The following is a post sent from EGIC member, Gordon Lynch. It is 100% his own work and is fab! If you want to send your post, let me know. – Dan
When first learning guitar you always seem to be practicing more than playing. Then when you become proficient, it seems to be that you’re playing more than practicing.
What if I told you, the time you spend practicing guitar, is probably way less effective than it could be?
That for each hour you’re spending practicing you’re most likely gaining less than you would if you actually applied the Pareto principle.
In this article, I will explain what the Pareto principle is all about. Then I will use my own guitar practicing (back in a time where I didn’t care about effectiveness) as a case study to show you how practicing guitar can become more effective with the right changes to your correct schedule.
The Pareto principle, states that 80% of our efforts produce only 20% of the results we desire, while the other 20% is accomplishing 80% of what we want to achieve.
A fifth of what you’re doing is achieving 80% of the result. Imagine if the other 4/5 produced as much!
Pareto himself states the numbers are not the rule themselves; they may be 90/10, or 65/35, depending on the individual person and the activity being done among other factors.
Think about that….before we move on here.
Mantra Tip: When you next pick up your guitar. Always try to write down a simple learning objective of what you specifically want to achieve for that timed session. Keep the objective Simple, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant and Timed within that session.
This is the classic SMART objective. The biggest hurdle for learning guitar is being too ambitious within your allocated time frame. The way to progress here is to break down the task down, into further manageable parts with new developed SMART objectives.
Please note that getting into the habit of committing to paper a simple SMART objective increases your Pareto “bang for buck” investment.
At the end of this article is Annex A SMART objectives which gives you an example.
Applying the Pareto principle to practicing guitar
To demonstrate how this is done I’m going to examine my own guitar practicing, during a period in my life when I thought that a lot of practicing alone was enough to become a successful musician, without giving any importance to that guitar practicing being effective…
…I was so wrong.
Note that the percentages used in these examples are somewhat arbitrary and may not even add up. I’m using them to highlight how efficient, or inefficient, that particular item I was practicing was in contributing to my progress.
Though, back then I did practice some things that don’t fall under any of these categories, for the purposes of this article I’ll strip my practicing down to the following five items:
- Exercises (with pick or legato)
- Learning a ton of scales
- Working on a rhythm guitar method books
- Learning songs
- Writing songs
1 – Finger exercises (picked or legato)
Finger exercises were the last thing I needed in at that stage.
Increasing my speed on guitar, which was the main reason why I was doing a lot of finger exercises, definitely wasn’t the most important thing I should have been focusing on back then. Neither are finger exercises the best way to gain speed on guitar.
What I should have been doing instead was teach my mind to order my fingers to go to the right places at will, not repeat the same 1-2-3-4 exercise or some variation of it for some 20% of my practice time.
There are instances where finger exercises have value, but I didn’t need them at that point in time, surely not in that quantity.
Rough estimate: The 20% of practice time I spent practicing finger exercises was contributing to some 5% of my progress. It helped in things like hand coordination, playing with a metronome and legato technique.
However, even these things could have been achieved through other things, such as…
2 – Learning scales
This practice item was way more helpful than repeating finger exercises.
Nowadays, I practice scales I already know for warming up. I believe I get more value if I revise a few scale patterns as I’m warming my fingers.
What I was doing wrong in the period of time we’re talking about was that I was learning a LOT of scales, rather than a few guitar scales and be able to USE them.
My learning point is that the total amount of scales you need to start improvising in any major or minor key is just two! ( E minor pentatonic & G Major pentatonic scales are my preference)
Rough estimate: If I spent 20% of my practice time practicing scales, it contributed to some 10% of my progress.
It would have contributed to a full 20% or more if I was learning new scales at a slower pace, and used the ones I already knew creatively, rather than running scales up and down to memorize as many as possible.
3 – Rhythm guitar books
This one was time well spent. The books I focused on had ONLY critical basic chords (G, D, Em, C, and D) and how to use them, which is something I really needed back then. You can waste your time on learning complicated chord structures. You only need a handful to really practice and develop.
I have also learned a large number of rhythmic patterns as well as wrote many of my own rhythms, to which I applied the chords I was learning.
I found this priceless for both my rhythm guitar playing and my song writing skills.
