Jamie Holroyd Guitar

Jamie Holroyd Guitar

5 Practice Limitations That Will You Make You a Better Guitarist

5 Practice Limitations That Will You Make You a Better Guitarist

When you think how much time you spend practicing the guitar on a weekly basis, knowing how to practice guitar is essential so that we make the most improvement from the time spent.

One of the most common queries I get from my students is “here’s my practice schedule, I am practicing this, this and that, but I am not improving, why not?”

At some stage or another almost every jazz guitarist including myself has being in the position where they feel like they’re not benefiting enough from their practice schedule, and a common reason for this is because they are trying to focus on too much.

During the quest to become a better jazz guitarist we can get too hung up on trying to learn every scale, chord, and arpeggio all at once and when it comes to playing a gig our head is filled with too much information to use.

For example you could be improvising over something as simple as a jazz/blues, but when you start to consider all the different positions on the neck to play one scale or chord, the situation becomes information overload and we end up just sticking to our favourite positions and licks instead.

One way that we can avoid this problem is by putting limitations to our practice sessions. Limitations make you focus on one small area that you are working on and completely nail it.

I know every reader has a different amount of time that they can spend in the woodshed each day, but even just focusing 10 minutes of your practice on a very specific technique can make a huge difference in your playing. This article will be discussing some of the most benefitial limitations that I’ve learned over the years.


how to practice guitar

Jamie playing a vintage Oscar Schmidt P’MICO Collegiate parlor guitar  


Fret Spans


This is probably my favourite way and the most beneficial method I’ve found for connecting scales, modes and arpeggios to tunes that I am working on.

When practicing blowing over a set of changes try restricting yourself to 4 fret spans such as 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12. Take as long as you need to feel comfortable within each fret span and when you start to feel comfortable trying soloing for a chorus with each span.

Another benefitial way you can apply these spans to your practice schedule is by playing each scale, mode, arpeggio and chord in all 12 keys within each fret span.

By doing this you will theoretically have almost any tune or modulation you will encounter covered and within minimal reach, pretty cool huh?

Limiting yourself to certain fret spans help you connect scales, modes, arpeggios, and chords as smoothly and quickly as possible which is essential for playing jazz guitar and should be part of every guitarists practice schedule.



String Pairs


Besides improvising using fret spans, you can narrow it down even further to practicing on specific string pairs or even just a specific string.

Practicing scales, modes, and arpeggios on one string is one of the most effective ways of learning the names of the notes, because you don’t have a position to rely upon, meaning that you need to think about every note.

You can also practice soloing on single strings or string pairs which can be tough at first because you can’t play your favorite lines but it can help your phrasing.

Although this is a common practice technique, Jim Hall made great use of this in a practical situation on his solo on ‘St Thomas’ on his duo record with Ron Carter by  only using the two middle strings for the first couple of choruses of his solo where he sounded just as good as he usually does.

Not only does this exercise ensure that you learn the notes of the scales, it will also help you improve across the neck rather than in set positions.

For more on how to practice on single strings and musical examples you can download my free ‘Effective Guitar Scale Practice’ ebook by signing up to my newsletter via the box at the right of this article.


The Thumb


I will never forget a guitar ensemble lesson with my old jazz guitar teacher Jiannis Pavlidis. All the guitarists in the group were working on developing their bossa nova chops by blowing over ‘Wave’ for their end of the year recital.

Jiannis was teaching us how Jobim played very simple and beautiful on the original recording and as guitarists we were all getting a little too busy so he made us only use our thumbs to improvise.

Using just the thumb ment that none of us could play any fast lines, and we had to think simple and melodic. Every guitarist played much less when we put our picks down.

I am not recommending that anyone ditches the pick completley, but every now and then I think every jazz guitarist should have a go at just using their thumb to solo and seeing what they come up with.

Although this section has just been about using the thumb you can also restrict yourself to other right hand techniques, but practicing with the thumb is a sure way to make your lines sound melodic.


Rhythmic Limitation


Funny enough, many of these points have had examples of how I learned these limitations in real life settings, and I still believe that these band stand examples are the best ways of learning jazz guitar.

This examples I from my friend and excellent guitar educator Matt Warnock.

Matt was giving a talk on using and practicing rhythm in the BBC Venue as part of the LCM jazz conference.

One of the first musical examples he taught was some of the interesting ways that you can practice the Charleston rhythm. I was surprised at how much mileage and how good he sounded when he isolated just one rhythm to practice.

Using one rhythm can also be effective in a practical performance setting too. Check out the opening to Jim Hall’s solo on Autumn Leaves, ironically from the same duo record as the earlier example. Jim must have been on ‘it’ that night.



Harmonic Limitation


There are many ways in which you can play harmonic limitations on your playing when you are in the woodshed. You can limit yourself harmonically to as much or as little as you want either by just using certain scales or by using one or two notes for an entire improvisation.

I was amazed at the potential this exercise can have when I was working on the tune ‘Alone Together’ in a guitar lesson  for my final recital where the limitation my guitar teacher Jiannis Pavlidis set was just using arpeggios.

I took a few choruses first and didn’t sound as good as I usually do, but when Jiannis played he sounded exactly the same as he usually does.

Not only was this an eye opener for how effective arpeggios can be, but it also reminded me that rhythm, feel and groove always come above harmony.

Truth be told Jiannis, or any other great jazz guitar player could probably limit themselves to anything and still sound good


These limitations made huge improvements in my playing and I hope they will help you get more out of your jazz guitar practice schedules. Do you have a favourite limitation that’s not discussed in this article?

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Barry Lam

Thanks for your great great advice!!! I have just been overwhelmed by too many plans of practice.

I have the sixth limitation I use frequently, which is to limit the number of notes in playing single line solo. Just like Wes Montgomery did to learn tunes, I just play two notes in a bar. It really helps me to listen more deeply with the progression.

It doesn't limit to the academic guide tones, 3 and 7, it can be any notes that you feel "summarize" the harmonic feel of the tunes.

Jamie Holroyd

Hey thanks, yeah my plan was to try and narrow down the overwhelming options for effective and benefitial practice. Great suggestion, and glad you enjoyed the article!

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Milan de Keijzer

Jamie, thanks for the great tips!

I once had a Skype guitar lesson from Les Wise (L.A. based godfather of guitar instruction).

He told me this:
Play a song ( melody / chords ) and improvise only ABOVE the 12th fret.

Les told me he had driven a lot of students insane with this limitation.

Regards, Milan.

Jamie Holroyd

No problem Milan. My guitar teacher Jiannis Pavlidis recantly showed me the same limitation and I think it's great. Kurt Rosenwinkel frequently plays in that area...

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Nice article. I agree completely with what you are saying Jamie. I always place limitations on whatever I'm practising. It's the best way to really learn a concept. If you learn one thing really well then you can use it in your improvisation - which is the whole point of practising it. You don't have to learn every possible fingering, string set, etc. Start with just one and get so good at it you don't have to think about it anymore.

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