Practice, Rest and the Evolution of a Guitarist

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In this article, I wanted to talk about my views of the importance of balancing your practice time with periods of rest as well as what I see as the two major stages a guitarist will go through in their process of learning the instrument.

You often find guitar teachers who believe the more practice a student performs the better. I believe it is more beneficial to find the right balace between practicing your guitar and rest, or putting the instrument down.

Jast as it is natural for people to wake for a period of time followed by sleep, I tend to think that with the right balance, periods of time you spend away from the guitar can actually be beneficial in your improvement at the instrument.

The point I am making here mainly applies to students who have already been playing their guitar for at least a few years, and I will discuss this in more detail below.

This concept of rest applies at several different scales. When considering your amount of daily practice, I believe it is important to attempt to maintain a receptive state of mind that places a light attention on some aspect of the sound or your practice. Everybody will have different capacities here.

Once you have played too much in a day, you will be unable to maintain a curious attention to what you are doing and you will either be distracted while you play or simply become very lethargic and dull in your attention. In many cases, at this point the best thing to do is put your instrument down. You would be better off having a rest from the instrument so the next time you pick it up, either latter in the day or the next day, you are able to maintain an interested attention on what you are doing again.

By forcing yourself to continue practice beyond what your natural level of interest and concentration can maintain, I believe you will ultimately lower your interest in the instrument and hamper your creative progress.

As well as applying to a daily practice routine like this, the same concept applies at say a weekly time frame. It will often be the case that if you are becoming stale with the instrument, taking a day or two off practice will allow you to come back with rejuvenated interest. It is also the case that by giving yourself a break like this, your mind is often able to best understand how you should approach the instrument to improve when you return to the instrument as the mind will still be adjusting its concept of your playing when you have put the instrument down.

I believe that as a progressing guitarist, you will regularly need to change your view and approach to what you are doing with the instrument. If you do not give yourself sufficient rest from the instrument, this process can be hindered, as it is often when you have a break that you will naturally adjust your view on how you should be proceeding.

As well as applying to a daily and weekly practice routine, the same concept apples through the course of your life as a guitarist. I’m sure many people will disagree with this, but if you have been playing quite intensively for many years in a row, are are becoming stale and sick of your instrument, for many people it will be the case that the best thing they can do for their music in the long term is to take say a year off from the instrument. When you return to the instrument, you may come back with quite a more advanced concept of how to use a lot of the subtleties of the instrument such as the use of nuances like vibrato, bends, slides and a lot of the more musical elements of playing. Additionally, this progress may not have been made by forcing yourself to continue a regimented practice routine without break beyond the point that your natural curiosity and interest can be maintained.

I don’t want what I am saying here to be misunderstood by players who are new to the instrument. The progress that will be made during your periods of rest from the instrument is still a result of the practice you put in before the period of rest.

For this reason, I really see two main stages that a guitarist moves through in their progress.

The first stage may last several years, such as practicing diligently for a period of maybe 4 or 5 years at the instrument.

This stage is marked by learning the basic co-ordination needed to play the instrument and the basic components of musicality. Players at this stage will often be driven by an ambition for the instrument. They may want to become an incredibly fast shredder, others will want to develop the versatility that is required to be an in demand session musician. Others still may be driven by the concept of playing and recording in a successful original band or working regularly as a covers musician.

During this stage, I definitely recommend to let your ambition drive you to put in as much practice time as you can. The hours you put in here will form a seed that latter in your life as a guitarist will allow you to continue improving even through breaks from the instrument.

Once your initial drive and practice has reached saturation (hopefully lasting several years) at this point, your approach to the instrument will change.

This is where you move into the second stage of progress at the instrument. One of the defining changes here is that your previous ambition or drive is replaced by a simple interest in increasing the musicality of your playing. It is during this second stage that I believe the importance of periods of rest is most relevant and will lead to greater growth in musicality than simply pushing the hours you put at the instrument as much as possible.

Also note that the balance of practice to rest time will be different for everyone. There are indeed players who can continuously practice a large number of hours a day for virtually their whole life and remain creative and progressing well at the instrument.

If you turn out to be one of these players, you will probably end up very good at the instrument.