I had just learned how to harmonize the major scale in 7ths and wanted to use those chords somewhere, so I decided to write a song that substituted major and minor chords to major and minor 7ths
Writing songs with the chords you learn is, in fact, a very efficient way of learning chords because you’re immediately putting those chords in a context.
You’re also honing your song writing skills, and you may actually end up with a good song.
As opposed to the way I was learning scales, my rhythm guitar practicing was very effective and was the main contributor to my progress back then.
Rough estimate: If working on the rhythm guitar book took 25% of my practice time, it did contribute more or less more or less to 70%, of my progress, though, as you will see below, this does not necessarily mean I should have done a lot more of it.
Mantra Tip: I fell into the trap of learning chords in isolation. There was no song structure..just a meaningless list I diligently worked through. Big mistake! By playing songs I began to notice the patterns of what chords chimed together. Developing my musicality..
4 – Learning songs
This would have contributed significantly….
If only I spent more time doing it.
I have never played in public. I (wrongly) assumed it wasn’t really necessary to learn a number of songs very well and build my repertoire.
I did learn a song here and there, for fun, on an occasional cover and to have something to show for the hours I was spending.
I also learned a few random guitar riffs, licks, and an occasional whole solo.
In hindsight, I realize I should have learned more songs from start to finish.
Apart from building a repertoire, when you learn songs, you’re seeing the other things you’re learning in context rather than in isolation.
Rough estimate: The little time I spent learning songs was affecting my progress significantly and I believe I would have progressed way faster if I spent, say, 30% of my practice time learning songs, instead of 10%.
5 – Writing songs/improvising
I have always loved the creative aspect of music thus, I’ve dedicated quite some time to either writing songs, or improvising guitar riffs, licks and solos.
Was it worth it to spend the time doing this?
Did I make the most out of it?
On many occasions my mind used to drift away and, rather than improvising, I was noodling aimlessly on guitar.
It happens to most of us, and you don’t need to mentally punish yourself if you do drift away and play mindless things on guitar occasionally.
Neither should you always follow music theory rules. Rules in music theory are actually guidelines and you may swerve from the path at will.
However, you do need to know what you’re doing when writing songs or improvising on your guitar. Playing random notes from a scale without any thought about creating melody, or guitar phrasing is not exactly improvising.
Rough estimate: If I spent 30% of my time song writing and improvising, it contributed to some 20% of my progress. It could have contributed to even more than 30%, if I was more disciplined and stayed on course.
Mantra Tip: Start looking at famous songs in their current chord progressions. Then carefully start changing the chords and harmonies. Play around and have fun. Introduce chords out of the current song key..if they sound ok. The learning comes from getting it wrong..
I am currently looking at introducing a new middle eight to established songs to freshen up or change the song dynamic. The changes can be endless…but I am learning the rules. Which can always be broken.
How to apply the Pareto principle to your guitar practice time
The examples above are not meant to suggest you what to practice on guitar since they’re based on how my practice contributed to my progress at the time.
What you need to prioritize is based on your goals, your genre of music, and your current skill level among other factors and may be completely different from what was necessary for me.
What I want is to highlight is how analysing the time you’re spending practicing and applying the Pareto principle to it can lead you to make a better decision as to how you spend your time practicing and, inevitably, to faster progress.
Spent some taking a rough estimate on how you’re using your practice time, and look specifically for things that are neither giving you the desired results in the short run nor do they serve any specific long term purpose.
Word of caution: Just because something isn’t giving you a result in the short run, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s not effective.
For instance, once I realized that the finger position of my left hand needed to be corrected.
I played a few scales, slowly, in the correct finger position until I “got it” and from then on I started playing everything in this, better position.
For the first few weeks, my playing actually got worse!
As much as I could see the benefits of correcting my position, I wasn’t used to it and everything suddenly became harder.
I would have been applying Pareto’s rule wrongly if I was short-sighted and said this wasn’t giving me results.
Nowadays, I play with ease in this correct position, and thanks to that single correction in my hand position I can do more things, better and faster. Though back then, it felt like getting worse, it was only part of the learning curve that when overcome, I kept reaping the benefits forever.
Thus, if something is neither giving you results in the short run, nor is there a specific goal/s you want to accomplish with it in the long run, that means you should do much less of it
If something is giving you results, then you may consider these options.
