How do I structure my guitar practice time?
January 29, 2016 8:11 AM   Subscribe

I feel like my guitar playing skills have plateaued, and I'm not sure how to more foward.

I took several group classes back in 2008 and 2009 at the Chicago Old Town School of Folk Music, and have a pretty good handle on the basic open chords, 4/4 time, and can play in time reasonably well.

I'm mostly interested in rhythm guitar, and barre chords still give me trouble, anything not in 4/4 time confounds me, and hearing and repeating strumming patterns I hear is challenging.

I no longer live in Chicago, so additional group classes really isn't an option at this time.

I'd like advice on how to structure my practice time so that I feel like I'm making progress. I play 3-5 nights a week, for maybe 45-60 minutes. Usually just playing chord progressions for chords I'm comfortable with.

Should I just consider a private instructor for a couple sessions? Would they be able to help get me back on track?
posted by steinwald to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Check out Justin Guitar if you haven't already. A couple of relevant links on practice routines.
posted by doctord at 8:30 AM on January 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

barre chords still give me trouble, anything not in 4/4 time confounds me, and hearing and repeating strumming patterns I hear is challenging... Usually just playing chord progressions for chords I'm comfortable with.

Time to step out of your comfort zone!

Barre chords suck ass. Start playing them anyway, maybe a song's worth, so 6-10x through a 12-bar blues progression. Can't make it that far? 2-3x, then switch to moveable shapes that are easier. If you can play barre chords for 2 minutes this week, next week play for at least 2 minutes at a clip, try for 3 minutes, do 2x2 min with a 2 min recovery interval, etc. The key there is to do a little more than you did before.

Strumming patterns: slow it way down. Like, stupid slow, 38 bpm. Count it out loud, write the timing out on your music, whatever works for you. Then gradually play it a little faster. (I'm trying to work through some licks that should be stupid easy, and it's killing me to be playing 4 measures for a week now, but it's finally starting to gel.)

Go in with a practice schedule. 10-20 minutes of fun stuff, 5 minutes of barre chords, 10 minutes fun, 5 minutes strumming, 10 minutes fun incorporating a little barre and strumming work.
posted by disconnect at 8:46 AM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not a very good guitarist and I'm even worse at practicing, but I have made a bit of progress in the past year. Off the top of my head, a few things that helped me:

I stopped thinking in terms of "where to put my fingers" and now try to think more about what notes I'm playing. This helps me know when to play what, since I don't seem to have much of an ear for music.

I started taking one-on-one private lessons. Sometimes I feel like it's not worth it and then I'll be in a lesson and he'll point out something I probably wouldn't have realized otherwise. "Look, what you're playing on these strings is exactly what you just played on these strings... same notes, just higher up the neck." He helps me think about the guitar in ways that I don't get from YouTube or books.

I play mostly by myself (sadly) and for years never really knew anything about rhythm or how to play with other people. Now I use to find backing tracks to play along with. I have no idea how that site is legal, but it's a great resource. Rather than use the in-site player I download the MP3s and play them on...

Anytune. This is a Mac and iOS program, though there are equivalents for Windows. It lets me slow down tracks, loop sections, and generally makes it easier to learn songs. It also shows the wave form of the song so you can tell when the song is about to change.

Learn songs that you might not think to learn. Hate country? Learn some Johnny Cash songs. Learn a chord progression to a Taylor Swift song (there's probably only two chords in it), learn some heavy metal. Learn some obscure classic rock. Learn a Kiss song. Play a lot of different styles. You'll learn new things and also see common techniques used across genres.

Buy a book of Beatles songs, open to random pages, and learn whatever song you come to. Unless it's Revolution #9.
posted by bondcliff at 8:51 AM on January 29, 2016

Seconding JustinGuitar. Everything there is free, but pony up and buy the books if you can. He's got a great teaching style and I routinely refer back to basic stuff when I get rusty.

Barre chords. Well...they're a beatdown, but necessary, and once you've got the muscle memory, they're surprisingly handy and become easy to play.

To learn barre chords, a friend taught me how to play "Sweet Jane." That will hammer home the e-form and a-form chords faster than anything. You can play along with the slow Cowboy Junkies version and work your way up to the faster Velvet Underground version. Makes it a bit more fun.
posted by Thistledown at 10:06 AM on January 29, 2016

Wow! Thanks! I think this is just what I needed! Excited by the JustinGuitar site, I was not aware of this.
posted by steinwald at 10:10 AM on January 29, 2016

Bassoonist here - from a classical perspective the search term you're looking for is 'etudes' - they're usually sections of the most challenging parts from various works (or just particularly hard exercises). If you can find a book that has a progression of them, that is a good place to start.

I know in my practice that plowing through etude books was a huge help when I needed to move up from a plateau- I'm sure there are similar things in guitar world that will help. Also, seconding having private lessons, even if they're just occasional- having an outside perspective helps catch bad habits before they get worse.
posted by AaronRaphael at 10:30 AM on January 29, 2016

Another route, if you haven't already explored it, would be to learn fingerstyle right hand patterns that you can use with the chords you already know. I'd recommend Mark Hanson's book on Contemporary Travis Picking, and also Stefan Grossman's book of Mississippi John Hurt transcriptions. I don't think either has a single barre chord. Personally I've worked my way through not just barre chords but also a lot of jazz voicings, but I still never cease to be impressed with how much music a good fingerstyle guitarist can make using just the basic "cowboy chords".
posted by wps98 at 12:59 PM on January 29, 2016

I was thinking about Stefan Grossman too. The DVD lessons at his site are great and they will build your skills up from the basics to some very sophisticated runs (and so forth). All of the teachers are excellent (David Bromberg, Rolly Brown). Start getting you into some fingerstyle. And lots (lots!) of old timey music is in 3/4 so there's that!

Homespun is another good supplier.

Oh, and you should check out Justin Guitar, too!
posted by cleroy at 4:34 PM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would definitely prioritize the tempo/strumming thing if I were you. Get a metronome that both makes noise AND has a visual indicator of beats. Learn a couple songs, play along with them while using your metronome for help, and get your strumming down for multiple tempos. Later you can move on to a bunch of different chords but at this point I don't think you should move on without getting your tempos and strumming down a little bit better or you will know tons of chords you can't play in any real application. :)

And other that that, learning songs you know very well (in life) are great things to learn (on guitar) because you'll see how each sound and thing that happens on guitar in the song is created. Really helps to unpack some of the overwhelming amount of things to focus on and bring the lesson to life.

Keep on keeping on. You'll improve. And never underestimate the teaching power of messing around noticing things about the sounds that come out for thirty minutes.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 4:27 PM on January 30, 2016

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