We are going to look at a very specific set of tips on how to master the guitar. These specific strategies are in the realm of ‘Psychology & Neuroscience to learn the guitar better.’
Why do we need to take this brain-based approach? Because many guitarists spend time practicing inefficiently. Here are a few examples:
- Practice 3-4 hours straight every day
- Repeat a specific lick till you nail it, only to spend 3 weeks barely improving
- Mentally prescribe “Practice more” when one is stuck – without knowing what the precise problem is
- Practice one category over and over again till default improvisation skills become restrained and limited to that category
- Spend 2 years learning chord transitions and still not execute them well
- Practice one thing so much that other domains get overlooked and then get upset by how much you worked without feeling better about your skill
- Practice scales up and down. Learn many songs without ever attempting to create new sequences. Practice scales, chords, modes, and techniques without putting them in larger contexts and networks of musical ideas
- Practice a technique in isolation only to realize that you practice well but fail to implement it in music
I’ll first explain the guitar learning strategies with insights from neuroscience & psychology and then speak about how they would help you in your guitar training. I’ve often asked my students to use these over traditional exercises because training your brain to play the guitar is better than just training your fingers.
Use all of the following tips on how to learn the guitar efficiently.
I’ve focused just on the guitar but these can be used for virtually ALL stringed instruments.
1. The transfer effect – let one guitar lick help the other:
This is when doing activity ‘A’ helps improve activity ‘B’. For example. Learning how to ride a bicycle helps to learn a motorcycle. The skills needed to learn a bicycle are transferable to motorcycle learning. It is very useful to bank on the transfer effect. Let us say that you are doing a scale and it looks like this:
The pattern on string E is the same as that of string A. The pattern on string D is the same as that on string G and so forth. In this example. You can practice the string E pattern individually and then string D individually. Repeat 3 or 4 times and you will have acquired the muscle memory for doing those patterns instead of playing the scale over and over again. The transfer
2. Chunking – group notes together:
Chunking is a process where you represent many small bits of information as single groups and concepts. For example, you can
3. Creative Visualizations & Sensory Abstractions:
Use your mind’s eye (imagination) to play your guitar part at a speed which you want to achieve. With extremely fine details, visualize yourself play the part. Try to imagine yourself play that part perfectly. While visualizing let your imagination include details like the position of your hand, your guitar’s point of view, the point where you are looking, etc. This will help in the following ways:
1. Priming your brain (specifically your motor cortex) to be ready for the guitar piece before you actually execute it.
2. It will minimize the errors because you have imagined the correct way to execute it.
3. The physical time required for the brain to send a signal to your fingers will be reduced as the brain has established a rough neural link for that particular guitar bit.
It will also help if you can visualize very slow and very fast versions of the same piece with as much detail as you can imagine (if you can mentally hear the piece, this will be even more useful).
We talked about visualizing a lick which takes care of the sensory part of concept forming. When you learn a lick, the visualization grounds your learning in an abstract concept in your brain. Your actual playing gets tethered to that abstract representation in your brain. This makes learning easier. However, the story doesn’t end here. Read this article to know more about the essence of abstraction in the brain.
You can form abstract concepts via other sensory channels too. For example, humming a guitar lick will follow a different method of abstraction: Guitar lick -> vocalizing -> abstract concept based on voice melody -> feedback to your finger movements with the guitar melody -> concept grounding in the brain. So ultimately, singing a guitar lick will help to learn the physical guitar lick.
One powerful way sensory abstraction is to use shapes and map them to a lick. These can be literal shapes or abstractions such as mentally visualizing a line moving up, down, staggered, etc. You can add white spaces in this line and circular loops too. You can move in any direction – up, down, forward, backward, rotate.
Rhythm can be abstracted with words. If you can’t get the rhythm right, you can use nonsense words & sentences like Bo No
Another way to abstract a guitar lick for learning is to represent it in layers. Think of the pedal pointing licks in neoclassical playing. The intro notes are one layer. The tail ends and ascending and descending notes are another layer. It takes practice to break down a lick and develop a mental template of layers.
Ultimately, you are going to be using all of these sensory abstractions to ground your actual guitar lick in a concept that is heavily reinforced. This reinforcement makes learning the guitar far easier than you can imagine.
In a broader sense, visualization is just a word for a ‘sensory abstraction.’
4. Pre-sleep revision:
Do the visualizations before you sleep. The brain does most of its learning during the Rapid Eye Movement part of the sleep (R.E.M. cycle is that time during sleep when you get most of your dreams and your eyes are rapidly moving with lids shut). There is only so much you can do in a day by physical training. Because learning happens overnight, sleep is your best teacher. Let the brain do its job and you’ll be surprised to see how good it is. Warning: Do not overdo playing a part. You’ll be fatigued and your brain will not be able to optimize its resources for learning overnight.
5. The 2 extremes strategy:
(Regardless of how well you play your part)
Try to play it extremely slow. This will prime your brain and you’ll notice the relevant details to apply the previous 4 techniques. And now, play it extremely fast, faster than you need to. You’ll learn what your playing sounds like and what all went wrong. It will also set a higher standard for your brain to achieve and now it will work towards strengthening the neural connections to be that fast (many times actually succeeding).
