Practicing can be: Tedious, monotonous,
lonely, frustrating, maddening, of no use to your playing, the same
thing over and over, and just about as boring as it gets.
it can, and should be: Exciting and stimulating, something you can't wait to do, something you
can't stand the thought of skipping, the road to make the
currently impossible possible, and THE KEY to becoming the player
you'd love to be, but never thought it would happen!
one thing for sure about practicing:
If you want to improve as a musician, you'll practice! A lot!
And then practice some more!!
There are no shortcuts, although there
are many ways to make practicing more enjoyable, rewarding, efficient, and, every so often,
utterly transformative. In this section, I'll outline some of the ways
I've found to make practicing more exciting and productive, without
falling into some of the pitfalls that can make the prospect of
daunting and useless. But regardless of your feelings about it on any given day, please remember that practicing is the only avenue to improvement. Ask any great guitarist.
If you're *still* not convinced that ongoing, disciplined practicing is the best investment you can make in your future as a musician, you MUST check out this recent article by John Devadasan Perinbam, who writes for Guitar Noise. If it doesn't convince you that playing with near-perfection is the key to having a successful band, let alone your survival as a session musician, I can't imagine what will. Another, shorter, more academic piece on the value of practicing can be found here. Also, here's a short quote from Alan Holdsworth, one of the most creative, amazing guitarists around. Here, too, is a great article from the very good Guitar Principles site on the importance of the way in which you practice. Although a few years old, this piece on the inherent value of knowing the fretboard is worth a look.
There's actually an entire site called Practiceguitarnow.com which, although somewhat slanted toward shredders, features a number of excellent, fairly concise articles on aspects of practicing that are certainly applicable to all guitarists. Representative article titles are "5 Reasons Why Guitarists Waste Most Of Their Guitar Practice Time And How To Avoid It", "4 Deadly Mistakes You Must Avoid If You Want To Become A Great Guitarist", and "What To Do If Your Guitar Playing Stopped Improving".
If, after reading all of this material, you're still not convinced that disciplined practicing is the most valuable investment you can make in your own future as a player, perhaps you don't like the guitar as much as you thought. Either that, or you figure that you'll be the exception to the rule, and won't have to practice long and hard the way the rest of us do. In either case, your attempts at practicing are fated to be unpleasant, something to dread, and of questionable value. Good luck; I hope you have infinite patience, low blood pressure, and don't mind that a payoff for your "efforts" may never happen.
Here's the bottom line: If you want to improve - in *any* style - you will practice. Period. There are no shortcuts; no ways around; no website course that will be *the key to sounding like the stars!*; no effects pedal with which you'll sound like Hendrix, etc., etc. When you strip away the BS, it comes down to motivation. Either you've got it, and you'll have the energy and dedication to tackle some difficult material that doesn't come easily and will take many months to master, or you don't, and it all sounds like too damned much work anyway. And, you all know which camp you're in!
The section titles are listed below. Click on whichever one looks interesting, and the section will expand beneath the title. In some cases, there is additional whitespace below the end of the section. I have yet to troubleshoot this successfully, but figured that it's better to publish the page in its current state than to wait until the page is functioning perfectly.
One of the most common questions I get as an instructor is how to build up fingertip callouses. From my
experience as a player, as well as a teacher, I've found a formula that works very well:
First - Play until your fingertips start to burn, then play another 15 minutes or so.
Second - Stop playing, completely, until your fingertips no longer hurt, even a little.
Third - Return to Step 1.
If you continue with this regimen, you should have excellent fingertips in just a few weeks. The goal is to
have callouses so thick that you cannot feel pressing down on a string; your fingertips
should be fairly thick and devoid of most surface feeling. They'll probably look something
like those in the photo to the left. If they don't look like the photo, though, do not worry
about it! My own fingertips have gone through an evolution over the 50+ years I've
been playing - sometimes they looked like shiny little hammers that clicked on a hard
surface. After many years more, they reached their current state, where they don't look that different from my right
hand, but to touch them, one feels a thickness, kind of like scar tissue, but they're not nearly as hard to the touch
If, for some reason, I can't play for several weeks (a very rare event), it takes only a week or so to get them back
in real playing shape. Your mileage, of course, will probably vary. Just be sure to take very good care of your hands,
especially the left. If you're as dedicated to your playing as I am, you won't like an injury to your hands, especially the left.