- Do more of it to obtain even more of those results.
- Work more on areas that complement and enable this area of progress even further.
In the example from my own practicing above, I estimated that the 25% of the practice time I devoted to working on my rhythm guitar books was contributing to some 70% of my progress.
But this does not mean I should have been spending some 70% or more of my practice time on that book.
That would have been a huge mistake.
If I was analysing my practice back then, I would have increased the time spent on working on my rhythm guitar, since it was generating results and I needed more of them. But not by much.
More importantly, I should have been working on those areas I had been neglecting such as phrasing, improvising with backing tracks, building a repertoire, gaining auditory skills, learning the fretboard, integrating my guitar playing skills, and others things whose value I didn’t realize back then.
Had I been doing all these things, instead of spending time on things that were on the 20% side of Pareto’s equation, what I accomplished in 4 years could have been accomplished in 2 years!
Not that I have any regrets though.
My frustration about my slow progress is what drove me to find out about the learning curve, goal setting through SMART objectives , and planning, things that have given me immense value not only in music, but other areas of my life.
EGIC forum for guitar learning
Which brings me to the point I want to end this article with.
If you want to practice with a correct mindset, you should stop thinking of problems as something to worry about.
Problems are opportunities! (Dan Thorpe taught me this)
And while this would be hard to see if your problems are related to say your marriage or your finances (though even in these cases, the problem is also presenting you an opportunity, whether you’re in a position to see it or not), it shouldn’t be hard to notice when practicing an instrument.
I mean, let’s say your progress is slow, or you can’t get something right for days on end.
What’s the worst that can happen?
On the other hand, if you stop for a moment and ask “What opportunity is this problem offering me?
This is where experienced guitarists can help, and of course, guitar forums. I am writing this for my good friend Dan as an article for the Elite Guitarist Inner Circle (EGIC).
Remember the goal-setting SMART objectives at the beginning of this article.( See Annex A below) They partially hold the key to what you need to learn…within that timed session of guitar practice.
Knowing how Pareto’s rule operates and goal setting through SMART objectives will help your guitar playing.
I am a passionate believer that knowledge should be shared and not stored by the individual.
The combination of written planning and focussed goals will enable you to move forward.
Setting SMART Goals
Most people who don’t reach their goals fail because they did not set “SMART” goals. SMART goals are: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time sensitive.
The fastest way to learn guitar is to have SMART goals.
Specific – It is not enough to say, “My goal is to play guitar.” You need to focus your goal and set specific smaller goals and action steps. What type of guitar do you want to play? Electric, acoustic or classical? What styles of music do you want to play?
Also, consider setting goals for specific skills such as strumming proficiency, number of chords memorized, learning chords in more than one position on the guitar, scales, reading music, reading tablature, learning lead guitar “licks”, learning finger picking patterns, etc. As an example, let’s set a goal for learning chords. To start out we could set a goal to “Be better at chords on the guitar.”
Measurable – Now that you have a goal you need to make that goal measurable. “Be better at chords on the guitar” is hard to measure. There are whole books full of guitar chords. What type of chords do you want to play? Let’s set a more measurable goal. If you are a complete beginner then maybe you could set a goal to “Be better at all major and minor chords in one position.”
All guitar chords can be played in multiple positions, but as a beginner learning them in just one position is a good starting point. Now do this for each of your goals. Make sure they are measurable.
Actionable – Make sure your goal is a clear call to action. Use an action verb, not a to-be verb like “am,” “be,” “have,” etc. . In our example of learning guitar chords, our goal, “Be better at all major and minor chords in one position” has no clear call to action.
A better goal is “Be able to play all major and minor chords in at least one position.”
Relevant – Ask yourself, does this goal fit in my comfort zone? Do I need this skill to progress in this area? Set a goal that stretches you to the edge of your comfort zone but not beyond.
If you are a complete beginner you may want to simplify your goal to “Be able to play all major chords in at least one position.” When you master this then you can always set a new goal to learn the minor chords, then 7th chords, and so on.
Time Sensitive – A goal without a date is just a dream. Set timing for your guitar session you will be much more likely to reach it.
Putting all of this together our final goal is. Below the example could take 3×1 hour sessions and would be planned accordingly. “Be able to play all major chords in at least one position by July 1st 2020”