How I learn material for the guitar, or No Pain, Good.

Here are some things that I aspire to do when learning / practising specific melodies or solos for guitar. I wish I could remember to do these things all the time. Some of them apply to other instruments (particularly piano) and other activities (like drawing, handwriting).

This is not advice for other people because everyone is different. But if you’ve not tried them, these are ideas worth trying to see if they work for you. These ideas are not original. I’ve just collected them together in one place.

  • Before I start learning a tune / solo, I learn to sing it or hear it in my head without my instrument. I prefer to do this from a recording, because that will contain all sorts of articulations that can’t be represented in written music. I sometimes use software that allows me to select a small section at a time to learn. I mostly avoid using software to slow the music down, or tell me what the notes are, because I want to practise hearing melodies in real time. This is not an outright ban: if I’m struggling to find some chord tones I will sometimes loop a small section to hear them more clearly. But if I can’t identify a note in a melody after hearing it several times, I’ll probably conclude that the specific pitch is not important.
  • When I start learning the melody, I break it into short phrases. If I play the whole thing in one go, by the time I get to the end I’ve forgotten what I need to do to improve the earlier bits. Also the phrases are reusable in other contexts. I find it helps to break them out from the start.
  • When looking at improvised material I tend to avoid the fancy stuff that players throw in, such as double time licks or ornaments. It’s the underlying melody that I’m interested in. I can add my own ornamentation later.
  • I think about fingering for each phrase before I start to practise it. Sometimes I’ll modify or simplify a phrase to make it easier to play.
  • If I’m having trouble with a phrase, I’ll play it extremely slowly with a metronome, allowing enough time between notes to be able to visualise what my fingers have to do before I execute the next note. At first that may be some seconds. Once I’ve played the phrase through accurately several times I’ll speed it up by maybe 20% and repeat the process until I get up to tempo. I’m often surprised by how much quicker this is than trying to learn a problematic phrase at tempo in the first place. My speed of learning is way slower than my speed of execution of material that I’ve learned properly. And that’s because learning requires some amount of thought, and thought slows me down. Once I’ve created the muscle memory I can eliminate the thought and execute it much faster.
  • My aim is to practise playing without effort. If I practise with effort, effort will come out in my playing. Slowing things down removes the effort. This is very different from when people talk about pushing your limits or pushing the envelope or going outside your comfort zone. Slowing things down until they are trivially easy, and then speeding them up expands my comfort zone. If I’m practising out of my comfort zone, something is wrong. My motto is – no pain, good!
  • I try not to look at my fingers when I’m practising. It’s bad for posture and inhibits the development of muscle memory. If I feel the need to look, I try instead to visualise what my fingers need to do. This seems to speed the learning of muscle memory. [Amazingly, this applies to handwriting and drawing as well.]
  • I always intend to learn each phrase in several positions and on the top fours strings and the middle four strings. I don’t always manage this because there are limits on the amount of time available.
  • Once I’ve got the whole thing up to speed, I will practise it every day until it has become a part of me.
  • If the process is not enjoyable then I’m practising the wrong thing. If the material doesn’t really appeal, then I drop it. Otherwise it may just be too difficult, and maybe I’ll set it aside for a year or so and then try again.

In the past my progress has been impeded by thinking that I can’t do a thing and therefore not trying, or thinking that I can see why people advise me to do a certain thing but that it doesn’t apply to me. My message to my former self and to that current form of myself is – before you give up, GIVE IT A TRY.

The ideas here are part of what I do as directed practice. There’s much to be learned in undirected practice but I’ll write about that another time.