Practicing Better – So You Can “Take it to the Stage”

It’s a common problem…guitarists that are frustrated in their abilities to improvise. Specifically they tell me they are frustrated with their struggles in taking what they practice to the stage; on the practice room, after practicing the same scale or arpeggio over and over for hours they are absolutely killing it….but when they try to drop their cool new skills in a jam session with buddies it all falls apart before they get a few notes out.  They just can’t understand why this happens – and it causes them to lack confidence and fall back on the same old patterns they always play.  

Having seen this time and again, I’m pretty certain as to the root cause of this phenomenon; and I’m going to offer some practice hints that will allow you to more deeply ingrain new skills, and more readily allow you to recall these musical ideas in a live setting when you are “under the gun.”

Problem #1:  Practicing Without Variation

It’s a super common idea that if you take a musical idea like a scale and arpeggio, and practice it over and over (usually in the same key at the same tempo) that you’ll be able to deeply ingrain the idea and be able to use it whenever you want. THIS IS NOT TRUE.  The problem with this type of practice is there are no distractions, you’re concentrating only on repetition, and you develop kinesthetic and visual cues for where you are on the fretboard. What happens when you go to a jam session and are forced to play in a different key than you’ve been practicing in?  You’re asked to play at a different tempo than you’re used to?  You’re nervous because you’re in front of other musicians and an audience? More than likely, it’s all going to fall apart because your practice has been so rigid and your mind won’t be able to adapt in real time.

Solution #1:  Practice More Like You Play

One of the things I have students do IMMEDIATELY after learning a new musical idea is to give them backing tracks to play over that move through the circle of fifths.  It forces them to take their new idea and move it all over the neck, in time with actual music. It’s challenging and they struggle at first…but it’s worth it when they have a new skill they are truly fluent with.  I also have them play over different styles of backing tracks, with different beats and tempos.

Problem #2:  Not Practicing Integration

Another thing that is super common among students is the misconception they’ll just be able to magically string together licks they already know with a new skill they have learned. THIS IS NOT TRUE.  You have to practice integrating new and old skills to make them meld smoothly together. 

Solution #2:  Find Several Ways to Blend Old and New Licks

Let’s say you’ve just learned a cool new arpeggio variation, and would like to have it follow a slick bluesy lick you know….can you make the bluesy lick end where the arpeggio starts? Can you seamlessly get out of one lick and into the next one? Can you do it on different string sets? In all 12 keys?  You get where I’m going with this? PRACTICE ending one lick at the “integration point” of the next lick….get SMOOTH with it. You want your musical ideas to flow and sound natural – any good player in the audience will know when you get “stuck” between ideas.  Practice playing licks in the opposite order…practice playing them ascending and descending…. and pretty soon you’ll have multiple variations of super smooth “monster” licks!!!!!

A word of advice and caution….

practicing the “old way” of sitting there grinding through the same skill endlessly might feel better to your brain….it feels like you’re getting lots of work done, and the sheer repetition can feel comforting. But here’s the rub….it’s not going to make you a competant improvisor.  Practicing the “new” way I’ve described above feels “harder” because your mind is challenged to come up with new solutions and variations…you’ll actually have to think more!!!  Don’t let this deter you, and don’t shrink from the challenge. The payoff can be massive when you walk onstage and crush a solo with ease!!!!

About the author:  Charlie Long is a seasoned rock/blues/fusion guitarist that also has a deep background in techniques that facilitate better learning. St. Louis Guitar Lessons is where you can study with him, and supercharge your playing to reach your guitar goals!!!!