By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor
Automaticness does not come automatically. Allow me to explain.
Have you ever had the experience of freezing in front of an audience, whether it be one or two friends or an auditorium? Maybe it was a piece that you had practiced diligently for hours and thought you had it sorted out, but when the critical moment came your hands just wouldn’t deliver. If you have been playing guitar for any length of time you have certainly suffered such an embarrassing and frustrating moment. Why does this happen?
Your gut response might be something along the lines of “stage fright”. Is that really the final answer? Let’s consider this scenario … you are thrust on stage in front of ten thousand spectators and asked to simply walk to the other side of the stage. Could you do it? Of course! So what happened to stage fright? Well, if you are not accustomed to withstanding the observation of thousands of people then you may indeed experience a high level of discomfort and even some symptoms of mild illness, such as upset stomach and sweating. However, odds are high that you could get to the other side of the stage without anyone even suspecting that you were the least bit out of sorts.
So you see … when you know how to do a thing so well that you can do it automatically, you will be able to do it well even under duress. Automaticness.
This applies to making music in the same way it applies to walking, and the stages of development are similar. You start by crawling, then by holding onto the couch while you experiment with standing. Next you try a few steps, next thing you know your Mom is yelling at you for running through the house, followed by your Coach yelling at you for not running fast enough or long enough. By that stage the mere act of walking is long since a given.
So how do we develop automaticness in guitar technique? The same way we do with walking. We start with simple chords and pieces of scales and arpeggios and then we progressively work our way up to more complex tasks, with an occasional bloody knee so to speak. For the guitar player this means beginning with simple songs played very slowly and deliberately, and then chords, scales, and arpeggios, all with slow and deliberate repetition of efficient fingerings along with a metronome until they become automatic. That takes more than two weeks or two months. Speed will grow naturally out of good technique perfected at much slower speeds. There is a time and method to develop speed, but it is pointless to do so until achieving a basic level of automaticness in each of these basic skills.
I have observed over and over that when it comes to music many people simply want to go straight to running track without first having held on to the couch to experiment with standing. The results are just as predictable … perpetual bloody knees. I am not able to count the times that I have sighed in amazement as I have asked a student for the hundredth time to SLOW DOWN with a scale exercise and focus on note articulation, only to have them continue hacking away at speeds beyond their capability and thereby ensuring a reduced rate of progress. If you are one of my students reading this then you are probably thinking I am talking about you. I may be, but not you specifically … I have hardly seen a guitar player that did not go through this stage, including myself.
It is somewhat analogous to the lifeguard who waits until the drowning swimmer has given up before rendering aid, since it is impossible to help while the panicked swimmer is still flailing about. There is not much I can do with a determined scale hacker until he reaches the point of almost giving up. Then comes that magic moment that I wait for with every student … the moment I finally see him focusing on accurate articulation and timing of each note within a scale. This is when I know I have a winner in the making.
So this is the point. If you want to play guitar well, master the basics to the point of automaticness. This is going to involve some focused repetition with a metronome, but it will pay handsome dividends over the long haul when you can change chords in the blink of an eye and rip through scales as easy as breathing. It is worth the short term hassle to gain the long term benefits.