One of the early mistakes I made was that I didn’t enjoy practicing.
Eh, let me rephrase that. I didn’t practice what I enjoyed.
This is especially important when you’re first starting out on the instrument. Because when you’re learning the most basic things, the number of things you can do are limited. It can be frustrating, because it’s hard to do even the simplest things.
The key is to practice what you enjoy.
The Mistake I Made
When I started playing in late 80s, a lot of rock/metal guys were boasting about how many hours they practiced. 8, 10, they’d say. So I thought that that’s what was required to be a real guitarist. And I’d bang my head on the wall, because I could never practice that much — it was struggle practicing 2 hours.
Oh, silly me. (I was in high school, you know? And my teacher didn’t advise me on these things)
What I didn’t know was that when you’re starting out, it’s natural that you’d have a hard time practicing a long time. It’s because you don’t have that many things to practice. When you’re working on your first three chords and the first strumming pattern, you’d run out of things to practice after 15 minutes. Of course, you can keep practicing that single thing longer — but it’s reasonable to expect that after a while you won’t find it that exciting.
Instead of forcing yourself even though you’re bored and tired, you should just stop. If you keep playing even though you are not enjoying it, the guitar will become a chore and a burden very quickly.
Destination vs. Journey
Now, why did I frustrate myself so when I loved playing the guitar?
It’s because I wasn’t really in love with the guitar. Or better put, I was more in love with the idea of becoming a guitarist than playing the guitar. I was interested in the status of being a rock guitarist. Yep, fans and chicks, we’re talking about. I also was genuinely interested in playing, too, but it was way overpowered by my desire for the end result.
When you focus so much on the goal, it can really rob the joy out of the journey it takes to get there. You’re so fixated on producing the result, you’d focus on shortcuts, efficiency, even sometimes cheating, to get there as soon as possible and with the least effort.
It took me a long time, years of not achieving that original goal of becoming an adored rock guitarist, to realize that I wanted to play the guitar, even when it didn’t make me cool or anything. I was in love with the act of playing the guitar. Playing is its own reward, and now it’s rewarding to do so — most of the time.
Why Enjoyment Is Important
When you’re having fun, you’re engaged, you’re paying attention to what you’re doing. This focus is an important ingredient in your growth as a guitarist. If you’re bored and frustrated, your mind will wander. In my experience, 10 minutes of focused practicing is better than 60 minutes of fiddling while thinking about something else.
That’s not to say that you should never do exercises and routines that are repetitive and seemingly boring. I assure you, though, that once you get into the right mindset, even those will be fun, because they can really help you progress faster. When you truly enjoy playing, each minute step forward is a celebration. Soon you’ll get addicted to that rush of getting better on your instrument. Your practice session gets longer and longer, because the more you master the guitar, the more things you have to practice.
So, enjoyment is important because when you’re enjoying, you’re engaged. And that engagement produces results, the progress. And the progress makes it even more fun to play. A positive cycle ensues, and you’re on your way to mastering the instrument and having a lifetime of fun.
Keys to Enjoying Practicing
You’d think it’s simple, but it’s surprisingly easy to get into thinking that you have to do what you don’t enjoy. (I blame schools for this line of thinking, by the way — as they make us do all kinds of things we don’t enjoy, saying that it’s necessary for our education. But what’s so useful about learning things we don’t enjoy, since we’re really not learning anyway?)
So here are a few tips that I wish somebody told me a long time ago — keys to really enjoy playing the guitar.
- Practice what your music needs. If you’re into metal, work those single-note chops and don’t worry about jangly chords. If you want to play punk rock, don’t bother practicing intricate finger-picking. I used to practice right-hand tapping because I thought that all rock guitarists must play like Eddie Van Halen. Except that I really didn’t have any use for right-hand tapping — I didn’t like Van Halen. Forget the idea of being a “well-rounded” guitarist. Just work only on the kinds of playing required to make the music you’re interested.
- If you’re bored, stop. Forcing yourself to keep playing when you’re not motivated will burn you out. And if a certain exercise seems uninteresting to you, modify it so it’s more interesting. It’s better to play inefficient exercises that are enjoyable than to practice “efficient” but boring exercises. The idea is to maximize your engagement. Masters who spend hours playing seemingly boring exercises — I assure you, they are not bored. They are doing it because it’s fun for them.
- Don’t confuse “playing what’s fun” with “noodling aimlessly only when you feel like it.” We all have Resistance to good things. Ever had an occasion where you didn’t feel like practicing, but once you picked up the guitar you actually rather enjoyed it? Do come up with enjoyable ways of practicing, but still stick to regular routines and repetitions, because those are also necessary ingredients in producing progress. Nothing is that fun when you’re not making progress.
- Don’t over-practice. Do pick up the guitar regularly, but once your mind starts to wander, it’s time to stop. And there’s no need to beat yourself up for not practicing as long as long as you should. Long hours will come as you grow as a guitarist, acquiring more and more things to practice. Earlier in your evolution, though, you just don’t have as many things to work on.
In summary, I believe that practicing what our heart desires is key to mastering the instrument. Focusing on what we want, not what we should.
I’m not saying, though, that there will never be days when you don’t feel like playing, and your playing isn’t fun. Some days are like that. It still takes diligence and discipline to master something — if it was easy, actually we’d get bored with it sooner. But when you focus on what you enjoy, you can endure those occasional moments when nothing seems right. And all other times, it’s a blast playing the instrument you love.
People have all kinds of ideas of what a good guitarist should be. But really, there’s no such requirement. Even if your goal is to become a professional, you still start out by focusing on what you enjoy playing. Well-roundedness will come later, and only when you really want it.
So, practice the music you enjoy, and forget everything else. You’ll get better faster, when playing is the act of love.