Principles of Practice
Based on "The Principles of Correct
Practice for Guitar"
by Jamie Andreas
20, 2002 Volume 99
Thought for the Week and a Lifetime
"Life is a process of unending discovery through infinite
Exercise or Test?
People are so sloppy in their use of words. Everyone commonly uses
words the meaning of which, they have no idea, nor do they much
care! It is unfortunate, because when we do try to really understand
the meaning of the various words we use, their real meaning, the
meaning that called them into being in the first place, it gives
us understanding, and it gives us power.
"Practicing" is an interesting one. If people thought
about that one for even a little bit, they would be forcefully brought
to the inevitable conclusion that whatever it might be that they
do when they sit down with a guitar to get better, it sure doesn't
deserve the word "practice". To "practice" means
to "do", not to "try". We wouldn't go to a doctor
with a medical "practice", and have him "practice"
on us, unless we felt pretty confident we were going to see some
RESULTS, and hopefully, the ones we want! If all the patients that
go to a doctor stay just as sick, or get worse and die, I don't
think the doctor is "practicing", at least correctly!
No, I think we feel justified in expecting at least a good number
of a doctors patients to get better. But people will still say "I
have practiced guitar today" when, day after week after year,
there is actually no change in their ability to play, they do not
Most often, when we properly examine a word in order to understand
its real meaning (the purpose for which it was called into being,
and the understanding that is the core of that word), we realize
one thing very strongly: we truly have no idea of what we mean when
we use that word! We just use it because everyone else does. We
actually have no clue as to what it really means, and, if we check
around, we will see (as Socrates saw when he made everyone he spoke
to examine their own words), no one else does either. This is a
very hopeful step, because it means now we have a chance of discovering
the real meaning of the word.
If guitar players did that with the word "practice", they
would think of the activity more along the lines of the word "training".
It is obvious that guitar practice is supposed to be more like "training"
in the sense an athlete would use it, or in the sense even of a
"dog trainer". If you took your dog to weekly training
lessons so he would stop biting the neighbors and pooping in the
house, and you found yourself still getting sued, and still trying
to get the stains out of the carpet, well, I don't think you would
say that "training" is occurring. You would conclude that
perhaps SOMETHING was occurring every week, but it wasn't "training"
because nothing has been trained!
That is how guitar players should think of practicing. They will
then realize two things:one, it is not what they are doing, and
two, they need, really need, to find out what practicing is. They
should set about doing so. They should go on a quest to find out
what practicing is, so that they can make that "training"
happen, so that they can see results that translate into being able
to say "hey, I can really play the guitar, and I can keep on
getting better"! After all, you'd look for another dog trainer,
Of course, if you are reading this, and know of the existence of
GuitarPrinciples, and "The Principles Of Correct Practice For
Guitar", you have already come to the end of your quest! Anyone
who reads this newsletter, and all the material on the site, cannot
fail to understand what practicing the guitar, and getting better,
is all about.
Another severely misunderstood word in common use is the word "exercise",
and Lord knows, guitarists do a lot of exercises! And, there are
tons of books full of exercises, and most guitar players own at
least a few of those tons! So, it would behoove all guitar players
to understand the inner meaning, the subtle meaning of the word
exercise, what it is, and what it isn't. Then, you may discover
a few disconcerting facts: no, you are not ever doing real exercises,
and no, you don't know what real exercises are, either! You may
find that, instead of doing exercises, you are taking tests. And
that is not good, because exercises are done to GAIN ability, and
tests are taken to measure and prove ability, they do not give it.
Many guitarists play scales. Many guitarists play scales badly.
Many guitarists practice scales badly. That is because for them,
a scale cannot be an exercise. It can only be a test. It cannot
be used to gain ability, so it will only test the ability. And the
guitarist who has never done the exercises that would eventually
lead to being able to use a scale as an exercise to gain ability,
will fail the test.
To exercise means to use. When we exercise judgment, we are using
judgment. To exercise means to call upon something to be used. In
order to do the exercise, we must be able to call upon all the things
that need to be used in order to DO the exercise (not TRY to do
it), and use them. And as we do, changes occur, the changes we want.
The things being called upon develop with use. But the right changes
will only occur if the right things are being called upon in the
first place, and used in the right way. Otherwise, wrong changes
A scale for a guitarist is extremely complex. It calls upon many
things from a player. Many players do not have, at the time they
begin scales, the required skills that need to be called upon to
DO a scale, really do it properly. So they call upon what they have,
and as they use their untrained fingers, and untrained shoulder
and upper body muscles (all of which have everything to do with
playing the guitar), those overly tensed and strained muscles force
unprepared joints and ligaments to act in a highly un-coordinated
manner, and guess what: the wrong changes occur! Remember, bad practice
does make us better; at playing badly, that is!