Please be careful! More than a few professional musicians, including guitarists, have had their careers cut short
instantly when they suffered a seriously left hand injury.
Lastly (and this is obvious if you have any experience at all and have experienced it), NEVER play your guitar if
your left (fingering) hand is wet, or even moist. Being even a little moist softens your fingertip callouses to the
point that you can easily destroy them in a short time. My personal rule is that I never play for a minimum of two
hours after showering or doing anything else that soaks my left hand. I've heard of professional guitarists who,
when showering before a concert, put a strong plastic bag over their left hand and secure it with rubber bands.
It doesn't matter how you accomplish this; just do it!
Having a really good teacher, who is technically very accomplished, who "speaks your language", and whom you'd like to emulate, is worth a mint! A great teacher can literally cut years off of the time it would take you to reach a certain level of fluency, keep you going during frustrating times, build you up when you do well, give you the occasional kick in the butt when you need a little inspiration, and generally be invaluable to your progress!
By the way, the "kick in the butt" reference is, for one example, to the tendency we all have to do the things that are easiest, while finding ways to avoid the harder ones. Let's say you're working on scales these days, and your assignment is to practice pentatonic, diminished, and minor scales. If you're like most people, you started learning solos by imitating blues solos, which are usually pentatonic, so you probably know that scale better than any other.
Diminished scales, on the other hand, sound and feel very weird at first, and you have to look at and pick every single note. It takes awhile to build up any kind of speed. Which scale are you going to want to practice? If you pick the pentatonic, at the end of the practice session, how much will you have accomplished? What will you have learned?
Personally, I never had the luck to find a guitar teacher early in my development. Although I'm fairly happy with my current skill level, I'm convinced that, had I found the right teacher, my progress would have been perhaps 3-4 times faster. I had to discover all of the techniques we all use, like hammer-ons and -offs, arpeggios, and everything else totally on my own.
Figure out what practicing is and what it isn't!
There are several ways to approach and define practicing, with some much better than others. First, a couple of definitions:
Practicing is something you do alone, with a definite goal and a structured plan for getting there. It might be an arpeggio or two, several tricky licks with difficult fingering, a bunch of jazz turnarounds based on chord substitutions for a given standard chord sequence, devising a chord substitution scheme for a tune with only fundamental, straightforward chords available in print, etc.
But it's all about working toward a specific, previously-defined goal (ideally, one which you have discussed and agreed to with your instructor) such that when you achieve it, you know it. You can think of it analogously to working toward solving a science problem (chemistry, physics, etc.). The goal must be so well defined and measurable that there can be no doubt when you've achieved it.
Jamming is playing with other musicians (hopefully); its purpose is to stretch your ability to communicate with others via the medium of music. Very seldom is it completely goal-directed, although experienced bands will do this when learning new material - especially difficult passages or sections. However, most people get together to jam for the best reason of all for playing in the first place - it's a hell of a lot of fun!!
It's also a great way to get to know new musicians, since jamming involves a level of intimacy you just don't find in discussions about the weather, your job, or sports.
The most important truism from above is this:
WHEN YOU PRACTICE, DON'T EVEN TRY TO DO IT WITH SOMEONE ELSE!!
Practicing is a solitary endeavor, and trying to do it with another person is impossibly distracting, keeps you from checking in with your own feelings about how something's going, and really serves no useful purpose.* Of course, you should also play with others as much as possible, especially with a variety of musicians, hopefully some of whom are better than you are. But this isn't practicing.
This also is NOT about practicing with your band, which has a totally different goal, usually involving many of the very factors you need to avoid when practicing by yourself. Just remember what the focus is and what your practice goals are, and you'll do fine.
*As for any generalization, there are exceptions to this. For several years, I had ongoing practice sessions with another jazz guitarist, who was from the more traditional school of jazz and thus could read fluently; I had come up through blues and fusion, and wasn't as good a reader, but had more experience in and was better at improvisation. We recognized that we could help each other, and our practice sessions were just that - practicing fingerings, modes, arpeggios, etc. We were very clear about our purpose, and kept each other honest by foregoing any jamming and sticking to the plan. If you find yourself in a similar situation, more power to you!