If however, your natural balance implies that excessive hours causes a staleness in your interest, I believe it is more beneficial to consider the rest periods I have talked about here than it is to force yourself to try to be one of those rare musicians whose practice sees virtually no limit.

I hope this helps.

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  17 Responses to “Practice, Rest and the Evolution of a Guitarist”

  1. Love your way of explaining, especially “Curious Attentiveness” wish I could run an idea by you in person

  2. what if you’ve been playing for 45 years and have already practiced in your 20′s 30′s 40′s …4 to 6 hours a day for about a month at a time and then took say a 3 month brake from repeatetive scales and just played with a band. Though from 40 to 56 you have consistently played every day for say an hour. My hands have not truly rested in years and now i’m 56 and my mind can go all day for practice though my hands just can’t take it??? The tips feel numb at times. can resting my hands for say a month or two at a time enable the tips of my fingers to recover?? I mean baseball pitchers need to rest their arms though somehow some of us musicians seem to think our fingers do not need rest!!!! I would like your imput please!

    • Hi Teddy,

      Well, first let me start by saying you seem to have much more playing experience than myself, so your own intuitions here are probably very valuable.

      The article is not really about the physicality’s of playing, but is more about giving your mind and attention rest so that your perspectives and outlook can change and more easily allow you to “reinvent” yourself musically.

      I’m not sure what resting your hands for a month or two will mean for your fingers, but something I think is relevant is that a lot of musicians seem to think if they have a break their skills and musicality will go backwards. I’m sure with the amount of playing you’ve done, taking a break like that will not result in any loss of musicality or ability. Sure the fingers might be a bit less co-ordinated when you go back but that wont take long to regain. Given that, it might be worth giving the break a try to see if it helps your fingers.

  3. Quite an interesting reflection, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this! As I read your words, I realized I’ve had this same philosophy for a long time, but I didn’t fully recognize the details of certain periods of stalemate with the guitar as subtle changes in my ambition.

    You are entirely right.

    I have found allowing myself periods of rest allows a natural curiosity and drive to return organically and unencumbered. I anticipate I will find myself returning to the points of the SOBR method often.

    Cheers to the self aware guitarist!

  4. is it okay to take a month gap? i hurt my thumb muscle and my doctor said i have to take rest for a month. i’m really worried and it’s making me sad.

    • Hi Ashnaa,

      I’m sure it will be ok to take a month off. Learning to play guitar well takes years, so in the overall scheme of things a month off is quite a short time frame. Also, if the doctors prescribed the month off due to your thumb, I definitely think you should take the time off as you shouldn’t be playing until that’s healed.

      Hope this helps.

    • Also, just wanted to add you might like to take a look at some of the web apps in the Guitar Learning Apps section of the site. This may allow you to keep progressing at things like learning the fretboard and reading music during your break.

  5. Your words have taken a great hold of me. I couldn’t have read a better article at exactly this moment. I am 23. Started playing on an old acoustic at age 8 and made very good progress watching my brother play (along with basic guitar instruction books.) Our parents didn’t have money so equipment and resources were hard to come by. My brother is 4 years older and when he turned 17 he quit school and started working. Our time grew apart and I felt (at age 13) like I had to learn myself. I never was taught theory or any tricks to help me fully understand what made certain things on guitar sound so awesome. I listened to creed the human clay CD and tremonti really demonstrated just by me listening what a guitar is capable of. I was at that point the most interested in wanting to be a great guitarist. I just didn’t know what I needed to learn first. So I started with some cool sounding songs and learned them from tabs. I got to a point that I learned so many awesome riffs I wanted the explanation as to how artists created them from nothing. At that point I was about 16. I picked up books and tried to deciefer them but it was like reading Spanish. I knew the material was there. I just could never understand it really. I stuck with the tabs and learning what I could until about age 18. I graduated high school and got a job. I immediately felt like I was following my big brother. I was so frustrated I spent so long trying to learn. It seemed like the tools I needed were just hiding from me on purpose. Everyone that knows me loves to hear me play but I started not to enjoy playing because I couldn’t understand it. When I started working I let the guitar go. I maybe picked it up twice that year. After my long break (about 2 years), I was angry that I quit. About 2 years ago I picked it up again. Except this time I made a promise that I wouldn’t beat myself up if I didn’t understand something. Even up til today though, I have always had a feeling that I missed my chance to be great. There are many things I could have had growing up to make me a better musician but I felt like I was cheated out of a teacher most of all. I have done so much research and learning about chords, scales, and all the good stuff that theory teaches these past few years my interest is almost back to like it was ten years ago. And now that I think back, and your article brought this to my attention, I never was relaxed. My mind had so much tension from wanting to learn that I wouldn’t sit and try to learn one piece of theory. I always wanted it to be shoved into my brain all at once. I wasn’t relaxed enough to take my time. I always thought there was a time limit on being great. Until now, I thought I was the only person that experienced quitting with that sense of disappointment. I’ll sure use the SOBR technique. I can’t thank you enough. I still have a lot to learn but you have given me the most valuable tool yet. I hope to read more of your words of wisdom. If you can think back from your breakthrough to learning lead guitar or just how to solo, what helped you to understand most what and where to play?

