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How to Apply the Pareto Principle for Effective Guitar Practicing

What if I told you, the time you spend practicing guitar, is probably way less effective than it could be?

That for each hour you’re spending practicing you’re most likely gaining less than you would if you actually applied the Pareto principle.

In this article I will explain what the Pareto principle is all about. Then I will use my own guitar practicing (back in a time where I didn’t give any care to efficiency) as a case study to show you how practicing guitar can become more effective with the right changes to your practice schedule.

Now, the more you practice the sooner you’ll become good on your instrument, but as you’ll see below, the same person can get better in a much shorter time with effective guitar practice.

The Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule)

The Pareto principle, states that 80% of our efforts produce only 20% of the results we desire, while the other 20% is accomplishing 80% of what we want to achieve.

Think about that.

A fifth of what you’re doing is achieving 80% of the result. Imagine if the other 4/5 produced as much!

Pareto himself states the numbers are not the rule themselves, they may be 90/10, or 65/35, depending on the individual person and the activity being done among other factors.

However, the pattern is clear. A small part of our effort is gaining us most of what we want while most of our time is spent on activities that don’t contribute much to help us achieve our goals.

The Pareto principle applies to all areas of life as well as to groups of people. If for instance all the members of a band put in as much effort as the most productive band member, that band’s success might easily skyrocket. If you play in a band, it’s good to take note of this.

Applying the Pareto principle to practicing guitar

To demonstrate how this is done I’m going to examine my own guitar practicing, during a period in my life when I thought that a lot of practicing alone was enough to become a successful musician.

Note that the percentages used in these examples are somewhat arbitrary and may not even add up. I’m using them to highlight how efficient, or inefficient, that particular item I was practicing, was in contributing to my progress.

Though, back then I did practice some things than don’t fall under any of these categories, for the purposes of this article I’ll strip my practicing down to the following five items:

  1. Finger exercises (with pick or legato)
  2. Learning a ton of scales
  3. Working on a rhythm guitar method book
  4. Learning songs
  5. Writing songs

Next, I will go into each practice item and give a rough evaluation as to how effective it was to achieving my musical goals and what I could have done better had I applied the Pareto principle to my guitar practice.

1. Finger exercises (picked or legato)

Finger exercises were the least thing I needed in at that stage.

Increasing my speed on guitar, which was the main reason why I was doing a lot of finger exercises, definitely wasn’t the most important thing I should have been focusing on back then. Neither are finger exercises the best way to gain speed on guitar.

What I should have been doing instead was teach my mind to order my fingers to go to the right places at will, not repeat the same 1-2-3-4 exercise or some variation of it for some 20% of my practice time.

There are instances where finger exercises have value, but I didn’t need them at that point in time, surely not in that quantity.

Rough estimate: The 20% of practice time I was spend practicing finger exercises was contributing to some 5% of my progress. It helped in things like hand coordination, playing with a metronome and legato technique.

However, even these things could have been achieved through other things, such as…

2. Learning scales

This practice item was way more helpful than repeating finger exercises.

Nowadays, I practice scales I already know for warming up. I believe I get more value if I revise a few scale patterns as I’m warming my fingers.

What I was doing wrong in the period of time we’re talking about was that I was learning a LOT of scales, rather than a few scales and be able to USE them.

This lesson on how to improvise guitar solos will, in fact show you that all the scales you need to start improvising in any major or minor key, are two!

Rough estimate: If I spent 20% of my practice time practicing scales, it contributed to some 10% of my progress.

It would have contributed to a full 20% or more if I was learning new scales at a slower pace, and used the ones I already knew creatively, rather than running scales up and down to memorize as many as possible.

3. Rhythm guitar book

This one was time well spent. The book focused on chords and how to use them, which is something I really needed back then.

I have also learnt a large number of rhythmic patterns as well as wrote many of my own rhythms, to which I applied the chords I was learning.

I found this priceless for both my rhythm guitar playing and my songwriting skills.

In fact, “Let’s Forget Reality”, a song I still play in the present (but haven’t recorded yet) came out from a lesson on major and minor 7hs.

I had just learnt how to harmonize the major scale in 7ths and wanted to use those chords somewhere, so I decided to write a song that substituted major and minor chords to major and minor 7ths.

Writing songs with the chords you learn is in fact a very efficient way of learning chords because you’re immediately putting those chords in a context.

You’re also honing your songwriting skills, and you may actually end up with a good song.

Win-win-win!

As opposed to the way I was learning scales, my rhythm guitar practicing was very effective and was the main contributor to my progress back then.

Rough estimate: If working on the rhythm guitar book took 25% of my practice time, it did contribute more or less more or less to 70%, of my progress, though, as you will see below, this does not necessarily mean I should have done a lot more of it.

