3 December 2010

The Guitar Practice Habits of Aaron Matthies

Here is another opportunity for us to peek into someone else’s guitar practice habits. Today, Aaron Matthies, creator of Tempo Guitar Cards answers my questions on guitar practice.

Aaron Matthies
Gary: Tell us a little about what are you currently working on…

Aaron: At the moment I’m really focused on developing my own ‘voice’ on guitar so whenever I hear a recording of my playing I’ll straight away know it’s me and be happy with the sound.

While every player’s voice on guitar will develop naturally over time, I’ve really been working at shaping it. Lately I’ve been focused on playing a lead line and adding in grace notes and articulation to really make it ‘speak’.

One great exercise I’ve been using is to listen to a singer sing a single line, then try to mimic it on guitar.

It’s easy to figure out and play the right notes, but it can be quite tricky to copy all the subtle inflections and nuances. A good guitarist will play the right notes while a great guitarist will be able to copy all those little subtleties as well. So at the moment it’s my number one goal to develop that skill.

Gary: How often do you practice guitar and how long is your average practice session?

Aaron: I practice every day when possible. I split my playing time in half; half of the time is spent focused on developing as a player and the other half is to just play and have fun.

Depending on the day I might spend 30 mins to 1 hour on each half (ie: 30 mins serious practice and 30 minutes just playing).

When I was younger I used to practice for several hours a day but eventually I realised that if you really focus on what you practice you can achieve a lot more in less time. So a maximum of 1 hour serious practice is enough for me.

Gary: Do you plan your practice in advance?

Aaron: I have a list of things I like to work on in my ‘serious practice’ sessions but I often change it around to learn new things. My typical 60 minute ‘serious practice’ session will go like this:

  1. 5 minutes of warm up exercises
  2. 10 minutes working on licks and techniques used in other songs
  3. 5 minutes on studying new chords and scales
  4. 5 minutes of improvising over a backing track (while trying out new chords and scales from 3.)
  5. 5 minutes of ear training (I use a program called EarMaster Pro)
  6. 5 minutes working on one specific technique (such as sweep picking, tapping, grace notes, etc.)
  7. 10 minutes recording and listening back to my playing
  8. 10 minutes studying and learning a technical piece (such as a complicated Steve Vai solo)
  9. 5 minutes of studying and applying music theory
From there I would spend the next 60 minutes just jamming, playing songs, songwriting, pretty much anything I enjoy playing. I really feel it’s important to have this balance between focused practice and playing for fun.

Gary: What kind of exercises or skills do you practice most?

Aaron: I try to balance everything out. I don’t want to spend too much time on technical exercises or it may limit my song writing or improvising skill development.

There’s no point to me in having amazing sweep picking and super fast alternate picking skills if you don’t know how to use them.

But if I had to pick one area I work on the most it’s my improvising. To me there’s nothing better than being able to jam with somebody else without stressing about not knowing the key or which scales to play.

Gary: What guitar practice tools do you regularly use?

Aaron: I try to use as many different tools as I can find because they will all help you in different areas. Using a metronome for example is great for technical exercises while not much fun to improvise over. So every tool has its purpose. If I hear about a new tool I’ll get it straight away because I know it will help me out in a new way.

One of my favourite things to do is quite simple but it’s contributed a lot to my development.

I take my pack of flash cards which contain 50 basic open chords and I’ll draw out four random chords. I’ll then open my recording program on my PC and over a simple drum loop I’ll play and record a rhythm pattern using the four chords and loop it. Then the fun part – I’ll improvise over the top of the vamp and try to come up with interesting ideas.

This may sound simple but remember that the chords are chosen at random – which means they may or may not fit together. This is the point – to learn how to play over anything. Sometimes I’ll pick out chords that sound horrible together but still learn to play something that works over the top.

I really recommend this method for players because it teaches you so many things at once; how chords work together, finding out the key, working out what scales to play, what to do when the chords don’t easily fit into one key, etc. Until you try it, it isn’t obvious how hard this can be.

Gary: You get the chance to pass on just one single piece of practice advice to a fellow guitar learner. What do you tell them?

Aaron: That’s a tough one but the first thing that comes into my mind it to learn to listen.

Really listen.

Listen to your own playing as well as really listen to other guitarists’ playing. This is something many people think they do but they really don’t.

When you are too focused on techniques or concentrating on playing a certain part you won’t be able to listen to what you sound like.

Listening to your playing will help you find out what’s working and what isn’t. It can be hard to listen to your playing while you’re practicing so to get an idea of what I’m talking about have a go recording yourself and listen back to it. Did you hear things you didn’t realize you did when you played it? Does it sound different to what you think you sound like?

I truly believe learning to listen should be the top of every guitarist’s skills. When you sit down to practice, try to really listen to how you sound instead of just thinking about technique.

Aaron Matthies is an avid guitar player and teacher who enjoys writing and recording his own compositions. After starting his own blog on basic guitar lessons for beginners, he decided to take teaching seriously by creating Tempo Music Cards - a website dedicated to help guitarists develop their skills and knowledge using flash cards. Aaron regularly writes new lesson on the Tempo Music Cards website as well as guest lessons on other sites such as the popular Ultimate-Guitar.com.

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