    • Hey Joshua,

      Thanks for your comment. Very interesting. Looking back I think I certainly had the experience of trying to force too much knowledge at once and felt that there was some sort of time limit to getting good, but I’ve learned to try to work with my natural speed of learning and development rather than trying to rush it.

      I can’t really remember any breakthrough moment in terms of soloing. Very early in the piece I was practicing scales a lot and doing a lot of experimenting in terms of coming up with licks on the minor pentatonic, blues and natural minor scale. I think this process just slowly transitioned into soloing ability. Also, felling like I had a reasonable vibrato and bending certainly made a big difference in terms of coming up with sounds I liked.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      • Thank you. You are pretty spot on. I have been playing around with bends and vibratos a lot more. It really spices up my phrases. In the process of learning it seems like something that sounds so cool would take so much effort. When I figure things out and master little tricks that sound like a lot more movement it’s not disappointing but I feel kind of dumb that I thought it was much more. Lol. You have helped me to get peace of mind about all the time I thought I wasted. In which really, I have had mostly incredible feelings of satisfaction and enjoyment when playing. I officially am in love with guitar. Thank you again for helping me see the good and that I’m not the only who struggles. I’m not disappointed in myself or my musical talent anymore. I am no longer discouraged like yesterday. Its like a door opened the moment I read that. I hope many more people stumble across your wonderful article.

  6. thanks a lot for your wesite, and the way you put things in a appealing way. Most of all the learning process.
    I am just an amateur that has been enjoying the company of a guitar all my life. Like a dog or a relaxing landscape. As a meditation tool…
    Just to play scales or to make random jazzy chords and progressions is a quite relaxating experience, that allows me to work on my own field much better. The best sound in the world, gently strung nylon strings… !

  7. Thanks for this great website! Cheers

  8. I find when I’m working on a guitar part that I’m a hard time with and put it down for a day or two then come back to it,it’s easier to play. It’s like my brain needs time to process it.Does that happen to anyone else?

  9. I am surprised to see this article. I’ve been teaching myself guitar and have notice when I’ve played/practiced too long and my mind gets retarded. I know then time to put it down. Good Article!!!!!!!

  10. this is good advice. i played guitar for 4 years but not really like doing scales or solo or any guitar skills. just normal chords. then when i stop playing guitar cuz my band broke. i engage to boxing just for exercise and after a year i realize i have injured both of my wrist. 5 years later pain goes off if im not over using my hands or wrist. then now i got interested in playing guitar again like literally want to learn solo. my 1st week was so painful. after 3 months i got used to it better than i was playing my guitar 5 years ago. then 6 months get to learn a solo from the song “walk with me in hell”. now 7th month getting better. but every 1 hour after a warm up my wrist hurt. idk if i should stop every warm up or just keep playing until i cant do it no more. i hope u spare me an advice. thank you.

    • Hi Narym,

      This sounds like the sort of thing you need to get some doctors advice on. I don’t think I can really give you proper advice on this.

      Personally, I’m very careful whenever I experience pain in the hands when playing. Some guitarists will do exercises until their muscles exhaust but I avoid all that and stop straight away if I feel any pain. The muscles and joints here are much smaller than the bigger muscles used for sports and I believe you have to be much more careful and cautious with them.

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