Griff Hamlin at the Blues Guitar Unleashed blog posted a useful tip on The 2 Kinds of Guitar Practice the other day. I really enjoyed this tip on brain memory vs. finger memory and I think you will too.
"It always seems to me that there are different practice routines for just about every person under the sun.
But what I notice often is that what works for one person doesn’t work for the next… not because the method is flawed. More often than not it’s because they are trying to accomplish 2 different things."
This tip addresses a common guitar practice pitfall. If you don't know, specifically, what you want to achieve at any given practice session they you can waste time with the wrong practice approach.
Technique, Mental, or Repertoire Practice
A long time ago I read a similar tip in David Hamburger's Beginner's Blues Guitar book. Hamburger broke down guitar practice into three kinds of activity: technique, mental and repertoire.
Technique practice is about developing the finger memory described by Griff. It's about the ability to execute something. Without error. Without thinking much about it. Fast. The "thing" could be scales, licks, chords, a phrase in a solo...
Mental practice is about building brain memory. You give your brain knowledge so it can guide your fingers to play the right sequence of chords, or choose the right scales to play a solo with.
Repertoire practice is all about building your library of songs, progressions, licks and riffs. To me it's about a kind of brain memory where you develop knowledge of the specific patterns in the songs and styles you want to play.
Choose the Right Practice Approach
When you're aware that there are different approaches to guitar practice then you can choose one that is best suited to the problem at hand.
Don’t always practice in the same way. Maybe you learn about a practice approach in a guitar magazine interview, or from a video lesson. That approach might work very well for the player interviewed or for a particular problem. But it won't necessarily be the best approach for all your problems.
Develop a toolbox of practice ideas that you can pick from to solve the different playing problems that you encounter.
Don't Know What Your Problem Is?
Sometimes when you consider a problem you experience you might be unsure which approach it requires. You can't figure out if it's your finger memory or your brain memory that's letting you down.
Here’s a good exercise to discover which memory needs most work. Put down your guitar. Now try to “play” through your problem in your mind, either from memory or as you read the music or tab. If you’re clear about where your fingers go to play each note then your brain memory is probably OK. Work on finger memory so your fingers can learn the piece as well as your brain. If you can’t “see” your way through the piece then your brain hasn’t integrated it yet. Spend some more time on conscious practice until your brain has got it.
Let’s summarize what we learned about the 2 kinds of guitar practice.
1. Know why you're practicing - what's the specific problem you aim to improve on?
2. Understand your problem. Is it caused by finger memory, brain memory, or maybe both?
3. Choose a practice approach to improve the problem memory. If it's both then use a different approach for each!
I hope this knowledge helps you get more out of your guitar practice time.