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I was delighted to come across this site. I'm a self-taught guitarist (largely electric guitar) and am continually looking to improve my playing and practice techniques. The change of running my thoughts past a group of like-minded experts (I hope!) is very appealing.

It's almost like a bit of a review I'm looking for: am I doing it right, are there any suggestions for improvement? Note, I am talking about practicing the physicality and mental aspect, not theory currently. I'm gearing up to record an album.

So, the number one principle I follow is that you need to be able to play something (let's say a phrase) slowly and without any tension before it can be played quickly. I'm in a band and mindset where most of the time I write fairly fast material that I know I cannot play perfectly and without tension at full speed, meaning I hope that I'm continually improving.

I actually wrote some guitar training software for myself so I can automatically record and adjust tempos for phrases. This is in lieu of a 'real' teacher but works the following way:

  • Metronome plays on loop, pre-programmed to a low tempo (1/2 or less of target speed), with the correct time sig and # of bars in the phrase
  • I hit a USB footswitch when I recognise I have tensed up at all, or made a mistake
  • 5 successful phrase play-throughs in a row = tempo increased by 1 BPM automatically
  • 5 mistakes in the last 5 phrase play-throughs? = tempo decreased by 1 BPM automatically

It also times the total time spent on each phrase/total across all phrases daily and across all time. So I do about 30-100 mins a day at the moment.

I think this is a good idea because it means I should never be far off playing it perfectly and without tension. If I improve, tempo goes up (slowly).

I have doubts too though: when I come back the next day it's plenty of mistakes and often the first say 15-20 mins are warming up/getting into the groove again.

Is there a flaw in all of that? Thanks!

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4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

First, I'd like to point out that you shouldn't be warming up with what you're going to practice. Find some warming up exercise to play before you play. They'll help you avoid injuries and also fend off things like carpel tunnel syndrome. You'll also find that when you finally do start practicing it'll take you less time to play up to the level at which you stopped playing previously.

Anyway, this is a well practiced, practice technique. I don't know if there is an exact methodology in doing this but what you're currently doing sounds fine. Practicing slowly doesn't make you play slowly. Muscle memory is a large part of playing an instrument. By playing something quickly, you'll often not play it correctly. If you are playing it correctly you might not be playing it technically correct. By starting off slowly you can pay attention to what your right and left hand are doing. You have time to think of whether or not you are fretting a note with the right finger and you can really pay attention to your right hand control. Too much motion in your right hand can be detrimental to your playing and when you're playing very quickly you might not be aware of your excess movement.

By playing things too quickly you also can develop really nasty habits that can be incredibly hard to undo. In fact, the only way I know of to undo bad habits is to practice the way you've explained.

Another technique that I think helps and sort of goes against what I just said is to eventually try to play faster than your goal. Say you want to play a lick at 140 bpm, speed it up to 155 and try it once or twice at that speed, then slow it down again. See, it's not so bad anymore is it?

I'd experiment more with the number of repetitions and the increase of speed. I usually don't set any number of repetitions for myself. I'll keep playing it until I'm comfortable, with certain exercises I'll do them a fixed number of times, like scalar exercises, but for more fun things I usually won't. Regardless of the lick I start around 70 bmp and work up in increments of 10 until I get to a speed which I cannot play comfortably and then I slow down again.

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Thanks for the answer. In your opinion what's a good warmup - any pattern-based work, chromatic runs, simple stuff etc? –  Kieren Johnstone Feb 7 '13 at 16:38
    
I think that "What are some good warm-up exercises for guitar players" would be a good stand-alone question. –  VarLogRant Feb 7 '13 at 16:51
    
@Kieren Johnstone Most of the exercises I do for warm ups are weird patterns that sound funny. They just gradually stretch your hand more and more. I'll also do chromatic stuff and string skipping things. Sometimes a combination of all three. –  Tony Feb 8 '13 at 14:43

I often quote military training. This time, it's "Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast." You seem to know this, wanting to get the movements slow and tension-free before moving on. I think your system is good and might be worth commercializing.

But I think that 1 BPM might be too slight a difference. I'd experiment with 5 BPM jumps. Maybe 10.

But, I'd build in warmup exercises first.

