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?

Do it. Do it again. Do it some more. And repeat. Consistency is what it’s all about!

Today’s post is all about on one of most favoured of subjects, and a word I repeat often on this blog – consistency.

Yup. Consistency.

What about it?, I hear you say.

Silver bullet?

Well, it’s the key, the silver bullet if you will, to becoming a proficient guitarist and musician. More so than doing something lots in one go. More so than three hours of “stuff” one or two days a week.

Doing something, doing that something again, and again, and again, and again, and once you’ve got that doing it some more, building it up, doing it again. This is the way to become the guitarist that you wish to be. Sure a little bit of natural talent or aptitude can help, but consistent practice is the true heart of “getting good”, basically!

Yes it does take time – c’mon! Your brain is not some inanimate desktop computer that you can just download new software too. You’ve got to give it a chance to grow the new neural pathways and add your own spin onto things – way cooler. So it’s not so much a quick fire silver bullet, but most definitely a sure fire silver bullet.

Another way to look at things. You’re not going to complete a 100km bike race by doing six hours of training all on the one day in a given week (unless you’ve been doping like half the pro peleton! OK bad example). Narcotic assistance aside, you may get a very limited amount of benefit over a certain, and undoubtedly long period of time, but it’s not going to make you much of a competent bicycle rider or racer either. Your brain and your body are going to forget within the space of that week I can assure you.

This is as applicable to those taking their first forays into learning the guitar, as it is for those of us who’ve been playing for many a year! It is also equally applicable to most other things in our life

The five minute wonder

So if you do anything after reading today’s post, please, please, PLEASE set aside, even on the busiest of days even just 5 to 10 minutes per day to work on something with the guitar. There are heaps of things you can do in that space of time:

  • reminding yourself of the piece you’re playing and keeping it strumming along, so to speak in your mind and fingers
  • scales relating to the piece or pieces you’re playing
  • one or two technical exercises, or study, again ideally relating to a piece you’re playing or learning at the moment

Or a personal favourite of mine in a 5 or 10 minute window is to work on a known niggly spot or phrase in a piece or study. You know the ones. That chord change or left hand movement that isn’t quite as smooth as it should be. Or working out exactly what shape you want a small phrase to be. Or working out, defining and pencilling in the preferred right hand fingering for a niggly section.

You’ll find that you can actually achieve quite a bit in just a short amount of time, provided that work is focused and you know what to achieve at the end of that 5 or 10 minutes.

That said if you’re feeling a little brain dead and zombified after a ridiculous day at work, even just picking up the guitar and noodling on a scale or two for five to ten minutes is far better than a day when absolutely nothing would have been played or practiced. At least the fingers are getting a wee reminder for the muscle memory bank!

30 minutes a day

Check out this blog post I saw only this week on the subject of doing something with consistency. There are some excellent illustrations provided to emphasis the point too:*

If you don’t have the time to look at this article, here’s my favourite take-home message:

Find a time span that makes it insanely hard for you to not do it every day. Keep doing it and over time, you’ll be surprised at how much you’re able to accomplish.

Very well said!

*Warning: there’s a naughty word at the start of this article that rhymes with ducked, so if you’re of the easily offended disposition you have been warned! Hah hah!