School of Chops

Publish date:
Social count:

Originally published in Guitar World, July 2004

Practice tips from the experts at five renowned institutions of higher guitar education.

GIT by Keith Wyatt, Director of Programs with Bruce Buckingham, Beth Marlis and Howard Roberts

During the Eighties, the Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT) developed a reputation as a shredder’s hothouse, but with grads as diverse as Jeff Buckley, Keb’ Mo, Scott Henderson and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, there’s clearly a lot more to GIT than that. Whether you love blues or speed metal, your chops are what you make of them, and organization, efficiency and musicality are nondenominational factors in your development and growth as a guitarist. Here are a few ideas from the GIT staff designed to get your imagination and hands working together:

Stay in Shape

The guitar is a shape-oriented instrument, and chord, scale and arpeggio shapes form interlocking relationships that hold the key to organizing your view of the neck. Starting with a chord, the related arpeggio shape represents the notes of the chord played one at a time, and the related scale includes these notes plus the “connecting” notes that give the melody its linear shape. At GIT, we use a system based on five sets of shapes, or patterns, each built around one of the open-position “folkie” chords—E, A, D, G and C. Lay all of the shapes end-to-end in a single key—say, E—and you have the foundation of a system that will allow you to play over any chord in any key using any scale anywhere on the neck.

FIGURE 1 shows an A7 chord played in the fifth position, followed by its corresponding one-octave arpeggio and scale, the A Mixolydian mode. Playing the chord, arpeggio and scale back-to-back in tempo reinforces the relationship between shape and sound, harmony and melody, phrase and rhythm. Apply this concept to major, minor and dominant chords and arpeggios and scales in each of the patterns in all keys. It’s a lot to absorb, but the end result is that you can see, hear and feel essential musical relationships over the entire neck.

Gimme a Beat!

Every time you practice, it should always be in the context of a beat. Playing along with a metronome or drum machine is great, but you should also deliberately practice without one so you learn to rely on your internal clock. Before you begin practicing scales or arpeggios, imagine a beat and tempo and play the exercise or lick against it. Vary the rhythmic subdivisions between eighth notes and eighth-note triplets or 16th notes, switching between each type of rhythm without a glitch. FIGURE 2 shows how a pattern based on the A minor pentatonic scale that can be rhythmically rearranged over, say, a medium rock beat. The key is to try to make an idea usable in different contexts and to avoid wasting time on unfocused “music store chops.”

Cold Is Not Cool

Everybody’s looking for the magic bullet that’ll make their playing catch fire. But if your hands are not physically warm before a hard playing session, then at best you’re not playing up to your potential, and at worst you’re actually damaging your joints and ligaments. Here’s a warm-up secret of the pros: disposable hand warmers! Campers love these 50-cent, credit card–size things; they get hot when exposed to air and last for hours. Keep one in your pocket to hold onto before a gig or between sets and you’ll be ready to flail the frets all night long. You can purchase them online at or at your local camping or surplus store.

Trading Places

This multipurpose practice tip is about bridging the gaps between your soloing chops and rhythm playing over any tune with chord changes, be it a blues standard, Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” or John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Play the rhythm part for the first four bars (not too fast at first), switch to soloing for the next four bars, then go back to playing rhythm for four bars, alternating roles like this throughout the entire song. Do not miss a beat when you trade parts—playing in a steady rhythm is just as important when you’re soloing as it is when playing chords. After you’re comfortable with this format, do it again while trading parts every two bars, then every bar…two beats, anyone? The benefit of this “trading fours” (or twos, or whatever) approach is to keep your phrasing “real” by tying it to the harmony and the beat (see tips 1 and 2), and you can challenge yourself endlessly by simply picking harder tunes.

