Every few months the guitar magazines rediscover that regular practice improves playing. This is often touted as the “secret” of the current great guitar player. I’m going to assume that you all know that by now. (If not, try doing 15 minutes of focused practice every day for a few weeks and see what happens.)
I have a few suggestions for your practice sessions that can actually save you money, which is like having more money to spend on that dream instrument while being able to play it better when you get it. It’s like getting paid to practice.
Here’s how: Focus on something you need to learn, not something that you can already play in your sleep (chances are you stopped hearing it a while ago). If you don’t know the whole neck of your instrument, learn it several ways. Up and down one string, across every position, skipping notes, in scales and modes, there are all sorts of ways to make sure that you know where Bb is on the D string, for example.
The second thing is to listen as you play. This will train your ear, and it will also let you hear your guitar (or any other instrument you play). This is crucial, because if you don’t know what your guitar sounds like, and what you can do with it, you won’t be able to spot a better-sounding one in the music store.
Third, I suggest having a set routine that runs through the whole neck, every string and at least every three frets. This should be short and one of the first things your play every day. Notice the changes in tone in all of the various ranges of your instrument. That’s why you want to cover the whole neck.
Finally don’t forget to learn a few songs so well that you can play them perfectly even in front of the person who wrote or played it. You want to be able to listen to the tone you are getting without worrying where your fingers are or if you are hitting the right string.
OK, now that you’ve done that (or when you have) let’s save you some money. Most players tend to freeze when they go into a guitar shop and there are a lot of players there. “Man, is everyone else great on the guitar but me?” Naw, they are just playing their “store set” of exercises and songs. But now you have a store set too! So no matter what that guy in the corner who thinks he’s the second coming of Eddie van Halen is doing, you can do your own thing and listen to the guitars you play. And play a lot of them. Bonus tip: there are subtle differences between every guitar, even ones from the same company in the same model with the same configuration that come off an assembly line. The great thing about wood and the other materials that make up guitars is that you never really know how one piece is going to react to sound. A tip that you won’t need if you listen is that the price of a guitar has little to do with the sound of a guitar. I did a test one day of 15 Les Paul’s in one of my favourite music stores, about half Gibson and half Epiphone (actually 8 were Gibsons). The best two were about the same with slightly different tonal ranges, and they were both Epiphones, over $500 cheaper than the cheapest Gibson (in THAT shop on THAT day; your mileage may vary). The point is that it’s always worthwhile to compare. A friend did a similar comparison with Telecasters and found a Godin that was the best sounding one in the store for less than half the price of a Fender Tele. In that case he wasn’t sure which sounded better, but since I knew a song he’d just learned I suggested he play it on all of them and see which one sounded best. There was no doubt in his mind when he bought the Godin.
You probably see my last example coming, but I’ll tell you anyway. Years ago a friend in a band I was in wanted to upgrade his “Strat knock-off” with a real Fender. We both knew the sound of his guitar well, so we expected great things at the store. He played three Strats and asked me to play them too. Our consensus was that they sounded no better than his guitar — no worse, but no better. In this case we were lucky enough to find the same type of amp that he used, because a better amp can bias you, but in this case he made the biggest savings of all and had a new respect for his knock-off guitar.
So a regular focused practice routine can save you money. At the very least you will end up as a better player. You will also be ready to try out instruments at unexpected places and times. Look into how Geddy Lee and Jack Casady found their favourite basses — the ones their signature models are based on — and you will realize that it was their ability to hear the special tone of the instrument that was crucial.
A lot of the guitar biz is based on players not realizing what they actually have already. As with anything in life (cars, significant others, phones, etc.) be sure to know what you have before you try to upgrade. And if you do upgrade, check out what you are really getting.