Pick n Mix

There comes a time in most guitar players lives when their practice routine just gets too full - there are too many things that need doing, but there just are not enough hours in the day. I have been using a “Pick n Mix” approach for my practice time for the last couple of years, and I find it effective and fun and thought you might too!

I used a big bag of picks for this, but you could just as easily use bits of paper, though I guess it’s just not quite as cool. To write on a pick you’ll probably need a thin permanent marker too, but might work with pen, depending on the pick!

On each pick, I write an exercise I should do for five minutes. I keep all these picks in a little jar on my studio table (where I do most of my practice) and when it comes time for practice I grab a pick out of the jar and do five minutes on that exercise (see my previous article on why using a timer is so effective). Then that pick goes into the ‘done jar’, and I work my way through all the exercises before starting again.

There are quite a range of things in my jar right now, for the most part, they are technique exercises, but I also include creative ideas, and other things I want to work on that are not urgent. I have about 30 picks in the jar and aim to do three each practice session, so I only look at these things every couple of weeks – so if you’re working on something important then you might want to work on it every day and might not suit this idea. Here are some that I have in there currently that I suspect might be interesting for some of you.

Bend Intonation is simply working on the pitching of my string bending. All over the neck, semitones, tones and bigger if I feel like it – but staying focussed on the tuning of the bend.

Bend Explore is what it says, trying to find some new ground to explore using string bending. I have a few of these ‘explore’ things, where I try to push my understanding out a little and aim each session to do something I’ve not done before.

Economy Picking is one of those techniques I don’t fully commit to (perhaps I should?), but I still want to work on it a bit, so I added this to just “keep my hand in” until I can give it a good go. Usually, I just work on 2 or 3 string groups and use little licks that I can work on to work on the technique.

Minimum Movement is an exercise you’ll find on my site; the idea is to play scales with the absolute smallest movements possible on the fretting hand. Major Scale Pattern 1 is a great starting point.

Quality Notes is a fun one, where I just play anything at all, usually slow, but try to keep my focus purely on the quality of the notes I play, really get into “the zone” and make every note perfect – no fret buzz, no half-muted notes, no open strings ringing out, quality is king.

Finger Tapping is one of those technique things I was quite good at 20 years ago, and so I keep it in because it’s fun and I don’t want to lose it completely.

Bar Breaks is playing with a metronome that drops out for a bar or two every few bars. It’s one of the coolest tools in my Time Trainer Metronome app, and it’s a great way to work on your time.

Muted Groovin is playing along with songs with a great groove, not playing chords at all, just muting all the strings, and then strumming along with the original recording and really trying to lock in with the groove. The tracks I use change all the time, but some examples of great grooves to soak up include Folsom Prison Blues, The Weight (live one), If It Makes You Happy, or a thing like Cissy Strut – not playing the single lines but strumming and trying to lock into the time feel rhythmically!

Sweep Picking is another of those techniques I never really got along with, but I’m still working on it slowly, in a 5-minute slot I would usually just work on one lick or pattern and see what I can get out of it that will be useful to work into my playing.

Vibrato is one thing I like to revisit often and just explore different approaches, hand, whole arm, neck movements, whichever aspect I decide to pick on I try to stay with and see where it takes me.

Finding Melodies is simply imagining a song melody and seeing if I can play it right off without any preparation – just find my way through the melody. It’s something I use a lot when doing Ear Training, but I do it on its own too and think it’s one of the most powerful exercises to develop a relationship between the musical mind and the hand.

There are many more, quite a few are exploring ideas, so it’s less technical and more creative – sometimes I combine a creative exercise with a card from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies and see if that might take practice somewhere new. 

For those with limited practice time, the Pick n Mix approach can be very useful, but I also found it a general boost to creativity when I’m in a writing period. Start with using just things that you know you need/want to work on and then add in some creative concept ideas too – and don’t be afraid to ditch things that don’t work for you and always try to keep it fun! Cheers! J.

Food For Thought

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