Visualize This

You probably walk around all day with great licks going through your head, but chances are when you pick up the guitar they go up in smoke. That’s where the practice technique called visualization comes in—instead of just letting ideas drift off into mental space, grab onto them and turn them into concrete shapes and sounds. Before playing something, visualize yourself playing it, thinking about the position, strings, fingerings and everything else that goes into it. Feel that pull-off? That string bend? Sing the lick (the actual pitch doesn’t matter), and solve the technical questions in your mind before you pick up your guitar. If you have made the right choices, you’ll play it right the very first time, saving yourself all of that frustrating hunting and pecking. The same idea applies to any cool lick you hear or imagine. Once you get into the habit of visualizing, you can practice any time, any place, and each time you pick up the guitar you’ll be starting at a higher level.

“Speed Is the Byproduct of Accuracy”

This quote from GIT founder Howard Roberts pretty much sums up what it takes to become good. Great technique is not a question of absolute speed but of absolute control; if you sacrifice your sound and touch for the sake of speed, you’re simply training yourself to be sloppy, inaccurate and ultimately inexpressive. In practical terms, when you begin practicing an exercise on a given day, establish the highest tempo at which you can perform it perfectly and set the metronome to that tempo. As you improve, raise the tempo accordingly, but don’t chase the metronome. Your tempo will vary from day to day, but your control will always be improving. Practice well and the speed will come.

National Guitar Workshop by Jody Fisher, Clinician

You take your guitar out of its case, tune up and look at your vast collection of instructional books, videos, CDs and magazines that you promised yourself you’d work your way through. “What should I work on? More scales? More chord voicings?” The list is endless, and time is limited. With the number of excellent books, videos and online lessons available, it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed when trying to get the most out your practice time. It’s important to remember that as your musical needs change over the course of your lifetime, so will your practice needs, and that there is no perfect way to practice. Your goals as a player will have a lot to do with what you practice and how you spend your practice time.

The first six practice tips listed below offer ideas about “what” to practice. The basic areas are: songs, chord systems, improvisational studies, technique, reading and theory.

1) Learn songs.

This may seem absurdly obvious, but it’s amazing how many guitar players don’t have a basic repertoire to work with. Isn’t this why we started playing guitar in the first place? Didn’t we want to learn to play our favorite songs? That’s how it started, but somewhere along the way we were told we had to learn scales and chords and work on technique and about a million other things. Yes, you need to work in a lot of different areas, but the bottom line is learning songs from beginning to end. If you feel you’re neglecting other areas of study while working on a tune, make peace with the fact that there will always be more things to work on than you will ever have time for. This means you will have to prioritize and then choose the things you want to practice.

When you learn a tune, realize that you are also working on technique, possibly new chord voicings, or maybe playing in a less familiar area of the fretboard. You’re really not neglecting anything; you’re just working on a lot of the same material within a different context—a “real world” context. And while you’re reinforcing newly acquired skills and concepts you’re also adding another song to your repertoire.

2) Build up a huge chord vocabulary.

Can a painter ever have too many colors to work with? A guitarist with a huge palette of sonic and harmonic colors is always in demand. Working with chords and fingerboard harmony will improve your improvisational prowess, not to mention your chops. Learning chord voicings and inversions will help you visualize arpeggios more easily and improvise harmonically, just as you do with single notes. In turn, your musical ear will improve and you’ll end up being able to hear intervals and progressions on a much higher level.

3) Keep your improvisational studies alive.

Great improvisers are always updating their knowledge. Whether you’re working on scales, licks, patterns, arpeggios or any other improvisational device, the routine is the same. First, learn the pattern (or scale, arpeggio, whatever) flawlessly. For me, I feel like I’ve really “learned” something when I can repeat it 25 times in a row effortlessly. If I can’t quite do that, I slow down and keep working on it until I can. Second, play it in all keys. Play it chromatically up and down the fingerboard as well as around the cycle of fourths/fifths. Again, work on this until it is effortless. Third, try to apply the new information into an actual song or playing situation. In time, your new pattern will become a part of your vocabulary.

4) Keep your hands in shape.

Exercises and other technical studies are important. It’s hard to learn new material if your hands aren’t “ready.” Rather than use valuable practice time for this work, try preparing your hands while watching TV. By the time you’ve finished watching the news or your favorite late-night talk show, you’ve worked in a lot of additional finger wiggling. My book and new DVD, 30-Day Guitar Workout, are full of exercises and technical studies that will help you stay limber and ready to learn and play.

