Aggregation of Marginal Gains: 55 Ways to Dramatically Improve Your Playing

I stumbled upon this article by James Clear called This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent and Here’s What Happened. In the article the story of Dave Brailsford is laid out. 

Brailsford believed in a concept that he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He explained it as the “1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement….They searched for 1 percent improvements everywhere.
Brailsford believed that if they could successfully execute this strategy, then Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years time.
He was wrong. They won it in three years.


Now those cyclists looked for any and every area that related to their cycling and tried to make improvements in those areas. I started thinking how this would work out when it came to playing guitar and here are some of my ideas in random order.

50 Ways To Improve Your Playing

  1. SHUT UP AND PLAY YOUR GUITAR, instead of continuously looking at new gear. I know many guitar players that get so caught up in all the sound and equipment technicalities that they have little time left to actually play. I firmly believe that no matter how good your equipment, if your hands are not doing the right thing, you will still not sound good. I don’t care if it is dedicated practice or just noodling; the only way you are going to build a relationship with that instrument is if you actually spend time on it.
  2.  PRACTICE MORE REGULARLY. To my students I always advise to practice but truly concentrated. Instead of wandering of during practice, make it your aim to practice completely focused for say 20 minutes a day and after that feel free to do whatever. But make it daily! (More on practice here >>> ). Guitar playing does not come with long bursts of semi-concentrated practice but by being focused on learning that new thing.
  3. USE A METRONOME OR DRUM MACHINE. No matter what beautiful notes you think you are producing, if they are out of time they will be perceived as meaningless. The metronome is also a great way to improve accuracy and right hand – left hand coordination.
  4. UNPLUG YOUR GUITAR. I realize this is not meant for the acoustic guitar player but for the electric player, just take it out of the amp and pedal rack and make it sound as good as you can, and after that; improve your dry presence. Once you plug in again you will be amazed. The other way around for those involved in heavier music, half of the battle is won if we could just hear the notes you are playing or wanting to play. Try keeping the rest as silent as you can.
  5. USE A CLEAN SOUND. With all the effects around nowadays it is very easy to forget what your actual clean sound was like. Try plugging in to the clean channel of your guitar or take all effects and overdrive off and remember how your actually guitar sounded again. See how clear your fast runs really are if there is no overdrive to cover any weaknesses.
  6. LEARN A NEW SONG EVERY WEEK. Building a repertoire is important if you aim to be a working musician. But besides that there is almost always something to be learned if you sit down to learn a new song, be it song writing ideas, melodic ideas, new riffs or licks, new techniques. Initially focus on melody and harmony (chords and melody) before you delve into riffs and licks. E.g. get to know the song before anything.
  7. SING WHAT YOU PLAY. You’ll be amazed how it will affect your guitar playing.
  8. SING WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO PLAY. The next step forward is that you let your imagination lead your fingers as opposed to the other way around. It is the only way you will ever sound like you and you will find that your imagination is usually well ahead of your technical capabilities. Which brings us to the next point:
  9. MAKE AN EXERCISE OUT OF IT. If your head and ear are ahead of your technique: turn your ideas into exercises. A great way of learning how to do this is to play the melody of existing pop songs, worship songs, hymns, or film melodies or well known melodies from other instruments.
  10. PLAY A PHRASE IN AS MANY DIFFERENT WAYS AS YOU CAN COME UP WITH. You could make slight rhythmic variations, play the same phrase in a different place on the neck, use different techniques such as hammer on and pull off, slides, volume swells, your whammy. You will be amazed how much you can do with just one little phrase.
  11. START A LICK BOOK AND INCORPORATE IT IN YOUR PRACTICE ROUTINE. Licks of your own and others are a great way to improve your technique and to extend your musical vocabulary.
  12. LEARN TO PLAY AND USE CHORD INVERSIONS. The are a great way to open up your sound and when you are a solo accompanist or guitar player, it is a great way to open up songs.
  13. IMPROVE YOUR LEFT AND RIGHT HAND TECHNIQUE. Yes, exercises, etudes can be a drag but they are a sure way of progressing, maybe lick collections are more of your thing.
  14. LEARN A NEW (EXOTIC) SCALE such as the Chromatic Scale, the Whole Tone Scale, the Neapolitan Scale, the Bebob Scales or the Byzantine Scale.