What happens from bad practice is a lot of un-coordination, a lot
of tension, a lot of missed notes that get worse with speed. Also
a lot of frustration and other nasty stuff. Because of the powerful
effects of muscle memory, the player in this condition who does
not figure out a way of dealing with all of this, becomes like a
knot that is just being pulled tighter as time goes by. Bad practice
keeps making the knots tighter.
Real exercises for the beginning guitarist hardly exist. The real
things to do that CAN be used by the beginner, that DO cause changes,
are not to be found. You will only find the things that are only
possible to be done really well by someone who can already do them.
What can be used by someone in the seventh grade cannot be used
by someone in the second grade. At best, the second grader may figure
out how to make some limited use of it, but most will get nowhere
at all. That is what it is like for many many people learning to
play the guitar. (Of course, if you are like me, you will keep struggling
with it all until you actually ARE in the seventh grade, and then
you'll understand it!)
A real exercise is something that, when it is really done, causes
a change. A real exercise has power, because power is the ability
to create change. When we really do a real exercise, it changes
us. That is a big part of practicing the guitar, really doing real
A real exercise is both a question and an answer. It is the going
on a quest, and it is the arriving. A real exercise takes you somewhere,
it is an experience, it trains you, it teaches you.
The genius and the genesis of a real exercise is in the asking of
the right question. A question is, don't forget, a "quest",
it is a looking somewhere. If you don't look in the right place,
it doesn't matter how clearly you see what is there! At any given
time in our development as guitarists, there is a "right question
to ask". There is a right place to look, and to find, there
is a real exercise, to be really done. Being able to find the exercise,
and to do it, is what being able to practice is all about, and being
able to practice is what being a great guitarist is all about.
In the beginning, the right questions to ask are "how do I
hold the guitar, and how do I touch the strings". Of course,
those questions are asked repeatedly through the life of a player,
and new answers are constantly given. The key is to be able to begin
the quest. The Principles, and the Foundation Exercises are a way.
There certainly are other ways, but I suspect they would all contain
the essentials of the way that I have created (and of course, I
never could have "created" it without a lot of study on
what others have said and done).
But understanding The Principles, and knowing how to use them on
the Foundation Exercises works for anyone who does so. It changes
them, gives them power to create change, and begins the quest. Doing
the exercises correctly takes you somewhere, gives you, your body
and mind, an experience, and that experience becomes part of what
you are as a player. You are not going to find it so easy to mindlessly
allow your body to retain knots of tension as you practice, knots
of tension that you don't know about, and are not paying attention
to. Your mind will understand, and your body will feel the danger
and discomfort of doing so. They will feel it because doing the
Foundation Exercises for the left hand will have introduced you
to what it is supposed to feel like when you touch the string with
your finger, not just for the finger, but for the whole body.
You will have experienced what it is supposed to feel like as groups
of fingers move across the strings. The difference between this
and the usual "death grip struggling" performed by so
many students is astounding. Thousands of players have testified
to it, and thousands more will.
Great players have a genius for finding the right exercise for themselves
at any given time. This is because they know how to think, and because
they are driven by great passion. These qualities give them the
drive and the tools they need to find the right exercises at any
time, and so, to teach themselves. The first step in finding the
right exercise is to know what we want, absolutely and with crystal
clear clarity. This is why many players cannot practice or find
the right exercises. They don't know what they want. Because they
are at the level of development they are, they don't know what they
SHOULD want. They don't know what to listen for, what they should
be feeling physically as they make their moves, and what they shouldn't
Now, they don't know they don't know what they want, and that of
course, makes it hopeless. The second step of finding and using
the right exercise is to know if we are getting what we want. This
takes great intensity of attention, and of course, depends on the
Another way of saying "what we want" is "what is
required to play the music". And, as we practice, we discover
ever deeper levels of those requirements. For instance, perhaps
I am learning a hot lick by my favorite player. The first level
of what I need, and should want, is "to play it like it sounds
on the recording". After practicing it, I should test myself
by recording it to see if I have gotten what I want. If it doesn't
sound like the recording, more intense work is needed, and "exercises"
must be developed.
This is done by continually asking "what is wrong, why is it
wrong, and what can I do to make it right?" Of course, there
may be twenty things wrong, and twenty things needed, but with experience,
we learn to take them one at a time. Perhaps the bends are flat.
