Perfect Practice Makes Perfect - One Step at a Time

I get it. You want to learn how to play that cool riff or lead run. You can almost feel your fingers dancing on the neck and hear the music YOU are playing. Yup, we all have these experiences. That is what motivates us to continue. And when we finally achieve that goal... WAY COOL!

The trouble is often that we don't necessarily practice correctly and getting competent on the guitar or ukulele seems forever beyond our grasp. And yes again, we all feel that way from time to time. This post is to help you achieve competence with one simple principle... Perfect practice makes perfect! Here are some simple ways to realize constant improvement.

Each technique, lead or song may seem intimidating but it becomes easier if you break it down into its component parts. Here is one example. I am learning to play the song Perfect, by Ed Sheeran. I vary it from his performance by using bar chords and strumming. There is a lead part in between the two choruses at the end of the song. The way I play the song, my fretting hand is ending the first chorus playing a barred B Maj chord, using the E shape on the 7th fret. The lead starts on the second fret of the 5th string. So I have to get my fretting hand back down the neck, land my index finger on that fret and pick the 5th string to begin. And... I have to do that with the correct timing! Fun, right?

It seems overwhelming until I break it down into its individual parts. Once I do that I can begin my practice. The following are the steps I am using for this particular song, but you should create your own practice routine so you are comfortable with it. Just make sure you are breaking the training down into its basic components.

1) The first step is to go from the barre chord to the first lead note.

I watch as I make the B Maj chord and then slide my hand down (towards the nut) the neck from the 7th fret and place my index finger on the correct note, i.e. the "B" at the second fret of the 5th, or "A" string. This is step one. I am not strumming or picking when I do this. All I want to do is to be able to train my muscles and brain to memorize this simple step. I want to eventually be able to do this without even thinking about it. And so I practice this over and over a number times over multiple sessions until I am comfortable I can do it every time. Our bodies have the wonderful ability to know where our limbs are in relationship to the rest of us. While practicing, I focus some of my attention on the feel of my fretting arm, hand and fingers to train my brain to memorize and easily, and subconsciously repeat the movement.

B Major Chord

In practicing this step I start slowly, using a metronome, gradually increasing the speed each time I have mastered the move at the given tempo. I may have to start at 10 beats per minute, i.e. one beat every six seconds in the beginning but will eventually get to 65 BPM, the speed at which I will perform the song. To help, I tap the beat with my foot in time with the metronome. Our body has its own clock and this helps me synchronize it with the metronome.

Of course, I need to practice with the correct timing. In this song, the first note of the lead part follows the down strum on the bar chord by one beat. Remember, the strum is in my arrangement, but it is the same timing in the artist's performance. I know this because I have listened to the song, tapping my foot and counting the beats until I was comfortable knowing exactly when to pluck the 5th string.

Once I can repeatedly and accurately transition my hand from the barre chord, move it down the neck and fret the note with the correct timing at performance speed I can move on to the next step... Strumming and picking.

2) In this step I learn how to transition from the last strum of the barre chord to picking the first note of the lead part.

I begin by practicing one down strum and picking the 5th string on open strings, i.e. no chord or "B" note. I eliminate the chord and note to simplify the task. They will be added shortly. Though it may sound simple enough, transitioning from a strum to picking the correct string can be a bit tricky, especially for beginning players. In my case, I was picking the fourth string at first so I had to look at my picking hand to ensure I was getting to the 5th string. While doing so I focused on "feeling" my picking arm, hand and finger position, as I did when fretting in step one.

As before, I am following the metronome, slowly at first and I may continue to tap my foot to the beat. The metronome mobile app I use has both visual and sound indicators and I often watch it to help with my timing. Once I can perform the transition from a strum to a single pick of the 5th string reliably at 65 BPM, I am ready to add the chord and "B" note.

3) In this step I put the two prior exercises together. I strum the barre chord, slide my hand down the neck to fret the "B" on the 5th string and pick the string one beat after the strum, all in time with the metronome. Once again, I gradually increase the metronome speed until I am proficient at 65 BPM.

4) Finally, I practice the rest of the lead part by breaking it down into its individual notes and playing those to proficiency at 65 BPM.

Once I can play the lead notes I add the hammer and slides that I derived from listening to the song. Once I am proficient doing this at performance speed I move onto the next step.

5) Now I put everything I have learned into the final practice.

I start with a slow beat, perhaps 20 BPM. I practice everything from the down strum on the barred B Major chord to the last note of the lead run, increasing the speed until you reach proficiency at 65 BPM.

There you have it! This is how I am learning this part of the song. You may find it easier to do it differently. I strongly recommend that you still practice one basic component at a time. It gets more difficult and complicated if you try to learn more than one component simultaneously, for example, sliding your hand to the correct fret AND the lead part. Keep it simple!

Comment to let me know what you think or contact me with questions.




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