  15. LEARN TO PLAY YOUR SCALES IN ALL POSITIONS. We all know that blues scale starting with the root under your first finger on the low E string. How about you try and learn all the other fingerings. Or do this for the major scale (and this for its modes as well). Here’s a link to get you going >>>>
  16. DEVELOP YOUR OWN SCALE PATTERNS VERTICALLY AND HORIZONTALLY. While you are at that, make conscious choices in terms techniques used such as alternate picking, legato, right and left hand tapping.
  17. IMPROVE YOUR ARPEGGIO PLAYING, both for the purpose of rhythm guitar and lead guitar.
  18. LEAN ABOUT CHORD SUBSTITUTIONS. It is a great way to open up and re-harmonize existing songs, make you a better accompanist and in your lead playing it opens you up to more creative use of your arpeggios.
  19. PLAY A SONG YOU KNOW BUT USE DIFFERENT CHORD SHAPES. Try the same song using bar chords, small shapes on the top three strings, power chords, drop 2 / 3 chords insist on a drone. Some of my most joyful chord discoveries were when I forced myself to play all chords of a certain song with an open G and e string, it is a great way of discovering new possibilities.
  20. PLAY OR REARRANGE A SONG IN A DIFFERENT STYLE. With some of my students we have done this with the worship song How Great is Our God, ranging from traditional pop-rock to R&B, to power rock ballad, to latin (bossa nova) to jazz. It is a great way to get really in depth with a song and realize the wide range of possibilities.
  21. PLAY A SONG IN A DIFFERENT KEY OR MAINTAIN THE SAME KEY BUT USE A CAPO. As an example of a different key: the chord progression C, F, Am, G, could be transposed to A, D, F#m, E. If I’d play this chord progression with a Capo on III it would be back to the original key again. I could put the capo on V and in order to play in the original key I would play G, C, Em, D.
  22. IMPROVE YOUR POSTURE AND BREATHING. Straighten that back even if it means that you cannot see what you are doing. Try and breath regularly and when you sing, sing from your gut not from your breast. Practice standing up just like on most of your gigs.
  23. SHORTEN THAT STRAP. It may look cool having your guitar hanging down low, but it is bad for your posture and hand positioning. Try hanging that strap higher up and be in there for the long haul without risking injuries and it is better for articulation.
  24. LEARN TO READ MUSIC NOTATION IN BOTH TREBLE AND BASS CLEF. You immediately open yourself up to a world of great material by doing just that.
  25. IMPROVE YOUR SIGHT READING. Open up a chord sheet, real book, lead sheet, tab and try to play through it as good as you can without stopping for mistakes.
  26. LEARN ABOUT A STYLE YOU ARE UNFAMILIAR WITH. I have had great joy using the Guitar Atlas Series and have really started to enjoy playing and arranging Irish music (fiddle and flute tunes). Another great resource are the PLAY GUITAR NOW instruction videos and books which cover a wide range of styles and there are by now also two ukulele volumes.
  27. EXPERIMENT WITH DIFFERENT PICKS. It is a great way to extend your sound palette without having to buy yet another new stomp box.
  28. LEARN A NEW TECHNIQUE OR IMPROVE EXISTING TECHNIQUES such as hybrid picking, or if you are a pick only player give finger style a go, and the other way around if you are a finger style player only try making things work with a pick, or give right hand tapping and sweep picking a go if you have not already done so. Magazines like GUITAR TECHNIQUES may well be your best friend to get going.
  29. IMPROVE YOUR THEORY AND AURAL SKILLS. It really helps your playing a lot if you understand what you are doing and hearing.
  32. PLAY A SONG BUT AVOID USING ONE PARTICULAR STRING (pretend it is broken or actually take it off).
  33. PLAY IT BACKWARDS. Try playing your scales, licks, phrases, songs backwards.
  34. PRACTICE DYNAMICS when you play scales, riffs, licks, songs, use dynamics (soft to loud and the other way around, dynamic jumps).
  35. SET YOURSELF MEASURABLE GOALS AND TARGETS IN TRYING TO IMPROVE.  In all this: failing to plan how you are going to improve in specific areas is like planning to fail.
  36. LEARN TO PLAY IN DIFFERENT TIME SIGNATURES. If you usually play in 4/4 , 6/8 or 12/8, how about learning to play in uneven time signatures like 3/4, 5/4, 7/8, 9/8, 11/8 etc. I remember well back in the Netherlands playing with people from the Middle East doing all these strange time signatures and scales, it really helped me to grow musically.
  37. LEARN TO PLAY IN ALTERNATE TUNING. It is a great way to find new sounds, ways of playing the same old songs, explore new techniques or discover new material. Ty Drop D, DADGAD, ORKNEY (CGCGCD), C tuning (CGCGCE), and others.
  38. SOLO OVER ONE CHORD, and experiment with different scales and modes over the same chord to really hear what the nature of the scale/mode or the sound of the scale/mode is in relation to that chord.
  39.  SET SPECIFIC BOUNDARIES TO THE LENGTH OF YOUR SOLO. It is a great way to learn how to leave a powerful message in a limited amount of time and to avoid senseless noodling. You don’t want to be that guy or girl of whom
