If you’ve ever been around session guitarists and working players you’ll notice that they’re a strange breed; they have this calm air about them, even though it’s a high-pressure job, and seem to be able to adapt themselves chameleon-like to any playing situation. At heart of this cool façade lies a different kind of practice routine, and one that most guitarists, truth be told, shy away from. So what is it that the pros do differently in their practice time?
Dust off Your Metronome
If (like me) you’re convinced you possess inherently good timing, and don’t need a metronome, get one anyway, just to be on the safe side ;) Pros have flawless timing because they practice with a metronome to the extent that they develop an internal one. It’s very obvious (especially to a producer) who practices with a metronome and who doesn’t, and if your time is not watertight then you’re going to find yourself out of a job. This also goes for guitarists in bands that are trying to make it as if you do get a record deal, but you can’t lay it down in the studio, you’ll likely be replaced if you’re not integral to the creativity/image of the band.
The point of using a metronome is to be able to play well… but SLOWLY, not build up to 16th notes at 220 bpm as believe it or not, this is not a skill which is highly sought-after. Most of the stuff you play will be around the 80 to 160 bpm range and you need to be able to nail it. Playing something well but slowly requires you to practice a smaller set of movements, and what a lot of the best players do is to break things down into really tiny movements and practice those over and over, however tedious it may seem. These movements then become second nature and can easily be coupled with others to form more seemingly complex sequences which can be executed flawlessly.
You know those technical exercises you see on videos like John Petrucci’s Rock Discipline and many others? That’s the kind of thing you need to practice if you want pro-guitarist technique. Although John Petrucci’s video is more toward the masochistic end of technical playing, you can always tone it down a little to meet your own technical needs. You can of course strip things right down to the basics of technique as shown in this lesson which has you practicing the three fundamentals of technique: picking hand strength and direction, fretting hand strength, and to bring it all together, the synchronization of both hands.
You don’t want to end up on the chopping block so your execution needs to be up there with the pros. I’m not talking about the ability to play ridiculous licks or jaw-dropping runs, but the ability to execute EVERYTHING you play with perfection, especially the simple stuff. This is what producers are looking for, someone who can play or come up with a part then execute it in a couple of takes; there’s simply no room for sloppiness. Your execution will improve by practicing technique but you’ll need to perfect the parts or songs you’re learning to really hone your execution skills. Practice parts/songs until you can play them in your sleep, only then will you have perfect execution.
But Won’t I Lose my Feel?
In short, no. A lot of players think their lack of metronome use has given them the gift of feel when in actual fact the opposite is true as whatever feel they have is not being developed or pushed. The above practice techniques will develop the key to feel: control. Only when you have a certain degree of control over the instrument, and what you’re playing, does feel become part of the equation.
Put on the Red Light
When the red recording light goes on everything changes psychologically in a guitarist’s mind. A certain amount of pressure creeps in (especially if you’re on someone else’s budget) and the game changes somewhat which is why you should practice by recording yourself, if only to get used to taming your reaction to the red light. Listening back will give you a different perspective on what you played, and clue you in to the technical or execution areas you may still need to work on. If it’s not quite happening, it’s better to know before you go into the studio on someone else’s dime, so that you can do something about it.
Example of a Pro-Guitarist’s Practice Routine
Depending on how much time you have to practice, you should incorporate at least the following exercises, assuming you already have your theory pretty much down:
Warm-up (Chromatics, hand and finger stretches)
Technical Exercises (picking, timing, all with metronome)
Scales (in all positions, all keys, with metronome)
Arpeggios (in all positions, all keys, with metronome)
Rhythm Playing and Chords (well-worth working on as this is what you’ll be doing 80% of the time)
Material (perfection/rehearsal of whatever you’re working on)
Sight-reading (just to keep your hand in)
Get practicing like the pros!