Cerebral Upheaval: As Blood Runs Black Guitarist Dan Sugarman on Optimizing Your Practice Time, Part 1
What's going on, (Insert your name here)? This is Dan Sugarman, lead guitarist for As Blood Runs Black and Fallen Figure. This being my very first Guitar World column, I figured I would start out by telling you a bit about myself and where I'm coming from.
I am 20 years old and have been playing the guitar for about eight years, and every new day I get to play the guitar is a reward in itself. I was one of those guys who would sit in his room and practice for five to eight hours a day. No matter what day of the week it was or whose party my friends told me I should to go to that night, you could count on me making noise in my room at all hours of the day and night.
Beyond the progress that is made on a daily or weekly basis, I still can't believe how fascinating and entertaining the guitar really is. The instrument is truly never-ending - with knowledge and ideas so vast that I'm sure I've barely scratched the surface of what being a musician really means.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), I have an obsession with understanding and identifying with everything that is guitar- or music-based, and I plan on using these GW columns as a means of letting you guys in on some of the knowledge and ideas I have discovered in my years of playing.
My vision for the "Cerebral Upheaval" column is to open your eyes to new things and to hopefully change your perspective or outlook on the guitar, music in general, what life is like on the road, odd guitar techniques and approaches, overcoming dead-ends and plateaus in your playing, how to practice properly, how being happy with where you are is the death of progression, and many, many other ideas.
But today I would like to take this opportunity to talk to you a bit about something that is vital to your growth as a guitarist and is something that is very often overlooked. The topic for this week's column is "How to Practice Guitar for Optimum Results."
As a guitar teacher, I get asked all the time, "When will I be as good as (insert famous guitarist)?," "Why is your other student better then me even though I've been playing longer?," "How long will it be until I can play THIS song, or before I can write my own music?" The answer is the same every time ... PRACTICE! You must practice often as well as consistently, and you must practice correctly.
You must also be aware of the fact that playing your guitar and practicing your guitar are two totally different things. Playing your guitar is for fun and for fun only. That doesn't mean you won't see progress over time if that's all you do, but it is NOT the most efficient way to spend your time if progressing is what you're after.
The difference between just playing the guitar and practicing the guitar is that true practicing invites your mind and ears into the equation. Below is a list of concepts and ideas I've compiled to help you get back on track and to help you begin with practicing correctly. The following concepts can be applied almost anywhere and are non-specific to any single exercise, but rather any and all of them.
First and foremost, when you are practicing the guitar, you must learn to use your ears and your mind. Ask yourself, How does it sound? Does it sound right? Does it sound ... good? Do I have too much added tension in my fingers and/or body?
I see so many people just putting their mind and ears to sleep as soon as they begin to drill an exercise or concept. In reality, though, you should be doing the exact opposite of that if you want to optimize your results. You must use your mind and your ears to find the weak links in your playing.
Note: You can take anything and turn it into an exercise by repeating it ... a piece of a riff from a song, a lick from a solo, a challenging chord passage, etc. You must also develop a high level of awareness of the mechanics that go into whatever it is that you're practicing.
Take note of EVERYTHING - the right hand picking pattern, where any hammer-ons or pull-offs are, any string skipping, inside or outside picking, left & right hand synchronization, picking angle and picking direction etc. After acknowledging those things, you will more easily be able to spot the problem areas by listening for where your playing falters and know immediately what the issue is. Blasting through an exercise blindly and deafly is not going to get you anywhere.
Take your time..use your head. Don't play any faster then what you can handle at the moment. If your playing tends to fall apart in the same spot every time, chances are that you're creating a consistent mechanical error in that specific section due to previously formed habits. If it is not acknowledged and fixed, then muscle memory will take over and before you know it you have yourself a brand new habit. A bad one at that.
Is it your left and right hand synchronization that is making your playing sound sloppy? Is your pick angled so much so that when you get to the high strings it sounds too scratchy? Where is that string noise coming from? Are your pull-offs noticeably stronger then your hammer-ons causing the dynamics to be different? Is your 3rd and 4th finger not cooperating? Find the issue and then Divide & Conquer it.
DIVIDE & CONQUER
When you come across a problem area within an exercise, you need to acknowledge that problem, single it out, and conquer it - Divide & Conquer. Once you've discovered that the problem is, let's say... your ring finger's lack of independence, or getting from string 2 to string 1 cleanly because you're not used to changing strings on a down stroke or whatever it may be - you need to then define the problem and extract it from the rest of the exercise.
Practice the extracted fragment with focused awareness to iron out that specific problem in that fragment. This way you can practice the problem area more efficiently and effectively. After you've discovered the problem area within the exercise and singled it out, instead of playing the whole exercise 10 times - you can practice that problem area 5 times in the time that it takes you to play the entire exercise just once.
You see - if you were to play the full exercise, you would only be able to practice the fragmented problem area in passing once for every single attempt at the full exercise. By Dividing & Conquering the problem, you will have a much more focused attack on solving the issue. After the problem area is ironed out, you would then practice connecting the part leading into the problem area as well as the playing through the problem area into the next phrase.
After you've run that slightly larger fragment of the exercise enough times to see progress, you would then put all the pieces back together into the complete exercise to see if you have successfully omitted the mistakes that you used to make. If the problem is still there and you haven't seen much progress, then you must take the extraction process one step further by using Separation & Isolation.
