BY KIRK HAMILTON | FROM THE DECEMBER 2009 ISSUE OF ACOUSTIC GUITAR

30-MINUTE LESSON

When learning new songs, sooner or later you will come upon a difficult section that stops you dead in your tracks. When tackling one of these tough bits, it’s best to identify and isolate the problem section, break it down, and methodically put it back together.

In this lesson, we’ll take a six-bar passage and break it into small, easily approachable sections. Then, we’ll methodically master each of the sections, after which we’ll slowly reassemble them. We’ll also go over a useful technique for working out any particularly tricky licks you may encounter.

Map It Out: 10 Minutes

First determine as much as you can about the nature of the tricky passage. Most popular songs are divided into sections (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) that make up the song’s form. Each section is divided into measures, the majority of which are three or four beats long, depending on the song’s feel, for example, waltz time (3/4) or common time (4/4). Identify the tough passage’s location in the song and its length. Is it in the verse or the chorus? How many measures or beats long is it? How many times does it occur in the song? Many songs have verses and choruses that repeat several times, so keep in mind that when you perfect a given passage, you’ve probably mastered a good percentage of the song.

Now pull the difficult passage out of the song and approach it like a separate, shorter tune. Since you’ll be repeating it a great deal, it helps to focus on an entire four-, eight-, or 16-measure phrase. Let’s say Example 1 is the passage you’re having a hard time with. It’s a six-bar passage in 4/4 time that begins with an ascending single-note line up the neck and opens up into a couple of chords, followed by a repeated 16th-note figure in D minor. I’ve broken it apart further into five smaller sections of one or two bars each. Potential trouble spots include the shift from single notes in the first bar to chords in the second (and back again!), and of course, the 16th notes that dot the last three bars. 


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Set your metronome to a slow tempo and play the first section of Example 1 over and over, as though it were on a continuous loop (Example 2). Then gradually increase the tempo until you can play it at normal speed without making any mistakes.

If the Going Gets Tough, Break It Down Further: 10 Minutes

Occasionally a section will prove to be a bit too tricky, even with this methodical approach. If this happens, try working it out two notes at a time, making every other note twice as long as written in the music.

If, for example, you are having trouble with a run of 16th notes (like Example 3), try playing the figure by making every other 16th note an eighth note (Example 4). Rephrasing the music this way may feel a bit weird, but it will condition your fingers to make the quick motions that are necessary to play the line at full speed, while giving your brain time to regroup between fast movements. After you’ve got that down, change the rhythmic pattern so that you begin with a 16th note (Example 5). Finally, play the line entirely as 16th notes, but insert a quarter-note rest between each set of four notes (Example 6). 


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Put It Back Together, One Section at a Time: 10 Minutes

Once you have the first section of Example 1 under your fingers, work out the second section in the same fashion, and then combine it with the first section to make a three-measure phrase. Continue to the third section, master it, and then combine it with just the second section. Once you’ve got the combined second and third sections down, add the first section and try all three together. Continue in this fashion until you have mastered and combined all five sections. 

The big benefit of this type of compartmentalized practice is that it trains your muscle memory. Patience is key—if you go too fast or combine too many measures at once, your fingers won’t have time to internalize the new motions. Be methodical and consistent; in no time, you will be mastering musical passages that only days earlier seemed out of reach.

Click here for more tips on effective practice.