The Physical Development of Guitar Technique – Discipline and Skill
By Chris Cotter
Playing the guitar is a physical discipline; and like any other skill, it requires preparation and training to be done well. You need to use a program that is proven to assist you in the development of proper and effective playing technique. By laying a firm foundation, with the use of a specific practice routine that you can do on a regular basis, you can be certain that you will develop the physical skills necessary to improve in every aspect of your guitar playing.
When you embark on any physical practice routine, you must first get your body into shape. Athletes spend months in the off-season getting themselves into shape, then move on to training camps where they train harder and deeper with their teams. When one joins a branch of the armed forces, he/she first goes through boot camp. Police, fire, and rescue workers must be in excellent condition. Guitar players are no exception. Many guitarists undermine their talent and never reach their true potential as players by simply neglecting the important step of getting “in shape” by developing good fundamental technique. Get the picture?
Guitar technique is one of the most widely sought after, talked about, and studied facets of guitar playing. Myriad volumes have been authored on the subject. There are countless instructional materials available to the developing guitarist. In the quest for proper guitar technique and the understanding of it, we must first develop accuracy, synchronization and strength in the hands and fingers. With this strength and accuracy comes the dexterity and speed necessary to practice, perform, and effectively bring our musical ideas to the guitar.
It is much easier to develop good technical habits at the beginning of your studies, rather than having to unlearn bad technique habits or relearn the habit of playing with good technique. Muscles develop a “memory” when they are used in repeated tasks. This is why when you learn to type on a keyboard, you first go one finger at a time. Then, as you continue to type the same words over and over, your fingers begin to “remember” where the keys are. It is the same with the guitar. Your fingers will remember how to execute something correctly and accurately with the proper practice. However, they will also remember how to do something awkwardly, sloppy, and just plain wrong.
The goal of this article is to emphasize to you the use of a daily practice routine in conjunction with a practice log and progress tracking system that come together to help you to develop, improve, and maintain a firm foundation of guitar technique. This concept is very important for guitarists of all skill levels, from the beginning student to the professional guitarist to the multi-faceted guitar instructor. Using a time-tested program that has been used by hundreds of students, you can develop the “Four Pillars” of guitar technique: accuracy, dexterity, strength, and speed. You will be playing in top form, giving you the freedom to achieve your musical and guitar playing goals.
To get the most from a good technical practice program, you will need some accessories. These tools will help you to have effective and efficient practice sessions and to achieve the best possible results.
1. Metronome - A metronome is absolutely essential for this program to work. Among all of the tools that a musician can possess, the metronome is perhaps the most important. EVERY guitarist needs to own one. Every good technical program is based on practice with a metronome. It is safe to say that you cannot do it effectively without one. Electronic metronomes that allow you to choose the click tone, light, speed in increments of one beat, and a timer are best. There are a number of very good free apps for smartphones and computers, in addition to stand-alone, battery operated units. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but get a good one. Wind-up and old-school “pendulum” type metronomes are not recommended.
Tuner – You need to play in tune. An electronic tuner is the fastest way to get there. Again, you don’t need to spend a lot of money here, but do get the best quality that you can afford. Because we want the technical routine to be a “part” of your entire practice, you will want to get in tune as quickly as possible and get to work. Save the tuning forks, pitch pipes and tuning “by ear” for later.
2. Timer – You will need to keep track of time, in minutes and seconds. Every cell phone or other hand-held device in the world has a timer. If you don’t have one of these, a kitchen timer or even the clock on your wall can work. Just make sure it is accessible.
3. Practice Chair – This should be comfortable, adjustable for proper height, and allow you to keep good posture throughout your practice sessions. You need to be able to be relaxed and focused and you cannot do that if you are uncomfortably “hunched over” your guitar.
4. Music Stand – Good quality, sturdy and fully adjustable for height. You want your materials in easy view and within reach. “Conductor Style” models are best.
5. Pencil – So you can record your practice in the practice log and progress tracker. This is essential. You’ll be doing this every day, so buy a few.
6. A well-lit, quiet place where you can practice undisturbed.
7. Your guitar – Well set up and maintained, in tune with fresh strings
8. Guitar Picks – These should be medium to medium-heavy gauge
9. Amplifier (for electric guitar players) – Play plugged in. You need to be able to hear the quality of every note you play. You cannot do this “unplugged” with an electric guitar.
10. Guitar Stand – You’ll be putting your guitar down for frequent short breaks, especially later in the program. A good guitar stand allows you to put it down and pick it right back up again.
11. Recording Device – This is optional, and can be as simple as a hand-held digital recorder that you can get for $12 at any department store. Again, simplicity. This is so that you can (optionally) record your practice sessions. This can be a great tool to assess how efficiently and effectively you are practicing and using your time. No need for the DAW here.
Setting up your workspace
You will need a clean and quiet place to practice where you will not be disturbed. This can be anywhere. The main consideration here is that you can preferably enter your space, sit down, prepare yourself and your materials, and get to work. Having to “set up and tear down” your practice space will make it easier to procrastinate and skip practice. With the materials in the accessories list and some good lighting, you will be all set. Remember this: Your practice space is where you (ideally) will spend many hours of your time. Make it pleasant, accessible, and above all, functional.
Every good program requires practice. Consistent and focused practice is necessary to become proficient in any and all facets of guitar playing. In this aspect of your education, it is you who must carry the load and do the work. The bottom line is this: The guitar cannot play itself. There are no short cuts to good technique, and no one can do it for you. It may sound a bit harsh, but it is true. Procrastination has turned many a would-be great guitar player into just an “ok” player, or worse, not a player at all. How do we avoid this? There is a simple answer: make it fun! As long as practicing is fun for you, you’ll continue to do it. If you dislike practicing, you won’t do it. If you don’t do it, you won’t improve. If you don’t improve, you won’t be a guitarist for very long.
