Michael Perrotta | Guitar/Bass | Lessons | Composition | Recording | Live Production | Consulting

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Much of what I work on with my students during lessons comes back to teaching them how to practice. In fact, practicing well is one of the most valuable things a teacher can impart on their students. It's also one of the reasons taking lessons is so important in the first place, along with learning good technique, troubleshooting things you're stuck on, and being guided on what material to study. Well, I'll discuss the benefits of studying with a teacher some other time. For now, let's talk about practicing.

When I was kid starting out on guitar, I used to hate the idea of what my teachers (and anyone else who knew what they were talking about) would tell me was the right way to practice. They would say things like “don't rush”, or “you have to learn the basics first”. When you're 13 years old and all you want to do is shred like Steve Vai, it's hard to make sense of anything that doesn't involve clicking the metronome up a notch every couple of minutes, no matter how sloppy it starts to sound. Oh well, at least I was using a metronome.

Several years, and some good music teachers later, I began to fill in some of the holes in my practicing, and started getting the results I was looking for. Like everything else I discuss here, this is a lifelong project, but if you're not doing these things now, and you start doing a few of them, you'll see results right away.

Pick apart a single measure; or a few notes/chords. The next time you learn a song, or a solo, take the first few notes or chords, and check to see if you really know them. Play them slowly, and make sure you can repeatedly play them perfectly and effortlessly before moving on. Take the next few notes or chords and do the same. If it is a chord section and the chords are new or challenging, this would involve playing only two chords until they're easy, and then add in the next chord.

No matter how you group your notes, don't forget to overlap parts. Rather than practicing one measure by itself, then the next measure by itself, overlap them by a note. For example, if you're dealing with one measure at a time, practice each measure including the downbeat of the next measure. If you don't do this, after you learn two parts, you'll have to spend extra time putting them together.

Another approach would be what's sometimes called the “chain link method”. Essentially you play two notes, then add a note, one at a time, until a measure/line/phrase is complete. Of course you only add notes after you're comfortable playing the current group. This method takes care of the overlapping for you, but just make sure you start the next section with the last note of the previous group.

Listen...really listen. Listen to what you're playing and ask yourself some questions. Are all the notes in this chord clear? Am I playing articulately? Is the rhythm exactly right? Am I rushing/lagging? Is the balance between bass and treble right? What about the guitar tone; is it appropriate for this song/genre/mood? How is the guitar volume relative to the recording or the rest of the players in the room? Be honest about the answers. Don't settle. Always try to improve your listening and come up with solutions and exercises to solve the problems.

If you're making mistakes you're going too fast, or playing too many notes. Don't ever practice mistakes. Of course you're allowed to make a mistake here or there, but as soon as you're making several mistakes in a part, or repeating the same mistake, it's time to slow down, or shorten the length of the section you're working on. Most of the time, my students need to cut down their tempo by something much more dramatic than they think they do while they're learning something (until they get really good at practicing, that is). If you're always practicing error-free, you'll start to see a huge improvement in the time it takes to learn something new.

To sum it all up. Basically it all comes down to what I used to hate hearing as a kid. Take your time, don't rush, do it little by little, pay attention, etc... But this stuff is really important, and will get you the results we're all looking for: learning songs sooner and more accurately, playing cleaner, easier time learning tough parts, and making steady progress without checking the clock every five minutes. Good luck, and have fun practicing!

I know I didn't cover nearly everything here, so look for parts “Practicing, part 2,3,4...” in the future!

Learning Music Theory

I often meet guitarists of all styles and levels, from students to professionals, who talk about music theory as if it's some esoteric science that they'll never even be able to understand the basics of, yet they wish they could learn in hopes of improving their understanding of their instrument and music in general. The truth is, of course this stuff is not out of reach, and in most cases, a musician of any level already knows some theory whether they realize it or not.

If you can jam on a 12 bar blues, you already know some music theory. If you can tell whether a song is in 3/4 or 4/4, you already know some music theory. If you've ever written a song, you already, on some level, know music theory. If any of this applies to you , then the next step is to just start filling in some blanks. If you're new to playing, or you honestly just feel like the only type of guitar playing you know is repeating finger patterns from rote memorization, that's cool too, you have a clean slate to start with.

Music theory is the key to being able to read, compose, improvise, and understand the songs you are learning. The term “music theory” itself encompasses a huge range of topics, from the basics of pitch and rhythm, to how chords and scales interact, all the way to specific composition techniques and stylistic approaches. Learning music theory can easily become intimidating if approached from the wrong direction; however, if you manage to keep a few things in mind, the whole process will feel much more natural, and make a lot more sense.

Understand The Basics First

This point is often lost on students beginning to study theory. They get stuck thinking about exotic scales, complex rhythms, or trying to compose an elaborate piece, but can't correctly count a simple beat, or transcribe a basic melody. Try to always be honest with yourself about what you need to be working on, even if it doesn't seem like the most exciting thing in the world. Be patient, if you stay consistent you'll get to the good stuff sooner than you might think.

Keep Moving To Keep Things Interesting

If you keep up a daily routine, you'll rarely find yourself getting bored, since you'll be making steady progress. If you only look at this stuff once or twice a week, it's easy to get lost and feel like you're not getting anywhere. However, once you get past the initial learning curve, it's easy to just incorporate your music theory studies into your regular practice routine, since it will apply to almost everything you do musically.

Stay Relevant

Of course not everything you learn will pertain to your playing/writing at that very moment. You can usually, however, find some way to relate the music theory material you study to music you are either playing or composing at the time. This is the best method I know of to understand any type of theory, music or otherwise. If you're learning about new rhythms, pick an instrument from a favorite song and try to count it, or better yet, write out the rhythm in tablature or notation software like Guitar Pro or Sibelius so you can hear it play back and see if you were correct. If you're learning about a new type of chord progression or harmonization technique, try using that in a song you're writing, or use it to improvise a new part over an existing song you like. Get creative, there is always a way to apply these concepts to whatever you're doing musically, no matter how basic or advanced. And remember, doing so allows you to instantly take studying theory from something that can feel like memorizing equations you'll never use and turn it back into playing music, which is the whole point anyway, right?

Michael J Perrotta ♫ 2013