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1  
±1 BPM is a bigger change at 40 BPM than it is at 140 BPM. Perhaps a logarithmic scale would be appropriate. –  luser droog Mar 19 '13 at 23:02
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Musicians may have a hard time reading "logarithmic". Fortunately there is a much less intimidating version: the mechanical metronomes don't offer single BPM steps, but bigger chunks, which are also increasing with the total speed. These mechanical steps are also emulated by some digital metronomes. One metronome step is typically still too small a difference but two steps is noticable. –  guidot Mar 20 '13 at 15:38

I am learning the guitar myself, and am currently in a self teaching phase. Of course the teaching is being supplemented by multiple free sources that are currently available to us thanks to the interweb. Based on all the advice I see out there I think your overall idea is not wrong. The broad idea of "play it accurately till you get it right" and then "move up the tempo" is something that even Vai has said from time to time, as has Michael Angelo Batio. However I have a feeling that you are moving too fast. Instead of this whole one BPM down one BPM up activity why don't you decide on a comfortable BPM for a specific lick or licks and get that down with no mistakes for a couple of days, or even 3-4 days. Then take up the BPM a whole step, for eg from 60BPM to 80 BPM and practice the same again. This method should help your muscle memory to better remember the progression than the constantly shifting BPM approach you are trying now. I am using this technique currently and feel it is helping.

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I don't play the guitar but I think this applies to many/most instruments.

My belief is this: by practicing slowly you learn to play slowly. In order to learn to play fast you need to practice fast. There are at least two reasons for this:

  • You need to think quick when playing quick. For example when you practice slowly you perhaps think about single notes but you probably cannot do this in a fast tempo. You have to think about groups of notes.

  • You need a different technique when playing quick. For example, you need smaller and more smooth movements. This is also connected to the previous point in that in a way you have to play many notes in a single move. Here's an analogue I like: think about the difference between walking and running. You can only get so fast by gradually increasing your walking speed. At some point you're going to need a completely different technique, i.e. running.

So, how can you practice fast without making all those mistakes? Explaining it all would be impossible or at least take way too long so I'll just give an idea. Say you have a fast passage.

  1. Break it down in sections which you can play fast and correctly (and relaxed) after a few tries. Practice each section separately for a while in a fast tempo. I often use a faster tempo at this point than what it's finally going to be.
  2. Practice moving between sections by taking some notes from the end of a section and some from the beginning of the next section.
  3. Practice playing two whole sections together, still in a fast tempo. Practice all combinations of adjacent sections, not just the first two.
  4. Keep doing this, playing longer and longer combinations of sections. You might need to slow down a bit but try to keep the same technique. You might also find out that you need to change the fingering at some point. In that case, try to figure most of the necessary changes out and restart from 1.
  5. Finally you should be able to play the whole passage in a pretty fast tempo, with a technique suitable for playing quickly. It's probably not going to be perfect; maybe it's a bit uneven or you miss some notes now and then but try to get it as good as possible.
  6. Now it's time to start practicing slowly but try it this way: decrease the tempo gradually. This way you remember the correct technique better and you might also find out that you don't need to get all the way down to a very slow tempo, thus saving some time. This is where you refine and secure the technique.
  7. If you feel you need it, you can do the standard slow->fast practice now, when you know how you have to play.

Of course there's a lot more to it but I hope you get the basic idea from this and can then modify it to suit yourself.

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Thanks for the extensive response. I will say that this goes directly against numerous sources (every single one) that I have read about guitar practice. So I am a bit skeptical! I will look into it now.. but in the meantime do you have any sources at all? –  Kieren Johnstone Feb 7 '13 at 8:00
    
I know :) I got it from a book for piano practice but I don't remember it anymore. I think the best way to believe it works is to try it. For me it works much better than starting slow in most cases, but maybe not so for everyone. In any case, I don't think it can hurt trying with one passage! –  nonpop Feb 7 '13 at 8:06
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For the silent downvoters (and others too if you disagree): Have you tried this? If not, I suggest you take two similarly difficult passages, then practice one this way and the other the way you usually do. See which one's more efficient and then decide. The worst that can happen is that you "ruin" a couple measures and have to re-learn it. If you try it for only a few days it won't cause any permanent or even long-lasting damage anywhere even if it's completely unsuitable for you. –  nonpop Feb 7 '13 at 16:18
    
Wasn't me by the way.. I was looking for other options! –  Kieren Johnstone Feb 7 '13 at 16:33
    
FWIW, I have tried the method in the post above in the past and failed repeatedly. It wasn't until I spent a significant amount of time (4+ weeks) working on something slowly and building up to speed in a similar manner to the OP that I got results. A good example, for me anyway, is the opening lead in I Know A Little by Lynyrd Skynyrd. –  JimR Feb 7 '13 at 19:28

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