Structure your practice sessions into various types
Every practice session you do should have specific goals in mind, otherwise you won't be able to assess how you're progressing. Just noodling around for an hour or two can be a wonderful experience, especially when you're trying to sort out a problem unrelated to music. But it isn't practice.
One thing I do and recommend is to set different short term goals, which might include certain arpeggios or scales, chord substitution, improvising over a difficult progression, right hand technique, reading music, trying to master a technically difficult passage, etc. If you're more organized than I am, you might keep a log of your sessions, which I understand is a very nice way to look back and see how you've progressed as a player. I did it as a competitive runner, but never got into it with music. But whether you keep written records or not, try to focus on one or two specific, achievable goals for each practice session, and your practicing will take on new life and vitality - and especially momentum!
Use a metronome regularly!
You'll be amazed at how hard it can be to adhere to a set timing when you're working on something difficult. While a student at Berklee (the famous Boston music college), Al DiMeola had legendary practice sessions, where he'd do a hard arpeggio from the bottom to the top of the neck, staying with a metronome. He'd then advance the timing by one notch and repeat the whole thing. It might take six hours to make it through all of the arpeggios in all of the positions in all the timings - which is why his technique today is virtually unsurpassed.
If you've never tried to play with a metronome, don't judge what it's like until you do. I know you'll be surprised.
If you find your dedication to this tool failing, try to find a professional on any instrument who does not practice with
a metronome. Ready to buy one (they're not expensive)? Check out this review of metronomes of all kinds. Don't have
a metronome and can't afford one? Fear not! Here are several great online metronomes, and they're all free:
Metronome Online, Free Interactive Online Metronome, WebMetronome.com, and (my favorite) VSM Metronome.
Don't have a metronome, can't afford one, and too impaired to hunt the web for one of those above? Well, HB's
got your back yet again! Just click here: I'm poor and lazy but really want a metronome!
Record Occasional Practice Sessions!
I'm talking about just an audio recording, unless you're unusually masochistic and really want to see what you look like when you're trying to play things you can't yet pull off. An old cassette recorder, if you have one that still works, would do fine. You're going to use this for only one thing - to measure your progress as the weeks go by. I recommend setting one day a week as taping day, just so you build it into your routine. The idea is NOT to put on a performance for the tape, but just do whatever it is you're currently doing in your practice sessions. After several weeks, you'll find yourself setting it up and forgetting about it.
Every few months (if you can wait that long), just take out the tape(s) and play your sessions in order. I'm not going to pretend I know what you'll learn, because it will be different for every individual. But believe me, you'll learn a major lesson if you'll just do this exercise honestly. I've had students for whom this was a very validating and self-affirming illustration on how their intense work and consistency were paying off. For others, it pointed out area(s) that needed improvement in a way that's completely undeniable to the students.
Be realistic about each session's goals!
It's really tempting, especially when you're just starting out, to way overestimate how much you can accomplish during a typical 45-55 minute practice session. Hell, when I first started doing this, my first written goal was to nail down three difficult arpeggios (each of which used a different scale) and then knock off a chord substitution melody....or two! Remember, I had no teacher to tell me it was impossible to do and damaging to try.
I know I needn't relate the disastrous results of my ambitious experiment, but I was fortunate in that I understood that my estimate was too ambitious, and it wasn't my fault that my goal couldn't be attained. Some of you may be thinking "Duh!", but I've had quite a few students jump immediately to the conclusion that they somehow had screwed something up, just because it didn't turn out as they'd predicted.
Rotate the practice medium!
I have loads of books on technique, theory, transcriptions of jazz or other tunes; instructional DVDs by great guitarists; times when it's just me and an acoustic working on technique; sessions with another guitarist interested in working on the same issue, etc. The possibilities are endless - just keep rotating the type of practice and it'll remain fresh.
Important: Get recommendations on books, DVDs, etc. from people you trust. There are great ones out there, and there are monumental wastes of money. A good place to get good reviews of digital practice media, from people who have bought and experienced the products, is Amazon.com (as it is for books, e-books, etc.).
