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The Seven Secrets to Six-String Success

by Kale Good

Here you have it: A quick and dirty list that will help you play guitar the way you’ve always dreamed. There’s only one problem – it’s neither quick nor dirty. Despite the catchy name, these "Seven Secrets to Six-String Success" aren’t going to turn you into a guitar hero overnight. What this list will do is help you feel a sense of achievement every time you sit down with your guitar and being able to do so is the first step in creating the domino effect that can take you to new heights of guitar-playing.

Enough chit-chat! Let’s get down to business.

Step One: Have a Goal

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for random walks in the woods and road trips without destinations. But if you’re trying to get from point A to point B, it helps to know where point B is. So set yourself some goals. Don’t be afraid to be overly general or overly specific. One goal may be "I want to learn to play blues guitar" and another goal may be "I want to be able to play the opening to Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. It’s good to have both types of goals. The big, long term goals help you keep your eye on the prize. They motivate you to keep practicing week after week, month after month, year after year. The small goals help to build your confidence when you accomplish them. They motivate you to keep practicing minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day.

Step Two: Know How Your Body Works

Have you ever stopped to think that they way you hold the guitar may be making it more difficult for you to make progress, or that simply changing the way you put your fingers down on the fretboard could speed up your playing? The body is such an intricate mess of bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments that they’ve got a whole field of study devoted to it, complete with its own ten-dollar-word: Kinesthetics.

Fortunately for you, a doctoral degree in kinestheology is not required to play guitar, but knowing what has to happen physically makes it easier to get the job done. You can do this by paying very close attention to your body when you play. I mean very close attention. Ever notice that when you move your hand up and down the neck of the guitar, it actually involves muscles in your wrist, fore-arm, upper arm, shoulder, and back? Experimenting with different ways of using these muscles can help you find the easiest way to play something. And wouldn’t it be nice if playing guitar were always easy.

Awareness of the body is very useful when we are trying to solve a problem or fix a mistake. Instead of just barreling through the mistake, stop to make sure you know what you are doing and whether or not what you are doing is what you should be doing. It may mean that you’re not playing guitar for a few minutes while you figure it out. That’s fine. A lot of guitar playing is done by muscle memory. That means that the more often you make a mistake, the more likely you are to make that same mistake. So it is far better to practice with clear intention than to slog away mindlessly at the strings.

Step Three: Know How Your Mind Works

Everyone looses his or her focus. And getting distracted is one of the largest barriers to making the fastest, most efficient progress. We all have busy and hectic lives, and it is difficult to keep paying attention to the guitar through an entire practice session. In fact, earlier this morning I was practicing with a clear goal (increasing my accuracy while playing awkward string crossings) and a clear knowledge of my physical body (just trust me, it would take a while to write out) and it started off well; I was making good progress. A few minutes later, I realized I had been thinking about the broken washing machine in my basement! I had gone into auto-pilot mode with my practice, and that is dangerous.

Two powerful tools that can help you in this regard are slow practice and paying attention to your breath. Try starting your practice session off by a few minutes of paying attention to your breathing (you can try counting to ten and then start over at one). The fun part here is to notice when you stop paying attention to your breath. This has the added benefit of relaxing your mind before you start to practice. When you get comfortable with this, you can try paying attention to your breath while playing (it is tricky!). I wouldn’t recommend counting your breath while playing because it may confuse your sense of rhythm.

Slow practice has a ton of benefits, but for now we’ll just say that it can be useful to see when your mind wanders while playing a song. In this type of slow practice, try paying attention to your playing (instead of your breathing) and noticing when your mind wanders. Because playing guitar is more complicated than breathing, you may want to narrow your focus to something smaller, such as one hand, or the tone of the guitar, or trying to find tense parts of your body and relaxing them. When you find your mind has gone out to pasture, make a mental note of what you were thinking about, and get back to the difficult work of paying attention.

As you get comfortable with this, you’ll find that some things are more important to pay attention to than others. This is a constantly changing scenario, varying with the type of problem you are trying to solve, the speed at which you are playing, and the way you may be feeling on any given day. Having a clear understanding of what you are trying to accomplish (the goals we spoke about earlier) and what you need to do to get it done (knowing your body) are fundamental to this kind of focus.

Step Four: Confidence

Question: Why is confidence essential to your becoming the best guitarist you can?

If your answer had anything to do with performance and stage fright, you missed the mark. Confidence is essential to your development because it yet another element of motivation. If you don’t have confidence in your ability to progress (or your methods to progress, or your teacher, etc) then you probably won’t practice. The more confidence you have, the more effort you will put towards achieving your goals.

So how do you develop confidence? Start with a little bit and build it. Don’t worry, everyone has some (obviously you do, or you wouldn’t be reading this article). Here’s what you do to build it:

Step One: Take that little bit of confidence that you already have. Maybe it is that you can put your finger down on the string and make a sound (even a bad one). Just something small is fine. After all, we’re developing it, aren’t we?

Alright, got your confidence? Ok, the next step is application. So go ahead, try to achieve your goal (whatever it is).

Congratulations! You did what you set out to do. Your confidence was justified. Feel it getting bigger? Good. Now you can go back to the beginning and start over with a greater sense of confidence. Maybe you even have enough confidence to try something a little more difficult (like getting the note to sound nice).