SEPARATION & ISOLATION
The idea of Separation & Isolation is to further divide your extracted fragments down to the most fundamental mechanics so that you can root the problem. From the full exercise, you would extract all the mechanics and each little technique so that everything is broken down as much as possible. For example - separate the left hand from the right hand and focus on them separately before putting them together. Practice ONLY the picking pattern until your muscle memory can take over.
I call this idea "Click Picking." You can achieve "click picking" by deadening the strings with your fretting hand just by lightly touching all the strings (not pressing down). By doing so, you can focus on the clear and percussive sound that your picking hand creates without thinking about what the left should be doing. Since you have now separated the two hands, maybe now you can see that your fretting hand has been weak and clumsy.
Knowing that, you can now focus on various hammer-on/pull-off exercises and legato exercises to strengthen your fingers, and you can work on dexterity exercises to raise your "Finger IQ". The point is that both hands each have their own responsibilities that they need to perform, and they can have problems hidden deep within your playing. Separating the hands this way will expose any hidden flaws in the most basic mechanics of your guitar playing. Mastering each hands' mechanics & techniques separately is a great way to achieve the maximum potential of any exercise.
This concept will help you analyze and understand all the mechanics and techniques that go into playing this instrument. Here is a short list of some of the basic mechanics and techniques that I have found to cause the most problems - I call them "Clarity Concepts". You should go through these often and check yourself constantly to make sure that you are playing to your fullest potential.
- Left & Right Hand Synchronization (Are your hands synched together? is one ahead of the other? slow down and fix the problem!)
- Fretting Hand Dexterity (Finger IQ)
- Economy of Motion in both hands (keeping movement as small as possible - avoid excess motion at all costs!)
- Controlled Dynamics and Timbre (dynamics would be the volume of your playing, while timbre is the quality of the sound produced)
- Pick Attack and Pick Angle (Note: Dynamics and timbre are mastered by controlling your pick attack and angle!)
- Make sure you're playing on your finger-tips rather then your finger pads (the round fleshy part of your finger) as this will help with your note accuracy and overall tone. Think of your fingertips like arrows.
- Make sure your fingers are snug to the fret wire (if they are not then the note will tend to sound "dead" or flattened)
- Too much added tension in your fingers, picking hand, or even any part of your body will take away from what's happening on the guitar and will eventually cause you to either mess up, or lock up. (RELAX)
- Different tonal quality (timbre) and volume (dynamics) in your hammer-ons and pull-offs (the ultimate goal is to have them sound the same tone wise and volume wise so that you can't tell that it's missing the pick attack)
- Excess string noise either coming from the fretting hand or from the picking hand. Slow everything down so that you can see what it is that you're doing to create the dreaded string noise!
After you have run through the Clarity Concepts, found your flaws and fixed them - you would then put both hands back together to play the fragmented exercise that you started with before Separating and Isolating. Huge improvement, right?
The next step would be to work on the takeoff and landing. The "takeoff" is the approach going into that fragmented section, and the landing is playing your newly fixed fragment all the way through into the next phrase.
Now try the whole entire exercise again to see if you have made progress. I can guarantee that you have! If you found another problem area (besides the one you just worked on), then you would run through the same process again to fix it.
GENERAL PRACTICE TIPS
- Never play through pain! Permanent damage is likely to occur, and that would negate everything you've worked toward until this point.
- It's important for you to practice with a clear head. If you go into your practice session with anxiety, anger, worries, etc., it will be hard for you to maintain a focus on what you set out to do. Do your best to calm yourself down and eliminate any distractions before you begin. Also try to practice in a quiet place as this will help you maintain focus.
- Do NOT practice in front of the TV as that is a massive distraction to staying focused on what you're practicing.
- If you get bored with repeating the same exercise over and over again, find something else to practice for a bit and then come back to the original exercise that bored you. Has progress been made? "Knowledge is like dust. If you run your finger across the table, then you may find no dust. But if you come back a week later, you will find the dust you were looking for. Knowledge is like that."
- Optimism, dedication, patience and perseverance are the key to growing as a musician. Remember that even YOUR favorite guitarist didn't get that good in one day! He/she spent countless hours studying and practicing to get to where he/she is today. What makes you think you're any different?
- Practice while sitting with good back posture so that you can sit in a more relaxed way and so that you don't develop back pain.
- Practice standing up sometimes. Playing seated and playing standing are very different from each other and should both be practiced if you plan on performing in your future.
- Play slow enough so that you know you'll play the part perfectly.
- Be conscious of any excess tension coming from anywhere in your body. This muscle tension will become a habit if it is practiced that way, and it will slow your progress down. It can even potentially cause injury to your body, so be careful. Watch for tension in your shoulders, in your back, your jaw, your hands, your wrists, your elbows, your neck, your feet and toes, lower back, legs, etc. Your body has a natural tendency to tense up when things get hard. Focus on getting rid of this tension by acknowledging it and by consciously relaxing each tense part of your body before you begin.
- Remember to breathe while you're playing! I know this sounds weird, but just check yourself from time to time. You'll be amazed at how often you hold your breath when things get tough.
- Keep going. Stay inspired. Keep envisioning yourself as the guitarist you want to become so that you will one day grow into that person.
Well, that concludes my first column. Thank you, guys, for checking this out! I hope you enjoyed reading this and hopefully you get some useful stuff out of it. Stay tuned for Part II of Optimizing your Practice Time, as well as other mind-bending topics. But until then, this is Dan Sugarman here, signing out.
You stay classy, planet earth.
As Blood Runs Black's new album, Instinct, is out now. Check them out on Facebook here.