Utilize the Free (or very cheap) Utilities Available On-Line!
There are many useful programs available on-line at little or no cost, which can dramatically aid your development as a musician. An excellent aid to playing fast and picking correctly is called Guitar Speed Trainer. It measures your current speed, then sets target speeds for you to play along with. It's truly excellent!
There are two great accessories which let you load sets of tunes (as MP3 files), which they can play with excellent fidelity. You can then choose a certain interval whose speed you want to vary (like a fast lick that's hard to analyze at full speed). It will then play that interval over and over, and you can slow it down as much as you like. The great thing is that the pitch of the notes doesn't change at all - just their speed! Audiotran is cheaper than Song Surgeon; whether it's as good is a matter of taste. Personally, I like and use Audiotran.
A little more expensive, but worth every penny, is GuitarPro, now on version 6. There are thousands of GuitarPro-formatted tabs available on-line, or you can enter your own, just by pointing with the mouse to the positions on the keyboard (or guitar fingerboard) that each note is played. It writes both the tab and music, and prints them beautifully; it will also play the tune via a midi-linked audio. A real treasure, and it's not expensive.
Band in a Box
Speaking of treasures, there is a suite of programs which, together, form the most sophisticated, versatile, and widely-applicable music software package anyone's ever seen. It's called Band-in-a-Box (BiaB), and must be experienced to be appreciated. All things considered, it's not particularly expensive; the basic set of programs goes for $129, which is incredibly cheap for a set of programs like this (the cost hasn't changed for many years). There are a number of packages which feature additional goodies; you can check out a nice comparison chart here.
The publisher of BiaB, PG Music, also offers a bunch of great packages that use the BiaB program, including many jazz guitar (or other instrument) lessons, "Master Classes", a four-volume "Master Jazz Guitar Solos" set, and more. They've also introduced a package called "Real Band", very notable since all of the accompanying tracks are recordings of actual musicians in the studio - not MIDI approximations. It also emphasizes recording yourself playing with the backing band that you set up.
They have equivalent offerings in rock, blues, and classical guitar as well, and many additional features in piano, saxophone, and voice! You can really appreciate the sheer diversity of their offerings by checking out the site map of the PG Music site.
There are many ways to use BiaB; in one, you give it a chord progression and select a music style from the many dozens available. It will then play that progression via a combo that features a keyboardist, bass player, and drummer. These aren't tinny-sounding MIDI, either; they're actual recording of studio musicians.
Having trouble improvising over the progression? Just ask BiaB to, on whatever instrument you like, and it'll come up with a really decent improvised solo. How does it do all this? I have no idea; I'm not a computer programmer. I'm just glad someone did, because the finished product is, I believe, the single best investment you could make in your musical growth.
Note: I just upgraded to BiaB 2011, and you'll love how it's delivered. If you use the program, you know it traditionally comes on a big bunch of installer CDs that take forever to feed to the machine. As you also know, the program gets better and bigger with each edition, so instead of a stack of CD/DVDs, they now send you a 160GB external hard drive, with everything already installed! Plug it in via two USB plugs (it needs the extra current), the computer will recognize it as another external drive, and it's installed. Wow.
Learning to Read Music?
By "reading music" we're referring almost exclusively to single note phrases, solos, etc. All guitarists MUST be able to be able to read a chord chart with appropriate timing, phrasing, etc., or you'll be out of the game before you even start it. Here we're talking about the one note at a time reading of the melody - the treble clef if you're familiar with scoring notation.
First of all, learning to read (single notes) is a very good idea. Not everything is available in tablature, and music is the language of our art. In fact, generally, the more difficult (and cooler) the guitar piece or solo, the less likely it is to be available in tablature. One of the best teaching DVD sets available right now is from John McLaughlin, and there's not a tab to be found anywhere! McLaughlin, when asked about this, unapologetically explains that if you're going to be good musician, you must know the language of your discipline.
Several web sites are available to help players learn to read music; a good example is ReadSheetMusic.info.