Before we get ahead of ourselves, did you notice how you were paying attention right there? Really paying attention to what you needed to get done? That’s an essential element of this whole process: Mindfulness. Nice, isn’t it.

Once you’ve got that mindfulness on tap, you’ll really start to be able to accomplish your goals. That’ll build your confidence. Once you’ve gotten used to the mindfulness, you’ll notice that your mind calms down when you’re being mindful. With a nice, calm mind, you can pay attention with out so much bloody effort. That’ll build your confidence. When that becomes the norm, it will become much easier to see what is useful to practice and what is not useful. You’ll become much more discerning about what you are doing and what you need to do to improve. You’ll know how to make any situation workable. And that will definitely build your confidence.

Step Five: Learn to Listen

Music is often thought of as a language, and languages are learned by listening and imitation. Once you learn to listen, you can hear for yourself how the language is spoken, and eventually decide how you want to speak the language (or, you could say: you can create goals for yourself based on the knowledge you have about how you want to sound. Goals again!).

So go turn on some music. And listen. Really listen. No, listen harder. You hear that? Hmmm…. this isn’t working. Let me explain a little bit better.

What I’m talking about when I say learning to listen is this: Instead of simply listening to the music or hearing the music, we are trying to understand what is happening in the music. If you’re new to this, you can start by making true/false statements. You might say, "The guitar solo is starting" and then say "Here is the chorus again" and then "Here is the climax of the song." You might listen to your guitar instructor during a lesson and say, "When he plays those notes, the sound is continuous, there is no empty space between them." Once you get comfortable doing that, start making qualitative (good/bad) statements like "This finger-picking guitar style makes this song very atmospheric" or "I like the way that the drums stop playing right before the guitar enters." Just like with our guitar practice, the idea here is to be able to be both very general and as specific as possible with our statements. Being able to do so will give us a much larger musical-vocabulary.

It’s all fun and games when we are listening to other people and it can be super-helpful for our practice. But learning to listen to your own playing is just as essential as listening to others. And it can be a lot harder, because sometimes, we won’t like what we hear. Just relax, and realize that being a musician is a constant process of dissatisfaction with your current limitations and making the effort to move beyond them.

So, back to listening: Again, you can start with broad, objective statements, and slowly narrow them down to more specific, subjective ones. "I connected these notes here," "I didn’t keep the rhythm" and then moving towards "I liked the way that I slowed down towards the end of the song" and "I didn’t play those notes the way I wanted to" are the types of observations that can make it more clear for you what you need to work on (I think those things are called goals. Just a hunch).

Step Six: Practice

Teaching students how to practice is the most essential and perhaps the most difficult task a teacher faces. After all, most of the student’s time improving their abilities is not done in the lesson, but in the practice room. Many people seem content to say "Practice makes perfect" without ever stopping to consider what practice actually is (or what "perfect" is, a tricky matter when dealing with music). Too often this leads to thoughtless practice, and if there’s one thing that’s true, it’s that thoughtless practice doesn’t lead to perfection.

So what is good practice? Well, practice can be broken down into different types. The first type is "Performance Practice." This is when you sit down and play through an entire song, pretending that you are performing in front of an audience. Woodstock, Ozzfest, Carnegie Hall, take your pick. When you practice this way, all your mistakes are treated as they would be in a performance: No going back and trying again. Flubbed a note? Keep going. Missed a rhythm? Keep going – all the way to the end.

The second kind of practice is "Problem Solving Practice." This is where you should spend most of your energy. Find the sections that are messing you up in Performance Practice and fix them. Here you want to take small sections of music and focus intensely on making it as good as possible.

Whatever you do, do not practice like this: Start from the beginning, go until you make a mistake, and then start over, promising yourself that you’ll get it right this time. Play through, make the same mistake, start at the beginning, go until you make the same mistake, start over, etc, etc etc. Why? Playing through two-thirds of a song only to get to the third you can’t do is going to make fixing that final third a very slow and painful process. Why not go right to the problem?

Another common mistake is to focus on what you can already do well. It’s true that playing things you are comfortable with is good for your confidence and comfort with the instrument. But in order to build your confidence and progress to new levels, you need to build your skills. So take the challenge of new, difficult material and run with it.

Step Seven: Get an Experienced Teacher

Yes, you might have seen this one coming. Of course I know you’re searching around the internet for guitar lessons, and there’s a good chance that you might be avoiding finding a teacher. But the truth is teachers know more then you do (at least the good ones do), even after you watch that YouTube video on finger tapping exercises. They are there because they can teach it to you faster than you could learn it yourself. They are there to provide the support and encouragement that will keep you motivated. They can point out your errors before you’ve noticed them, and sometimes before you even make them. They help you focus your efforts in the right direction, so that you reach your goals as quickly as possible.

And perhaps most importantly, a teacher can fill in the gaps. The gaps in the tab file you found, the gaps in the video-lesson you downloaded, and the gaps in the article you’re reading right now. If you already have a teacher, you can test me on this: Ask him/her questions about the things I’ve listed here, and see what they have to say about it. They’ll probably come at it from a different angle than I have here. And that individuality is what is great about the student-teacher relationship.