One of the biggest myths and misunderstandings that I would like to dispel is the idea that a lot of time spent practicing is the key to playing guitar well. It doesn't matter how much time you spend if you don't know the correct things to do, and the correct way of doing those things. Fifteen minutes of correct practice will do you more good than 5 hours of incorrect, unintelligent practice. (Actually, bad practice doesn't do you any good at all. It just makes you better at playing badly!
In order to practice effectively, we must change our idea of what the word "mistake" means. When a mistake happens in our practice, there is usually an immediate emotional reaction. Some annoyance, some feelings of inadequacy, and probably the feeling that it shouldn't have happened, or probably won't again. It was some act of God. (This is especially true when playing in front of someone else, when all the weak spots come out).
The fact is there is always a reason for mistakes. They always have a cause. Usually, the cause is not even that difficult to uncover if you know how to look. If we have allowed our first finger to be held stiffly, sticking up in the air, in reaction to what our fourth finger is doing, we shouldn't be surprised if that first finger misses it's next note, especially in a fast piece.
I have learned over the years that we deserve every mistake we make. In fact, we have created and guaranteed them by the way we practice. They are simply the result, or effect, of our practice. Our practice is the cause. This is good news, because if we change the cause, we will get a different effect, or result. This means we can figure out how to get the result we want.
So begin to replace the word "mistake" with a much more accurate and useful phrase. A "mistake" is just an unwanted result. No emotion attached to it. Our job is to know the result we want, and figure out how to produce that result by working according to our understanding of the mechanics of playing.
Our fingers have this amazing ability, as does every muscle in your body, to "remember" anything they do. We all use this ability of the muscles in different ways in various things we do in life. We’re all familiar with how a carpenter will take a few practice swings with a hammer before striking a nail. He will slowly bring the hammer to the nail head, guiding his arm and the hammer along the path he wants them to take when he swings fast and with force. Then, after a few practice swings, he’ll let it fly. The muscles "remember" the path they took at the slow speed, and have no trouble repeating the exact movements necessary to take that path again, and hit the nail accurately.
The same process occurs in practicing an instrument. The person practicing performs various movements with the fingers, directed to a certain result. If the movements were done slowly and accurately, with no extra tension in the muscles involved, the fingers would have no trouble reproducing them at a faster speed. Why slowly? Because that is the only way to have the mind control the fingers and make them do what is desired, and keep extra tension to a minimum, or eliminated entirely. That’s why the carpenter does his practice swings slowly, so he can control the path of the hammer. What he’s really doing is allowing his muscles to experience the exact movements and adjustments that are necessary to hit the nail accurately. Remember this: Whatever your fingers experience doing slowly, in a state of total relaxation, they will be able to do very quickly.
This ability of the muscles and nervous system of our body to remember and repeat movements they have already experienced is the foundation of how we learn to play the guitar, or any instrument for that matter, and is called muscle memory.
It’s important to realize that this is not some special secret thing only some people have or some people use. We all do it already, but you must understand it and respect it when you practice, in order to be able to practice effectively, that is, get results. The great players understand these things, and they practice like they understand them. You can too!
Finger memory is a great thing, but it can work for you or against you, because if you do the right thing once, than the wrong thing, and then various combinations of right and wrong, you end up with some pretty confused fingers. This is what most people actually do when they practice, and why they experience little or inconsistent results, and a lot of frustration.
When they practice, they do not make the fingers do the right thing. They are allowing the fingers to make haphazard and inaccurate movements. In ten repetitions of a passage, the fingers may actually do it ten different ways (resulting in various mistakes, wrong notes, or "oops" moments). Usually, the person practicing is not aware of the fact that he was doing it ten different ways. It may be something relatively obvious like using slightly different fingerings, or something more subtle like tension in various muscle groups. The person practicing is not aware of the differences, but the poor fingers are! When the player then tries to play that passage for someone, well, how will they ever know which of those ten ways the fingers might decide to do it?
This leads to a very useful definition of good practice. Good Practice is knowing the right thing to do, and then making sure your fingers do it. This means you must know what the fingers should do, and then you must make them do it over and over. This is another way of saying, "do the right thing and do enough of it".
The key to knowing how to do good practice is to realize that your fingers are your faithful servants and friends. They have great memories, but they have no conscience, that is, they will remember and repeat whatever they do, but they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. So, they are just as happy to do the wrong thing as the right thing, they just do what you have taught them (actually, they are happier doing the right thing, it’s just that they really have no choice, since they can only repeat what they have already done). Since they don’t know if what you just had them do is the right thing or the wrong thing, they leave that up to you. It’s your job to make sure it’s the right thing.
I hope you are intrigued by what you have read so far. There are many more vital Understandings in "The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar", as well as the Tools and Exercises which are based on them. Taken together, they will enable you to see why you have had trouble learning to do certain things on the guitar, and most importantly, what to do about it!
We have discovered the Floating Arm, and later we will work with the Heavy Arm. Before that, we need to discuss the two states the fingers will assume when we practice and play: The Light Finger and the Firm Finger.
The Light Finger is the completely relaxed finger brought to the string and touching the string with only the weight of the finger. It does not press the string down until told to do so. We will discover the sensation of the Light Finger in the following exercise.
Foundation EXERCISE #17: Finger Flapping
Discovering The Light Finger
Raise your arms in front of you without the guitar, and take hold of the index finger of your left hand with the thumb and index finger of your right hand. Completely relax the left index and wiggle it around with your right hand. This is the “Light Finger”.
Touch the palm of your right hand with your left index. Raise the left index two inches from the palm. Now let it drop by its own weight back to your palm, touching it very lightly with no pressure. This is how the finger feels when it first touches the string.
Now hold the guitar and do the Balloon, again bringing the hand up so that the index finger is lined up with the ninth fret. Have your fingers in a relaxed curl over the 6th string. Allow your Light, relaxed middle finger to fall to the 6th string, behind the 10th fret, so that it touches the string but applies no pressure. Look at the string under your finger and see the distance between the string and the fingerboard. Make sure the string does not move at all down toward the fret.
Raise your finger an inch, and then bring it back to touch the string again in the same way. Do this over and over, touching the string with the Light Finger, bringing it away, and touching it again. This is called “Finger Flapping”. Do this a few times with each finger every day. Make sure you keep the inactive fingers as relaxed as possible while touching the string with the active finger. This will get you used to the feeling, and over time, very sensitive to the feeling of complete relaxation.
This light feeling is how your fingers will be when they first touch the string to play a note, and it is the feeling they will return to when they release from a note. It enables them to be prepared for their next job. Many people never have this light feeling, and play with tense fingers all the time. Their playing suffers greatly because of it.
There is a world of wisdom and one-of-a-kind training waiting for you in "The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar". You must know and use the information in "The Principles" in order to play guitar well, and keep making progress without constanty running into probems. Get your copy today!
Jamie Andreas has one goal: to make sure that everyone who wants to learn guitar is successful. After her first 25 years of teaching, she wrote the world acclaimed method for guitar "The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar". She put everything into this method that was essential for success on guitar. Called "The Holy Grail" of guitar books, the Principles has enabled thousands of students who tried and failed to play guitar for years or even decades, to become real guitar players. In 2012 Jamie was profiled in "Guitar Zero" (Penguin Press 2012), a study of how adults learn to play guitar. Jamie was interviewed along with some of the worlds leading guitarist/teachers, including jazz legend Pat Martino and Tom Morello ("Rage Against The Machine").