5) Learn to read music.

For some guitarists, the ability to sightread music is very important. For others, less so. I think all players would benefit from studying in this area. Learn to read in scale positions. Work on reading up and down individual strings. Read everything you can get your hands on.

Three big tips here: 1) Keep looking ahead at all times. Some players have a tendency to glance back at the music to “make sure” what they just played was correct. Obviously, this isn’t a good habit to get into. It will cause further mistakes and increase the chance that you’ll get lost in the music. 2) Don’t stop if you make a mistake. We perform the same way we practice. If you’re in the habit of stopping whenever you make a mistake, you’ll obviously call attention to yourself and probably get lost in the process. 3) Practice sightreading with a metronome. Go for accuracy and a steady tempo over speed. Speed will develop over time.

6) Learn music theory and how to apply it.

I’ve met many people who know a lot about music but aren’t very good players. Don’t be one of those people. In the beginning, you do need to learn the fundamentals, but then get on with learning to play real music on your instrument. Don’t think “theory first.” Learn your theory in small, digestible bits as you’re learning to play. It’s much less painful that way. Of course, if theory is your primary interest, just go for it.

The next four tips should help you in the “how to” aspect of practicing.

7) Warm up, then practice slowly.

Runners warm up and stretch before they run. Our finger muscles are not much different from our leg muscles. Take the time to warm up before you begin practicing. You’ll probably end up accomplishing more in less time. The cure for most guitar problems is simple: slow down. If you make mistakes while practicing, you’re probably practicing too fast. Being able to play fast is a byproduct of really knowing your material and making sure your hands are working correctly and effortlessly. This can happen only by practicing slowly and accurately.

8) Set practice goals.

Make it easy and attainable. Then pat yourself on the back. If you reach your goal every week, you will learn 52 new things every year. Did you learn 52 new things last year?

9) Save a few moments for aimless noodling each day.

Besides being fun, doing this may help you come up with some great spontaneous ideas from this less structured time. A lot of great “art” has an element of fun in it. Don’t lose that part.

10) Practice your performance material.

This is where you are being heard. This is why rehearsing takes precedence over all other practicing.

In conclusion, when you hear a great player, you’re listening to someone with great practice habits and great patience. It takes both.

Here’s an etude (a musically pleasing exercise) designed to help you develop a solid chord-melody-style playing technique (FIGURE 3). The objective is to be able to play the entire four-bar phrase in perfect time and with good intonation while smoothly switching from chord to chord. The single notes should sound just like the full chords in terms of volume and tone. Hold each chord and note for its full rhythmic value (duration), waiting until the very last moment before moving to the next note or chord.

Here are some recommended instructional materials that will help you with the first six points covered above:

The Art of Solo Guitar, Books 1 and 2 (book and CD) by Jody Fisher (Alfred Publishing/ Workshop Arts)

Jazz Guitar Harmony (book and CD) by Jody Fisher (Alfred Publishing/Workshop Arts)

Mastering Improvisation (book and CD) by Jody Fisher (Alfred Publishing/Workshop Arts)

30-Day Guitar Workout (book and DVD) by Jody Fisher (Alfred Publishing/Workshop Arts)

Sight to Sound by Leon White (Warner Bros.)

Complete Jazz Guitar Method (books and CD) by Jody Fisher (Alfred Publishing/ Workshop Arts)

Musictech College by Cliff Wittstruck II, Guitar Deparment Head

1) There is no magic pill you can take to get better.

You will need to put in many hours in the woodshed developing your craft. Every great player I’ve met has at some time in his or her career put in a lot of hours practicing on a regular basis.

2) Set yearly, monthly, weekly and daily goals.

If you know where you want to be musically in five years, it will be a lot easier to practice some of the mundane things everyone needs to practice on a regular basis. When you have a plan and know that what you are practicing will help you succeed in the long run, it can help you stay on track.

