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Practicing Blues Guitar

It’s obvious that you can’t get really good at anything without practicing, but when it comes to the question of how to practice things aren’t as clear. The fact is that there is no one-size-fits-all best approach to practicing, but whether you’re playing blues for recreation or to reach a professional level, here are some ideas that will help you get the most out of your efforts.

What is practicing?

Guitar players today tend to think of practicing in terms of technical exercises like scales and arpeggios, but traditionally, blues guitar players rarely if ever took that approach. Instead, they learned by copying more experienced players, whether a relative, a local performer, or from a record, and practiced by perfecting actual phrases and songs. The result is usually a narrowly-focused set of skills, but the blues tradition values style and personality over generic technique and what the great blues guitarists lack in terms of range they make up for in depth. 

 

The Blues Guitar program uses elements of both approaches to practicing. There are some non-stylistic exercises designed to develop basic hand skills that apply to any style of guitar playing, but most lessons focus on learning phrases and solos that incorporate techniques in the context of traditional blues style. If a phrase includes a challenging technique, you can create your own exercise by isolating the difficult part, practicing and perfecting it separately, and then plugging it back into the rest of the phrase

 

In simplest terms, the goal of practicing is to develop the ability to give every note its full musical value, or in other words, to play exactly what you hear. There is no significant difference between practicing and performing –practicing is the process of breaking performances down into their components in order to understand what’s going on and how to recreate them, and performances are the accumulated expression of everything you practice. Whether ideas come from your imagination or from an outside source, listening and practicing are inseparable – the more accurately you hear, the more accurately you play and vice versa. When practicing is done well, you enjoy more freedom when you perform and in turn are more motivated to keep practicing. 

 

How long, how often and how intensively you practice is determined by your musical goals, level of motivation, and time available, but if you simply focus on achieving full musical value every time you put your hands on the guitar, good things will follow. 

 

Goals and deadlines

Clearly-defined goals and deadlines provide the ideal conditions for rapid learning. Blues Guitar Program lessons provide the goals, i.e. playing specific parts at specific tempos, but you need to set your own deadlines. Depending on how much practice time you have available and how difficult a given skill is relative to your level, a realistic deadline may be measured in hours, days, weeks or even longer. 

The first priority is to learn how to perform a skill consistently and musically; tempo is irrelevant. Once you know how to play something correctly, no matter how slowly, speeding up to the target tempo without sacrificing quality is just a process of repetition over time. 

As you gain experience, you’ll learn how to set realistic deadlines for yourself–too short results in frustration (“I should be better by now!”); too long results in stagnation (“I’m not making any progress!”). Perfecting skills is a never-ending process – you can always do it a little better and a little faster, so don’t wait until one skill is perfect before you take on others. Pursuing several goals simultaneously prevents stagnation and learning complementary skills speeds up your overall learning curve.

Use the time you have

Even if your practice time is very limited, you can make steady progress by maximizing the time you have (see the sample practice schedules below):

  • Practice in short, frequent sessions: get up 15 minutes early, play for 15 minutes when you get home at night, or put in 15 minutes before you go to bed. A brief session or two every day will yield far better results than longer sessions spread farther apart.
  • Focus:  just a few minutes of hard concentration on a specific goal yields results. 
  • Keep your guitar available, tuned up and ready to go. Grab it whenever you have a minute–those minutes add up. Whatever you play, the more time you spend with your hands on a guitar the faster you’ll develop. 
  • Visualize: when you learn a new skill or phrase, memorize how it looks and sounds under your fingers and create a mental movie that you can replay in your head (i.e. visualize)–this allows you to continue practicing even while you’re away from the guitar.

Maintain balance

To develop and maintain a range of practical blues guitar skills, balance your practice time between different areas:

  • Rhythm: rhythm is only boring when you don’t know how to do it well. Improving and expanding your rhythm skills makes blues much more enjoyable for both you and your listeners. 
  • Phrasing: guitar players love scales, but you’ll play better blues solos quicker if you concentrate on building a vocabulary of stylistic phrases before you devote practice time to generic scale patterns.
  • Practice in tempo: you perform in tempo, so you need to practice in tempo. Use a metronome or pre-recorded rhythm tracks, practice rhythm parts and solos in the context of form (12-bar, 8-bar etc.), and play along with recordings to learn how the parts fit together.
  • Transcribe: we all learn the blues language by transcribing (i.e. stealing from) great players. Notation is a helpful tool, but most of what makes blues sound like blues can’t be written down so the best transcription tools are your ears and your guitar. 
  • Listen: classic blues recordings are the bibles of the blues tradition. Follow threads to hear different versions of songs and find out who influenced whom; the best blues musicians are those who know their history. 

