The Importance of Technical Work in Learning the Guitar

This is a subject I have been discussing recently with a few of my students, so I thought it may be useful to share with you too. It’s a subject that has relevancy for whatever level of learning, proficiency and mastery one is at, I believe. It also has relevancy and applicability to all musicians too; not just us guitarists. So if you’re learning piano, clarinet, accordion, washboard, or whatever, feel free to “copy paste” the concepts across to whatever else you may be learning!

What do I mean by “technical work”?

Sea of Notes
Sea of Notes (Photo credit: JadeXJustice)

By technical work, I mean our scales and arpeggios. This is THE fundamental building block to excellent playing. I also mean our target exercises; exercises that train specific aspects of playing or movements such as slurs, barres, rasgueado technique, tremolo, free stroke and rest stroke, playing in different positions on the fretboard, percussive techniques, or various combinations thereof.

But can’t I just do that whilst I’m learning my pieces?

Yes. But also no.

Yes, you can definitely be introduced to and learn these various aspects in your repertoire pieces. There comes a point though where the technique required to execute certain elements as well as you’d probably like (as you can hear in your head or on your favourite Julian Bream recording!) needs a bit of looking at in isolation.

I’m sure Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and the other great artists did not leap straight to the big kahuna canvass to set about creating a masterpiece. Ok they have done once or twice, but I’ll bet you they carried out a number of studies – application of certain strokes, application of light and shade, composition and arrangement of the key elements in the scene and so on. They got to work on their technique before applying it to the main focus of their attention. So we have the same when learning and playing the guitar.

And there’s another parallel to be drawn here between the artists and learning and playing the guitar. That is relevancy.

Technical study is all very well and good. It should always be a means to an end however, for whatever you’re working on or working towards at a particular moment in time. It has to mean something to us for it to really work it’s magic.

So you work on particular aspects in isolation – you study it from various angles with exercises and studies (they call them this for a reason…) and then apply it. You reveal the relevancy of the energy exerted, the movements carried out and effort you’ve just made, by applying it in a piece.

Then when you bring that reviewed and refreshed technique back to the piece you’re playing, chances are it will fit right in it, and make the piece easier to play and articulate and infinitely more musical. To quote Charlie Sheen (something I never thought I’d do on this blog), “winning!”.

How much of it should I do and when?

Well, the answer to that question really depends on what it is you’re trying to achieve at this particular point in your learning or playing. The short answer, however, is something (with whatever may be appropriate for you at the time) everyday, or at least as often as you’re able to pick up your guitar if not daily.

And yes, I still very much partake in my daily technical exercises. Once a week or so I review which exercises and why I’m doing and why and what I’m hoping to achieve with them that week. I also check in daily with what I’m aiming to achieve with the exercises in a given practice session.

It’s like a daily walk, or physical exercise – as we do daily physical exercise to keep us fit and healthy (or we’re supposed to!), so we do the same with our guitar-based technical exercises. It’s the minimum we need for a fit, healthy and balanced approach to our playing lifestyle.

I’d love to hear about your approach to technical work and development. What are your approaches?


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