Long-term goals can be things like learning a bunch of standard tunes or pieces, being able to improvise fluently, becoming a good sight-reader or mastering certain techniques or exercises.

3) Keep a daily record of what you practice.

Practicing an instrument is not unlike bodybuilding or training for a particular athletic endeavor—once you establish your goals, it’s important to check on your progress regularly to make sure you’re achieving your objectives. Keep a journal and document how fast you practice every exercise, then increase the maximum tempo on a regular basis. If you keep track of what you practice, it will be easier to notice if you’ve missed something you need to work on regularly.

4) Don’t burn out on one thing.

Many guitarists play the same tune or exercise over and over again until they are sick of it and then don’t practice that tune or exercise for several days or weeks. Oftentimes this “cramming” approach leads to burnout, and the player loses much of the work accomplished in that crash-course period. Likewise, if you are tense when you practice, you’re teaching or “programming” yourself to play that way. When you see great guitarists perform, they make it look easy because they’ve found a way to play while being relaxed. Whenever you start to feel tension in your hands, put your guitar down for a minute or two before you go back to playing.

5) Optimize your practice environment.

A good practice space should have the following: A focused environment (i.e., no TV); a comfortable chair; good acoustics; good lighting and HVAC (i.e., climate control); a desk and/or music stand upon which to read and write music; a CD player, cassette recorder and/or music paper and pencil; a generally inspiring atmosphere.

6) Establish regular practice times.

Try to practice 45 to 60 minutes, then take break. This will help you get in the habit of maintaining your concentration for the length of a typical set in a live performance situation. As important as it is to know when you will start practicing, you also need to know when you have finished for the day, otherwise you’ll be unable to relax and enjoy other pursuits.

7) Find a practice partner.

Even if you can only get together with another musician or group of musicians once a week or once a month, musical interaction is a crucial part of your training and development…that is, if you intend to perform or collaborate with others at some point in the future.

8) Spend the majority of your practice time working with a metronome.

If you play the exercises, licks or pieces with a metronome and still get out-of-sync, then you’re probably going to have trouble locking in with other musicians in an ensemble. And nobody wants to work with a guitarist that doesn’t have good “time”!

One cool way to use a metronome when practicing a song in 4/4 meter is to orient the material so that the clicks of the metronome fall on the “backbeats”—beats two and four—rather than beats one and three. By practicing this way, you’re training yourself to automatically lock in with a drummer’s snare hits. If you’re playing in 3/4 time, you can set the metronome so that it clicks either on all three beats or just on beat one of each bar.

9) Be sure you’re hearing and musically absorbing what you’re playing.

Whenever you learn a new scale, lick or chord voicing, use this three-step process to help train your musical ear and internalize the sound:

1. Play each note of the scale, lick or voicing, then sing the note.

2. Play the notes again, but this time sing each note as you’re playing it.

3. Sing each note of the new scale, lick or voicing first, then play the note.

10) Learn how to play in all 12 keys.

To truly master your instrument, you need to be able to play competently in any key. You needn’t practice every exercise in all 12 keys everyday, however, as long as you hit the keys on a regular basis.

One approach that isn’t overwhelming is to practice scales, arpeggios, chord inversions or interval patterns in only two keys per day, using keys that are a tritone (three whole steps) apart: for example C and Gb (F#) on Monday, F and B on Tuesday, Bb and E on Wednesday, and so forth. Or you could tackle three or four keys in one day by working one or two familiar keys and one or two unfamiliar keys.

FIGURES 4 and 5 demonstrate a cool way of practicing triad inversions up and down the neck. Here we’re focusing on a given group of strings—the top three—and two keys that are diametrically opposed, C and Gb (F#). Beginning with the lowest inversion of a C major triad (C E G), proceed up the neck to each successive inversion until you reach the highest one you would realistically ever want to play (not necessarily the highest possible inversion on the fretboard), then come back down (FIGURE 4). Now do the same thing with inversions of a Gb triad (Gb Bb Db), as shown in FIGURE 5. Notice how refreshing it sounds to switch to a key that has no notes in common with the key you previously practiced.

