, each can always be a distinct category for activity.
There are as many practice organization systems as there are guitarists. Each of us has a unique mix of topics, activities, and applications.
The wheel map shown is how I organize a student's studies, whether they see it [use it], or not. Drawing wheels or other shapes can definitely help certain students.
Ultimately, we are building a guitar practice. In a way, everything is practice...building technique and hand strength (we always challenge weak fingers), thinking/not thinking, feeling, style development, technology, performance, jamming with/for others, etc. Our overall goal is to make music as an integrated experience.
We encourage training beyond while honoring self. Training beyond means developing our skills beyond what it takes to play the music we want to play [whether recorded or in the imagination].
Honoring self means that we allow our musical self to breathe & unfold while learning to play, through independent thought & action. This translates into developing our rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic self whether learning others folk's music, or our own. We stay conscious about what influences us.
When practicing, what matters most is how we practice. The “what” matters, of course, but the “how” determines if we actually create the conditions for improvement.
We have a plan for practice, while still allowing for space to follow our own lead when things start happening (we are designing and developing our process).
An hour of wandering aimlessly is never as effective as 10 minutes of focused, deliberate training with awareness. Incrementalism works [a little everyday].
Besides tuning [always first - be ready], the order and duration doesn't matter as much as the quality of practice in each zone. And, we always warm-up a little. Warming up sets the tone of our session.
We should always know which practice mode we are in - training or jamming. Exercise each until they merge; yet, continue to use each as a distinct mode of action.
There is a rhythm to practice. We discover our practice rhythm.
It's okay to take a day off. This happens naturally; we relax about playing/practicing & keep it in the fun-to-do category.
With learning to play any instrument, find new ways to keep it interesting, while continuing to improve. There are moments when we have dissonance, but this is normal and a natural part of stretching ourselves as musicianers.
When we hit each practice zone enough, with quality, we can play. It's really that simple. We do a little focused work in each area. Over time, it all adds up. And, some zones are optional, while some are absolutely necessary.
Necessary skills are being ready, gaining technical control, playing/figuring out melodies, knowing your board, and being a reliable rhythm player.
Optional are reading, knowing theory, soloing, and writing/improvising, and jamming with/for others. However, these are important and integral to any comprehensive guitar practice.
There might not be universal agreement for what is 'necessary' or 'optional', but this is my current view. The most important piece for most is being able to strum songs. If you can't strum a song, that's where your focus should be. It's primarily what we do as guitarists [even though in some styles, strumming is not primary, it is still necessary].
Each of us is unique for sure, yet some things are universal. Balancing all of the aspects of musicianship can be challenging. Stay open to new information, but also don't reduce your playing life to one dimension of guitar. Experiment in all areas!
As we build our guitar practice, we find out what keeps us fired up to play, what challenges us in positive ways, and what we may want to sideline for exploration in the future [or retire forever].
If you are interested only in a specific zone, study it, but we are encouraging you to take a look & do some work in all of the zones.
Over time, many of the areas will & do merge. Example: playing simple melodies moves into reading & soloing; riffs into song playing & writing.
The more we practice & play, much of it becomes self-evident. This is a fact. We just keep doing the work & have fun doing it.
Our goal is to create a path for our studies built from the activities which inspire us. Let's go around the wheel.
To be ready, we prepare:
Our gear is in working order. Guitars have decent strings & all of our components have power [AC or batteries]. We set up our practice space, making sure that everything is in arm and/or foot reach [amps, computers, audio players and/or recorders, pedals, etc.].
We get comfortable.
We learn the basics. Among other things, this includes → Getting in tune - being in tune ensures enjoyable practice sessions and lets us know - through sound - that we are doing things right. We typically start with standard tuning [Low to High: E-A-D-G-B-E → Eat Apples →Daily →Goto →Bed →Early] reference tones. → Tablature [tab]- the easiest notation system for guitar. Tab consists of 6 lines representing the strings and uses numbers on those lines to indicate frets. → Finger labels & position - we need to know what our finger labels are and understand fretting hand location.
We prepare to expand our abilities and experience.
Much of this is mentioned in Techniques.
To play anything, we must have some level of control over our physical playing system. This is called our technique. Technique is our hands working together to create sonic events.
By training with focus, we...
Fretting is pressing the strings down to shorten or lengthen the string and create higher or lower tones. Techniques include pressing, slurs, and muting/touching. Slurs are using our fretting hand to articulate tones. Muting/touching is using the fretting hand to block the strings without pressing. The fretting hand is integral to creating sweet tone and rhythm.
Motor hand techniques include strumming, picking, fingerpicking [fingerstyle], slap-touch, and hybrids.
