Natural Talent or practice?
Also see my guest blog on this topic here: http://adamharkus.com/guitar-apps-technology-and-practice/
There are many skills which can speed up your progress while learning guitar. With forethought and careful planning of your practice time you can greatly increase your learning and benefit most from your time with your guitar. This is intended to be an independent and careful examination of this with advice, ideas and exercises to assist you in your development.
The first thing to recognise is that natural talent will only take you so far. There are many studies of the benefits of talent and even whether it is a myth to believe in which you can look into; however, I want to look at this belief in a little more detail.
If you believe that natural talent plays a crucial role in developing skills on the guitar, then either you believe yourself to have it or you think the reverse. Each of these, if a little logic and thought is applied, results in a negative situation for your development. 1) If you think yourself to have natural talent, then this may lead you to consider that you do not need to practice as much as other people or spend the appropriate time developing your rhythm, ear training or musical theory. This in turn means that you may not feel as motivated to put in the groundwork and effort and may consequently result in you becoming demotivated. 2) If, on the other hand, you consider yourself not to have natural talent and also believe that this plays a huge part in musicianship, you might become demotivated by ‘unattainable’ skills and lack a sense of direction towards a goal. By lowering your expectations and not aspiring to great heights, you will also be limiting the progress you will make. You may feel unworthy to play with other musicians, thereby cutting an essential skill out of your playing.
Instead, be clear and build into your practice what you want to come out in your playing. As Dan says in our podcast, there isn’t a single guitarist who got to where they are without lots of practice and challenges: https://tunein-toneup.com.
It is possible to ‘practise’ for hours and not make improvements at a speed which implies that the quality of practise not the amount is most important. This is because of the classic error of doing that which you already know what to do instead of learning something new and hence more challenging. Whilst you might be having fun and even perfecting a skill which you are already accustomed to, this lack of challenge will delay real progress and worse, may trick you into thinking that you are improving. This can lead to the negative feeling of being in a rut or plateauing.
This is why the format of our podcast is to introduce ideas to experiment with and research rather than rote learning songs which you can easily do via YouTube’s vast wealth of guitar tuition videos. We would hope that people are listening, picking up bits of advice, researching how to implement that advice and then maybe to return to the podcast to fine tune their idea. You can gain a huge amount from listening to the detail in Dan’s explanations and thoughts and from listening to the nuances of his playing. I speak from experience of editing our lessons, as this has really accelerated my own learning. See below for links to individual podcasts:
In order for your practice time to be effective you will need to do several things. You will need to plan your practice so that you are exposed to and trying new skills and developing your weaknesses rather than discovering ways to mask your flaws. You will need to become reflective and maintain a sense of being a beginner to be prepared to learn new things and use the resources which are available to you in order to increase the depth and the amount of knowledge. You will need to set enough time aside, built into your daily routine, to increase your skills and be thoughtful about what you will spend your time doing:
- spend your time practising difficult bits (e.g. don’t practise whole scales all the time, but rather position changes and trickier fingerings),
- be goal driven and practise what you want to be better at and in the style you wish to play,
- use warm-ups with consideration and sparingly, after all nothing is better than actually practising what you intend to play,
- play with other musicians and learn from those better than you and also those behind you on their musical journey,
- find and make use of a good teacher, recording your lessons and revisiting them,
- improvise and play over backing tracks (YouTube has a great wealth of useful backing tracks and lessons,
- develop your music theory, it will only help you to improve,
- transcribe and develop your ear,
- learn the notes on your fretboard all the way up the neck and for each string,
- study other instruments – e.g. drums, piano and saxophone
The first thing to do is to consider what you want to be good at. You have to practice what you want to be good at more than other areas. Some areas will benefit other areas, for example developing you rhythmic playing will also improve your lead soloing and make your improvisation more interesting. Some skills, however, will take a long time to become good at but will require that you set aside time for this into your practice. If you have a very clear area which you want to be fundamental to your playing, then this should become the thing which you spend your time doing: for example if you want to be good at fingerstyle technique, like John Williams; or rhythmical percussive playing like Andy McKee or Tommy Emmanuel, then this area should be studied in great detail to build your technique in this area early on. The guitar has so many different dimensions to the way it might be played and a wealth of techniques which can be mastered that if you do not specialise, you may find it a much longer process to see improvement.
Organising your practice time:
I don’t use this app anymore:
An app which I found incredibly useful for a while in order to organise my practice time this was Music Journal by Axe Monkey Software. I use this app on my iPad and have organised it by folders WARMUP, STUDY, SONG, THEORY, IMPROVISATION and LESSONS. I find it useful to add into each of these folders broad areas of study and then use this as a basis for building and storing research, practice ideas and notes about practice. It has a built in metronome and records information about each area you practice in a central database which you can use to reflect upon and record thoughts for your future practices. The graph within it is an extremely easy way to see how you have divided up your time and if you colour each area differently you can quickly see how much time you have spent on warm up as oppose to transcribing. Once you have planned your practice time you should have a minimum amount of time which you aim for each day. This should be achievable and could take into account some days in which you do not practice. This means that if you are busy you will still be aiming to maintain your minimum. If you choose to use Music Journal, it keeps a running track of your last 7 days by default and updates daily.