FIGURE 6 depicts a more harmonically interesting variation on this approach, with alternating inversions of C and Gb triads “leapfrogging” each other up the neck. Notice the nice feeling of give and take (or “tension and release”) as you alternate between the two triads. FIGURE 7 shows how to do the same thing with open-voiced arpeggios played on the D, B and high E strings in the style of classical violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini. This exercise is most easily performed with hybrid picking (pick and fingers), as indicated above the tablature.

Berklee College of Music by Layy Baione, Guitar Department Chairman

After 30-plus years of playing the everchallenging guitar, my practicing routines have evolved periodically. There are, however, a number of truths that I have learned in the constant struggle to improve my technique and artistry on the instrument. Here are some guiding principles that I always abide by.

1) Never play anything fast that you cannot play slowly. If there is a passage that I want to play at breakneck speed, I need to practice it slowly and steadily, then increase the tempo incrementally to the desired performance speed.

2) Always practice with your guitar in tune and at standard pitch (A=440Hz). Use a tuner! The more I play my guitar at standard pitch, the better I can identify keys, chords and single-note lines on recordings.

3) Always begin your practice sessions by warming up. This helps prevent hand injuries. I usually start by playing scales. Play something that you’re familiar with for the sake of avoiding the psychological and physiological tension that results from navigating uncharted musical territory. I start with quarter notes, then double-up to eighth notes before subdividing the beat down to eighth-note triplets and 16th notes. This is a very important part of my practicing time.

4) Play in tempo. I always use a metronome during my warm-ups and practice pieces at a steady tempo (with or without a metronome). If you perform a piece rubato (free time), it should be for the sake of expressiveness and not because of unsolved technical problems.

5) Always practice a piece at the fastest tempo that the hardest section can be performed at.

6) Always include dynamics (volume contrasts) in what you practice. The time to master dynamic control of your instrument is in your practicing sessions. Try to use the full volume range of the instrument and make sure you spend time practicing chords and lines softly as well as loudly. Dynamic control should come from your hands, not from just the volume of the amplifier.

7) Include chords as well as single lines in your practicing. The guitar is a beautiful harmonic instrument as well as a melodic instrument.

8) Part of your practicing should include listening to the masters of whatever styles you’re interested in.

9) Practice more than once each day. It’s better to practice one hour twice a day (for instance, morning and evening) than two hours at once. This is a concentration issue, as well as an injury-avoidance tactic.

10) Change your practicing routine periodically to keep it from becoming stale.

11) Play with other musicians, including other guitarists. The reason I practice is to have more control when I play with others. I need to practice playing in group settings to better prepare myself to perform in those settings.

12) Find a teacher. Taking private lessons is so essential to continue growth on your instrument and to develop musically.

Guitar World by Jimmy Brown, Music Editor

I’ve learned much about practicing over the past 25 years, much of it about what not to do. Rather than give you another list of things to keep you busy, I’d like to instead share with you a couple of musical life-changing experiences and revelations I’ve had and offer some examples of a general approach to practicing I’ve adopted that’s based on efficiency and economy of both movement and time.

Finding the Path of Least Resistance

I used to do things the hard way. When I was a young man studying jazz guitar in college, I went through a period of several years during which I was obsessed with alternate (down-up) picking and being able to “muscle through” the most difficult picking patterns. To that end, I would spend long, lonely hours dedicated to practicing every conceivable scale, arpeggio or interval pattern in all 12 keys, exhausting every possible fingering and rhythmic subdivision down to the 32nd note. Then I’d do it all over again, starting on an upstroke!

Much of these precious hours spent in the prime years of my life turned out to be a profound waste of time and energy. I did all of this “guitar kung fu” with the fantastic expectation that one day I would wake up, pick up my guitar and be able to effortlessly rip through any melodic pattern like a chainsaw. It never happened. Instead, my picking hand became chronically fatigued and sore. The fact that I was athletic and had good circulation probably helped my hands cope with the repetitive stress I was subjecting them to on a daily basis and saved them from ruin.

