A routine is nothing more and nothing less than a checklist, or a set of reminders, that can help you establish habits. In this article, I am going to share my routine for practicing and performing on guitar. Whether you adopt my routine or create your own, my hope is that the routine you follow helps you develop healthy habits that serve you for many years to come as a guitarist.
But first, basketball
In my basketball-playing days, I followed a very specific routine for shooting free throws. I set my feet shoulders-width apart, with my right foot touching the near edge of the free-throw line and my left foot 12 inches behind. I bent my body slightly at the knees and waist. I took a slow, deep breath. I focused my eyes on the front of the rim and bounced the ball three times. I then raised the ball to chin level with my right hand directly behind the ball, bent at the wrist, and my left hand directly below it. And then I released the ball.
Until this routine became a deeply-ingrained habit, I remembered it by repeating these six words to myself, under my breath:
feet — bend — breathe — rim — bounce — chin
(By the way, I was a very good free-throw shooter.)
Playing guitar is, in part, an athletic activity
Insofar as playing guitar (or any musical instrument, for that matter) is, in part, an athletic activity, it, too, can benefit from a routine.
I follow a very specific routine whenever I practice or perform on the guitar, and I want to share it with you here. Regardless of your playing level, and whether you follow my routine or create your own, a consistently executed routine can improve your playing and your stamina.
My Guitar Routine
My own guitar routine has four elements (and it assumes the left hand is used for fretting the strings).
- Posture and Placement
- Left Arm and Hand
- Right Arm and Hand
Posture and Placement
Maintain good posture, with your back up straight and the guitar resting in a comfortable position. For both classical as well as rock players, sit up straight with parallel shoulders, letting the guitar sit comfortably facing outward, not upward. Don’t let the guitar slide down your lap. Using a guitar strap can help.
Left Arm and Hand
The left arm and hand should be relaxed. Fret the strings just hard enough to ring clear — not clamping down as hard as you can. This is counter-intuitive and very difficult at first. But if you stick with and master this principle, your left hand can play much longer without getting tired. Also, you’ll be able to play with greater speed because your left hand will be moving across strings and frets with ease. Playing fast without losing clarity of tone will become nearly effortless. Many of the best guitarists use this left-hand technique to play rhythm and lead at break-neck speeds, as well as to have fluidity and dynamics in their solos.
Right Arm and Hand
Keep a tension-free right arm, wrist, and fingers. The entire right arm should be comfortable and free of tension.
The right hand should hold the pick firmly but not stiffly. This should be done without causing pain in one’s knuckles or fingers. The relaxation and lack of tension are just as important to the finger-picker who needs agile soft fingers.
Too much tension in the right arm makes the music more staccato and makes volume control more difficult. More importantly, having a tense elbow or wrist can lead to tendonitis or more severe ailments including back pain and arthritis.
Even the most advanced players I know need to remind themselves often that tension is the enemy of good guitar playing.
If you catch yourself feeling tense in your right arm, take a short break and shake out your right hand. You can even run some warm water over your wrist and fingers to relax the tendons. When you get back to your guitar, keep in mind how your right arm and hand feel while you strum a song you know or run through a scale that you know.
Remind yourself to breath in and out at a moderate pace, no matter what the pace of the song.
Breathing is so easy, it is usually done unconsciously. When playing a stringed instrument and attempting difficult passages, many players will hold their breath. Remember to continue breathing nice and easy. If you catch yourself gasping for air, chances are you were holding your breath.
I think of my guitar-playing routine as a meditation. Like meditation, the guitar is something that is learned but never truly mastered.
We hope to gradually and continually get better. With proper techniques governed by a proper routine, we can.
Proper posture will become second nature. The calluses on our fretting fingers will get harder. We’ll get better at knowing how firmly and how softly we need to hold the pick to attain both control and tone. We’ll play difficult pieces over longer periods of time without holding our breath.
Find a routine — a set of reminders — to follow every time you pick up your guitar to practice or perform. Your routine will help you be in tune with your body so that you’ll do the things that promote better playing.
Article by Jake Cohan, Guitar, Mandolin, and Banjo Teacher at Lessons In Your Home.