How Playing Your Guitar Is Stopping You From Getting Better

How Playing Your Guitar Is Stopping You From Getting Better

By Leo Smith

Are you struggling to get the results you want and become the guitar player you want to be, even though you’re pretty good about practicing? Maybe you even practice every day, but you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. If so, you aren’t alone. For the first five years or so that I played, that was the story of my life. I “practiced” guitar every single day, sometimes for hours, but my playing stayed at the same, painfully mediocre level. In fact, in a way I got worse. All that “practicing” with nothing to show for it took a big toll on my confidence, and the longer this went on the more embarrassed I was about my lack of progress. My friends all knew how hard I was “working,” so the prospect of them actually seeing me play just got scarier and scarier.

The thing is, you and I aren’t alone. A lot of guitar players experience this! I know because many of my own students have described going through this for decades before they met me. The good news is that 95% of the time this boils down to a single, simple problem, and it has to do with those quotation marks I put around ‘practice’ and ‘work’ above.

You see, chances are pretty good you haven’t been practicing at all. You’ve been playing, and that’s not what you need in order to improve. It might be enough at first, but there’s only so far it can take you. Here’s the difference: “practicing” guitar means that you’re focused on developing a specific skill, and you are engaging in a routine to do that. You have a purpose and a goal, and your brain is engaged 100% on that purpose. “Playing” guitar can mean just playing the same music and material you’ve already played a million times, or letting your fingers run mindlessly over random drills, scales, etc. It could even mean playing things that might be very useful for what they’re meant to do, but aren’t the things that will make you a better player at that point in your development.

People play rather than practice for a few different reasons. Most guitar players just aren’t aware of the distinction in the first place. This is especially likely if you’ve tried to learn on your own, or only studied with mediocre teachers. (That was me, once upon a time!) Those players will usually just play whatever is fun or exciting, because they think they should automatically improve just by virtue of picking up the guitar. But that’s not how guitar practice works. (And I’ve written before about the danger of thinking simply that “practice makes perfect.”)

Even when players are aware that some activities are more useful than others, though, they will often play whatever is most fun or exciting anyway because it feels better in the moment. They may enjoy themselves in the short term, but you and I both know how unpleasant this path is in the long run. These players have laid their own trap and fallen in headfirst!

Still other players are aware that just going over the same old stuff or playing whatever is most fun in the moment won’t make them any better, and they’ve made the smart choice to stay focused on their goals, but they don’t know what they should work on or how. The best they can do is to guess, and the odds are against them. There’s so much stuff to learn out there that they are almost guaranteed to be working on things that aren’t important for them, and doing them in ways that aren’t helpful.

So now you’re aware of the difference between practicing and playing, which is the first and most important step to making awesome progress on the guitar. If you’re tired of not getting better then I know you won’t give in to the temptation to just play the same old stuff all the time anyway. :) So how can you use your new knowledge to start getting better results today? I’ll give you the basic idea.

Before you sit down to practice, you always want to ask yourself what you are going to improve during that session, and why. You need to be able to focus on something specific. That’s how you can really get massive results fast! But it’s also important that the thing you’re focusing on fits into a larger plan that’s right for you as an individual guitar player. If you’re working on something that’s already a strength, or unrelated to your real goals, then you aren’t going to see results in your playing even if you do improve that thing.

The very best way to improve as fast as possible as a player is to isolate your greatest weaknesses and focus on them. (That’s why players who only do the things they’re already good at never get anywhere. If something is frustrating for you, it could well mean it’s exactly what you need!) Further, it’s important to know not only what to work on, but how to work on it. If you aren’t sure how to improve a skill or fix a problem in your playing, you’ll find it’s the easiest thing in the world to waste time practicing ineffectively. That’s why going it alone is so hard!

Playing guitar involves a lot of different skills that all have to work together, and if you don’t already have a pretty good understanding of how to get better fast, then trying to determine what you need to work on – let alone how to work on it – can be overwhelming. Even random practice is better than just playing all the time, but it’s still guesswork. Trial and error is the slowest way to improve! If you want massive results fast then the best thing you can do is to find a professional teacher who can assess your individual goals, strengths, and weaknesses, design training tailor-made for you, and show you exactly how to practice on your own.

(c) 2017 Leo Smith