Even worse, my touch, which I was so proud of as an unschooled, hard-rocking teenager, became rather lame and mechanical sounding. I’d go to play some real music and, because my chops were worn-out from doing battle with difficult exercises, my playing would sound tired and lifeless, and I’d often end up “turning the time around” (slowing down or speeding up to the point where the downbeats and upbeats are reversed). It was maddening! How could this be happening to me? I was putting in the required time and then some. But because I was practicing doing things the hard way, I was training myself to be a beast of burden and wasn’t exploiting all the “easy openings” that, while elusive, are available on the guitar. Nor was I working on compiling an arsenal of cool-sounding licks that are surprisingly easy to perform. As a result of practicing everything at a moderate speed, I wasn’t conditioning the fast-twitchmuscle fibers and nerves that come into play when performing quick, graceful movements.

I eventually realized that achieving technical facility and fluidity on the guitar is not about forcing your hands to perform difficult movements quickly but finding a fingering or picking pattern for any given note sequence that’s the easiest on your hands while, just as importantly, avoiding ways of playing the same note patterns that are more difficult.

When picking, a lot of players—maybe all players—get hung up crossing strings. The number of notes played on each string and the direction of each picking stroke (up or down) when crossing to a different string determine how easy or difficult a pattern is to pick. The key is to arrange your fingering patterns so that the string crosses feel smooth and efficient—this is referred to as economy of movement. With a bit of thoughtful experimentation, you should be able to find patterns that work well for fast and relatively effortless alternate picking…and weed out those that don’t.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of what I’m talking about here. FIGURES 8–10 show three different ways to play the same eight-note lick. The first way, FIGURE 8, is the most laborious and inefficient for the picking hand, which is required to make four string crosses. As you can tell from trying to play this figure quickly, it’s cumbersome and awkward, regardless of whether you begin on a downstroke or an upstroke. Now compare this to FIGURES 9 and 10. In each case, the same eight notes are consolidated onto two strings, the result being a simplified and more efficient picking pattern, with only two string crosses involved, both of which are easy to perform because of the particular strokes used.

Why play an A harmonic minor scale run like this (FIGURE 11a) when you could perform the exact same note pattern with far less effort like this (FIGURE 11b)? The first way, with all the notes fretted in a single position, may appear to be more efficient, but the picking hand is working way too hard. The second fingering scheme, with all the notes played on the high E string, is not only much easier to pick, it also has a brighter and more consistent timbre (tone). This “flying down the neck” fingering pattern also looks a lot cooler and more virtuosic to an audience, so don’t feel guilty for “cheating”!

You need to look at your instrument critically, be resourceful and creative, and experiment with different ways of playing any given lick or note sequence while getting the sound you want. If you encounter what feels like a technical obstacle, don’t get hung up trying to plow through it; see if you can go around it. Be like water and follow the path of least resistance.

Here’s another example of what I’m talking about. FIGURE 12a depicts a conventional fingering pattern for a two-octave G major scale, with all the notes falling neatly within the fourth position. Now try playing this same note sequence with the alternative fingering scheme shown in the FIGURE 12b. Notice how, by moving certain notes to different strings and taking an alternate and rather unorthodox fretboard path on the descent, the note sequence becomes noticeably easier and more enjoyable to pick, particularly when descending. (It even sounds less strained to the ear.) Notice also the use of quick, subtle position shifts in the descending pattern in FIGURE 12b.

When alternate picking, the objective is to avoid the particularly difficult string cross of picking a note with a downstroke then picking a note on a lower string with an upstroke, as the pick has to change direction in midair against the force of gravity. (The lower string is actually higher off the ground.) One way to avoid this laborious movement is to arrange your fingering pattern so that you’re picking an even number of notes on each string when descending, beginning on a downstroke.

FIGURE 13 is a “grand finale” example of this follow-the-path-of-least-resistance approach, in this case applied to a long, alternate-picked 16th-note run based entirely on the C major scale. Notice how the fretting hand takes numerous twists and turns as it ascends and descends the fretboard, with many of the notes moved to a different string the second time they’re played. This is done to make things easier on the picking hand.

