Songs, notes, chords, rhythms, scales, arpeggios, licks, riffs, music theory and ear training. Whammy bar techniques, bends, slides, hammer ons and pull off's and pickup switching etc. there is a lot to practice. Combine all of these with fretting hand and picking hand positioning, tension awareness, posture and your breath and you can easily get overwhelmed at the size of the list of things a guitar player should practice to become competent at their instrument.
So what should you practice today? Well obviously all the items above are important and are necessary in your development as a guitar player. However, 99% of guitar players focus on the items but not on the one thing that improves each item.
You see we all have the same notes on our guitars. The chords are the same. Bends, slides etc. are all able to be produced on your guitar as the same as mine. But what's needed to produce them - is the most important thing to practice.
Would you agree with me that all music is movement? A song or a piece of music has a start and end; light and shade; dynamics; ebbs and flows? All music moves in a certain way. As musicians, our job is to create these sounds, these aural dances, so the listener is moved in some form or manner. So instead of concerning ourselves that this is a C note, or this is a D chord (albeit very important to know) we should place a lot of attention on our hand and body movements that are needed to make those notes sound great. To become better guitar players we need to focus on the movements that make the music move.
Let me share with you a couple of examples...
Imagine you are wanting to play a song that has a simple open D chord. But instead of strumming the chord, the music has the chord picked instead. So the first four notes might be two pairs of eights notes. The first two are both on the open D string and the next two are on the first and second strings respectively. The challenge here is getting your pick to change from the 4th string up to the first string. It's the movement of your pick, and hand, that needs the focus and attention so you can develop an efficient motion to produce that short musical phrase. Its the production and smooth development of that movement, that is going to make the music move – not the notes themselves.
Another example for you to consider is one that presents itself in many songs. A change from a strumming pattern to playing a riff that is made up of single notes. So you have a chord – let's say it's an open Em chord and the strumming pattern ends with an up strum. The very first note in the riff however, is the open G string. Now when you finish that up strum, the motion of your strumming hand finishes above the strings, yet you have to get it back down, without any break in the music or rhythm to the G string.
So here again, it's not the chord, the strumming pattern or the note itself that is our most pressing concern to play this correctly. It's the movement from the end of the up strum, back down, smoothly, and in time, to the third string. Usually, for most people, this is quite a distance. Here most people focus on the notes and that's what they practice and neglect the most important part of playing it correctly – the movement to make it move.
To practice this, so you can make the music move, you will not be practicing music here. You will practice the movement from the strum to the note. So grab an Em chord and strum it once only in an upward motion. Make sure you strum it as you normally would. Don't stop the strum just above the sixth string. Do your normal strumming motion and take notice of where it ends. You may have to do this a few times. Then when the up strum motion is at the end of its trajectory take it back down to sound the open note of the third string.
Practice this movement slowly and keep your strumming arm and hand as steady as you can while you practice this. So you will only hear one up strum, and a single note, through the entire process. You aren't creating any music here, just complete focus and attention on making that movement as efficient as possible.
Changing chords is another great example for you to be able to focus movement rather than the notes, or the chords in this case. No matter what style of music you play there will come a time where you will have a G to a D chord change. Again every guitar is able to sound both of these chords, but it's the movement that is needed from your fretting hand fingers, that requires your focus, to change between them more than copying the chord diagram.
If you're having issues changing the chords smoothly and cleanly, just focus, work on and practice the movement that is required from the G chord to the D chord. Do this without strumming daily until you can land all your fingers down together in one seamless motion for each chord. When you can quickly change back and forth, with it being effortless, you know you have the movement that is required to make the music move.
The more you progress, and the more you become aware of the movement that is needed to make the music you play sound great, the more examples you'll find to practice. I want to stress, that it's not the notes and the chords that makes you a better guitar player – we all have them. It's the perpetual movements, the effortless changes our hands, fingers and bodies perform, that are required to make the music you play really have an emotional effect on the listener.
About Author: Allen Hopgood is a full-time professional guitar teacher and entrepreneur on the Gold Coast, QLD Australia. Having honed his chops and cut his teeth learning to play guitar in bands that supported various national and international musical acts, he is now dedicated to getting results for his students, in his popular guitar teaching studio.