This isn’t really a lesson, in the traditional sense. This is more of an article for you to read to understand the importance of rest and recovery to aid you in learning to play the guitar.

Alternate between rest and play

Alternating between activity and rest has many benefits. It makes practicing less tiring, helps prevent injury, gives the mind time to analyse information, and at some point, most of us will have experienced the benefits of this alternating, without realising it. Have you ever found the going tough while practicing guitar, then the phone rings and you stop to answer it. When you return a few minutes later, you find your playing has miraculously improved and the going is much easier. Then after half an hour or so of grinding away at your guitar again, it has returned to being a pain.

This is because the balance of activity and rest is not equal. Pausing to rest regularly keeps things fresh and loose, whereas grinding away for hours without rest makes for inefficient progress. But balancing action and rest isn’t just about taking a break every 15 minutes or so. It’s about maintaining equilibrium throughout the entire session. In the initial stages, this can mean playing a note and then resting for an equal time. Or playing an exercise and then resting for the equivalent amount of time. For example, when warming up, instead of just grinding through a scale in an effort to force yourself to limber up, try playing the first four notes; 1 and 2 and , then resting for a count of 1 and 2 and. This can be done by counting aloud or internally, or breathing the beats, or just keeping the groove in the usual way (feeling the rests). You should find this a more effective way to warm up.

Learning New Things

One of the most effective ways I’ve found to learn, is to take it 2 notes at a time. Slowly and carefully play the first 2 notes, including any harmonies, then pause and think about the next two. Approach the entire exercise in this careful and considered way. By giving yourself plenty of time to think about your next move, not only are you reducing mistakes, but it’s an almost effortless way to remember the piece.

Resting the muscles regularly becomes an important part of the learning process. It’s important to be aware that when we program our muscles to play a certain exercise, we can also program in stiffness, aches and pains in the form of unnecessary tension. Most aches and pains are due to poor programming rather than exertion. And a lot of the tension is due to the fact that things are happening faster than we’d like. We’re not quite sure what’s coming next and this causes tension; fear of the unknown. If you’d like a good demonstration of this, close your eyes next time you’re walking down the street, and keep walking. Your stress levels will go through the roof, and mental stress = physical tension. 

Whole Body Awareness

When playing guitar, we’re concentrating on what the hands are doing and we tend to completely ignore everything else. One of the first things you have to deal with, when learning to play the guitar is the sitting, and hand position. These are essential things to get used to because the type of music to be performed is very difficult if not impossible without good positioning. At the beginning these positions feel really uncomfortable and unnatural. But the fact is that it is the best way to keep the guitar absolutely still whilst playing in a free and relaxed way.

So what is important is to adopt the correct position with your feet and body and the guitar. Try to keep your back straight and your head centred to avoid twisting the spine or holding your neck in a way that would cause pain. The trouble is that it can be such an effort to concentrate on everything all at once. This is where the rest time will prove its usefulness. While playing, your mind will be totally focussed on the job in hand. It was when you stop playing that messages from the rest of your body are finally allowed to reach the conscious mind.

There’s not much more to be said on the subject. Basically go away and try it, sit in a good position with good technique, then play a note or two and relax completely. Move through a few of your pieces and technical exercises in this way and see the results. Watch out for that little devil called Impatience! He will definitely try to talk you out of it. But it’s time you stuck some tape over his gob anyway because that little ____ is just trying to get you to rush toward a desperate town called Frustration and Failure. You won’t like it there.

(With thanks to Chris Flatley)


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