In order to develop your guitar playing to its highest level, you must learn to practice slowly...and like it. Many people practice way to fast, but you must practice slowly to develop accuracy. Some guitarists resist the notion of practicing slowly and repetitively because they think it is “boring.” However, this is exactly how the brain learns accuracy. Once your brain, muscles, and nerves have developed the proper “memory” to play accurately and efficiently, you will begin to develop the dexterity, strength, and speed that you need and improve all the other aspects of your playing, so that you can play at your best every time.
A good teacher who can help you to see areas of strength and weaknesses is an invaluable asset that can help you to maximize the effectiveness of your practice time. A great teacher will also be able to coach and mentor you as you progress and help you to overcome obstacles as they come up. Your peer groups and other players can help keep you motivated. Listen to great music, see a show, ask questions, get answers, watch a movie, take a walk, do the things you love. Do anything that motivates you, but as the old Nike commercial says: “Just do it!”
Ok, we have our overview, our materials, our practice space, and our practice pep talk.
Warming up the hands and fingers
You have to physically warm up your hands. Cold hands result in poor performance, muscle strain and fatigue, and many times injuries like tendonitis. Our playing needs to be relaxed and natural, without creating tension. Starting your session with cold hands is a sure way to undermine an otherwise excellent playing experience. There are dozens of simple ways to warm up your hands. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Rub your hands together until the friction produces heat. Rub the palms and the backs of the hands and fingers.
2. Massage or “knead” each finger and thumb starting at the first knuckle all the way out to the tips. Use the thumb to massage the palm of the opposite hand. Switch hands and repeat.
3. Use all four fingers of the right hand to massage the top of your left forearm. Start near the elbow and work your way down to the wrist. Repeat on the other side.
4. Place your thumb across your opposite wrist. Then, with a very gentle movement, massage the area in a way that is moving across the muscles of the arm. Continue up the arm all the way to the elbow. Switch hands.
5. Hold your hands overhead and shake them vigorously for about 15 seconds, then let them fall to your side. You’ll feel the blood flowing into your hands and fingers. Repeat.
6. Rub your hands under warm water from the faucet (my favorite).
Just like any exercise, you always do your best workout if you stretch first. Tight muscles are tired muscles. Too many guitar students wind up cutting good practice short because of fatigue. Here are some good stretches and exercises to get you ready to roll:
1. Hold both hands out in front of you and slowly make a fist, tucking thumbs inside as you exhale. As you inhale, slowly open your fingers out and stretch the fingers apart. Repeat 4 times.
2. Hold your hand out in front of you; make a loose fist with thumbs inside. Holding that hand at the wrist with your other hand, rotate your fist in a complete circle from the wrist. Repeat 4 times clockwise and 4 times counter clockwise. This exercise will open up and loosen the wrist joints and gently stretch and strengthen the muscles responsible for moving the wrist.
3. Hold your palms together in “prayer” fashion with the fingers pointed toward the ceiling. Starting with the index finger, press the left finger into the right so that the right finger stretches back to about a 45 degree angle. Repeat in the opposite direction. Repeat with the middle, ring, and pinky fingers in both directions.
4. Using the thumb and index fingers, gently spread the adjacent fingers of the opposite hands apart. Do this only until you feel a comfortable stretch.
5. Hold your hand out in front in a fist with the thumb pointed toward the ceiling and gently pull the thumb back toward you with the opposite hand. Hold for a few seconds. Repeat on the other hand.
6. Hold your arm out in front of you with your palm facing the floor. Grab your fingertips with the other hand and gently pull them back toward you. Hold for 3 breaths, then release. Repeat on the other side.
7. Do exercise #3, but with the palm turned up and pulling the fingers toward the floor.
8. Clasp the fingers together, turn palms out and push away from you at eye level. Hold 3 breaths, then release.
9. Repeat step 4, but push up and away toward the ceiling. While you’re in this position, gently stretch the body to each side laterally, so you feel a nice stretch on the sides of your body.
10. Raise the left arm overhead and bend the elbow, allowing the hand to come down behind your head and between your shoulder blades. Reach up and grab the left elbow with the right hand and gently pull the arm to the right, stretching the left shoulder and upper arm. Repeat on the other side.
11. Look straight ahead and as you exhale, allow your head to tilt to the left, bringing your ear toward your shoulder. Take care not to lift the shoulder to the ear. Hold for 3 breaths. Repeat to the other side.
12. Look straight ahead and as you exhale look up toward the ceiling, stretching the front of the neck. Inhale back to center. Exhale, tuck the chin down and lower the head forward to look at the floor. Inhale to center. Repeat three times.
During your practice sessions, take time every 15 minutes or so to check your position. Holding your instrument with a relaxed posture and good body position is very important. This ensures that you can sustain your practice sessions and make music without tension. It also ensures that you will be able to play for many years without creating the stress and strain on the muscles and joints. Ask yourself: “Is my posture good, or am I hunched over or twisted?”, “Am I feeling any tension?”, “Am I breathing deeply?” This is important and should never be over looked. The better your posture and playing position, and the more aware you are of tension, the longer and more enjoyable are your practicing and playing sessions, and you will ensure that you are always playing at the top of your game.
This routine should take you about 10-15 minutes. Trust me, it will be the best 10-15 minutes that you can invest in your playing each day. There are many other stretching and warm-up exercises to do. Feel free to experiment. Not only will they get you ready to play, but will help to keep you fit as well.