How to Master the Guitar – Here’s the Easy Button

How do you master the guitar? Is there an easy button? Yes! Every guitar player has access to a way to make guitar playing easy. A magic trick. A cheat code. I know you think I’m exaggerating, but I can’t use words strong enough to emphasize how truly effective this approach is. I think most top guitarists agree with me.

What if there was a way you could play the right notes and right rhythms the first time and every time? What if you could immediately play the dynamic shaping you want? The phrasing you want? What if you could immediately play comfortably and effortlessly?

Is there a way you can master the guitar? What’s the easy button? The trick? The secret weapon?

Slow Practice!

“What?” I hear you screaming. “Seriously? That’s no magic trick! If mastering the guitar is as simple as practicing slowly, why doesn’t everyone do it?” The answer, I believe, is that most people have believed four lies about slow practice. All four of these sound plausible. But ultimately they are obstacles between you and playing your best.

Four Lies

1. It’s Boring

“If I play slowly, I’ll be bored. The only way to have fun is to play fast.” So this line of reasoning goes. Let me ask you a question. How fun is it to keep playing badly? Because that’s what will happen if you keep playing fast and sloppy.

Solution: Smell the Roses

At a slow tempo, there’s plenty to occupy your mind and keep you from being bored. Notice all the details you can’t think about at a fast tempo. Right-hand fingering. Left-hand fingering. What string you’re playing. What fret. What note. What rhythm. The dynamics. The rubato. The articulation.

Actually, there are far more details than you can consider at once. So rotate your focus. Use one slow repetition of a passage to think about fingering, another to think about accuracy, another to think about dynamics, and so on.

When you’re practicing slowly, you can see mistakes coming and fix them before they happen. It’s like the iconic scene from the Matrix movie where the main character realizes that his reality is actually a simulation. That he can see bullets coming and dodge them. Slow practice allows you to have that exhilarating level of power to see what’s coming next and alter the future reality of how you play.

Neo Dodging Bullets

2. I Can’t Focus

“If I play that slowly, I’ll lose focus.” I’ll admit your mind may wander; that can happen to any of us at any tempo. But playing slowly doesn’t mean your mind has to drift to what you’re going to have for dinner. (What are you having for dinner? Just curious.)

Solution: Short Sections

The solution to this problem is to play short sections. A few measures or even a few notes at a time. Have a clearly defined goal for each repetition of the passage. Rotate your focus when you repeat the passage, as mentioned above.

3. I Can’t Do It Because of Bar Chords

“Bar chords tire out my left hand when playing slowly.” It’s true that bar chords are very tiring and that they actually become more tiring at a slow tempo. What’s not true is that this makes slow practice impossible.

Solution: Play Without Pressure

Playing without pressing the strings with the left-hand will allow you to train the fingers to go to the right locations without excess fatigue. You can alternate repetitions without pressure and repetitions with pressure. The repetitions without pressure reduce fatigue while the repetitions with pressure give you the sound and the full experience of playing normally.

4. It Won’t Help Me Play Fast

“I want to play fast!” Yes, I know.

Solution: Here’s How

The path to fast playing goes through slow playing. Why is this? The human brain has an amazing ability to speed up skills once we learn them well. The key is learning them well in the first place.

Think about programming a computer. How long does it take to write a computer program? If it’s a complex program, it may take days, weeks, months, or years. How long does it take the computer to run the program? Usually only a few minutes, seconds, or nanoseconds. Our brain is like the computer. Creating the program takes time. But once the program is in place, it can run with increasing speed. As computer programmers say, garbage in garbage out. If you practice fast and sloppy, you play fast and sloppy. If you practice slow and perfect, you have laid the foundation for playing fast and perfect.

If you want more ideas on playing fast, check out this post. I hear some of you saying: “Great, I’m just going to find out how to play fast; forget this slow practice stuff.” DON’T MAKE ME YELL AT YOU! PRACTICE SLOWLY!

How Do I Know If I’m Doing It Right?

How do you know if you’re practicing slowly enough? A good rule of thumb is to start at half tempo and slow down from there. Notice the following to decide whether you are practicing slowly enough:

1. Accuracy

Are you playing the right notes and right rhythms? If not, play slower!

2. Expression

Are you playing the expressive nuances you want? Dynamics? Rubato? Articulation? If not, play slower!

3. Effortless

Does playing guitar feel comfortable? Easy? Effortless? If not, play slower!

How will you know if you’re spending too much time practicing slowly? Actually, this is rarely a problem. But how will you know if you’re overdoing it? When you’re playing too accurately, too expressively, and too effortlessly. Then you’ll know you’ve been playing slowly too much. Or maybe just enough.

Question: What benefits have you seen from slow practice? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • bruciekins

    I’ve been telling my students this for years. I don’t think any of them believe me- I’m sure that they regard me as having sucked it out of my thumb. I have a lot of learning materials, and I can’t tell you how many times I find “practice slowly” in them. That’s ultimately what works best. The truth is, “what you practice is what you’ll play”

    • It is hard to convince students of the importance of this, but don’t give up!

  • Κωνσταντίνος Παπαδημητρίου

    I had problems with concentration when I was playing guitar in concerts and my teacher always says to me to practice slowly! I tried it and now I have much more concentration while I’m playing and no anxiety! Slow practice also helped me with learning pieces by heart !! However, sometimes im getting bored of much slow practice. Thanks for the article! 🙂

    • I am glad slow practiced has helped you get results. Keep it up!

  • pete

    I have been a fan of slow practice for many years but unfortunately even with daily practice for 2 hours plus a day I made little progress but when I have successfully learned a piece right through to a decent performance it has been after dedication to just that one piece.
    Rereading your words today I went back to a problem I’ve been trying to sort for months and I realised something about this approach.Its possible even when working really slowly to really be doing the same insensitive things that you do when you’re going fast merely repeating inaccurate moves but slowly.I was working on difficult finger stretch and no matter what I did I couldnt eliminate a buzzing in the bass when i added a higher note.By carrying out the stretch superslow i think the muscles joints and ligaments were having time to stretch or warm up to a level of flexibility which I’d missed merely by slowing the tempo down. So I feel this has moved me on in tiny but significant way.
    Thank you.

    • You are right that slow practice without improvement is no better than fast practice without improvement. I am glad you are finding ways to identify small improvements to pursue intentionally through slow practice. Keep making music!