Express Practice

by | Dexterity, Technique, Theory

What follows is the best way to practise.  Using these methods you will get faster results on any instrument, or indeed any study, whether sport, academic work, skills of any sort.

This way of practising is designed to get you able to do things on the guitar quickly.  You will develop dexterity, coordination, speed, musicality, or whatever you’re working on, far faster using these methods than was previously possible.  This is because it is based on knowledge of how we learn, language pedagogy, neurology and psychology and lots of testing both on myself and on dozens of guitar students.

You will not find a better system, but it is hard work!  Don’t spend all of your time working in this way, you should also spend time relaxing with music and playing for the joy of playing.  Without enjoying what you play you will soon sound soulless!

Don’t practice more than 6 ideas

The human brain can only hold 6 bits of information consciously at a time.  This might be 6 numbers, 6 names, 6 words … whatever.  You might work on 6 notes, or 6 groups of notes that you’ve already got into your reflexes.  You might work on just 6 chords, or 6 strumming motions.  Or you could work on 6 different ideas: 3 chords, 2 strumming motions and 1 accent.

You will not get it right first time!

If at first you don’t succeed it’s because you’re working on something that still needs practice!  I find that in my own practice and in that of all my students it will often take five or six attempts to get through the exercise for the first time.  So don’t start getting frustrated or tutting at yourself until you’ve given a few shots.  If you don’t get it right, just accept that this is normal and try again.  Getting annoyed is never going to help.  New skills take time to learn, especially if they’re really worth learning.

If you just keep trying, then it’s likely that the exercise is too difficult for you at the moment.  So try building up to it again.  Go back to easier exercises or pieces and get yourself warmed up or back into ‘flow’.  Maybe just come back to it again later.


We’re going to use a simple but very powerful exercise as an example of how to work on learning passages, licks etc.

The pattern on the right could apply to any of the 3 note shapes.

I have shown the down and up strokes with D and U.  There is no point doing this exercise if you don’t follow that pattern!!

D  U  D  U  D  U

L  M  H  L  M  H

Let’s get practising

Let’s set the objective of being able to play this faster, and with little movement in the left hand fingers.

Follow these steps and you will achieve results very rapidly.

Tempo Gears

You will go through this order of speeds.  I call the process of moving from one speed to the next ‘changing gear’.

  1. One note per every 2 beats.
  2. One note per beat.
  3. Two notes per beat.
  4. Three notes per click.
  5. 4 notes per beat.
  6. 6 notes per beat.

Steps to take at each gear change.

  1. Vocalise the rhythm.
  2. Play that rhythm, still counting out loud, on a single note.
  3. Play the notes at that speed with your fretting hand only.  Don’t use your picking hand.Next, we’ll combine the hands:
  4. Play the complete pattern ONCE and STOP.  Wait a bit until you feel ready, then do it again but better.
  5. Play the pattern TWICE and STOP.  Wait a bit until you feel ready, then do it again but better.
  6. Play the pattern THRICE and STOP.  Wait a bit until you feel ready, then do it again but better.
  7. Play the patter continually.  At some point you will go wrong.  That’s normal and fine.  Take a little break and try again.  If you can’t get back into it then go back as many steps as necessary and build back up.

Practising new strum patterns

The basic pattern of work is the same, but the gears work by shortening gaps between repetitions and by increasing the amount of the pattern you work on.

Here’s a really useful strum pattern.  This causes some difficulty for newbs because it is the first pattern often learnt that involves missing the strings on a down stroke.
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

D   D U   U D U

Build the pattern

  1. D DU 2 beats rest and then a bar rest
  2. D DU 2 beats rest
  3. D DU U  rest the rest of the bar and a bar’s rest
  4. D DU U back in on beat 1
  5. Full pattern ONCE and then on through the strum gears.

The strum gears

  1. Play it once with 2 bar rest
  2. Play it once with 1 bar rest
  3. Play it twice with 2 bars rest
  4. Play it twice with 1 bar rest
  5. Play it thrice 2 bars rest
  6. Play it thrice 1 bar rest
  7. Repeat continuously

Tempo gears

To make sure you are doing this strum pattern without thinking about it you need to make sure you take it to a speed that will not allow conscious thought.

To do this is similar to the tempo gears, except strumming is all about the feel of the beat, so you can’t go changing things from quavers to triplets and so on.

Follow these steps and you’ll soon be playing the pattern without needing to think about it.

  1. Set a metronome or drum beat at 105 bpm – here’s a link for a rock beat
  2. Play the pattern ONCE at in time with the beat with one down stroke or upstroke on each beat
  3. Do that again, but TWICE in a row
  4. And again but THRICE
  5. Now go through steps 2, 3 and 4 again, but with two strums per beat (a downstroke and an upstroke)
  6. Then

What speed to practice at

Ideally you want to be able to play strum patterns and note patterns without thinking about the movements of fingers or plectrum.  If you are thinking about which fingers you have to use or what the notes or then you can’t be thinking about the music.  You want to be thinking about HOW you play, NOT WHAT you play.

There are two ways in which we can perform physical action.

  1. Consciously thinking about movements.  So, which finger to use, what the note might be, whether you’re striking the string with an up or a downstroke.  This kind of process is carried out by the frontal lobes of the brain.
  2. Making the movements unconsciously.  We do this kind of thing all the time.  When we have a conversation while walking, we don’t have to think about which foot we have to put forward, or about how we are balancing.  This kind of movement is directed by the basal ganglion of the brain.  It controls reflexive, automatic movement.

We really want all the movement to by the second type.  That way we can focus on things like expression – and, after all, this is Express Practice you’re learning.

Now the conscious brain is really quite slow and has quite small capacity.  That’s why we only practice 6 things at a time, or less if we want to make things easier and progress quicker.  You can only think of 6.6 things per second consciously.  So if we do 7 things per second, we must be doing that as an automatic process.  So let’s make that the target.

Here’s a table showing different tempos and ways of dividing the beat.

Beats per minuteThings per beatBritish NameAmerican Name
4201CrotchetsQuarter notes
2102QuaversEighth notes
1403TripletEighth note triplets
1054SemiquaversSixteen notes
706SextupletsSixteenth note triplets