“The what and how of effective practice for guitar” – Matt Smith
One of the most common questions I'm asked at master classes is how and what to practice.
Divide your available practice time into fourths, and pick four of the subjects below, rotating
skills each session. The 8 most important skills needed to be a great musician are, in no
particular order: Ear training, scale and chord knowledge, composition, reading and writing
chord charts and notation, repertoire, technique, music theory and improvisation.
1) Ear training – the skill of understanding what you're hearing, and how to play it on
your instrument. This skill is probably the most important skill you'll need as you
develop your abilities on your instrument. Start very simply with easy songs you've
heard many times. Slowly build in complexity as you develop. A big hint: sing
everything you play. Making the connection between your speech center and your
instrument will help you immeasurably in this endeavor.
2) Learn new scales and chord forms – these are the fundamental building blocks of
your foundation as a player. Study chord forms by grouping the into categories. For
example, learn as many positions as you can of the four triads, major, minor,
diminished and augmented. Then move onto the 7th chord family: maj7, minor7,
dominant7 and minor7b5,(sometimes called half diminished). Learn these forms
with roots on the 6th, 5th and 4th strings, as these are the most common forms. There
are a lot of scale forms to learn also: major and minor pentatonic scales, modes of
the major scale, as well as modes of the melodic minor scale and altered scales.a
well rounded musician has a grasp of the forms and usage of these scales and
various positions of each. A good place to start is to root each scale again on the 6th,
5th and 4th strings.
3) Composition - any artist is represented by his or her body of work. Composing is a
skill that musicians should place great importance in. It's what represents and
immortalizes us. As a teacher, I've always stressed the importance of using newly
learned skills as a springboard for writing. It gives focus to the practice routine, and
makes learning new ideas fun. Everything you've learned or are learning should be
brought into play when writing. Try and compose at least a song a week. Before you
know it, you'll have enough songs to record an album!
4) Reading and Writing notation and chord charts – this skill is absolutely necessary for
musicians to master. It's how we communicate with one another. Being able to walk
into a room of musicians with clear, well written music and/or charts is essential for
communicating exactly how you want your music to be played. As a teacher, this skill
is as easy as breathing. To a student, it can be intimidating. Try transcribing your
original compositions, or very familiar songs. Chart out songs and try them out with
your band mates. Syncopation is the toughest skill to write, so get your reading sharp.
Getting music you're familiar with is the easiest way of developing your writing ability.
5) Repertoire – To become competent in a particular style, one must study the greats
of the genre. If you want to sit in at the good sessions in town, go check out what
tunes are called. Every genre has its classics and master musicians. Learn the Best
songs of the style.
Another aspect of repertoire is what you choose to play in performance. You should
strive to educate your audience as well as entertain them. Every genre has its
overplayed tunes. Watching what other successful musicians are playing is a good
way to learn what goes over.
A well rounded musician is proficient in a number of genres. Learning new material
keeps you and your audience sharp.
6) Technique - it's pretty easy to reach a certain level of ability and feel comfortable
there. Also ultimately unsatisfying. We all have a “default” ability that we rely on
when performing. The key is to raise your default by regular practice. Also, learning
proper hand position and posture can help alleviate a lot of playing related issues .
Right and left hand exercises are a part of a good practice regimen. As guitarists, we
tend to focus on the left hand, but your right hand is just as important. Find
exercises you enjoy doing. Many exercises that require repetition to develop
dexterity I find more enjoyable while catching up on that latest episode of a favorite
show. Repetition is the mother of skill.
7) Music Theory- If you're going to move to Italy, it's a really good idea to become
fluent in the Italian language. As musicians, we communicate our thoughts to one another in
very specific ways. Concerning music theory, everything is related to the major scale and chords
derived from triads and extensions of the major scale we’re playing in. Everything relates to
notes of a major scale, or chords of a key. If I'm on a gig, and the bandleader says:
“It's a 1,6,2,5”, I know he's referring to the first, sixth, second and fifth chords of the major key
we're playing in. If a musician asks me to resolve a phrase on the flat 3, I know he means the
flatted third note of the major scale.
The major scale isn't rocket science. Just remember whole, whole half, whole, whole, whole
half. Every note in the musical alphabet is represented in every scale, and if you remember
these two rules, it's super easy:
1) Never skip a letter
2) Never use the same letter twice
Remember, all music theory is based on the major scale!
Learn to read and write music. Learn to read and write chord charts and lead sheets. When
working with great musicians, you’ll earn respect. Start writing chord charts to easy songs you
know well, and work up to difficult pieces.
8) Improvisation - Great improvisors play streams of melody, not “licks.” Unless you're
a horn player, sing along with everything you improvise. We communicate by
speech, and tying your instrument to your voice will help on so many levels. We all
hear what we want to play in our heads, but it often doesn't come out when we
play. We feel out of control of our instrument. Singing with your instrument gives
you a great frame of reference for achieving what you're hearing others play, and
developing your spontaneous composition ability.
Some other great tools are:
1) Singing what you want to play before executing it on your instrument.
2) Imagine your playing in the style of another instrument (playing sax lines on the guitar,
3) Playing in the styles of various masters of your instrument (if you're a jazz trumpet
player, how would Miles play over this? How would Louis Armstrong solo over this?).
You get the idea.
Remember to play with other musicians every chance you get. There are skills learned in
live performance that can only be achieved this way. Also, please remember that it's “playing” music. Have fun. The joy is in the journey.