Why You Should 'Gamify' Your Guitar Practice

‘To practice’ or ‘to study’ are not necessarily terms that invoke enthusiasm in everyone. Yes, it can be fun and it’s cool to see practice result in progress. But for some guitarists it can feel dry, boring or even non-musical. ‘Playing games’ on the other hand is something everyone likes in some way or form. So in this article I will show you how you can make your practice routines like games. It’ll make your practice more fun, and because it’s easier to keep up doing fun things, you’ll find yourself practicing more!

Before we dive in, let’s briefly explore what makes an effective ‘practice game’. A critical principle is to pick just one thing that you want to improve. That one thing will be outside your comfort zone and will require you to focus. That means all the other parts of your practice game should be neatly inside your comfort zone and should not require much concentration. For example, if you’re a beginner that knows three chords and one strum pattern, it’s most effective to find a song that adds just one new chord and uses the same strum pattern. It’s like adding new connections in an already existing ‘web of knowledge and skill.’ It’s just like when you learn a new language, where it’s not very effective to learn 500 new words at once, but much better to cut it up in smaller chunks. In short: focus is key!

Now we’ve seen what makes an effective practice game, let’s see how we can make it fun! Here are three examples of how you can gamify your practice routine.

1. Tick Tock, Tick Tock. Let’s improve our time!

Let’s explore a fun way to improve your time. Start by picking something to play that’s in your comfort zone. It’s best to pick a riff that you already know how to play. It doesn’t matter whether it's from Nirvana and Queen, QOTSA or Britney Spears or you simply run up and down the major scale. The key is to choose something that you don’t struggle with technically and that doesn’t require much thought about which notes will come next. This is because you’ll want to have some brain power left for the next step.

Now it’s time to bring a metronome into the game. First play the riff with the metronome on every beat, so on 1, 2, 3 and 4 (if your song has four beats per bar). Next play the song on half of the beats, so on 1 and 3, or 2 and 4. You can even experiment with different combinations to make it more challenging, such as having the click on 1 and 2, or 2 and 3, or 1 and 4, etc. Next, play the riff with a metronome click only once per bar, so on either the 1, 2, 3 or 4. After that, have the metronome click only once every two bars. Then once every three bars… and so on, you get the idea. For even more challenge, you can have the metronome play irregular patterns, for example, with a beat on every 3 or 5 beats in a 4/4 bar.

The goal of this game is to need as little beats as possible to tightly play the riff. That means you can try to beat your own high score (or technically, low score) from the day before, or from last week! And more important: you’re massively improving your internal time through this game.

2. One string at a time. A melody game!

The next game, or exercise if you prefer, is very easy! The first step is to listen to your favorite records (yay!) and grab your guitar (double yay!). Now play along and try to improvise some melodies (triple yay!) But here’s the catch and the game: you’re only allowed to play on one string...

By playing melodies on one string you’re not able to rely on muscle memory or familiar licks. Also, because this requires you to ‘jump’ up and down the neck, you’ll get a clear visual impression of how big melodic steps are. This game forces you to rely on your ears and intuition to figure out if a melody sounds nice or ‘works’ in the context of the music, which helps you play by ear and develop your improvisation skills.
Small variation: if you don’t feel inspired, try playing the vocal melody on one string.

So, pick a record, pick a string and try it out!

3. Lick migration. Getting to know the fretboard through licks.

Everyone has their favorite licks. Whether it’s a tasty three note blues lick or a long, burning bebop line, licks can help you expand your melodic vocabulary. But can they also help you get to know the fretboard? Well, yes!

We usually learn a lick in a single position and with one fingering. But why not challenge yourself to discover at least five different ways to play the same lick on the neck? Make sure to vary both in the octaves you play the lick in and the starting finger. It is a bit like those ‘word search’ games, where you need to find a certain amount of words in a seemingly random sheet of letters. Playing around with licks like this is similar: the fretboard is your ‘sheet of letters’ and you need to locatie the same ‘word’ (your lick) in five different places.

By using a familiar element – the lick – we can explore and become comfortable with the less familiar or more challenging parts of the fretboard, turning the whole exercise into an engaging puzzle.

Let the games begin!

Hopefully, I've been able to show you how games can make your practice more fun and motivate you to keep going. As these three examples show, there's usually a way to add a gaming element into our practice routines. Very often, the clearer the goal is, the easier it becomes to make a game out of it. That's because with a clear goal, there will be 'high scores' to beat! So from now on when people ask: 'Do you PLAY an instrument?', you can truthfully reply: 'I play guitar'.

Thijs de Klijn is a guitar player and jazz musician based in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

He has had lessons with Jesse van Ruller, Maarten van der Grinten, Martijn van Iterson, Reinier Baas, Durk Hijma, Eef Albers, Wim Bronnenberg and Peter Bernstein.

Check out his album with Piotr Lipowicz, entitled "Stereo Talk".

Thijs de Klijn