A Common Mistake That’ll Grow Hair on Any Guitarist’s Palms

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Guitar Solo © Ivan Mikhaylov

I see a lot of guitarists making a fundamental mistake in their approach to the instrument. It stunts their growth and holds them back, sometimes for years. The worst part is that, on the surface, the mistake seems completely harmless.

That insidious mistake is playing what you already know how to play.

Simple, yes. But the trap’s way too easy to fall into. It feels good to play what you feel confident playing, right? That snaky, fast riff you came up with is a lot of fun. You play it over and over and over every time you pick up your guitar. Then, for variety, you play that one chord progression that you like so much–over and over. It’s familiar. You know it’s going to sound good every time. Feels good. It’s safe.

Hey, you know what else is comfortable and safe? A coffin.

Fretboard comfort zones are the enemy. Do you suppose that Steve Vai got that technically proficient by just playing the same riffs over and over? You think flamenco legend Paco de Lucia got awesome by just sticking to what he knows, night after night?

The cure is as simple as the problem: during practice time, focus on what’s weak in your playing.

Let me emphasize that again. Focus on what’s weak in your playing. Gird your loins and go after the riffs you can’t play. The chord progressions you stumble over. The theory you don’t know. Fingerpicking patterns that mix you up. It doesn’t have to be something big–but take in at least a little new information or get a little better at something you suck at. Do it today.

Day after day, if you work on something you’re not great at, you’ll eventually be damn good at a variety of things on the guitar. That’s way more satisfying than just rehashing the same crap day after day.

The alternative, of course, is to lock yourself in your practice room and just play those same old familiar licks and riffs until you grow hair on your palms and go blind.

Hey, don’t let me stop you if artistic stagnation is your idea of a good time.

A simple way to keep yourself on track

Constantly improving your playing takes a lot of guts. How do you find the willpower and the energy every day to humble yourself, to be a beginner at something, to tackle the unknown?

One simple way is to keep a practice log. Every session, just jot down the date and time and scrawl a few notes about what you worked on, what you learned, what you feel confused about, what you could work on next time. That way you can’t deceive yourself–if you didn’t learn anything, you’ll know it when you go to write an entry in your practice log for the day.

Jotting an entry in a practice log is easy, it just takes a few seconds, and it’ll make sure you’re learning new things all the time–instead of just playing the same licks over and over and over and over and over and over and over…

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Nicholas Tozier

Nicholas Tozier is a book hoarder and songbird from the woods of Maine. In 2012 he made a small cameo in Songwriting Without Boundaries by Berklee professor Pat Pattison, and was named one of CDBaby’s top 10 Songwriting Resources to follow on Twitter.

There are 2 comments

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      Thanks Varun!

      It’s simple and obvious advice, but actually sticking to it is hard.

      It seems like I’m always trying to stop my hands from going to all my little happy places (I’m still talking about the guitar’s fretboard here; don’t run away). If I let down my guard for a minute, they make a beeline for what’s comfortable and familiar.

      Thanks for reading, Varun! 😀

      Reply

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