  40. BECOME A GREAT RHYTHM GUITAR PLAYER/ACCOMPANIST. Many guitar players end up spending 90% of their time on soloing skills and improvement and 10% on Rhythm Guitar. Now look at your actual situation, it’s exactly the other way around, 90% of the time you play rhythm. Does is not make sense to get better at that? I know for sure that it is the guys and girls that can lock into the groove that will see their telephone ringing for the next gig. And where it comes to soloing:
  41. START FOCUSING ON TELLING A STORY. With my students we practice playing improvisations and (semi-)composed solos and focus on telling a story. A story is in broad terms build like this: introduction – body – closure. Bestselling authors use page turners in the body, events or sub plots that make you want to keep on reading. Try to translate that to your guitar solo. Listen to people like Steve Vai, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Carlos Santana and you will recognize that.
  42. WRITE YOUR OWN SONGS, MELODIES AND HARMONIES. It is a great way to put into creative practice what you are learning.
  43. FINISH THE SONGS YOU STARTED. It is very easy to put ideas aside and have them wait until the next burst of inspiration comes. Don’t do it, finish the song even if it means it is not a great song.
  44. IMPROVE YOUR VIBRATO, BENDS, COMBINATIONS. Your vibrato is key in expressing emotion while playing. Master it! Not just the one trick pony idea of the fast metal type of vibrato but also the slow haunting ones, the wide vibratos (Gary Moore), circular vibratos, and it is the same with bends, practice them with a tuner on the neck and see how accurate you are.
  45. IMPROVE YOUR PRE-BENDS. Learn to be accurate with your pre-bends which is basically learning to recognize the required tension under your fingers. Again do it with a tuner on the neck.
  46. PLAY WITHOUT VIBRATO.  Try playing your stuff and force yourself to do it without vibrato at all. It will help you to become more conscious and deliberate where you do use a vibrato.
  47. LISTEN TO A WIDER VARIETY OF MUSIC. It will definitely help your musical growth
  49. LEARN TO PLAY WITH A SLIDE OR EXPERIMENT WITH DIFFERENT TYPES OF SLIDES. When used skilfully slides are a great way to add another dimension to your playing. It is good to remember that there are many different types that will all produce a different characters to your sound. I use a brass and a thick glass one.
  50. LEAVE THE GHOST NOTES OUT. Been to those bands or jam sessions where the guitarist plays a funky rhythm but where there is no chord there are all those chucks? It get’s boring doesn’t it? Try playing to funk patterns leaving all the ghost notes out. Make the ghost notes a conscious choice.
  51. LEARN A DIFFERENT INSTRUMENT. I really enjoyed picking up the ukulele. The limitations of the instrument really helped me to expand my use of the guitar on do more with less. Likewise for picking up the bass. But you could also think of a mandolin, a banjo, or a bouzouki even. Piano might be a great new instrument on the side and is helpful to improve theory and aural. Drums or percussion are great to develop rhythmically. 
  52. EXTEND YOUR GENERAL KNOWLEDGE ON MUSIC. Read books on the history of music, biographies of artists, books about specific subjects, magazines that are a bit more in depth such a MOJO, DOWN BEAT. Here in New Zealand you can get the NZ Musician for free in most music stores.  It has good articles and lessons (also read the lessons that are not about your instrument).
  53. GET A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF YOUR GUITAR EFFECTS. Guitar effects are a great way to expand your sound palette and an inevitable part of being a working musician. Get to know your effects and how they affect your sound, how to gear them up, order of effects and experiment what happens if you against the grain.
  54. GO OUT AND PLAY WITH OTHERS. Form a band, go to jam sessions, become a member of your local church’ music team, jam with a friend, jam with more experienced musicians. Music is supposed to be shared and nothing will help you to improve more than playing with others. Listening to what you are doing and how it ties in with the rest of the musicians, experiencing how not playing may be a better idea than playing (space is just as important, locking into the groove with the drummer and bass player, create great harmonic stricture and groove with the keyboard player/pianist it all helps in your growth as a player and it is so enjoyable to learn like this.
  55. FIND A GOOD TEACHER, A MENTOR OR COACH. Despite all the great resources available, nothing beats  one on one time with an experienced teacher, mentor or coach and this applies to all aspects of your playing. He or she can help you with posture, technique, creativity, song writing, and will be able to map out a path towards the goals and targets you have set. He or she may be able to take you along to gigs and jam sessions, may be able to introduce you to other musicians and thus help you to grow faster than you would have on your own.
    If you feel that urge straight away, contact me >>> even when you are far away: skype or google video chat lessons can be arranged as well.


