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Guest Article:  Diana de Cabarrus

Boost Your Practice With Top 3s

Most of us don’t have nearly as much time or energy as we would like to dedicate to our interests.

That makes it really important that we are setting ourselves up to use what time we have effectively; and that we know how to measure our progress appropriately.

For example - any beginning guitarist has to learn to change chords fluently. The period between the first time we play a new chord shape, and being able to use it fluently in a song can feel arduous. With no ability to measure how it’s going, we can feel like after a few weeks, we’re conscious of being able to change a BIT quicker, but we still can’t play that song. We actually have no way of knowing how much closer we are to being able to play it without some specific information, and that can be demoralising. If I’ve been hacking away at Knocking On Heaven’s Door, and I can sort of play it but not quite, I could end up feeling a bit irritated getting out my guitar to try again. But if I knew that I only needed to increase my speed by another 10%, now it’s much easier to commit to closing that final gap. If I also know a really good strategy to build speed and fluency with chords that will take four minutes, it’s MUCH easier to pick the guitar and do it.

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  • Making decisions about what to practice (what a practice goal is, e.g. building speed with a particular group of chords) and how to work on that (e.g. doing switches between chord pairs for 120 seconds per pair) draws on a finite supply of our mental energy.

  • Unless you’re in a very unique situation, you are probably coming to your guitar after a day at work or school, and you’re not at your freshest.

  • If you do pick up the guitar, but then you don’t have that pdf you need, or that audio, that can zap what remaining mojo you do have left.

  • When learning and applying something new, or in a new way, in a guitar lesson, it's hard to keep focused on what the left and right hands are supposed to be doing, AND remember exactly how to practice it or how exactly it fits in with what skills are significant to your own playing interests. Even if you understand in the session, it can become vague afterwards and draws on the mental energy you have for practice.

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Set Your Guitar Top Three

Picking three priority items helps you decide ahead of time which areas are most important and how you’ll work on them.


Aim to have at least one way of working on each skill or piece that you can do in five minutes. If you do three of these in each day, you’ll see steady (and even sometimes very rapid) improvement.

Let’s take a couple of examples. If you’re a beginning guitarist, your teacher will be giving you ways to develop your understanding of rhythm, chords and single notes. One of your top three goals might be to improve the fluency of your open chord changes. Your five minute activity to help with this would be to work on swapping between two open chords in sets of 2 minutes, aiming to get above 40 switches in 2 mins.

If you’ve been playing for a while and you want to sound better when you’re improvising using the pentatonic scale/get out of playing a few licks, one of your top three goals in service of this might be to learn and play the pentatonic as a string pair, confidently targeting the chord tones of the I or Im chord. A five minute goal would be - play up and down each string pair, landing on the root note each time, then landing on the third each time, then landing on the fifth each time. When you can do this, change between doing this for the major pentatonic string pair and the minor pentatonic string. Your phrases will instantly sound a lot more confident.

The point of the top three  is that you will get more of a sense of satisfying progress when you know what is most important and what one thing you can do right now to address that in any skill area. It also helps you decide what to leave out. Someone interested in playing acoustic fingerstyle arrangements probably doesn’t need to include sweep arpeggios in their top three.


Your teacher can help you with establishing what the appropriate top three things for you to work on should be relative to your experience playing, and what styles you want to play. Your teacher can also then give you some effective and specific activities that you can easily do in a short period of time.


You can take this further and out of the three, pick a top one - clear and specific and short enough that no matter what, you will get it done, because it’s frankly easier to just spend five minutes doing it than using up the mental energy thinking about doing it.


About The Author: Diana de Cabarrus is a professional musician and guitar instructor. Find out more at guitar lessons Edinburgh.

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