They probably make up 50% of all articles and instructional pages written about guitar playing, and around 90% of all guitar players’ nightmares. (Leaving 10% for that nightmare where you’re backstage and have thousands of fans chanting for you and then suddenly realise you don’t have any songs…. Oh that’s just me?...bugger.) But technical exercises can end up feeling like a big pointless drain on your practice time if you aren’t doing the right ones or using them correctly.
Technical exercises don’t exist just to bore you or make you feel like you’re achieving something without knowing what. Used correctly they should do at least one of two things.
They should encourage you to zoom in on a very small and specific part of your playing, and check that every aspect of the techniques involved in that part of your guitar playing is executed in the cleanest and most efficient way possible.
They should prepare you to be able to take on new challenges in musical situations you face in the future and get them right first time.
Let’s start by taking a look at a common way of practicing that doesn’t quite meet those standards and see if we can fix it.
Probably the most over-used and under-utilised practice method there is. Look at any guitar playing forum, guitar book or talk to many guitar teachers and the first thing they’ll say is “practice your scales and your arpeggios.” It’s not terrible advice, but it’s not wholly helpful either. The problem is that it doesn’t tell you much about what to do with the scale, meaning lots of people just aimlessly ascend and descend through the minor pentatonic scale a few times and then give up. This is a great way to make almost no progress and bore yourself horrifically in the process.
Consider what you are going to be using scales for in future playing. Predominantly you’ll be using them to play improvised or structured melodies, so you need to feel comfortable moving around the scale in a variety of different ways. The way you practice your scales should reflect that. Here are some ideas.
1. If you’re learning a new scale, begin by ascending and descending a couple of times. Rather than simply going through the motions, use this time to check that you are picking efficiently. (take a look at economy picking technique if you are unsure and use this time to practice it) Also check that you are placing the fingers on your fretting hand smoothly, and with good thumb placement. This is your opportunity to get familiar with the positions of the notes and ensure that your technique is sound before moving on.
2. Now play through the same scale in ascending and descending thirds. I have tabbed an example of this using the major scale below, but you can apply the same method to absolutely any scale. The idea of this exercise is to get you to know your way around the scale in a way that avoids unimaginatively playing through it in a linear fashion. When you have mastered thirds try fourths and fifths as well. Once you’ve got your fingers going where you want them to be it’s time to break out the metronome. There’s a really useful one at www.webmetronome.com start at 60BPM and increase in increments of 5 every time you play through it perfectly. The trick here is to be honest with yourself and stick to the speed you’re at if the last play through was a little shaky.
3. Now play through using the “skip one, back one” method. Like the last method this one helps you look at the scale a little differently and is also good for working on your picking technique. I haven’t tabbed this one out, because part of the challenge is figuring out how to play it. Basically all you have to do is play the first note of the scale, then the third, then the second, then the fourth… Carry on like this all the way through the scale, each time skipping the next note, then coming back to it. It should provide some interesting challenges, such as deciding which fingers to use in order to avoid getting yourself in to a tangle several notes later. Done correctly it should encourage you to think ahead whilst running through your scale in the same way that you would have to when playing a solo or other difficult technical piece. As before, when you’ve played it a couple of times start playing it to a metronome at around 60BPM and increase in increments of 5.
4. Use it musically. This is the most important part of learning any new thing on guitar. You should start applying it in musical situations as soon as you can in order to really understand it. If it’s a straightforward scale, like a major or minor one, you can probably find backing tracks in various keys that you can use that scale to improvise over. If it’s a more interesting scale you might want to first look at harmonising it in to chords and then recording your own backing tracks using those chords. Try to incorporate the methods of moving around the scale mentioned above in to your improvisation in order to avoid simply playing up and down the scale.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything you can do when practicing scales, but hopefully serves as an example of what a small amount of forethought can do to any aspect of your practice routine. If there is any part of your guitar practice routine that you find isn’t helping you move on, take a minute to find a more interesting way to approach it. If you come up with one you really like share it in the comments below.