A great way to augment whatever book or online course you're using is to transcribe (write out) a solo you know - this gives you a look at written music from the other side, and will speed up your comprehension dramatically. It changes your feel for the music that's hard to describe. The super Aussie fusion player Frank Gambale put it well: "It'd be like knowing how to hear and speak English without being able to read or write!"
However, at the bottom line, reading is not necessary to know how to play music, so don't let some jazz elitist tell you you'll never succeed if you can't read music! Wes Montgomery was known as a poor reader, as were several other famous jazz musicians (such as Joe Pass). Nevertheless, knowing how to read will make you a more complete musician, and you won't have a heart attack if you go to jam with a new musician, who then pulls out a dozen charts and hands them to you! My view is that if you want to learn, I think it's a great idea. But if you have no desire to, and accept that rarely you could be unable to participate in something that absolutely requires extemporaneous reading, don't worry about it.
Ear Training - if you don't plan to learn how to read, there are ways to improve your ability to play by ear - accurately and quickly. A great site, called Miles.be, features "free ear training tools for musicians". Its greatest feature is its "Functional Ear Trainer", a free tool to train your ear to hear specific notes in a scale OR to recognize chords just from their sound. If you're not going to read, I strongly recommend you use this until you're really good at it. If you're confident of your abilities to play by ear, this tool will tell you whether your confidence is well-placed - then it's up to you.
Stuck in an improvisational rut?
Sooner or later, most musicians feel like they're stuck playing the same riffs over again rather than being truly creative - finding your own unique voice. Early in my improvisation career, I started to feel, at one point, that my solos were just a bunch of other guitarists' riffs, stitched together to try and play a decent solo. I got so sick of my own playing that I put down the guitar for over a month. I'm not recommending this!
Here are a few methods that can help get you out of a rut:
Make Minor Changes to Familiar Progressions
If you're currently into pentatonic riffs over major 12-bar blues progressions, try playing all the chords as minors. Or, instead of playing the 5th chord, play it up one fret to the sharp fifth. So, if you're playing in "C", when it's time for the G7, play an Ab7 instead. Take a known progression and transpose it to a quite different key - i.e., don't go from a "G" to an "A"; go from a "G" to a "D" or something similarly far off.
Jam to Unfamiliar Chord Progressions
If you keep playing over 12-bar blues progressions, you're not going to grow much as a musician! A great source of chord progressions to songs you probably know is Visionmusic.com, Mark Stefani's excellent site for the learning guitarist. A wonderful feature is called "jamtracks", where over 100 tunes are offered with a backing combo (keyboard, bass, drums), along with a chart showing the chords. It's very much like Karaoke for guitarists, except the the music isn't so gakky. Familiar to most of us, the tunes are divided into blues, rock, and jazz.
Play for a long time over a single chord
I can't remember where I picked this up (it was a touring pro), but it really is effective. Just find a track with a chord you're comfortable improvising over, along with a tempo and feel that you like, and make a loop that plays the chord endlessly. Start out just noodling around the chord scales, then try improvising a simple melody. Try it some more. Try it for 15 minutes - by that time, you should be so sick of your old, tired riffs that you'll find yourself experimenting with other notes, positions, etc., just to break the frustration. If you don't reach this point in 15 min., try 30 minutes, or whatever it takes.
This can be a very frustrating exercise, but I promise that if you give it an honest try, it will open up new ways of looking at the fretboard, new scales/arpeggios, and occasionally an entirely new improvisational framework.
Use Backing Tracks
A wonderful development since I first started to play is the availability of "backing tracks", which, a really long time ago,
used to be by a company called "Music Minus One". They'd take a record and electronically subtract out various instruments,
so that aspiring musicians could play along with the whole band.
Well, this technology is out there in spades for anyone wanting to play along with other musicians (and if you don't, you're
a very unique musician). In fact, many of these are free, but the ones that aren't are inexpensive and will pay for themselves
quickly if you use them just a few times. But you'll use them a hell of a lot more than that
The pioneer and still leader in providing great backing tracks (along with much more great stuff) is Mark Stefani's Vision Music.