We can also use other objects than picks, but we will strum and pick with these objects [toothbrush, coins, candy bars, etc.].
Each hand can also do what the other traditionally does [i.e. the fretting hand can strum, motor can fret].
We can and do reevaluate our technique at any point along the way. And, we are always training. We continuously look for ways to improve.
Live this: don't train mistakes by just 'trying' things over and over. We do some thinking and feeling at the start of any process. If we aren't getting a technical skill after multiple attempts, we change our approach. We make adjustments; incremental ones, until we feel a pocket. When we train with awareness, 'aha' moments inevitably follow.
Falling down the steps is one way to get to the bottom ["I made it!"], but could we recreate the fall exactly? And, would we walk back up, and just fall down over and over?
When we step slowly through a sequence of movements, programming the motion, through space, in time, we can recreate it again & again; and, at a certain point without having to think about it - "Do that!"
A basic area of practice is to figure out and play simple melodies and riffs. This gives us a good start. It is a core skill to be able to figure out melodies by ear. This connects our voice to the guitar, which is the foundation for soloing/improvising. We recommend figuring out simple popular tunes such as kid's songs [see list below], and figure out the vocal melody to any song that you are learning [guitar solos can often be the main vocal melody or use it as an outline or use parts of it].
Melody is the linear or horizontal dimension of music. It is a succession of single tones that create a cohesive & often memorable tune. Other words for melody are tune & line. Melodies are often most of what we retain from songs that we know.
This is the beginning of Mozart's famous melody.
For melodies, we eventually move to reading music and soloing/improvising. Scales (tone groups) are a solid conduit for figuring out melodies and learning to improvise.
Riffs are guitar based 'melodies' [although many can be played on any pitched instrument] which are recognizable and singable. In contrast to certain types of chord progressions, riffs can be sung. Good examples are Crazy Train, Smoke on the Water, and Seven Nation Army.
For riffs, we move to learning the rest of the song, all the way through.
We typically use tablature at the very beginning, yet we learn to use our voice/inner hearing to figure out known melodies. And, learn to read music.
Figure these out. Write at least one down. Also, keep in mind that any melody can be played in hundreds of ways [different keys, positions, using open strings]. I often have students start on single strings.
Happy Birthday, Row Your Boat, Star Spangled Banner, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Old MacDonald, Little Lamb, London Bridge, Over the Rainbow, Rain Rain, Go Away, Twinkle, and on and on. Do this.
I ask all students of guitar to learn to read music. It's not absolutely mandatory to read, to play basic songs [strum, figure out melody], but maybe we should include it as a part of the base functional, or minimum requirements for being a musician. It's a personal choice. My hope is that you will choose to read.
It's really not that difficult and it is an incredibly valuable skill to have. Whole new worlds of music open up to the reading musician.
Music notation is a system of symbols which we realize into sound. It uses 5 lines as a visual base for displaying notes, in different durations and combinations. The challenge is connecting these notes to locations on the fretboard, and playing these conversions in the indicated rhythm.
The reading system in the path follows a specific note sequence to ensure you learn to read with relative ease. When you follow the sequence and think through the material, there is no way that you won't know how to read.
Really, everything we do from learning chords and chord structures, understanding scale systems, and reading music, jamming, etc. helps us learn our fretboard.
There are many ways to go about learning our fretboard. To learn our tone names in standard, we could use basic tone spelling on a grid. We can also get to know our octaves [the ultimate skeleton for any tuning].
It is also important to understand tone naming and the traditional music theory naming system. There are multiple ways to name the components within our tonal system. There are traditional ways, as well as more modern ways, to name things. Knowing what things are called is useful to know and creates language to communicate ideas to our fellow musicianers.
Big maps for getting to know the fretboard: 7 Major scale patterns | 5 Pentatonics | CAGED Theory
Music theory is the method of analyzing our musical system & describing relationships between tones. The true outcome of this theoretical system is the naming of everything (tones, chords, etc.), & relational description (how each thing relates to another).
Learning theory isn't that difficult and does not interfere with musicianship. It is meant to be learned and integrated, not be the main lens for music making. It is an enhancement of our understanding of our tonal system.
Theory is ultimately a naming system [which describe sonic relationships]. For those who think that learning what things are called dampens creativity, this is total nonsense. It does no harm to know and it deepens our understanding. And, we when we know it really well, we can transcend it. Naming things is just one of the many ways to think of our tonal system. When we are in the flow, making music, we might not think of a single name, but rather, of colors and light, or nature, or friends. Names don't have to get in the way of feeling-tone.