Now these are just some off the cuff ideas in random order. Remember that we are aiming for a one percent improvement only. I would really appreciate it if you could add some additional ideas as a comment.

Keys to Successful Practice


A lot of students have asked me how they can good as fast as possible. Practice makes perfect is often heard. While that cannot be denied it is also important to keep in mind that not all practice is effective practice. The shortest way to get from A to B is in a straight line. At the same time, it is helpful when you start at point A to know where that point B is going to be e.g. what is it you are trying to achieve in the short and long run. Based on what you are trying to achieve you can now set out and start practicing towards these goals. In the past thirty years I have found that while we all know what the shortest way is, it is not always the way we choose. If you are like me at times it is very easy to get going and get distracted for a while to return back on track. Since you do not have endless amounts of time because of homework, a job, running your own family and business, having a social life, it helps to organize your practice time. In the following paragraphs I will lay down some guiding principles that I use. 

Be clear on your goals and/or what it is you are trying to achieve

You can’t efficiently and effectively go from A to B if you do not have a clue what B is. YOU NEED A TARGET OR GOAL. From these goals it will transpire more clearly what it is you need to focus on. If your goal is to become a blistering fast heavy metal virtuoso, it is of less use to learn lots of finger picking patterns that do not have a relation to what you are trying to achieve. Instead you may have more profit from learning specific style related techniques such as tapping. LOOK FOR AN EXPERIENCED TEACHER OR MUSICIAN/MENTOR to get the components together, someone who can advise or give you some material and understands the requirements that get you where you want to be.


