A Question of Balance

How to Balance

Summer is breathing down our necks here in Chicago. Quite literally. At this time of year people are usually quite preoccupied with plans – where they’re going for vacation, what they’ll do once exams are over, how they’ll find a job, apartment, cold beer, whatever. Which concert(s) will I attend? Which of my friends am I still on good enough terms with to be invited over for their parties?

No matter what your questions or plans, whether you’re going into summer or not in your particular corner of the earth, it’s a pretty good bet that guitar practice is not one of your top priorities. And I’m not trying to hit you up with a guilt trip, okay?

Okay, well, not that big of a guilt trip.

Truth be told, I would not even have brought this subject up if it hadn’t been for all the times it’s been mentioned in the email I’ve gotten since mid-March. I find that practice is an individual matter, different things work for different guitarists. And any of you who have read Jimmy Hudson’s column, Getting The Most Out Of Your Practice, already have some great ideas that hopefully (pun intended) you have put into practice.

Practice and Play

Everyone has his or her own idea as to what constitutes “practice.” But if there’s one thing on which we can all agree it’s that there is a difference between “practice” and “play.” Jimmy puts it very well in his column:

There is a big difference between practicing and playing. Practicing is learning new material and refining stuff you have already learned. Playing is doing what you always do because it sounds good and you do want to be able to impress yourself.

But, like all things, this really isn’t a black-and-white issue. If the reason we practice is to get better, then the way we practice should be designed with this in mind. And if the reason we’re striving to get better is to be able to play (whether solo or with others), then we have to know how to “play,” don’t we? Let’s take a look at why and how we practice and see what we can do.

For the new guitarist, life can be a case of sensory overload. There’s so much to learn and so many different aspects of music and the guitar to explore that you just don’t know what to do first. Chords, theory, rhythm, fretboard, reading music – the possibilities are staggering.

This is why it’s a good idea to have a teacher, if for no other reason than to have a guide who is making the initial decisions for you and laying a foundation on which you can build your developing skills. Of course, different teachers have different philosophies and whether you realize it or not, when you sign on with a teacher you are really getting a philosophy as much as you are getting guitar lessons. When you’re looking for a teacher, try to take the time to talk with him or her first. Find out how closely the teacher’s ideas about playing mirror your own. If it’s possible, also talk with one or two of your prospective tutor’s pupils and get their take on things. When it comes down to it, getting a guitar teacher is a fairly sizable investment and you should research it accordingly.

And remember (as any good teacher will point out to you), your teacher is not the be all and end all of learning. Supplement your lessons with reading and experimenting and fun. I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to have a pupil come into a lesson with questions about something that he or she has gone out of his or her way to learn on his or her own. It may be my job to be a guide on my student’s musical journey but I find it more effective and rewarding for both of us when we both are able to point out various sites of interest along the way.

A Sense Of Purpose

Concerning practicing in and of itself, it’s fairly well known that people are more likely to practice and play music that they enjoy. It’s always more fun to play a song than a scale. Accordingly the first thing a very beginning student should be concerned with is learning chords and getting a few simple songs down pat. You wouldn’t believe how many two, three and four chord songs there are out there. Trust me, there’s got to be at least one that you know and like.

Once you have the basics of a song covered, you can either move on to another song (again just nailing down the bare essentials – chords and structure) or you can work on “refining” the song you’ve already learned. This “refinement” can consist of many things – changing the strumming pattern, adding fills, bass or lead lines, using different chord voicings, even playing it in another key or using a capo. With my students, I try to have a number of songs, at different levels, going on at the same time. This way there can be multiple lessons going on at once. And while this is okay for lessons, it doesn’t necessarily lead to productive practices.

Which is why have a hard time advocating practice policies involving “do this for so long and then do that for the same length of time and then…” Ideally practice time should be flexible. But flexibility requires two things from the guitarist – honesty and discipline. You have to be able to objectively gauge what needs work (and what needs lots of work) and then practice accordingly.

You see, it’s incredibly easy to get frustrated because there is so much to learn and so much you want to do now and seemingly little time in which to accomplish your goals. You have to first accept the fact that some things might have to be put on hold, that Stevie Ray Vaughn solo might have to wait until you learn the scales on which it’s based. The important thing right here and right now is to set a simple goal and direct your practice in that direction.

When it comes to guitar, I am self-taught. But that in and of itself is an incredibly misleading statement. I had had music lessons (trumpet) between the ages of eight and twelve. It was part of the school band program, not private lessons. But this is how I learned to read music and tell rhythms. At twelve I took some private piano lessons which gave me the opportunity to learn the bass clef and to see how a song’s chords and melody worked together. And even though no one taught me formally, I learned what notes made up which chords.

But more important than either of these two things was the fact that I had a constant exposure to all kinds of music. My dad played saxophone in a wedding band and various local productions. I listened to the radio constantly (I didn’t buy my first album until I was sixteen!). I also, as noted, was in the school band. So you can see that there has always been music in my life. But I did more than just listen to it – I could tell you when the chords changed, what time signature it was in, what the song structure was. I could pick out the different instruments, what they were doing, what rhythms were involved.