It is important to consider the skills and areas for development prior to sitting down with your guitar. My early playing was less effective as a result of a lack of planning and it is my hope to help others to avoid this. I think that areas for development can be broadly categorised. My Music Journal folders are a good starting point but you should also be able to take control and ownership of this yourself. I did not maintain my use of Music Journal very well, but the process of categorisation was helpful. It is good for you to consider your areas for improvement too. Some possible areas are:
Music theory – you should read instruction books, blogs and discuss this area with other musicians. It is important to know your intervals, diatonic chords, chord construction and circle of fifths. There are some useful apps and programs which I can advise for you later.
Warm-up – if you talk to any person who goes to the gym, they would tell you that they stretch and warm-up before exercising. It is the same on the guitar. I include techniques like hammering on each finger, the spider gym and finger independent exercises in this category.
Rhythm – whether you play lead or rhythm guitar (or indeed another instrument), this is an essential area and easy for people to underdevelop. I’ll cone back to this, but there are superb programs, apps and exercises you can use to develop this fundamental area.
Ear training – again this is important whatever your musical interests. I certainly left this area undeveloped until late in my practice and wish I had not. Again, there are fantastic apps, programs and exercises which you can use and like with rhythm you do not need your guitar with you to do so. An iPad, iPhone, computer or smartphone is enough.
Transcribing – this practises other areas too and can greatly and quickly improve your playing. Some software to slow music down is important when beginning work on this and also not to transcribe above your transcription level as this will become a painfully demotivating process. I find it good practice to pre-plan my transcription homework and to work on songs which contain good phrasing. For example begin with easy songs (like nursery rhymes and children’s songs) blues, classic solos, different styles and different instruments. I use an excellent program called Transcribe by Seventh Heaven software.
Strumming patterns – get that right hand movement in time! Practice consistent down and upstrokes.
Scales – it is important to practice your scales and modes to gain muscle memory and also build your ear to become accustomed to the tonal quality if different modes.
Right hand technique – alternate picking, string skipping, sweep picking, fingerstyle, economy picking, percussive rhythmic playing like flamenco, finger tapping, hybrid picking, palm muting. Many of these areas you can turn into a lifelong specialism and many players do.
Left hand technique – legato, hammer on and pull off, bending vibrato, harmonics, slide guitar,
Alternate tunings – in a rut? Use open G, open D, DADGAD or drop D to spice things up a bit or study how another player creates his or her sound.
Improvisation and jamming – use backing tracks on YouTube or ones you have downloaded to practice what you have studied. Keep this as the fun part of your practice and complete each practice session with an attempt to play along with a backing track, vamp or sustained pedal note. Also contained in this area would be a good old fashioned jamming session with a friend.
Study – use a tutor, YouTube video or apply something you read and play about with it on your guitar. Some examples here might be open triads, octave displacement, rhythmic playing of your scales, note duration, or area and techniques already mentioned. There are some excellent lessons and masterclasses online, but it is easy to become embroiled in this and as a result lose your practice time.
Learn how to sing!
- Ultimate guitar – free app but it is worth paying the one off subscription fee as most songs can be found on the ultimate first extensive database and while many of these chords and tabs are not completely accurate you can download tabs to your favourites and access them from your tablet or phone offline. This can be organised into playlists and thus be used as a songbooks or campfire repertoire. It is also worth getting the ultimate guitar pro tabs app as this does the same but can play a tab with a metronome. It can also now recognise the song being played your device and then open the relevant tab.
- Read rhythm – this app is fantastic for building your rhythmic skill. You can use it either level by level, where you can best each level by playing an endurance test and completing 5 levels without missing a beat in a row. You can also play with fixed levels where you can aim to get a decent score for how much you miss exact beats by and you can program the tempo faster or slower. This app at just over £2 is real value for money.
- Chromatik – this app is good as it plays along with music videos.
- Ear Trainer by Justin Sandercoe – good for learning how to recognise intervals.
- Time Trainer by Justin Sandercoe – great metronome.
- Note Trainer by Justin Sandercoe – superb fretboard app, fun and competitive.
- Guitar Fretboard Addict (FBA) by Michael Rylee
- Chord Learner by Michael Rylee
- iImprov by Rylee – this is an excellent app for testing your music theory.
- Ear Trainer by Magnus Thoor – brilliant, detailed and organised ear training software. An absolute must!!!