4. Learning songs.

This would have contributed significantly….

If only I spent more time doing it.

I have never played in cover bands and, back then, wasn’t doing any music examinations, so I (wrongly) assumed it wasn’t really necessary to learn an amount of songs very well and build my repertoire.

I did learn a song here and there, for fun, because my band did an occasional cover and to have something to show for the hours I was spending.

I also learnt quite a few random guitar riffs, licks and an occasional whole solo.

In hindsight I realize I should have learnt more songs from start to finish.

Apart from building a repertoire, when you learn songs, you’re seeing the other things you’re learning in context rather than in isolation.

Rough estimate: The little time I spent learning songs was effecting my progress significantly and I believe I would have progressed way faster if I spent, say, 30% of my practice time learning songs, instead of 10%.

5. Writing songs/improvising

I have always loved the creative aspect of music thus, I’ve dedicated quite some time to either writing songs, or improvising guitar riffs, licks and solos.

Was it worth it to spend the time doing this?

Definitely.

Did I make the most out of it?

Unfortunately, not.

On many occasions my mind used to drift away and, rather than improvising, I was noodling aimlessly on guitar.

It happens to most of us, and you don’t need to mentally punish yourself if you do drift away and play mindless things on guitar occasionally.

Neither should you always follow music theory rules. Rules in music theory are actually guidelines and you may swerve from the path at will.

However, you do need to know what you’re doing when writing songs or improvising on your guitar. Playing random notes from a scale without any thought about creating melody, or phrasing, is not exactly improvising.

Rough estimate: If I spent 30% of my time songwriting and improvising, it contributed to some 20% of my progress. It could have contributed to even more than 30%, if I was more disciplined and stayed on course.

How to apply the Pareto principle to your guitar practice time

The examples above are not meant to suggest you what to practice on guitar since they’re based on what how my practice contributed to my progress at the time.

What you need to prioritize is based on your goals, your genre of music, and your current skill level among other factors and may be completely different from what was necessary for me.

What I want is to highlight is how analyzing the time you’re spending practicing and applying the Pareto principle to it can lead you to make better decision as to how you spend your time practicing and, inevitably, to faster progress.

Spent some taking a rough estimate on how you’re using your practice time, and look specifically for things that are neither giving you the desired results in the short run, nor do they serve any specific long term purpose.

Word of caution: Just because something isn’t giving you a result in the short run, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s not effective.

For instance, once I realized that the finger position of my left hand needed to be corrected.

I played a few scales, slowly, in the correct finger position until I “got it” and from then on I started playing everything in this, better position.

For the first few weeks, my playing actually got worse!

As much as I could see the benefits of correcting my position, I wasn’t used to it and everything suddenly became harder.

I would have been applying Pareto’s rule wrongly if I was short sighted and said this wasn’t giving me results.

Nowadays, I play with ease in this correct position, and thanks to that single correction in my hand position I can do more things, better and faster. Though, back then, it felt like getting worse, it was only part of the learning curve that when overcome, I kept reaping the benefits forever.

Thus, if something is neither giving you results in the short run, nor is there a specific goal/s you want to accomplish with it in the long run, that means you should do much less of it

If something is giving you results, then you may consider these options

  1. Do more of it to obtain even more of those results.
  2. Work more on areas that complement and enable this area of progress even further.

In the example from my own practicing above, I estimated that the 25% of the practice time I devoted to working on my rhythm guitar book was contributing to some 70% of my progress.

But this does not mean I should have been spending some 70% or more of my practice time on that book.

That would have been a huge mistake. If I was analyzing my practice back then, I would have increased the time spent on working on my rhythm guitar, since it was generating results and I needed more of them. But not by much.

More importantly, I should have been working on those areas I had been neglecting such as phrasing, improvising with backing tracks, building a repertoire, gaining auditory skills, learning the fretboard, integrating my guitar playing skills, and others things whose value I didn’t realize back then.

Had I been doing all these things, instead of spending time on things that were on the 20% side of Pareto’s equation, what I accomplished in 10 years, could have been accomplished in 4!

Not that I have any regrets though.

My frustration about my slow progress is what drove me to find out about the learning curve, goal setting, and planning, things that have given me immense value not only in music, but other areas of my life.

Which brings me to the point I want to end this article with.

If you want to practice with a correct mindset, you should stop thinking of problems as something to worry about.

Problems are opportunities!

And while this would be hard to see if your problems are related to say your marriage or your finances (though even in these cases, the problem is also presenting you an opportunity, whether you’re in a position to see it or not), it shouldn’t be hard to notice when practicing an instrument.

I mean, let’s say your progress is slow, or you can’t get something right for days on end.

What’s the worst that can happen?

On the other hand, if you stop for a moment and ask “What opportunity is this problem offering me?

You may actually find it!


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