We start from the known, from what we can observe, and then inquire
further. Well, in order to be in tune, the string must be bent a
certain distance. I am not bending it far enough, I am trying, but
it isn't happening. Why? Perhaps it is my exact hand position, arm
position, thumb position, etc. You investigate like Sherlock Holmes,
you think. You devise an approach. "If I keep my thumb over
(like I read somewhere on GuitarPrinciples.com), and use it to oppose
my fingers, while at the same time using forearm rotation, and conduct
that power through my firm fingers, rather than relying totally
on finger strength, I can get more power to the string and bend
it more, with more control. Oh, goody!
But, ooh, that hurts. Yes, but the first time you either make the
right thing happen, or do something so that the right thing is more
likely to be able to happen, you have stumbled across an exercise!
The right question has been asked, "what do I need to get what
I want", and the exercise has answered in the form of "do
this, and you will get what you need".
Another illuminating example is how I developed the first exercise
in The Principles. I was teaching a 70 year old man who had been
trying to learn to play for many years. Well, he couldn't! It became
clear to me that he was so locked up with muscle tension with every
move he made that I would not be able to teach him anything, nothing
at all. All his previous teachers could only "pretend"
to be teaching him by keeping him busy learning more things to play
in the same lousy way he played everything else.
So, I observed, and I asked questions. What do we need here, and
what do we need first, before anything else? Well, poor old George
was tense from the moment he began to take his guitar out of the
case, so how about we learn to simply hold the guitar and be relaxed?
How about, before I try to teach this guy new strums, or how to
fingerpick, I teach him to do something much more basic than that,
and something he CANNOT do right now: simply sit with the guitar
with his right hand in position, and maintain that position, and
stay relaxed; no movement, just stay relaxed.
Well, he couldn't. He tensed up without even moving a finger! Now,
that was an enlightening observation! So, an exercise was born,
a doing. I was going to take him somewhere and give him an experience.
I was going to make him use something he COULD use, and do something
he COULD do, not ask him to do something he had no hope of being
able to do. And that thing he was going to do would provide the
foundation for the next step forward. So, I told him "go home,
sit for an entire minute in the right position, with your right
hand in postion over the strings, and just stay that way, don't
move. Pay attention to your body and your breathing, observe the
tension arise, and release it. Do this many times a day".
And that was the beginning of George being able to make music that
deserved the name music.
No matter what it turns out to be, or how much trouble it is to
find it, you must find the right exercise for each playing moment.
Not doing so is like trying to sew before you have managed to thread
the needle! Finally finding the right exercise, the right "doing",
is like threading the needle, you will notice as you sew (practice)
that things somehow manage to stay together better!
Now, understand that since we are dealing with "body learning"
here, one very confusing element is speed. Everyone thinks they
want speed. You don't want speed, because speed is the RESULT of
other things, it cannot be "gotten" directly. It appears
when the other things are there. You cannot play scales fast simply
by trying to play them fast. Exercises for "speed" very
often don't look like exercises for speed at all. If you saw me
practicing some of my "speed exercises", you may think
I need somebody to wake me up before the battery on the metronome
wears out! Speed comes from relaxed control, and as I go about developing
that relaxed control, I may be moving about as fast as a snail with
no particular place to go!
I may have noticed that when I play a certain scale, I break down
at a certain speed because my 4th finger tenses every time I use
the 3rd. This origin of this problem with "speed" has
nothing to do with speed, and the right exercise for it will not
either. I need to train it to not do that. The exercises I may have
developed for that, to take me where I need to go, and give my fingers
the experience they need, may make someone watching me say, "I
thought he knew how to play the guitar!" Building speed, and
practicing the scale fast will certainly come in to play at some
point, but only after this kind of work. And this kind of work will
be continually returned to, and interspersed with the speed playing.
Finally, understand that "testing" is important, in fact,
vital. Many players get stuck because they do not test themselves
properly. They never check to see if they can actually DO what they
have been working on. They stay forever in the "putting it
together stage". Testing, in fact, is a part of the "exercise
discovery process", it tells us if we need to work to solve
problems by finding the right exercises (and the answer is usually
"yes, we do!).
Principled players should read "The 3 Stages Of Practice"
for a fuller understanding of this process. Good luck to everyone
in finding the right exercises, and doing them in the right way,
to move your playing forward.
I published a report from my student Rick Camp who comes in for
a lesson from his home in Belgium. When I had seen him in July,
I fixed up his rock technique, and sent him away with the solo to
"Stairway To Heaven". I saw him last week for another
lesson, and he has had great improvement in his playing. But...
Could he play that solo smoothly all the way through while I played
the background chords? Nooo, he couldn't! Why, because he has not
been testing himself!!
He has been lazy, and not holding himself to a high enough standard.
