The main things that differentiate practicing from just playing is that practice has learning objectives and a structure or strategy for achieving those objectives. My practice sessions are an hour long, after that my concentration or rear end gives out. I divide the session into two 30 minute halves. In the first half I focus on fundamentals and I spend the second half learning a new song.
In this post, I discuss how to practice the fundamentals.
ScalesIn the first 30 minutes of my practice I play scales and do dexterity drills (mostly rolls right now). I used to think "What could possibly be more boring than playing scales?" but I have come to love this part of my practice. For one thing, scales help your playing in so many ways:
- Mechanics for attacking and plucking the strings
- Finger dexterity and strength
- Dynamics (managing loudness and softness)
- Tonality (being on pitch)
- Familiarity with the fretboard
I initially play the scale in quarter notes, that is, I play one note for every beat of the metronome. While I am doing that I concentrate on the following:
- Posture. Am I comfortable? Since I have started paying attention to my posture, I have made several adjustments that have improved the comfort level and therefore my stamina.
- Picking hand position. Are my fingers curled around the strings so that I can pluck the strings without a lot of motion? Is my hand loose and moving easily as I play up and down the scale?
- Attack. Are my fingers plucking the strings the way an archer plucks a bow string? Am I snapping the string and getting a clean crisp twang from each pluck?
- Noise. Am I minimizing extraneous string noise? I will write more about that later.
- Tonality. Are my notes on pitch?
Then I play the scale in eighth notes, that is, I get two notes in for every beat of the metronome. Again, I alternate between thumb-index and thumb-middle. If my playing sounds too rough, I either slow down the metronome or go back to practicing with quarter notes. I know that in Bluegrass fast is good, but people will remember how clean your playing was more than how fast it was.
I do all of the above for different versions of the scale in the key I am practicing. Here is my drill for the scale in the key of G (see G Scales for the tab and musical staff for each of these).
- Open G scale starting on the 6th string. This scale starts at the open 6th string and goes all the way up through two octaves to the 1st string and then back to the 6th again. Work on dynamics and expression--see how pretty you can make this "song." Also notice the patterns on the fretboard. Look for the two "chevrons" and the run on the 4th string. These are bread and butter patterns you will come back to again and again in G.
- G scale starting on the 4th string. Look for the box pattern. This is another good set of notes to feed your G licks in a very useful part of the fretboard.
- G scale starting on the 5th string. Makes a snake pattern.
- G scale entirely on the 3rd string. Good reinforcement for understanding how scales are built (2 wholes and a half, 3 wholes and a half--I will write more about that later). Practice this scale by never lifting the bar off the string. Let each note ring right up to the moment for the next note and then slide quickly and pluck the next note right at the end of the slide. If you do this right, you will never hear a slide--just each note of the scale ringing until the next note is plucked.
- Folded scales. These are any of the patterns above where you go forward in the scale, back up a little, go forward from there, back up a little etc. I've included one pattern for this.
- E minor scale. Technically this is not a G scale (it is the relative minor of G) but it uses the same notes. Just start your G scale on E instead of G.
- G blues scale. Different pattern from the regular scale. It flats the 3rd note and the 7th.