Beginning Tips

The Tortoise and the Hare

There once was a speedy hare who bragged about how fast he could run. Tired of hearing him boast, Slow and Steady, the tortoise, challenged him to a race. All the animals in the forest gathered to watch. Hare ran down the road for a while and then and paused to rest. He looked back at Slow and Steady and cried out, “How do you expect to win this race when you are walking along at your slow, slow pace?” Hare stretched himself out alongside the road and fell asleep, thinking, “There is plenty of time to relax.” Slow and Steady walked and walked. He never, ever stopped until he came to the finish line. The animals who were watching cheered so loudly for Tortoise, they woke up Hare. Hare stretched and yawned and began to run again, but it was too late. Tortoise was over the line. After that, Hare always reminded himself, “Don’t brag about your lightning pace, for Slow and Steady won the race!” Aesop’s Fable

The tale of the tortoise and the hare has an obvious moral to the story as it relates to hard work and practice. The obvious application to guitar is that consistent methodical practice and perseverance pays off in the big scope of things. Those that persevere are rewarded for their hard work and dedication. However, there is a second lesson to be learned that is not so obvious. That lesson is how we practice. Something I’ve observed in teaching students for thirty years is they always want to play things fast now. The student will stumble twenty times over a few notes attempting to play fast until I convince him to slow down. Even after I tell them to slow down several times they still insist on attempting to play fast. It is in our nature to be impatient. Plus, we are excited about playing the guitar and we tend to rush when we are excited.  When practicing guitar we need to be very aware of our tendency to rush and strive to practice slowly. When we practice slowly several things occur. First, we are certain to play things correctly and pay more attention to fine details. For example, when playing eighth notes we should be using alternating pick strokes. Students that insist on playing fast almost always struggle with picking technique. Second, the time you spend stumbling and starting over is more time you would spend if you had practiced it slowly in the beginning, and third, by playing slow you learn to be patient and not rush or get ahead of the down beat. To achieve this goal the best investment you’ll make is a metronome. Keep the metronome handy all the time. Put it on an extremely slow tempo when you practice. This will force you to wait for the beat. As you become comfortable at an extremely slow tempo you can increase the tempo but not until you are able to play it perfect at a slow tempo. The ability to run comes after learning to walk. The ability to drive a car fast comes after learning to drive slowly. The ability to play guitar fast comes after learning to play slow. 


Having good rhythm or keeping time is usually the most challenging aspect for beginning guitarists. When learning a song or exercise always learn to play it very, very slow first.  Students usually try to play faster than they are capable and find themselves making the same mistakes over and over which leads to frustration. A good analogy is learning to drive a car. If we jump into the driver’s seat without ever having driven and put the pedal to the floor we would either have a wreck or give the driving instructor a heart attack. Always practice slowly in the beginning. As you get comfortable with the tune you can speed up the tempo.

A metronome is an essential tool for the practicing musician that will help develop a sense of rhythm. Also, many books come with audio files that serve the same purpose as a metronome. The importance of playing with a metronome can’t be stressed enough.

The Pick

Students tend to use all down strokes when learning without an instructor. The longer the student plays this way the harder it is for him to correct his technique. Using the proper technique with a pick is extremely important. It is usually appropriate to use down strokes when playing whole, half, and quarter notes. However, when playing eighth notes you should use alternating picking (down and up strokes). In common time the down strokes should be on the down beats which are the numbers (1, 2, 3, 4). The ‘up beat’ in between the numbers should be up strokes.

The Teacher

Henny Youngman once said, “The self taught man usually has a lousy teacher and an even worse student.” A good instructor will help you to avoid bad habits that are hard to break and offer insight that takes years to accumulate. A good instructor will teach you music theory as well as how to read music.