Get stuck on a tough part?
Just keep practicing and you’ll get it.
That’s the most common response from well meaning friends and teachers, but it falls flat.
Yes, practice will help but just repeating the part until you get it can be a long, slow process. If you upgrade how you practice, you’ll break through plateaus with much less effort. Win!
You can level up your practice sessions in a lot of ways. Let’s start by focusing on those tough parts – the ones that you get stuck on.
Here are five effective strategies that will show you how to practice (and nail) tough parts.
Focus on the Weak Areas
Some parts are more challenging to us than others.
The tough parts of any material we’re working on are usually very easy for us to identify. What’s easy to play barely even registers. We just play. The difficult parts tend to make themselves known.
But, if you’re unsure of where the difficult parts are, play through the material. Once you’re done, pause and reflect. Ask yourself these questions:
- What could be better?
- What notes did I miss?
- Where did I tense up when playing?
- Where did I speed up or slow down?
For most sections the difficult part is only a phrase or two.
Consider the alternating bass pattern and melody in this Ragtime piece:
Perhaps you have the basics down, but this one spot gives you trouble.
Now that you have the problem area identified, focus on it. Focus on it and ignore the parts that you can easily play.
It’s natural to go back to the beginning of the entire piece and run through it again. It’s natural to run over the material you’re comfortable with because it feels good. But, you will get more out of your practice sessions if you focus on the trouble spots.
But how do you practice the trouble spot?
Consider the following strategies.
Slow Down to Speed Up
Tempo is the great equalizer.
We can play almost anything on the guitar if we slow it down enough. What if you gave yourself 10 seconds between two notes? Could you play them perfectly?
What about 10 minutes? 10 hours?
I bet you could.
Extreme examples, but hopefully it helps you see that if we slow things down enough we can play anything.
Clearly, you don’t want to play this slowly when performing. That’s not the goal. It’s just the first step to leverage tempo to help us nail tough parts.
Play the tough part so slowly that it’s impossible to play it wrong. Then do it again, but this time hyper focus on the tiny movements that you’re doing to play the part. Ignore the slow tempo and try to become aware of how you are playing the part. What is it that you’re doing that enables your newfound accuracy?
Chances are, you’re doing tiny things that help you play the part. These helpful movements are the ones that break down as tempo increases.
Keep your observations in mind. Repeat the part and gradually increase the tempo each time. This is progress.
Over time and maybe even over several practice sessions, you’ll be ready to play at performance tempo.
Don’t stop there.
Play the part a little faster than your goal tempo. Did it break down again? If so, note what happened and develop a plan to correct it – more on that later. If not, keep going until it does break down. The goal here is to overshoot your ability.
Once you do, immediately come back to your goal tempo and play again.
The part, even at your goal tempo, should feel slower than before. Following this method will help you physically play the part at tempo. But it also helps you alter your perception of speed.
It’s a fun exercise
You can see me wrestling with tempo in this attempt to pick a tough lick in Chet Atkins’ performance of Don’t Think Twice.
Check Your Technique
Mistakes are good.
The mistakes we make while trying tough parts make excellent teachers. These mistakes show us where our skills need honing. To unearth a technique deficiency, take a step back and reflect on why the part is difficult.
Ask questions like:
- Are you tensing up when you approach the part?
- Does your legato sound smooth and fluid?
- Do slides sound connected or broken?
- Is each note clear?
- Are you picking strings unintentionally?
Once you identify the technique that needs a tune-up, it’s time to drill it.
The tough part itself often makes for an excellent drill. Play the technique slowly and with focus. Look carefully at the tiny movements that you’re making and ask yourself what could be better. Then experiment to find the fix.
If your slides lack that connected sound, play with less pressure on the fretboard. If that doesn’t give you a better sound, try playing with slightly more pressure to find the sweet spot.
Make small adjustments like this at slow tempos before ramping up the reps and speed. Refine the technique before mindlessly repeating the movement.
Repeating a poorly executed technique just makes it a habit. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.
Once you’ve drilled the technique and you have a handle on it, challenge yourself.
- Can you reverse the technique?
- Can you play it on different strings?
- Can you play it with different fingers?
This focused work will lift your playing. Deep work to improve technique gives results that are portable. You’ll carry your wins with you to other parts of your playing.
In other words, you’ll be a better player.
Set a Timer and Take Regular Breaks
Finger fatigue is real.
Spending long hours in the the woodshed sounds appealing to guitarists. But the secret to getting good isn’t simply in going to the woodshed. It’s what you do in the woodshed that matters.
One thing you should do in the woodshed is take breaks.
You’re fingers will thank you.
But so will your brain.
Try breaking up your practice session into periods of practice and rest. I use a 20 minute playing session followed by a 10 minute break.
💡 Pro Tip: Set a timer and do not practice past the timer.
The last ting I want to do is stop practicing when I’m close to nailing a part. But the timer keeps me in check.
History has taught me that I can stay “close to getting it” for hours. I stall out. When I do, it doesn’t make sense to grind out the hours in the practice room. I don’t get anywhere and the only real outcome is the abuse I put on my fingers.
The break helps me rest my fingers.
It helps me clear out the mistakes mentally.
Smooth the Transitions
By now, you’ve worked through the tough parts in a smart way. Plus, you’ve worked to shore up any technique deficiencies. But don’t forget to work on the transitions into and out of the tough part.
Transitioning Into the Tough Part
This might be the toughest part of the whole process.
When I approach a part that I know is difficult, there’s a little voice in my head that says, “hey, don’t mess this up!“
The more I think, “don’t mess up,” the more I mess up.
The cure for this is to practice approaching the tough part with a quite mind. Practice playing the transition into the tough part and make sure it’s smooth.
Drill this transition and keep your mind free of that “don’t mess up” voice. It might sound silly, but this very voice costs me so many mistakes!
Transition Out of the Tough Part
Once the transition into the part is good, play the tough phrase and and the phrase right after it together.
We want a smooth entrance and a quiet mind as we approach the tough part and we want the same as we play out of the tough part.
Now you’re stacking the bars.
After drilling the transitions separately, put the three parts together. Follow this to slowly but deliberately expand your comfort zone.
At the heart of each of these strategies is awareness.
The more aware you are of problem areas, the better you’ll be able to find and create practice strategies of your own. Ones that work best for you.
As a starting point, try these practice strategies. They’ve helped me in the past and I still use them regularly to help me break through my plateaus.
Here’s to you breaking through your plateaus!