We've all been there: you listen to Steve Vai's or Satriani's or some other guitar god's latest album and you think it's so cool that you go "This is it! I'm gonna learn this song!" So you sit down with your guitar, get the tab (or play it by ear), identify the difficult parts and realize what you've got to practice. But after putting some time in, you realize that after a while, there's another cool song or lick or technique that you wanted to master. So you pick that up. Pretty soon, there comes the day where you feel like you've been wandering aimlessly in your practice and you don't even know where you started or where you're headed.
I know I've been there. I started out on guitar by playing the songs I liked and after a while, I wanted to play anything I could get my ears and hands on. It goes without saying that the feelings of frustration and confusion got a hold of me and I felt like I was exactly where I started. This is where setting goals is very important.
Setting goals for our guitar playing is something that allows us to stay on track, focused and motivated, because it allows us to know where we are headed at any point in time. Do you know how basketball players land their shots most of the time? They are trained from very early on to always look at the hoop when they're throwing. If you always know where you're headed, you'll eventually get there!
So, is it that you you set up goals for yourself? Well, I found that a very good way to do it is to follow a thing called the SMART rule:
S - Specific
You have to know exactly what you want. It doesn't cut it to state that you want to be a master alternate picker, you have to state it in a way that you know you've achieved your goal. For example: "I want to be able to alternate pick 16th notes at 200BPM." By doing it this way, you're making it very clear for you what it is that you want and consequently you'll realize what it is that you need to do in order to achieve your goal.
M - measurable and motivational
This has to do with the point I just mentioned. You have to be able to know how far away you are from your goal and how you progressed in order to know what you need to do to get there. It's completely different to get in your car to drive to Mexico than it is to get in your car to go to the grocery store. Will you pack a bag or just take your wallet? Do you need a full tank of gas or just having it 1/4 full will do? How far away you are from you goal dictates completely different steps in order to prepare yourself for the challenge, as well as prepares you mentally for what's to come, so you'll be less permeable to frustration.
A - attainable
Setting a goal must be something that you know that you can realistically reach. With this, I don't mean that you can only aspire to get 10 BPMs faster with a specific technique or change faster between certain chords (although, if that's what you're aiming for, please give it all you've got), but you should set it high enough so that you shoot for a good amount of progress. Just make sure that you can really see yourself getting there or otherwise you'll just end up frustrated and tired.
R - relevant
What you want has got to be relevant. Do you really want to be able to pick all the notes in a specific passage at mind-boggling speeds? Is it really necessary to learn all the modes by heart or being able to apply one or 2 is enough for your current skillset? Maybe you just want to be a better songwriter. Be clear on what makes you happy by playing the guitar and don't go too long without it when aspiring for ultimate goals. I cannot stress enough the importance of morale and happiness when playing. After all, do you want to torture yourself while learning it?
T - time-oriented
One of the super secrets I've learned on goal setting is that there's a timing for everything. You have to know what you're going to want to do tomorrow, but there's also great benefits by planning things in the mid and long run (you can plan things on a weekly, monthly and even yearly basis). Knowing where you want to go in the long run will help you a lot in planning your mid and short term goals so that you always know what you have to do when you pick up the guitar today.
Finally, use your goals to help you orientate your practice regimen (another thing you should plan out). If you know where you want to go, your schedule should benefit from that in that now you can plan specific exercises and drills to help you achieve what you want. Discuss this with your teacher (if you're taking lessons currently) and I'm sure he'll be very happy to talk about this with you. You will both benefit from this in the short and long run.
Ok, so we've covered the topic on how to set your goals. But setting them alone is not your pathway to freedom. Sure, you can plan a whole brainstorming session, put your goals in a neatly drafted document, print it and then... Just stick them in the drawer? I can assure you, if you do this, you'll be shooting yourself in the foot. You need to put it out in the open so you can look at it every time you pick up the guitar. This is critically important. It's like having a GPS in your car telling you where to go all the time; you'll never get lost.
The right answer to this one is right now and all the time! You should keep your goals relevant to the shortest and longest timespan possible. Review them all the time so you can keep them fresh and adjusted to what you want to do and where you want to go. This way your goals are adjusted to your reality, skillset and interests and you'll never be bored or frustrated about not making progress towards the guitar player you want to become. Be always sure to update your mid and long term goals when necessary and appropriate.
So, we've seen that setting goals is a very powerful way to keep yourself in check at all times. By following the SMART rule, you can keep focused and motivated in your playing, as long as you keep them in plain sight at all times and update them regularly to reflect your current situation.
This will ensure that you'll never get lost again. After all, when you get you of the house you want to make sure you reach your destination. It's cool to go after every beautiful little thing that comes your way (and in guitar playing there's a lot of them), but if you never catch it and have the ability to contemplate it, what's the point?
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About the Author:Based in Zurich, Switzerland, Gonçalo Crespo is a professional guitar teacher and musician. He has taught guitar for over 8 years covering a variety of styles but focuses mainly on making sure their students know the shortest and most effective path to guitar playing success. Founder of MusicAndCo. Guitar School.