I don’t know about you, but I remember well how I got through some school years. I did what I needed to do at the last moment and would be sitting there complaining how much it all was in terms of homework. I have had several students that worked like that for their guitar lessons as well. The sad thing is that it just doesn’t work. Part of what you are trying to achieve is dependent on finger memory and repetition.

I always say to my students that they may well be better off with 10 minutes of concentrated practice a day than 1 hour a week. I recommend having your guitar on a stand or somewhere where it safe yet easy to pick up. You may just walk by and pick it up ad put it away again after playing a little bit on it.

Right environment

When you practice and your time is limited, it is important to do so in an environment where it is easy to concentrate. Try to keep distractions to a minimum. Where you practice is not the main issue, as long as the area is free from too much noise to concentrate as well as other common household distractions. A lot of my younger students use their bedroom ad have set up a special corner for that purpose. Others may have some room in the garage or sleep out for the purpose of uninterrupted practice and play time.  Wherever that area of practice may be it is preferable to use that same area all times. It maybe be an area where equipment is set up and can be left , as well as a music stand and proper lighting. Nothing is more demotivating than having to set up and pack down every time you practice.

Other things to consider are:

  • a good chair that is height adjustable and supports your back, and if you practice standing up a good quality strap that takes away the pressure on your shoulders and neck
  • a music stand (preferably one that is capable of holding up heave books (like real books) and that fits at least to A4 preferable 3 or 4 A4 pages
  • good lighting that is easy enough on the eye and makes it easy to read what’s on your stand
  • a good temperature; not to warm or cold
  • a metronome or drum machine
  • a recording device
  • and instrument stand

Practice Materials

The number of music books and other instructional materials is mind-blowing and more than anyone could work through in a life time. I suggest you become (within your means) a collector. If they are of a general nature read through them. If they are music books, play from them, and most of all don’t necessarily limit yourself to materials for guitar only. I know I learned a lot from piano books and from books like the Charlie Parker (saxophonist) Omnibook. Nowadays, you could look around on the net and find there are many good sites with good materials. There have been several occasions where I was a replacement for a piano player. This is where you will need to be able to step it up and piano books helped me not only to further develop comping technique but also to understand piano better, from bass books I learned a lot on how to build bass lines that later on could be incorporated in my finger style playing and overall it helped it helped me in becoming a more complete guitarist.

Buy Guitar Magazines

There are so many guitar magazines available on the market that have articles, columns and songs transcribed for you to learn and play. Some are very specific and some are of a more general nature. My personal favorites that I read and play through every month are:

Guitar Techniques
I guess this is the best magazine for the practicing musician. It covers a wide range of styles, electric as well as acoustic and even has a monthly classical guitar section.
Total Guitar Magazine
A stronger focus on rock and metal but I really like the magazine and the lessons and songs in there. They have great gear reviews and articles that have to do with the music business in general and with recording guitar.

The play guitar now instruction videos

Every month a booklet and instruction video looking at a particular style. They are not always very in depth but provide a great starting point to develop more in depth knowledge into a specific style of playing or specific techniques. Some of the area covered are electric and acoustic blues, jazz, classical guitar, ukulele, funk, country.

A great resource also for my students.

Acoustic Guitar Magazine

As the title suggests this magazine is completely aimed at the acoustic guitar player. I love the at times nostalgic look of the magazine and the wide range of styles covered in the magazine. It has helped me inn several areas of my guitar playing and has inspired me to look beyond the obvious.

Every month it has a great selection of songs and training material in the form of lessons. Like Guitar Techniques definitely a magazine for those that want to become a complete guitar player.

With these four regular monthly items I always have more training material available than I can handle but besides that there is always something new at had that helps me to get inspired in terms of new approaches, new techniques (for me) and extending my repertoire and insight into different genres of music. This “investment” has paid itself back in two ways: first of all I keep on growing on my instrument, which as a guitar teacher can easily be neglected. I need to because I am also a performing musician. But second of all it makes it easier as a teacher in terms of preparation because on many an occasion I do not need to reinvented the wheel where it comes to lesson material that is fresh.