Try doing the same thing with other scales and modes. A good way to go about this is to first write out the notes but leave the tablature blank, (that’s what I did with FIGURE 13), then experiment with different fingering options until you find one that seems to work best for you from a picking standpoint.

This approach may be applied to arpeggios, as well. FIGURE 14 is an example of what I consider to be the most pick-friendly way to play an Fmaj7 (F A C E) arpeggio up and down the neck. For the sake of comparison, try playing these same notes across the strings in various positions, without moving laterally. I’m sure you’ll agree that the two-note-per-string patterns in FIGURE 14 are much easier to burn through than the single-position forms. They also give you a wider range, akin to that of a violin or cello. (Both instruments are tuned in fifths.)

When it comes to technique, practicing slow is important and beneficial, but practicing fast is just as important. If you want to be graceful and swift, you need to practice trying to be graceful and swift. I don’t buy the whole t’ai chi theory that you only need to practice combat moves slowly. Doing the actual act the way you’re ultimately going to want to do it is the only way you’re ever going to notice any wasteful, unnecessary movements and learn how to eliminate them and be light on your feet, so to speak. By doing the actual act of playing fast, you’ll discover so much about your technique and realize what works for you and what doesn’t. You may be surprised to find yourself just barely grazing the strings with your pick, or not even picking certain notes at all, instead sounding them with hammer-ons and pull-offs, which is fine.

A good way to practice playing fast while staying relaxed (this is essential) is to solo over a repeating set of chord changes at a relatively slow tempo, playing eighth notes at first then shifting into 16ths or triplets when you’re good and ready. As the chords are going by slowly, you’ll have more time to “get inside the changes” and come up with some inspired melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas.

As far as using a metronome goes, you really don’t need one. Tapping your foot as you play is actually the best way to develop a solid sense of rhythm and groove.

It’s the Repertoire, Stupid

One day, while I was still in college, I was sitting in my dorm room practicing scales and arpeggios with a metronome when my roommate, a nonmusician and football player, and a couple of his buddies walked in and sat down. My roommate eventually said, “So Jimmy, can you play a tune for these guys?” My mind went absolutely blank. A tune? I thought. Don’t they want to hear parallel fifths off of the diminished scale? It hit me like a ton of bricks—people want to hear songs. I had been so preoccupied with theory and becoming a better technician on the guitar that I had sorely neglected that important fact for way too long.

From that day on, I made repertoire my top musical priority. I began making a list of songs and instrumentals that I’ve learned, a list that has since grown into a couple thousand songs in a variety of styles, organized into different categories such as jazz, classic rock, modern rock, country, classical, bluegrass, instrumentals and ethnic.

I’ve found that learning the lyrics to a pop or rock song is the best way to remember its form—it’s the glue that holds the arrangement together. Being able to sing will also make you a musical leader. Ninety-nine percent of musicians are followers. How many times have you been at a jam session or on a gig and the musicians are asking each other, “What do you want to play?” Nine times out of 10 the answer is “I don’t know. Whatever.” Take the lead by knowing songs beginning to end.

Try singing while playing the guitar. Who knows, you might develop a hidden talent. Ninety percent of singing is really just about being uninhibited, so close your eyes and go for it! You’ll probably find that it will inspire your guitar playing.

My practicing these days consists almost entirely of reviewing songs and tunes for gigs. If I want a good workout that’s both technically and musically challenging, I’ll just practice improvising over a dozen choruses of “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane, or some other wellknown jazz standard that has lots of challenging chord changes, trying to play one long, uninterrupted stream of eighth notes over the changes.

The Last Word

Don’t play or practice with a tone you’re not comfortable with—it will totally affect your touch and the way you play for the worse. Though it is ultimately very important to learn how to interact with an amp tone, if you can’t manage to dial in a pleasing tone at the moment, then you’d be better off practicing with your guitar unplugged for the time being.