A grasp of its diversity can be had by checking out the site map. The backing tracks are in the Jam Tracks section, subdivided
into Blues, Jazz, and Rock. It's incredibly easy - just go to the listing you like (say, Rock), and click on a song you like (say,
Van Morrison's Moondance). This bring up a page with a pdf of the chords/changes, and the track starts automagically with two
bars' worth of clicks to count off the tune. A certain percentage (small) is available for free, so check it out!
Here is a selection of sites with backing tracks. Comments are minimal since a backing track is a personal choice, and one style
appeals to a certain type and so on. So, do some exploring; I'm sure you'll find a few that really seem to speak to you such that
practicing improvising over them sounds like fun.
Backing Track Sites Around the Internet
Backing Tracks from E-Chords.com, way more than great backing tracks. They're full of tutorials/lessons, videos, a chord dictionary, riff lessons, and
a huge number of GuitarPro tunes.
Backing Tracks from ImproviseGuitar.com
Free Guitar Backing Tracks from Guitarvoice.com, a very classy, well organized site with huge number of free backing tracks to download.
Free Jam Tracks a really useful service! They not only have boatloads of backing tracks, but also a huge selection of lessons, clips, and utilities. Almost as many bass tracks as guitar. You can feel their excitement just looking around!
FunkyTigerBackingTracks.com Quality guitar backing tracks and karaoke music instrumental mp3 downloads free or 99p with preview track and lyrics.
GuitarBackingTrack.com This page contains free guitar backing tracks for popular songs as well as jam tracks. The backing tracks can be played in flash format onsite or downloaded in MP3 format.
Guitar-Wav.com "My "live" original backing tracks - Over 150 so far. These are all original jam tracks created and performed/copy written by me. You can easily download these mp3s and create playable CDs of the backing tracks you want." I do not know who the author is.
How to Play Guitar Solos Using Backing Tracks covers all the bases as far as the best way to use backing tracks in your own practice sessions.
JamBands.com Jambands.com was founded in 1998 by a team of individuals eager to spread the good word about a variety of bands then ignored by the mainstream media.
Jam Session Guitar Forum a discussion forum for guitar players & bass players, started in 1999 by StoneDragon.
Jam Tracks Here you can download hundreds of free guitar backing tracks from my personal collection. They are in many styles - blues, funk, jazz, country, rock, etc. Please remember: ALL these tracks are for home educational use only! Enjoy! And keep the music alive ;-)
Jamtrax from LickLibrary.com, where JamTrax is but one of many great sections. Their backing tracks are clear and clean. The big drawback is that these ain't free: They want $4.50 for each song, even if it's 3 minutes long.
JazzBacks We have high quality play-along backing tracks of jazz standards for instrumentalists and vocalists. Each backing track comes with a description of its arrangement and can be played using the Real Book.
Midi-Tab.com The songs listed here are designed so you can jam with them. They have no guitar tracks or vocal tracks so you can play or sing with them. They are a great practice tool for players of all skill levels. THESE FILES ARE NOT FOR COMMERCIAL USE!
UniGTR+++Center their handle is an acronym for "Universal Total Guitar Plus Center" - look at their URL!
Use Online Teaching Resources!
There are a huge number of these available; some of the best (IMO) are listed below.
Be Disciplined About Practicing!
Just as you can't skip several days of studying in school and expect to make it up on the weekend, you can't skip practicing for several days, thinking that a marathon six hour session will make up for it. All studying requires assimilation time, and guitar playing is no exception.
Here is a great, short article by jazz guitarist Matt Warnock called "Practicing Jazz Guitar: 5 Tools for Effective Woodshedding". Even the five tools have intriguing names, like "Lowest Common Denominator" and "Practicing Away from the Guitar". Definitely worth reading!
Set aside a time each day when nothing will interfere with your practice work; you should try for at least an hour a day. And, when planning the subject of your study, if a certain area you need to work on turns you off and you really don't feel like practicing it - it's almost certainly the one you most need to work on!