6. Variation in learning any guitar piece:
One of the strongest predictors of any physical learning is variation. Simply put, the more variety you practice the more adaptable and flexible your finger movements will be. But that is only superficial variation. There is microvariation that you need to practice. Say you have a lick to practice starting on the 9th fret. Practice it on the 6th, the 15th, 2nd, 12th, etc. Changing the fret will change the micro-aspects of playing – the exact placing of the finger, change in pressure, etc. when you change the fret, the brain factors in these micro-variations and help learn the ‘approximate’ finger movement which is far superior. You’ll see this happen in sweep picking. Many can only do 1 or 2 sweep-picking shapes near the 12th fret because that’s all they have practice. Variation in which string you learn a lick is extremely useful too. Because each string is just slightly physically different, there is a muscle-related adjustment on the fretting and picking hand. Practicing a nice shred lick on the B and E string is great but practicing it on the low E and A is even better. This variation is key to flexibility in learning.
Key takeaway: Variation allows your brain to take wider inputs from your fingers and then zero in on the best way to execute a lick in the brain. Those neurons which learn via variation then move your fingers. Variation in learning promotes precision and speeds up learning- however counter-intuitive this sounds, it is true. Variation in learning improves and speeds up what everyone calls ‘muscle memory’.
Here is a list of things you can vary for a particular type of lick/chord sequence to learn it better.
- Starting and ending notes
- Starting fret (across the whole fretboard)
- Starting string (all strings)
- Picking strength (light to heavy)
- Forced accents (
emphasizinga vibrato or a heavy picking on a certain note)
- Mixing up legato or
hammer-onsif they suit the lick
- Your body posture while playing (standing, sitting, cross-legged, sleeping, while doing a handstand, while doing the hanky panky, etc.) Changing the posture adds variation in global muscle movements which creates the need to learn new ‘adjustments.’ These further reinforce the core aspect of what you need to play.
7. Interleaving – practicing a variety of chops together:
Interleaving is the process of mixing things up in your hammer-ons routine. Practice similar licks one after the other in a mixed fashion. Say you have 3 similar licks – A, B, & C. Spend a few minutes on A, then B, then C. Take a small break. Come back to A, then B, then C. Repeat. Then you can change the order. Improve your guitar learning by mixing the order of licks/riffs/chunks. Interleaving is unequivocally better than spending too much time on a single chop. You can read more about this technique here.
If you are into speed & clarity:
Speed increases when the least amount of energy is needed to accomplish your task. So making your finger movement and your picking motion minimalistic will be a starting point. Then you need to speed up your brain to finger connections. Neurons signal each other at about 300+ miles per second. Which really isn’t very fast. So you would want to make certain motions ‘automatic’. Use the transfer effect, chunk and visualize. Add variations in licks and explore physical variations on the guitar in your core learning process. They help you automate the required movements. Do this for a few days and you’ll be faster, better, stronger, flexible, and cleaner.
Use these 7 guitar learning techniques together as much as possible for efficiently practicing the guitar.
In case you are unable to do any of these properly, don’t worry. It takes some time and then they become your most powerful tools for learning anything.
Important quick facts:
Muscle memory is practically unlimited. Repetitions after a while stop being as effective as you might want them to be. A few hours to a few days’ break in playing is very useful. This is because the brain learns a lot and consolidates learning while you are sleeping or idle. Let the brain do its job. More learning is happening when you are not practicing the guitar (as long as you do practice routinely). Here is an article on how much learning occurs when you are asleep, it’ll blow your mind.
One interesting related feature of the brain is “repetition priming.” When practicing some fine motor task – guitar playing – a few repetitions of a lick/sequence can start a self-sustained process of memory consolidation. That means just a few reps of a lick can automatically signal your brain to keep learning even when you stop the repetitions. Extra repetitions of crude performance (not perfect performance, see pro-hack 2 below) can add no extra value to learning because the learning process goes on automatically after you pause for a while. This becomes more profound after a good sleep because that is when your brain really pins down that learning and makes it robust. In this case, over-practicing a lick can not only hamper repetition priming but can keep generating new signals which can confuse the learning consolidation process.
It is often more useful to observe others play and externalize your attention by focusing on the learning outcome. What I mean by that is – focus on the global aspect of how your guitar should sound. When you externalize attention, you would focus on the sound and feel instead of wondering if your fingers landed on the frets correctly.
8. Feedback in playing the guitar
In all of these techniques, one thing needs to be highlighted over and above everything. That is – feedback from the guitar to you and you to the guitar. You need to be mindful and attentive to details – sounds, physical movements, your feelings, your surroundings, etc. You then should use all those details to learn, adjust your playing, correct mistakes, etc. Without feedback, you won’t know what you did. Your eyes, ears, skin, body, need to take notice of as many details as possible so you can use those details to improve. Feedback also allows you to do another important thing: Verify if you’ve learned something. It’s intuitive that feedback is useful in all sorts of learning – your eyes, ears, mind, etc.,
Jamming with a variety of people is an excellent way to utilize feedback mechanisms. Many guitarists love to jam but limiting jam sessions to a specific genre or a set of people can compromise the added potential of learning. Jam sessions can also create a perspective change – because you are in a different context; because you are subjected to some collective musical expectation; because you might have a different guitar; because you might have a different tone; because others are watching. All of these aspects function as “cues” which separate you from your practice routine, and this separation makes your brain’s approach different. Essentially, this gives you the value of “real-world experience” as opposed to “theoretical knowledge.”