Exchange materials with your friends

Share books ad magazines with your friends. It helps to keep the financial burden down and extends the range pf possibilities. I remember well how, when studying at jazz school in the Netherlands, four of us committed to buying one magazine every month and at least one book every term. We swapped and circled around and all had access to more than we could normally afford in terms of resources.

Start a lick book

When I was still studying music I kept a note book with lick and ideas for melodic lines, fragments of potential songs and whatever came to mind. Some of these things have resulted in songs, some of these have resulted in licks that have become part and parcel of who I am as a player and some have pushed my technical limitations where I had an idea for a lick but was not able to execute it. I would categorize in style, or theoretical concept. Things like  II-V-I, pentatonic scale lick, right hand tapping, chord voicing.

Create your own exercises

I think it was Steve Vai that said that there is nothing that cannot be put into an exercise. Some of my students who do this end up becoming the best. It is a great way to develop in areas that are part of your goals and that are not part of your strengths (yet). It is the area where you can transform your weaknesses into a strength and where you deepen your strengths to new levels. I stimulate all my students, to let the imagination, inspiration and that which you hear in your head to be a guiding factor in finding your own “voice”.  Almost without exception they find that their imagination and ideas are well ahead of their technical abilities. This is where your imagination becomes a guidance for your practice routine. YOU HAVE AN IDEA, BUT YOU CAN’T PLAY IT (yet). TURN IT INTO A EXERCISE!!!!

Six Key Areas of Practice

After getting to grips with the basics ( open chords, bar chords and simple single line playing and reading) the six key areas of practice are technique, song book, sight reading, ear training, theory, general knowledge.


Technique is the result of hand brain coordination and knowledge of the fingerboard. The only way to gain technique is by regular practice of scales , arpeggios, chords, melodic patterns, harmonic patterns, played in all possible ways throughout different relevant keys and different places on the neck of the guitar. Good technique is the key to being a good player. I personally have been helped a lot by various “shredding” resources. I will never be a shredder but focus on speed has helped me a lot in realizing to play some of the music that I was hearing in my head. It has helped me being more accurate in the execution of slower materials because I gained more control.


Repertoire is the learning and memorizing of tunes in the chosen area of study. If you are like me, someone with a very wide range of musical preferences, it will mean that you expose yourself to a wide range of ways to play the same chord sequences and to play solos in a way fitting to the style. It teaches you about traditions and intricate differences between different styles of music but most of all, IT TEACHES YOU WHAT THE COMMON DENOMINATORS ARE. Just imagine how much more effective you will be in practice if your practice regime includes common denominators.

Sight reading

Guitarists in general are not known for their sight reading qualities. And with tabs  available for almost anything it does not help. However, when you want to grow in a professional environment, sight reading will give you the edge and more importantly, it is achievable to play a sheet of music through daily practice. I require all my students t learn how to read rhythm at a minimum so they can read tabs with the music notation above. Combined with getting to know the names of the notes on your neck most will eventually get to learn music notation. It is a good thing however to learn to read music notation simply because there is a world of great music that does not come with tabs.

Ear training (Aural)

Good ear is not something you have to be born with, it can be trained. It is so beneficial if you can hear chord progressions and melodic lines and play them by ear immediately.


Is very helpful and helps you to understand what you are doing on your guitar, it helps seeing the bigger picture and the smaller details, how to use a capo, write music and arrangements.

General knowledge

Read about the history of music, biographies, know more about leading artists and different styles, how songs were written and produced, listen to a wide range of music and open yourself up to new ideas and concepts.


While all the key areas are of importance, to me music should at all times be fun as well. So in my practice routine I always incorporate some free play time. I think it was Vicky Genfan that said that she would start every day with ten minutes in which she tried something she had never done before. If that something you just imagined is to hard to execute: you now have an exercise. It could be just playing along with your favorite artist, groove with a drum machine whatever puts a big smile on your face.

In the next part we’ll have a look at how these practice areas could be made into a practice routine.