Understanding Slow Guitar Practice

If you've been playing guitar for a while then you've probably heard about the importance of slow guitar practice. While it's certainly true that practicing things slowly at first is an incredibly important, and necessary thing to do, many guitarists fail to get good results using this critical practice tool. For this reason, I thought it would be great idea to talk a little bit about it.

Two Types Of Slow Practice

I like to break slow practice into two different speed ranges...

  1. Super-slow practice.
  2. Comfortable speed practice.

Let's take a look at each of them...

Super-Slow Practice:

This is practicing done at a speed that is absurdly slow without using a metronome. It generally has the following characteristics...

  • It is highly analytical. Because you are practicing so slowly, you will have time to analyze exactly what you are doing. You will be paying very close attention to the movements of both your fretting-hand and picking-hand, and looking for the most relaxed and economical way of doing these movements. You will also be paying close attention to how your hands, arms and body feel as you do these movements.
  • It is experimental. A lot of the time you will need to experiment to find the optimum movements to perform what you are learning. So a big part of super-slow practice is trying different things until you find what you feel will work best. Of course, if you're new to guitar then you'll probably need to get some assistance from a good teacher. (It's hard to choose the most optimum way of playing something if you don't know what your options are!).
  • It strips away the rhythm. If you can tap you foot in time to what you're playing then you aren't doing super-slow practice. One of the key things with it is that you aren't paying ANY attention to timing at all. This means that you will have 100% of your attention on the physical actions of playing the notes.
  • It produces a LOT of feedback. Because you are paying such close attention to what you are doing, and because you're paying close attention to how things look, sound, and feel, you'll be able to notice many things that you wouldn't be able to at faster speeds. All the things that you notice as you practice will give you immediate feedback as to whether-or-not what you're doing is working. You'll then be able to make adjustments from the feedback that you get.

How much time you spend doing super-slow practice will depend on the difficulty of what you're learning. For Example: If I'm learning something that is very challenging for me, it is not unusual for me to do 15-minutes of super-slow practice on it each day for a few weeks. If I'm learning something that is easy for me, I might only do a few minutes of super-slow practice before I start to practice at faster speeds.

The main thing to realize is that many guitarists don't spend enough time on super-slow practice. They generally start using a metronome way before they are totally comfortable with the movements of what they're learning. This impatience can cause major problems for them later on such as numerous bad habits, tension problems and even overuse injuries. It can also simply mean that they never master what they are trying to learn. They hit a brick wall in their progress that they never manage to break through.


Comfortable Speed Practice:

As the name implies, this is anytime that you practice something at a comfortable speed. This type of practicing has the following characteristics...

  • It is done in time. Unlike super-slow practice, you'll be paying attention to the timing of what you are playing. This doesn't mean that you can't simplify the timing, but it does mean that you must be able to play to a steady beat like a metronome click.
  • It maintains the perfection of super-slow practice. Whatever movements you decided were optimum in super-slow practice are maintained as you practice at a comfortable speed. You are essentially doing the same thing, but at a faster speed. What this means is that you still need to pay incredibly close attention to what you're doing. Otherwise you won't be able to tell if what you did with super-slow practice is still being maintained.
  • It tells you if you've done enough super-slow practice. If you try to play something to a steady beat, and things fall apart, then this usually means that you didn't do enough super-slow practice. In other words, you didn't spend enough time learning and programming the correct motions before attempting to play to a metronome.
  • It lays in a foundation of repetition. Comfortable speed practice is generally where I like to do a LOT of repetition at a very wide range of tempos. I've found that by doing many perfect repetitions at a very comfortable speed, then fast playing tends to take care of itself.


Why Slow Practice Doesn't Work For Some Guitarists

Some guitar players who do slow practice still don't get good results from it. I feel that some of the main reasons for this include...

  • They aren't practicing slowly enough. Some guitarists might consider that playing four notes-per-beat at 80 bpm is slow. But this is like the speed of light compared to super-slow practice. (In super-slow practice you might take a few seconds or longer to play each note).
  • They aren't paying attention. Slow practice won't help you to improve if you're not paying close attention to what you're doing. If you just stare out blankly into space as you practice you won't be getting the necessary feedback to know whether-or-not what you're doing is correct.
  • They are teaching themselves. While there are some incredible players like Guthrie Govan who are entirely self-taught, many of us need help from someone who is more experienced. If you don't know what movements are needed to play something, and you don't know how and what to pay attention to as you practice, then you might only get minimal benefit from slow practice.
  • They stop doing super-slow practice. Many guitarists stop doing super-slow practice once they start doing comfortable speed practice. This is a mistake because with each new super-slow practice session you will usually notice further refinements that you can make to your playing. These refinements can often save you a lot of time in the long-run.

A Few Last Words

I know many of us like to jump right in with fast practice, and I know many guitarists find slow practice incredibly boring to do. But learning to do slow practice correctly, and doing it consistently, is one of the most valuable things that will help you in your guitar playing adventures!


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