Finally, we are coming to the most global aspect of playing the guitar – levels of processing or construal level.
It’s closely tied with feedback but it is different from what we’ve discussed so far. Construal level or the level of processing is how deeply you are processing a musical sequence. Are you focusing on the essence which the chord structure or a bassline carries? Are you focusing on the super attention-seeking notes within a melody? Are you focusing on the rhythm? Are you focusing on different aspects of music in isolation? Are you focusing on interactions between different sounds? Are you focusing on the global “feel” of the song? Are you imagining the technical visualization of a riff? Answers to these questions define your “level of processing” or the “construal level.” Simply put, it is the level of detail at which you process your own music or someone else’s music. Low details/High construal level allows you to easily focus on the essence/feel and relate music to other similar songs – something very useful in broadening your perspective and learning holistically. High details/Low construal level helps you focus on the finer detail and appreciate the nuances as well as the uniqueness of music – something great to refine your skill and musical sensitivity.
Recording yourself (audio & video) allows you to process feedback and create a psychological distance between you and your playing. The psychological distance can change your perspective and reduce emotional involvement. So distance can bring out errors and change your initial impressions. Recording yourself forces the brain to change the details it processes.
Mix the levels of processing approach to music (the construal level) with feedback and you’ll be able to take your guitar playing to the next level. It’ll create an abundance of opportunities to increase the depth and breadth of your learning and creativity.
Supporting learning tricks
Pro-hack 1: Use lower frequency notes to draw an outline of the rhythm structure and main notes – Humans process time better at lower frequencies. Or, you know, buy a bass or find a bassist. This is also one of the reasons why the bass feels groovier.
Pro-hack 2: Overlearn your target skill level – Once you nail something, do a few extra repetitions to hammer in your chops to prevent a drop in skill over time. Overlearning (practicing after successfully learning something) will also reduce interference from other learning and activities that can weaken your performance gains.
Pro-hack 3: Use a blindfold to improve muscle memory and pitch memory – When visual feedback is cut, brain activity in touch and sound processing increases due to neural plasticity.
Pro-hack 4: Take a nap right after an intense practice session – Daytime napping can improve memory consolidation of motor skills. So if you are struggling to see progress during a practice session, sleep will speed it up before your next session.
Summary of the best guitar learning tips:
- Use the transfer effect to let one chop help the other chop automatically.
- Chunk notes in meaningful groups and
treatthem as one.
- Revise guitar notes mentally before sleep.
- Learn to visualize & hear notes with your mind’s eye with as much detail as possible.
- Learn to play the 2 extremes: Really slow, and really fast.
- Add variations in playing and add variations in how you practice guitar licks.
- Use the interleaving practice method – practice multiple chops in pseudo-parallel (one after the other & then repeat) in small sessions.
- Bonus: Pay attention to all sensory feedback – touch, sound, sight, posture, movement, etc. and use to improve.
- Bonus: Use the 1% improvement rule. Just aim to improve a little at a time. Don’t expect to be Michael Angelo Batio or Vinnie Moore in a week. Over the year(s), you’ll get there. Consistency with short sessions is important.
- Don’t neglect the global aspect of playing which is the sound and feel. Know what the expected outcome of playing is and work towards that.
- The majority of learning happens when you are sleeping. Maintain a healthy sleep routine to witness significant growth. Plain idle time is also useful for learning. You don’t ‘have to practice’ all the time 24/7.
- Form guitar lick concepts in your brain via multiple sensory abstractions like humming a melody, shadow movements, sequences of ups, downs, loops, steps, representations as shapes, etc. to learn better. Use nonsense words to map out rhythmic structures. Define guitar licks in mental templates – as a mental model of your guitar lick.
- Jam with other guitar players as well as other musicians.
- Record yourself – close-up videos, audio, bad-angle video, blurry video, single-take recording, 100-take recording, etc.
- Process and practice music at different levels of details – practice bringing out the feel in itself and practice bringing out unique qualities. Both are important.
A small note on how to stay motivated to play the guitar: Read it here.
I’ve managed to successfully test these techniques. Luckily (in retrospect), I am a self-taught musician, so I got to explore many things; and as an applied psychologist, I applied these cognitive strategies and modified them for learning how to play the guitar. Been playing since the age of 10 and taught guitar for 8 years. Even conducted research on music learning and perceiving.
Have fun learning and do spread these insights!:)
Additional research on the fundamentals of learning (original research papers):
Related article for a general understanding of how the brain learns:
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced in Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, a few books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m an applied psychologist from Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.