Call it a plateau; call it being stuck in a rut. We’ve all been at that place where time in the woodshed feels so unproductive that it’s driving us crazy! If you spend any time practicing, you’ve probably had the feeling that you’re not getting anywhere and that you either cannot play the thing you’re working on—or, even worse, that practicing is simply a waste of time (a good excuse to not practice!). While we all know deep down that practice is essential, we may not know how to do so in a way that keeps us moving closer to our targets and goals.
Any player—at any level and in any style—who is working to improve and who wants to spend less time being frustrated can benefit from trying the simple but often overlooked concepts of efficiency outlined in this lesson. As you streamline your practicing to be more productive, you’ll have more fun. More fun will mean more time spent practicing, and more practicing means more improvement. More improvement means more fun, and you’ll be caught up in your own upward spiral of loving playing the guitar. Isn’t that the point?
1. THINK LIKE A TEACHER
Begin by troubleshooting the problems you’re having when playing a given lick, scale, excerpt, etc. It’s important to know what to listen and look for. Sloppiness comes in many forms—notes that aren’t clear or are altogether missed, rhythms that aren’t smooth or even correct, phrases that don’t come off with ease and confidence. (This list is far from complete—insert your own mistakes to fix here.) By the way, using a recording device to listen to your playing is a great way to uncover your shortcomings and show you flaws you might not even be aware of. This practice can help give you a valuable outside perspective, not unlike a teacher’s.
2. FIND YOUR ZMI
It’s simple. If you can’t play the darn thing, slow down. Find the tempo just below where you cannot play, and work that zone—your Zone of Maximum Improvement (ZMI).Play the notes 100 percent accurately and musically ten times in a row. If you can do that reliably, speed up the tempo. If the new tempo is too fast, go back to the ZMI and try to push the metronome as if you could actually get it to speed up with you. Push, push, push until you can really get out in front of the metronome’s beat—without losing the beat altogether. This should allow you to move into the next tempo more easily.
3. USE THOUGHTFUL REPETITION
Repetition is key—but only if it’s working for, not against, you! Do not practice or reinforce mistakes. If you make a mistake, correct it immediately by slowing yourself down (50 percent of the final tempo is best at first) and then gradually work your way up through small increments (one BPM on a digital metronome or one click of the dial on a mechanical one) to the current tempo. Only then will you be ready to increase the beat.
4. AVOID COMMON TRAPS
If the old tempo is too slow and the new tempo is too fast, then go back to Step 2—cultivate the skill of pushing the metronome as if it were possible to get that thing to follow you to a faster tempo. You do this by staying at the tempo where you can reliably play the passage with full confidence and musicality. Then play it again, pushing against the tempo, that is, playing ahead of the beat but staying consistent.
There’s a sweet spot there—again, the ZMI. You won’t get better playing mistakes at a faster tempo, but you will get better playing almost faster at a slower pace that is on top of the tempo. On top means you’re totally running the show; your notes are clear and confident and you’re pushing the tempo faster without losing a sense of the beat. It’s exactly the opposite feel from a laid-back jazz soloist who is literally playing behind the beat. Your job here is to play ahead of the beat.
5. DO THE BOOMERANG
Warning: This is next-level stuff. Instead of backing off just one beat or metronome click when you find you’re at your tempo of playing incorrectly (above your ZMI), try setting the metronome back five clicks and working your way back up through those tempos. The time spent at those slower tempos can improve your confidence and competence enough so that you sail right up to and past your previous ZMI—like a boomerang. This is what you should be doing with your daily warm-ups anyways. Don’t just start your practice trying to do what you did yesterday; you need to warm up to it.
Creative Time Keeping
If you’re looking for alternatives to playing with a traditional metronome, try one of these apps suggested by AG contributing writer and educator Adam Levy.
Time Guru Metronome ($1.99) by Decibel Consulting/Avi Bortnick has cool features like drum-machine patterns (instead of mechanical beats) and will omit random beats to help solidify your sense of rhythm.
You don’t have to be a percussionist to benefit from using Didier Ottaviani’s pttrN for drummers ($2.99), which generates a range of interesting one-measure patterns in various meters for you to practice to.
Many of the teachers who contribute lessons to Acoustic Guitar also offer private or group instruction, in-person or virtually. Check out our Acoustic Guitar Teacher Directory to learn more!