He was just sitting there, closing his eyes, and playing it through
in a way that seemed to be fine in "Rick World". However,
I had to break the news to my good friend Rick that while having
a few extra beats here and there may be fine in "Rick World",
it wasn't going to do much good for the rest of us! Anyone learning
a solo should not consider they know it until they have tested themselves
by playing it to the background chords, recording it, and listening
Well, Rick is seriously dedicated to his growth as a guitarist,
and took the chastisement like a man, and has promised to send me
mp3's of the solo put together. He is to be commended for that,
and should also realize that this process of "discovering our
inadequacy and doing something about it" are what it is all
about. I have been through it a million times, and expect a million
Drummer Turns in Sticks for Picks!
I´m 23 years old and have been a drummer since I was about
8. When I was 15 I attended music school for three years, and I
decided then that I wanted to be a professional drummer.
A few months ago, I felt a need to learn to play the guitar, I bought
a cheap, second hand electric guitar and started searching for some
advice on the internet. One day I found a site called "guitarnoise.com",
and I was drawn to the articles written by you, since they made
alot of sense. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I
was reading your book in my living room... And do you know what?
I can't wait to sell my drums and buy a proper guitar! My life has
changed completely! Thanks to your book, I believe that I can be
as good as I want to on the guitar (given enough time), and I continue
to make vertical growth every day.
My family thinks I´m crazy, "wasting 15 years of drumming",
but I know I made the right choice (I strongly believe that the
"wasted" years of drumming will be a very good experience
in my guitarplaying). I simply realized that for 15 years I´ve
been walking with my shoelaces tied together. Now, walking feels
completely different... and I never leave home without my metronome!
Thank you so much!
Hey Greger, any musical training is never a waste, and rhythm is
one of the weakest assets of many guitarists. I am sure you will
be awesome! And if it is any consolation, my family thinks I'm crazy
too, with guitar or without!
I very much appreciated this letter from Donna, our "teacher
in training" in response to my whining last week:
You are absolutely NOT AN IDIOT! Instead you are someone who
is dedicated to speaking the truth and making great players, rather
than a quick buck. I have noted in my 42 years, that when money
is the ultimate goal, there is way too much compromise and the outcome
is never what it could truly be.
I want to thank you again for your relentless, hard work at spreading
the truth about guitar playing; and not making profit your number
one goal. I think that is the downfall of so many guitar teachers
and guitar methods. I would have never had the confidence to teach
if I had not had the principles behind me. I truly want to be a
great teacher and a great player. And, through your teachings, I
know I can get there. It just takes hard work, but the work will
pay off. Unlike all the years of my practicing that didn't pay off.
I, myself, have such a long way to go and so much to learn/unlearn.
Angie is so very lucky to begin learning through using the principles.
Just the other day, I was talking to a woman and her daughter who
are taking lessons, but not using the principles. The mom told me
how she switched to electric guitar because acoustic was "just
too hard". Then she started to tell me about her struggles
with bar chords. I fervently told her that she needs to get on your
website and get your book. So many players are territorial about
their "secrets" of playing. They either don't know why
they are doing what they are doing, or they want to keep it to themselves.
Thank you for spending so much time figuring out why you can do
what you can do and for sharing it with the world.
Somewhere in the Bible it says, "The truth shall set
you free". What you have done is shared the truth with guitarists
and it is setting us free from the struggles of awful practice technique
so that we can become the guitarists and musicians that we want
to be. I have no doubt that the Principles will become the guitarists'
bible (it is mine already) in due time.
Yesterday, I received a demo from a classical flutist. He
recently lost his guitarist (a classical guitarist) and wants to
work with me. Me? I am floored I know I would not have the confidence
to work with him if I didn't have the principles behind me.
So, I'm going to go for it. I know that all of us who have learned
from you would dare not forget where are skills have come from.
Anyone who asks me how I can do what I do, is told to go to your
website. And, btw, you should really consider writing another book
or two or three or all the essays you have written. You are an excellent
writer. I am just finishing up reading a book called "Zen Guitar".
I has been a good read, but your essays contain everything and more
than is in this book. You have pulled from lifestyles, virtuoso
players, the everyday player, religions, etc. Your scope of intelligence
is always amazing me. You deserve to be making some income from
your essay writings! I find that over the last year, I just thumb
through Acoustic Guitar Magazine, because I would rather read what
you have to say - which is the truth.
Just got back from a conference, and I'm plowing through my emails
(which are finally arriving again). I just wanted to tell you that
this was an outstanding, thought provoking newsletter. Your thoughts
on fate vs. destiny were right on target along with your thoughts
on what it takes to do something (anything) that you love! Thanks
for your inspiration.
material copyright © 2003 by Jamie Andreas, GuitarPrinciples.com