Keep it real

Blues guitar is a bit like chess – you can learn the basics and begin playing very quickly, but progressing to higher levels takes long-term dedication and focus. By keeping your expectations realistic, you will stay motivated to reach new goals.

  • Be persistent: the most important single factor in getting better is simply doing it–if you can’t maintain a regular schedule, play whenever you can; progress may be slow, but it only stops when you do.
  • Be patient: a skill doesn’t become permanently etched in your mind and muscles until you have maintained it at a consistent level for several weeks.
  • Get it right: “practice makes perfect” is a familiar cliché, but a deeper truth is “practice makes permanent.” If you practice mistakes, they become very hard to erase.
  • Speed is the byproduct of accuracy: practice a skill at the tempo where you can play it perfectly and increase the tempo only when you can do so without sacrificing perfection. 
  • Break it down: if you can play something well except for one tricky part, isolate the problem area, iron out the kinks, bring it up to tempo, and then plug it back into the rest of the example. 
  • Record your progress: improvement may be hard to hear, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Record yourself playing something difficult and listen back in a few weeks or months–if you have been practicing persistently, you’ll hear the difference.
  • Avoid comparing yourself to others: a wise musician once said, “Music is not a race, it’s a parade.” People progress at different rates for different reasons, so the only race that counts is your own progress toward your own goals.
  • Don’t torture yourself: intensive, focused practicing is efficient, but the point of developing skills is to get more satisfaction from playing the music that inspires you. If you start to feel burned out, take a break from your practice schedule and just play whatever you like whenever you like for as little or long as you like. When you’re ready to resume, you’ll know it. 

Practice Schedule Templates

Some sample schedules for short, intensive practice sessions are shown below. Once you get the hang of the process, modify it to fit your particular circumstances. 

  • Each 15- or 30-minute session focuses on a specific skill area. Alternate between skill areas to maintain overall balance. If you have more time, string sessions together.
  • Specific skills are shown to illustrate how the process works– your own choices will be different (create your own practice schedule templates using a spreadsheet program).
  • Each skill moves through three stages:
    • Explore a new skill or piece of music and learn how to play it correctly.
    • Develop it until you can play it consistently and accurately at the target tempo.
    • Memorize it through repetition over time.  As you move one skill through the stages, simultaneously add new skills in a continually overlapping process.
  • Each skill is very specific and the time allotted is limited in order to maintain focus. Mastering any given skill requires multiple sessions. 
  • Listening is not included in the schedule since you can do it away from the guitar, but it is also an essential part of your musical progress. 

 

FUNDAMENTAL

SPECIFIC SKILLS ARE FOR ILLUSTRATION PURPOSES ONLY

 

 

15-minute sessions 

 

 

 

Focus

 

Skill

Target Tempo

Time

Rhythm

Explore

12-bar medium shuffle upbeat rhythm - keys of G and C

100 bpm

5 min

 

Develop

medium shuffle turnaround/ending - keys of A and D

100 bpm

5 min

 

Memorize

12-bar medium boogie shuffle rhythm in keys of A and D

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

 

 

 

Phrasing

Explore

two-bar minor pentatonic phrases with blue notes

100 bpm

5 min

 

Develop

two-bar minor pentatonic phrases combining melody and rhythm

100 bpm

5 min

 

Memorize

minor pentatonic scale pattern picked in shuffled eighth notes

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

 

 

 

30-minute sessions

 

 

 

Focus

 

Skill

Target Tempo

Time

Rhythm

Explore

12-bar medium shuffle upbeat rhythm - keys of G and C

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

keys of A and D

100 bpm

5 min

 

Develop

medium shuffle with turnaround/ending - keys of A and D

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

keys of G and C

100 bpm

5 min

 

Memorize

12-bar medium boogie shuffle rhythm in keys of A and D

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

keys of G and C

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

 