When I picked up the guitar at seventeen, I had a lot of the “basics” down. So I knew that if I wanted to play with other people as fast as possible there were two things that had to take priority – learning how to play as many chords as I could and learn the chords of as many songs as I could. It didn’t matter to me what songs they were; any song was fair game. Virtually my first three months as a guitarist was devoted to this.

Once I had the chords down and could switch with a modicum of ease and once I had some songs memorized I got started on “refining” what I knew. In some cases this was simply learning a descending bass line or using part of a scale as a fill. My practice now consisted of two levels – learning and refining.

At about the same time I started learning theory in school and I started applying that knowledge to my guitar playing. It also inadvertently led to my understanding song structure a lot better. This added a third level to my practice – the study of why things worked the way they do. One thing that most guitarists don’t like to realize is that there is a lot of “practicing” that he or she can do without even touching a guitar. Most theory is paper and pencil work. You can do that almost anytime you want to. Just because a guitar isn’t in your hands doesn’t mean that it’s not in your head. Give yourself a test – transpose a song on the way home from work or class one day. If you find you can actually do this in your head without a guitar just think of how much faster you’ll be able to do it once you get your hands on it again.

Nowadays, I am incredibly lucky in that I am able to live in such a matter that a guitar is usually always in my line of sight. So even if I come home and sit on my couch in front of the television, I am still much more liable to pick up my classical guitar and attempt an exercise that’s still sitting on the coffee table. That’s why I leave them there! So before I switch on the idiot box I may have to go through several D minor (“the saddest of all keys…”) scales or a piece by Fernando Sor. But again, when I pick up that guitar I have a singular goal in mind. And my “practice” cannot end until I feel I have achieved that goal. So I may give myself five or six different practice sessions of anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes in length on a given night.

I find that a diversity of practice subjects keeps me incredibly involved. For example, if I know I’m going to be playing a show, then I’m much more likely to gear most of my practice time towards pure rehearsals. I’ll do a complete set each night. But during the set I might have an idea of how to improve a song or a transition between songs, so after I’ve done my practice (and after a bit of a break) I will go back and work on that one specific area. Once I’m satisfied that I’ve got that covered, then it’s time for another break and then I’ll work on something totally unrelated to the upcoming show.

So say you’ve just learned a song. Just for laughs, let’s say it’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door. Okay, that was pretty easy. So what are you going to do tonight? Well, for starters you might try some of the fills or leads that we learned last month. You might slap a capo on your guitar (seventh fret) and try playing it in C. If you pick that up quickly, then try some C scale based fills tomorrow night. But after you’ve done that, take it easy and pick up another song from scratch. Then take a break and practice your C major scales so that when you try your fills tomorrow you’ll have a good idea of what you want to do.

And a brief word to you would-be writers – while I agree with A-J about the best writing being spontaneous and heartfelt, I also think that many people don’t become good writers because they don’t know how to sit and write. This takes discipline, too. If you’re serious about writing and haven’t had much experience doing it, then I would highly advise you to “practice” this as well. You don’t have to make a big deal about it but set aside thirty minutes to an hour every now and then to just write. Music, lyrics or both. Chances are very likely that you’re not going to come up with anything stellar but you will developing some discipline that will help you when you need to finish something that inspiration has started.

The Big Picture

I’m sure I’ve told you this before: I hate scales. I really, really do. But I will admit that they are important to know and will ultimately make you a much better guitarist. I will also admit that I am not very proficient in them and this is why I practice them.

Here’ s yet another paradox to throw at you – if there is indeed a trick to good productive practice, it is one’s ability to focus on one single small aspect of one’s playing coupled with the ability to see “the big picture.” As I’ve said, you shouldn’t practice without a purpose. You’ve got to have a plan. And in order to come up with a plan you have to know where you fit in the big picture.

So, for all intents and purposes, let’s come up with a simple practice plan. Let’s use generic guitarist “Johnny” as an example. Johnny has been playing guitar for, oh let’s say a little over a year. He knows the basic open chords (although some still give him trouble), a few barre chords, some riffs (but only if they are direct parts of songs he’s learned) and even though he knows about seventy songs, he’s only comfortable with half of them.

The first thing Johnny has to do is to look honestly at the big picture. What does he want? To be the best guitarist the wold has ever heard. Well, that’s all fine and dandy but perhaps taking the big picture a bit too far. Okay, how ’bout just being better than he is now? Commendable, but again awfully vague. How can he get “better?” Well, he needs to take an honest assessment of his skills at this point in his guitar life as well as examine what goals he realistically would like to accomplish.