An important initial goal, if you're not into practicing regularly, is to establish a set of practice skills. There's a great article in the learn-theory-music.com site on how to practice effectively, called "All the Music Practice Skills You'll Ever Need". It's not long, and may bring up ideas you've not considered. Here are the first couple of lines, quoted without comment, except to note that they have both been proven true:
There are two golden rules here:
1. Practicing often is more important than having lengthy practices.
2. The better you are, the more you have to practice to improve.
By the way, experimental psychologists have determined that, regardless of the material being studied, retention is worst if you study in the morning, then gets progressively better throughout the day, so that the best retention occurs when you study in the evening. After about 10pm, it then drops off sharply. Assimilation of new facts, or the way it feels to play a certain lick a certain way or at a certain speed, is a biochemical process which takes time to complete, and the best time for that to happen without distraction is while you're asleep. The message is extremely clear - try to do your serious guitar studying in the evening. It's a nice, mellow way to end your day, and you'll remember what you've learned much more efficiently the next day.
It's also a great idea to have a few basic rules that you decide you want to follow. I state it that way because, although these will make perfect sense to everyone, few have the discipline to honestly stick to them. I developed these fairly early in my teaching career, when I was teaching my first improvisation student. In fact, we're back in touch today, and he had to remind me exactly what my three rules were!
HB's Three Inviolable Rules of Guitarist Excellence
1. If you can't play it slowly, don't even try to play it fast.
2. Don't use speed tricks (trills, hammer-ons, etc.) unless you can do them exactly the way you mean to do them.
3. Move toward connecting your heart and head to your fingers.
Notice that the first two rules rely completely on self-honesty and self-policing. A few of you may be thinking "Wow - you could say you were following the rules and no one would be able to bust you!" Generally speaking, you're wrong, but strictly speaking...you're even more wrong. It's like cheating at solitaire. If you found your mind going down this slope, I suggest some honest self-appraisal - the goal being to discover why you think you want to improve as a guitarist.
Any reasons(s) that involve other people and their opinions of you as a guitarist are poor motivators; musicians seeking improvement for the sake of (whoever) can't concentrate with the total, uncluttered focus needed to master techniques like these. Actually, focused practicing does more than just help cement a given technique into your arsenal - it teaches you how to concentrate, intensely, for extended periods, even in environments loaded with distractions. Just watch a really great guitarist play, either on film or live, and look for the signs of intense concentration. It's just not possible to play at a very high level and simultaneously be running around, jumping off things, shaking your hair around, or doing any other acrobatics.
If you don't adhere to these guidelines while building your speed, or *some* equivalent set of rules as exist elsewhere on the internet, you are guaranteed to pick up several really bad habits - I can tell you what they'll be - in trying to circumvent the learning process and become a fast, clean player anyway. Before you know it, shredding may start looking attractive as a viable alternative. Here's a news flash: It won't work. It never has, so the odds are really, really bad that it will start with you. Also, ask any player with a lot of experience, and they'll tell you that unlearning a bad habit and then learning a good habit in its place is MUCH harder than learning it correctly in the first place.
Be diligent, be serious, don't goof off during practice time, and soon it'll be paying off in spades! Also, your self-image as a serious musician will continue to grow, because you already know that only serious musicians put in lots of time practicing and trying to perfect their art. This realization, once it really sinks in, will ratchet up your self-confidence and allow you to play in front of crowds - from 5 to 50,000 - with much less nervousness.
A great thing about diligent practice is that it is self-reinforcing. The more you practice, the better you get *at* practicing, and you start to make more efficient use of your practice time. When you realize this, you'll probably want to increase your practice time because it feels so great to make measurable strides. Also, you - in the isolation of your practice room - will start to feel a true, honest appreciation of your own abilities, since working with a metronome allows you to quantitatively measure your progress toward a certain speed and/or cleanliness goal. Your self confidence then increases a *lot* since you know, with true honesty and humility, that you're a pretty damned great guitarist.
If you like, have a look at the essential nuggets of wisdom from John Devadasan Perinbam's article on the differences between pros and amateurs (first article linked in this page). Finally, please remember this nugget of wisdom, which all experienced guitarists know but I've only seen in print one time:
The better you get, the more you have to practice to improve further!
This is actually intuitively obvious, if you think of any other discipline or pursuit. Before RSD, I was a fairly successful competitive runner. When I first started running, the extra pounds melted away and my racing times plummeted. But as I improved, I had to work a whole lot harder in training to improve still more. It's exactly analogous to guitar expertise.