 

 

Phrasing

Explore

two-bar minor pentatonic/blue note phrasing: blue third call & response

100 bpm

10 min

 

Develop

create two-bar minor pentatonic phrases combining melody and rhythm

100 bpm

10 min

 

Memorize

minor pentatonic scale pattern  in shuffled eighth notes: flat pick

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

with legato (hammer-on/pull-off) technique

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

 

 

 

INTERMEDIATE

 

 

 

15-minute sessions 

 

 

 

Focus

 

Skill

Target Tempo

Time

Rhythm

Explore

16-bar shuffle ala "My Babe" key of F

120 bpm

5 min

 

Develop

8-bar shuffle ala "Key to the Highway" key of G

90 bpm

5 min

 

Memorize

riff chords over 12-bar shuffles, keys of Bb and D

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

 

 

 

Phrasing

Explore

compose 12-bar chord-tone solo, key of A

100 bpm

5 min

 

Develop

large bends: pitch accuracy

80 bpm

5 min

 

Memorize

hybrid picking technique: minor pentatonic

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

 

 

 

30-minute sessions

 

 

 

Focus

 

Skill

Target Tempo

Time

Rhythm

Explore

16-bar shuffle ala "My Babe" key of F

120 bpm

5 min

 

 

"My Babe" chord accents, bass pattern

120 bpm

5 min

 

Develop

8-bar shuffle ala "Key to the Highway" key of G

90 bpm

5 min

 

 

8-bar shuffle ala "How Long Blues" key of Bb

90 bpm

5 min

 

Memorize

riff chord phrases over 12-bar shuffles, keys of Bb and D

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

keys of Ab and F

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

 

 

 

Phrasing

Explore

compose 12-bar chord-tone solo, key of A

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

key of D

100 bpm

5 min

 

Develop

large bends: pitch accuracy

80 bpm

5 min

 

 

compose solo with large bends over slow 12-bar slow blues key of G

80 bpm

5 min

 

Memorize

hybrid picking technique: minor pentatonic

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

solo using raking technique ala BB King: key of C

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

 

 

 

ADVANCED

 

 

 

15-minute sessions 

 

 

 

Focus

 

Skill

Target Tempo

Time

Rhythm

Explore

Chicago-style rhythm key of A

100 bpm

5 min

 

Develop

combined shuffle ala "Pride and Joy" key of E

100 bpm

5 min

 

Memorize

slow blues rhythm: keys of G, Db

80 bpm

5 min

 

 

 

 

 

Phrasing

Explore

imrprovise a solo on the low strings: key of A

100 bpm

5 min

 

Develop

chord-based solo key of E

80 bpm

5 min

 

Memorize

double-stop patterns for thirds and sixths

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

 

 

 

Transcribing

Explore

BB King solo "Sweet Sixteen": turnaround

80 bpm

5 min

 

Develop

"Sweet Sixteen" bars 9-10

80 bpm

5 min

 

Memorize

"Sweet Sixteen" bars 7-8

80 bpm

5 min

 

 

 

 

 

30-minute sessions

 

 

 

Focus

 

Skill

Target Tempo

Time

Rhythm

Explore

Chicago-style rhythm key of A

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

improvise solo using elements of Chicago-style rhythm

120 bpm

5 min

 

Develop

combined shuffle ala "Pride and Joy" key of E

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

combined shuffle key of G

100 bpm

5 min

 

Memorize

slow blues rhythm: keys of G, Db

80 bpm

5 min

 

 

keys of  F, Ab

80 bpm

5 min

 

 

 

 

 

Phrasing

Explore

improvise a solo on the low strings: key of A

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

key of D

100 bpm

5 min

 

Develop

chord-based solo key of E

80 bpm

5 min

 

 

key of A

80 bpm

5 min

 

Memorize

double-stop patterns for thirds and sixths

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

solo using double-stop thirds and sixths

100 bpm

5 min

 

 

 

 

 

Transcribing

Explore

BB King solo "Sweet Sixteen": last four bars

80 bpm

10 min

 

Develop

"Sweet Sixteen" bars 5-8

80 bpm

10 min

 

Memorize

"Sweet Sixteen" bars 1-4

80 bpm

10 min

 

 

 

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