- Fret Tester was created by William Wilson (guitar games.net)- a good free way to begin to find your way around the fretboard.
- Quizlet – (free) plenty of quizzes for music theory.
- ScalesQuizz2 – good for learning the notes in each key.
- SingTrue by EasyEarTraining.com – feel like practicing your ear and voice? This is a fun and effective way to do this when you are away from your guitar.
- Visual Guitar by Shortwave Music – an excellent app for chord and scale shapes
- Guitar Fretboard Trainer/Challenge by http://www.guitartricks.com – (free)
- IReal Pro – I have not used this so much, but there are lots of songs in it and it can function like a backing track.
- Guitar Master – a great app with chord progressions, strumming patterns and chord shapes and much more besides.
- Guitar Tuna – a good tuner.
- Guitar Pro – the iPad app which allows you to play guitar pro files on your iPad (see below).
Software for PC or Mac:
- Transcribe! by Seventh String Software – this is an amazing piece of software which enables you to slow music down, change its key (useful when a song is recorded a semitone down for instance) and also change the equalisation of a song, hence picking out an instrument more easily. It is an excellent way of working out the subtleties in a solo and really hearing music. What used to be a painstaking task of pausing and rewinding a cassette tape many years ago is now simplicity itself. This piece of software is a must have for any serious musician and as a guitarist, I couldn’t recommend it more.
- Guitar Pro 6 – this piece of software is great for writing music out. Once you write something into Guitar Pro it can be played back at a different speed so that you can play along and build your skill with a song/exercise. It is a great way of writing down something as you transcribe it and there are also a wealth of early guitar pro files out there on the internet which can be accessed and experimented with.
- Earmaster 5 or 6 – again this software is one which requires payment but which is so useful it must be an early purchase for someone serious about improving their playing and musicianship. It does most of the functions of lots of the apps mentioned here, but in a truly quick and accessible way. It is a combined rhythm tester, ear trainer (intervals, chords, melodies, modes and scales), dictation program and with over 2000 exercises and input via guitar or piano interface it is brilliant value for money. With this program you will definitely get back what you put in and more quickly than with many of the apps which can be slowed by their interface.
- Recording software – You will want to use some software (GarageBand, Ableton Live, Audacity or Cubase spring to mind) for recording, particularly if you are song writing as you will want to record ideas as you have them so that you can recall them later as a kind of notebook. I also use a Zoom H2 to record some practice or jamming sessions so that I can hear what is working and what isn’t.
- Guitar input – I use a Line 6 Toneport UX2 as an external soundcard which allows me to plug my guitar into my computer. It also comes with some software (Ableton, Reason, Pod Farm) which allows you to record and change your tone with lots of different modelled amplifiers. You can download tones from the line 6 website and can find user created tones which match many songs or styles , but will need to pay extra to be able to access all tones in several upgrade packs. This input method can also be used to input my guitar into Earmaster to test my rhythm playing, although earlier versions require some latency adaptions in the program settings.
I also use Line 6 Sonic Port VX in order to input my guitar into my iPad. Good for recording into Loopy HD or even to use your guitar to input rhythms into the Read Rhythm app.
Ultimately, nothing replaces picking up your guitar and playing, but some of these tools can be really supportive of developing your ear, rhythm, music theory and understanding of the fretboard. Feel free to use these ideas to support your playing, but if you require a shorter list of must haves then:
Ultimate guitar: App or web. I wish they would develop this as a desktop program; however, the number of tabs, chords and advice they give is incredible. There is a one-off lifetime subscription payment, but it is absolutely worth every penny. The Android and iPad apps have an excellent way of organising your favourites into playlists which you can even access offline for those times you find yourself with a guitar when sat around a bonfire!
Earmaster: No other program has been better at developing my ear than this one! It is a must and has a huge amount of exercises and areas which you can develop. Get this early on in your playing and watch your practice time yield far better results. Also supports your understanding of triads, intervals, chords and harmony. You can also do rhythm exercised which reduces the need for other apps or programs.
Transcribe! by Seventh String Software: See everything which I wrote above. Such an important skill to develop and useful/essential when working on something for a performance.
Note Trainer by Justin Sandercoe – superb fretboard app, fun and competitive.
Guitar Pro 6 – this piece of software is great for writing music out and reading tabs which you find online or are given by other guitarists.
My favourite guitar books:
- Guthrie Govan – Creative Guitar
- Chris Juergenson – The Infinite Guitar (and his second book)
- David Oakes – Music Reading for Guitar
- Mick Goodrick – The Advancing Guitarist
- Justin Sandercoe – (various) Songbooks
- Jan Riviera – Advanced Rhythmic Concepts for Guitar
- Mickey Baker – Complete Course in Jazz Guitar
- Philip Toshio Sudo – Zen Guitar