You may have heard that mastering any craft requires 10,000 hours of practice. That’s about ten years of intensive, focused preparation.
It sounds like an arbitrary number, but there’s solid science behind it. One especially influential paper about practice is Ericsson’s “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” cited often in academic papers and in books–like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Robert Greene’s Mastery.
It seems that ten years of careful training–with at least 20 hrs. invested per week–is the minimum threshold for mastery of a wide range of activities, from violin to poetry to chess.
Whether or not you’re aiming for Segovia-level mastery of the guitar, you can use deliberate practice principles to make the most of your limited practice time.
Deliberate practice has a few essential characteristics that make it so effective:
It requires structured activities that are designed to improve specific skills.
It calls for mental focus and continuous correction of errors.
It calls for consistent, reasonable amounts of daily practice over long periods of time.
Put simply, how good you get at guitar depends on how much practice you can accumulate in the long run. It’s an endurance race, and it’s not easy–but here are seven practice tips to help get you off to a good start.
1. Practice involves the mind as much as the fingers. The kind of practice that really takes your playing to the next level calls for intense mental focus and strengthens not just your muscles and physical reflexes, but also the mind. Playing fast isn’t worth much unless you can also think fast.
2. Interruptions suck. Kill your phone. Even if you think it doesn’t distract you, silence your phone or leave it outside of your practice space entirely. It’s next to impossible to become a master guitarist while that thing’s tooting, flashing, and whistling at you like R2-D2 every 30-90 seconds. Not even a master meditator could stay focused through that kind of audio-visual assault. Your practice time is sacred–remove all temptation. Kill your phone.
3. Get back to basics. When you’ve already been playing for years, it can be hard to humble yourself and spend time revisiting guitar basics or music theory fundamentals. Sometimes, though, that’s the only way to pour a solid foundation that you can then build on with confidence. Don’t be afraid to slow down and master the simplest of the simple things… Then, as your skills grow (and they will grow), lean forward and constantly take on tough new challenges and goals that make you feel like a beginner all over again.
4. Don’t just learn chord forms; learn how chords are formed. Learning the music theory underlying chord forms and scale fingerings makes them much faster and easier to learn than if you were just trying to memorize them with brute force. See How Memorizing Scales Can Stunt Your Growth and its sequel for details.
5. Analyze well-made music. As you learn more and more about music theory, you’ll gain more and more insight into what’s going on “under the hood” of your favorite music. Actively listening to music allows you to piece together your own unique voice as a guitarist.
6. Study songwriting. Songwriting is never easy, but learning basic song structure makes it much less painful to write songs of your own. A solid understanding of verses, choruses, and bridges will give you the basic tools you need to organize your musical ideas into fully-realized tunes. As a side bonus, it’ll also arm you with the knowledge you need to begin writing song lyrics–an art unto itself.
7. Keep calm and practice on. I’ve found that the idea of talent can be really detrimental to beginning guitarists. In the early stages of learning guitar, nobody sounds great. I guarantee you that at one point in time, young Steve Vai sat and patiently worked through basic chord diagrams. Nili Brosh slowly and deliberately plunked out simple melodies. We think of players like these as “talented”, but nobody’s born with that kind of ability–it’s learned skill acquired by consistent study and practice. This is important to remember while you’re struggling with difficult passages and grappling to get your head around complex music theory concepts.
Keep calm and practice on.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Puts a magnifying lens over the traits of the brightest and most successful people.
Mastery by Robert Greene. An entertaining and motivating read about apprenticeship and mastery.