Now, if I were Johnny (or his teacher), I would write things out. Take out a sheet of paper and list his goals. And to refine those goals – replace every generalization with a specific do-able task. So, for instance, if my first list of goals looked like this:


  • learn some leads
  • learn some more songs
  • get better at switching chords
  • learn some barre chords

I might rewrite that into something that is somewhat more measurable, like this:


  • learn the lead to Something and Let It Be (Beatles)
  • learn some Counting Crows and Santana songs
  • get better at switching chords, especially F to G at fast tempos
  • incorporate some barre chords into three songs I already know

Now, you can go and replace my “specific” examples with things that are more to your own taste, but I think that you get the drift of things. Replace any vague or general goal with something specific. Personally, I’d replace “some” in Goal #2 with a specific number of songs, but for the time being it’s a good start. Now, on a separate piece of paper, I’m going to have Johnny do a brief evaluation. It’ll look something like this:

Good At

  • rhythm patterns
  • open chords (except F)
  • keeping a steady tempo
  • learning basics of songs

Needs Work

  • switching chords at fast speeds
  • memorizing songs
  • general chord theory
  • confidence playing with others

Needs Lots of Work

  • barre chords
  • lead playing
  • sight reading
  • confidence playing in front of an audience

Now this list can be as specific or as vague as Johnny wishes. The important thing is that is has to be honest. With both the goal list and evaluation in hand, we can work on an appropriate timetable. Any effective practice schedule has to take time into account. Look at it logically – I, for instance, have a huge list of “needs work” and “needs lots of work” items. I want to be able to play classical music well. I want to continue to learn at least one new song a week. I want to keep my song repertoire “in shape” for performances. I want to keep my “ad-libbing” skills at their peak so that when I’m playing with others I’m not limited to playing “off the record.” I want to play my bouzouki more like a bouzouki and less like a guitar. And that’s not a fraction of what’s on my list. There is no way I can design a single practice session that will take in all of these needs. It is impossible.

This is why it is smarter to make a practice plan for the course of a week. Depending upon your own needs and abilities, it can even be longer. Again, let’s look at Johnny’s case. Since he wants to learn some new songs and since he is good at learning the basics of a song, he will not have to spend a lot of time with this. However, since he admittedly needs work on memorizing songs, it makes sense to take the learning the new song routine an extra step and this will involve more time and effort. If we were to try to develop a good practice plan for Johnny, incorporating as many of his needs as possible, we might come up with something like this:


  • learn Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby basics – words and chords
  • practice C major/A minor scales (both Beatles songs are in C)
  • play old Eagles song using A minor barre chord instead of open A minor
  • review Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby


  • play Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby twice with cheat sheet
  • brief run through of C major scales
  • learn solo to Something (already tabbed out)
  • play Only the Good Die Young or another song with lots of F to G changes
  • Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby once with cheat sheet – once without


  • Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby once with cheat sheet – once without
  • brief run through of C major scale
  • Something solo
  • learn Let It Be solo (already tabbed out)
  • replay both Eagles song from Monday and Billy Joel song from Tuesday
  • Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby no cheat sheet


  • Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby no cheat sheet
  • learn Put Your Light On (Santana/Everlast) basics – words and chords
  • C major scales
  • Something solo
  • Let It Be solo
  • work up ad-lib solo in C major using riffs from both Beatles songs
  • Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby no cheat sheet
  • review Put Your Light On


  • Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby no cheat sheet
  • review Put Your Light On with cheat sheet
  • C major scales
  • Beatles’ solos
  • refine ad-lib solo
  • replay both Eagles song from Monday and Billy Joel song from Tuesday
  • Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby no cheat sheet
  • Put Your Light On once with cheat sheet once without

You can see this lesson plan is not overly taxing and yet it covers a lot of ground. But perhaps the most important thing is that it can be flexible. Suppose Johnny feels that by Wednesday he’s really got Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby down cold. He can then play it only once on Thursday and then work on something new.

And also notice that early on in the week we spend more time in the learning (hence fewer topics). As we progress, there will be more reviewing. More topics but less overall time devoted to each subject. Don’t overtax yourself. And please remember that this particular example is for our fictitious guitarist. Your needs are what should dictate your practice plan. Again, break up topics into smaller pieces that you yourself can deal with. Suppose Johnny wanted to learn the first guitar solo from Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing. It would probably be best for him to learn the whole thing over the course of the week – a couple of measures or phrases each day.

Remember that this is not a competition. It’s simply learning and everyone has to go at his or her own speed. At the end of any given week or month you should take some time and re-evaluate things. Set up some new goals or make plans to devote more time to the stuff in your “needs a lot of work” column.

I can’t tell you that you’re going to love and enjoy every aspect of practicing, though there are some people that do. What you will find is that, when you least expect it, you’ll find it paying off in your playing. I think what drives most people crazy about practicing is that they want results now. But it never works that way. Learning is funny because it almost always seems to happen in spurts. One day we just suddenly realize, “Hey, look at all I know!” The reality, of course, is that all this learning has been a cumulative process. But we rarely perceive it as such.

As always, please feel free to email me with your questions, comments and such – either directly at [email protected] or by dropping a note on the Guitar Forums. Until next week…