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?

Keeping fit and healthy for playing guitar


I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that keeping yourself fit and healthy, both physically and mentally, is important regardless of whether you’re a guitarist (or musician of some other description) or not. It’s so very important for making us feel happy, feel good about ourselves and keep us feeling fit and strong for life!


Two views of local Extension leaders drilling ...
Ready?! (Photo credit: Cornell University Library)


Physical fitness – its importance to the guitarist


So why is physical fitness and regular exercise important to guitarists in particular? It’s not as if our instrument is heavy or playing it requires excessive physical exertion.


Well, there are a number of reasons why….


(1) We’re sat on our bottoms most of the time


And human beings are just not meant to sit, especially in the one position, for long periods of time. Add to this a desk-based job which so many have these days, watching TV or online activities such as reading or writing blogs (ahem….) and that’s a lot of “butt time“.


Whilst it probably is time spent working the brain and expanding one mind, it’s not so great for stretching the body and exercising the bits that keep us working (i.e. the heart, the lungs, our muscles).


(2) Keeps us in prime physical condition (well, relatively. Everything’s relative!) to get the most out of our playing


Being fit, and strong can help to decrease the occurrence of certain issues cropping up, such as my recent neck and shoulder gremlins! It can help with over-use injuries, sort out any troublesome weaknesses and leave more able to focus on what we’re playing and how we want it to sounds and not how this that or the other is bloody hurting!


(3) Helps keep us mentally focussed and alert for practice and playing, and receptive in our lessons


Exercise and physical fitness also has benefits for the mind as well as the body. When we’re healthy we tend to feel happier. A wee bout of exercise can also set off the “happy” chemicals in the brain (endorphins). It’s a bit like nature’s little pat on the back to us for getting moving and doing a wee bit of work.


A US Marine Doing Pull-ups.
Easy – right?!. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I don’t have time! I don’t have the inclination!!


You DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT have to have a gym membership or some fancy-schmancy equipment or a personal trainer to do some kind of physical activity that will reap benefits for your playing. And most importantly, just like with our playing, have fun with it!!


Pick activities that you really like to do! Why would you bother spending your precious time slogging your buns off doing something you hate?!


Go for a walk to the shop, a walk around the park (those in Melbourne – you’re most welcome to come walking Bob The Dog with me!), walk to work, walk part of the way to work, walk to a different bus stop or tram stop, go for a swim, go for a ride on a bike, kick a ball with the kids, kick a ball with the dog.


Go before work, after work, during your breaks, walk the stairs instead of the lift or escalator. Let’s get rid of the idea that exercise is something “special” to do. Ok, scratch that. Kind of. It can be something really special to do, like a 100km bike ride or training for a mass participation fun run. But is also something that is “everyday”.


As with our practice “hygiene”, as its called (although I always think that sounds like a schedule for washing your hands or something) a little bit and often will pay far greater dividends than doing something in whatever size chunk just once or twice a week.


Ooh and make sure you’re getting up off your bottom every 30 – 45 minutes when practicing.


And don’t repeat the some thing over and over and over and over again. They don’t call it repetitive strain injury for nothing. And besides, if you’re not “getting it” after the third time it’s probably a good idea to just stop and asses what’s really going on. Playing it incorrectly again probably isn’t going to help!


Guitarist/ musician specific exercises


There are plenty of methods around which have either been developed specially for musicians or adopted wholeheartedly by musicians, with specific sets of exercises to do –  Feldenkrais and Alexander Techniqueto name but two.


Physical Fitness
(Photo credit: Justin Liew)


I read an article a few weeks back, around the time of the London Olympic Games opening, discussing the athletic nature of practicing, playing and performing music and avoiding the injuries that can go along with that. The article talks mainly to the prevention of injuries and describes us musicians as “small muscle athletes,” as the saying goes, versus the large muscle athletes competing at the games. 


So yes, marvelous musical athletes that you are, keeping fit and healthy is good for the body, good for the mind and fantastic for your playing.


What do you do?


What do you like to do? Let me know! I’d love to hear how you keep yourself fit and healthy for practice, playing and performance.