Too often the guitarist practices with dreams of grandeur clouding their ability to accept and achieve real progress. Have you ever caught yourself fixating on the tiniest of details on one specific lick for hours, finding that after weeks of practicing, you still can’t make it through the rest of the song? Practicing details for perfection (or at least, for the best possible execution – remember, perfection is a unicorn!) is very useful, particularly for mastering tough techniques or tricky finger work in new music. However, if you only spend your time trying to nail a riff to sound just like a particular recording, you may never achieve the ability to perform the whole song.
Perfection vs. Performance Without re-entering the discussion over the idea of perfection, let’s simply understand that there is a certain amount of practicing that goes into mastering details. You need to invest this time identifying, isolating, rectifying, and repeating tough detail work to achieve the level of mastery you desire. This type of practicing is called ‘practicing for perfection.’ The time you invest in this type of practice, starting slow and carefully learning the muscle memory and hand/eye/ear coordination can pay huge dividends, if you understand there is more to music than technical perfection.
The other type of practice, which is critical to actually becoming a musician, and not just a skilled instrumental athlete, is ‘practice for performance’. This is the time you invest in working larger sections of the music you are practicing in order and in tempo, without stopping to correct small mistakes or slight problems as you go. Simply begin playing through a section, and ultimately the whole song, in which you have already worked out the details, and don’t stop until you finish the section. It takes determination and discipline to not stop to fix problems, but this is the difference between playing guitar in your bedroom and playing in front of people. Or, if performing for people is not your goal, think of it this way: Without playing through music, allowing for slight imperfections, and hearing yourself complete that piece of music, you are missing out on one of the most encouraging tools for motivation there is. Successfully making through a piece of music means the next run will be smoother. And each successive run through the music improves as you smooth out those rough spots in real time. Now you aren’t needling a three-note lick over and over, driving yourself mad with the details. You are making music. You are placing that hard work you put into the details into perspective.
Another note about performance: I am not talking exclusively about performing for others – I am talking about the difference between treating a piece of music like an exercise for the fingers and treating that piece of music like a story. Music is both science and art. If you only practice for the science, counting the rhythms mathematically and working out the fingering athletically, you will miss a big part of the point of playing an instrument. You have to also allow yourself the occasional imperfection and play for the recreation and enjoyment of music. We don’t call it “working an instrument;” it’s called playing guitar for a reason! Make a plan, remember why you are doing this thing called practicing to start with, and go GuitPickin’!