Becoming a solid rhythm guitarist will typically be our first area of total competency. We build a chord catalog in which we've made enough connections to make things automatic. This enables us to play our favorite songs, write songs, and figure out songs. And, this skill is our doorway to jamming with other musicians.
Of all areas of focus, being able to strum songs is the most important [after getting in tune, of course]. As far as 'levels' of playing, being able to strum a song all the way through is the benchmark for being an intermediate player. To ensure that you can strum and change chords, in time, check out Shape Connect.
Learning to solo can be as intense as it is frightening. We recommend all students of guitar to start this process at the beginning. If you haven't started to solo yet, start immediately.
For most of us, becoming a melody maker can take decades to find our pocket. And the process is never complete; it just keeps going [melodies are infinite].
To learn to solo, we train with scales, learn existing solos, and make up our own [whether improvising or written out/planned].
The real goal of soloing is to get to know and to develop our melodic self; awaken our melodic sensibilities.
Our overall goal is to make music. Every point on the wheel can be done musically; therefore, music is present in all 10 areas. And, making music is its own thing free of a training mindset. We can set time aside within our practice to simply make some music. Whether this is performing a piece of music or jamming or improvising or playing songs, alone or with others, we let sound flow without too much thought. No matter the style we play or methods we use, our overall goal is to make and share music and to be musical.
At the heart of music making is creating a rewarding & sustained practice that produces joy and intensity for a life-time. This is possible for everyone; and the best part is, that we, as players, steer the process. When our goals are clear & we make contact with our musical self, incredible experiences can follow.
For any given set of tones, we work the materials in our own way, in our own order, at our own speed. Even if we are learning a song or a solo, we can use the materials of that song or solo to be inventive. We give ourselves this opportunity. We can also make up stuff within any practice area, even creating our own exercises. And, we start this at the beginning.
Jamming with/for Others = testing our skills & interacting with other musicianers; performing for an audience.
Is our training paying dividends? Whether we are jamming with friends, rehearsing and performing with a band, playing for an audience, or just using audio, this is a vital component of any sensible learning system. For most, it is why we play. For others that view playing as a solitary craft, we still can use audio to interact with the sonic world, or not. We eventually will end up playing for or with someone at some point.
Jamming is a different mind mode than training. We let go and just play.
Of course, we can and do jam alone, with or without audio.
There are endless play-alongs out there. We suggest that you avoid Muzak sounding audio and favor real world sounds.
As you know, improvising is making up music on the spot. We aren't working from a script, rather from experience and internal resources [inner hearing, singing, inspiration, visuals]. Improvising is a primary practice piece for all guitarists, no matter what level or age.
It all begins with beginning. Start this process immediately. It is an integral component of any sensible learning system.
All 12 tones are workable in any key, not just the 7 that are in the key. 'Wrong tone' means 'wrong emphasis'. Tones outside the key are used for passing tones or approach tones.
Sing to yourself. Vocally & subvocally.
Listen. Really listen for tension and resolution.
Use maps, then don't use maps.
Learn tone-names & intervals - understand directionality & what particular tones can do within a harmonic environment.
If you hear a tone outside the given set [the scale], find & use them.
Jam Audio can assist with your melodic development by providing a backdrop to explore a given tone set. By using tonal material against audio, we find an effective means of practice, a way for us to interact, & an opportunity to play against changing elements within the provided track (melodic motifs within harmonic motion, level of intensity, shifts in sections).
Use jam audio for improvising [or any you can find - we do not promote soloing to Muzak type MIDI tracks, simply for the sake of art]. Turn the track on, know your tone set, and run.
Explore every conceivable combination of tones. Listen to what you are playing. Go in any order, repeat tones, & use slurs (pulls, hammers, slides, bends, & vibrato). Use your voice & your ear. Be melodic. Be harmonic [build mini-chords to accent the existing harmonies]. Logging time just noodling and tinkering leads to your melodic faculties (sensibilities) warming up. You may find motifs from tunes you know, &/or write your own melodies. This is a process that assists with songwriting.
Practice routines can be categorized in two general types: multi-topic or single topic.
For multi-topic, we touch in on a variety of topics, digging in just a little in each activity zone. An example might be warming up, then doing some fingerpicking, then reading, then jamming, then thinking on some naming systems [theory].
For a single topic, such as experimenting with a tone group ['scale'], we do a variety of things: train in a number of ways [picking, fretting, rhythms, tempo, sequences], jam [improvise], memorize tone names or numbering systems, etc.
5 minutes of focused practice daily can be as beneficial as longer, unfocused sessions. Steady practice adds up, incrementally.
Build your practice!