Don’t sweat the small stuff! So goes the old saying, and within its sphere this is a sage piece of advice. When playing guitar the ability to cruise past mistakes without getting derailed is critical. However, we need to keep in mind that playing guitar and practicing guitar are very different things. When practicing guitar we very much need to sweat the small stuff. Practice does not make perfect unless it is perfect practice! Repetition of slop guarantees playing slop. So when practicing we need to perform every detail of our technique as perfectly as possible. Of course “perfection” by its nature is not a realistic goal. The point is that we need to be continually striving to improve on the details of how we interact with the guitar. If we make “perfection” the target of our technique endeavors then our actual results will be far superior to those resulting from a vague goal like “doing the best I can”.
While doing our best is not a bad ideal, in practical application this kind of ambiguously defined goal leaves us a lot of room for actually not doing our best. If we measure doing our best solely by subjective criteria such as “this felt difficult so I must have been doing my best”, that is a well-intended but flawed yardstick by which to determine what is our best. Our best practice will result when we apply focused attention to the smallest details of our technique, measuring by objective criteria rather than by our perceptions of difficulty or success.
It is important to understand that people do not deliberately set out to practice in ways that are less than productive. Rather, focused concentration for extended periods is not our default mode of thinking, such that errors creep in just under our notice despite our general intent to “do our best”. So it is important to make a conscious effort to pay attention to the details!
Let us then look at some specific details of common technique flaws I observe among students of guitar. Keep in mind, the goal of this discussion is constructive feedback toward the end of helping you to identify problems and correct them. Merely adopting the ideal that it is good to pay attention to detail will make no difference in your progress. You have to actually make the conscious effort implement!
1 – Harsh Chord Changes: chord changes is one of toughest challenges for beginning guitar players. Just getting the fingers to work separately from one another at all is a full agenda. Once you get past this then the next step is to work on changing chords while keeping a rhythm pattern going. This is where the problem with attention to detail begins to show. Specifically, I observe a tendency to release tension on the last beat of the current chord in anticipation of the finger shifting for the next chord, such that the pick stroke yields a buzzy thud instead of a clear harmonious ringing. Most do not realize they are doing this until I point it out. Why? Because they have already shifted their focus off of the details of the current chord and onto the chord that has yet to happen. This is a perfect example of how lack of attention to detail results in undesirable sound. If you want your chord rhythms to flow nicely so that they sound smooth then pay close attention to the last pick stroke of each chord and make sure you are retaining the fingering of the current chord until it is time to change. If this means you have to slow down to execute the chord change properly then do it. Speed up gradually as your muscle memory of the finger positioning allows it.
2 – Choppy Scales: for scales to sound their best we need to play them with no time lapse between notes. This requires consistent finger pressure on each note until the precise moment of the change to the next note, and then a coordinated execution between the fret hand finger and the pick stroke as we shift to the new note. One common problem I observe is releasing pressure on the current note just as soon as the note is made. The cause is the same as the chord changing issue … preoccupation with the note ahead to the detriment of the one currently ringing. It is critical to pay attention to keeping the current note “live” while maneuvering both hands to set up the next note. Another common problem is lack of precise coordination between the two hands such that the pick strikes the string either before or after the placement of the fret hand finger on the upcoming note. Again, both of these issues respond well to slowing down and paying attention to the details of your fingering and two hand synchronization, such that you execute notes well. Then after sufficient repetition to enforce the habits of hand, speed up gradually as your mastery allows while continuing to pay attention to these details.
3 – Bends and Vibrato: bending along with its cousin vibrato are the most powerful, expressive techniques we have as guitarists – when they are executed well. They are also among the most difficult things to master since they are entirely under your control, unlike simply fingering a single note or chord where you have the frets to help you with pitch accuracy. The common problems I see with bending and vibrato are bending up to an out of tune pitch, and then releasing the bend to a pitch other than the original unbent note. Again, these both respond well to slowing down and paying attention to the peak and trough of the bend, then repeating until accurate bends become a habit while continuing to monitor the accuracy of peaks and troughs. Then speed up as improvements in muscle memory permit.
4 – Pick Hold & Orientation for Single Notes: the pick should be located between the pad of the thumb and the side of the forefinger, and the wrist should be relaxed such that the pick makes roughly a 30-45 degree angle to the strings. Then play with the base of the hand parallel to the strings, with a sharp but relaxed bump of the wrist to make the pick stroke. While this is physiologically the easiest, most comfortable way to hold and maneuver the pick, we tend to bring a lot of hangover from our handwriting habits into picking. This results in all manner of difficulties, such as bringing the middle finger into the pick hold, trying to pick from the far side of the hand (as with writing), and all manner of wasteful sweeping and swooshing motions where the job requires only a straightforward 1/4 inch arc of the pick. These handwriting habits are hard to break, but it is possible, and essential for fast and accurate picking. While practicing scales pay attention to these details and force your pick hand to comply until it becomes a habit.
5. Pick Hold & Orientation for Strumming: the pick hold is the same as for single notes. However, the pick stroke for strumming should come from the elbow, with the pick making a straight line across the strings. For the best tone we need light contact with the strings and a fast moving pick coming from a controlled flick of the wrist. Common problems with strumming are locking the wrist and then plowing harshly through the strings, trying to make an arc from the wrist rather then the elbow, and playing an arch or angle rather than a straight line parallel to the strings. Pay attention to these details for a smooth, chimey, shimmering tone from the strings while strumming.
6 – Excess Tension: this is a universal problem among beginner and even intermediate level guitarists. Playing with too much muscular power results in mashing fretted notes too hard, often bending them out of tune. A heavy handed pick attack results in notes and chords that sound harsh. Excessive muscular tension is an automatic nervous system response to physical challenge arising from our instinctive “fight or flight” mechanism. While this response is very useful when we encounter a bear in the woods, it is a disaster to our guitar technique. Playing guitar is a dance, not a fight. We must play with finesse, not power, if we want our guitars to yield up pleasing sounds in response to our manipulation. All of the problems above are at least partially a result of playing with excessive muscular tension. You can counter the fight or flight response with deliberate focused attention on the state of muscular tension in your hands, arms, and shoulders while practicing scales and chord rhythms. Make it a habit to play with as little muscular tension as possible.
Finally, be sure to practice as often as possible! Learning guitar is all about memory in terms of both mental recall and physical muscle control. Every day that you do not practice you lose a bit of recall and muscle memory. That is just the way the human machine functions and there is not much we can do about it. Therefore, it is best to practice every day. This is not feasible for many hobbyists. In this case, make it a point to practice more days than not … at least five days a week.
Pay attention to the details to ensure that your practice routine is leading to progress rather than frustration!