Playing for practice

I understand that to play a song well you need to use tools like the metronome and play song at slower BPM’s to help you improve, I am also familiar with the practice perfectly concept to help you avoid instilling bad habits and techniques.

Just wondering if playing a song without fretting (excuse the pun;) about playing it with mistakes is as important as focused practice on playing it without the mistakes. I expect that both are important in the learning process and to help make the process fun at the same time.

After about a year and a half of learning the guitar I know a few songs by heart and can play others with notes. Maybe one or two can play well with basic strumming and some that sound close to the original but not without a lot of mostly silent expletives at certain points of the song.

My question to the guitar universe, if both things are important, what balance of practicing perfectly and just playing for practice do you employ to ultimately be able to play a song close to the original version? If that’s your goal of course.

Looking forward to your thoughts.

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I think your are still new in your journey and as you play over the years and learn new techniques you will apply them to the songs you practice and the will get better sounding and closer to the song’s original sound. Keep practicing and learning .

i think there are two different ideas in play here. Learning the song and performing.

In terms of learning the song, I would suggest you try not to make mistakes. Learning the song in ‘layers’ is an excellent idea touted by @LievenDV - learn to play through a basic version of the song - very simple strumming, simplify the chords miss out the bridge, whatever it takes to be able to play the song. Then build on that by starting to add the more challenging bits, but always have a version of the song you can play.

The performance piece is also important - if you are going to play for others then learning to keep going if you make a mistake is another skill entirely and an important one. However it’s a different type of practicing. Once you can play a song, then challenge yourself to play the whole thing - all verses / choruses start to finish and push through any mistakes. Recording yourself is helpful here too. You’d be surprised how often you think you screwed something up, but if you keep the rhythm going it’s not that noticeable to an audience - they will however notice if you stop and start from the top!


perfection does not exist , every time you play it is practice !


Agree with what you’ve said about layers.

Find a song you want to play, start simple and once you can do simple then add to it.

If I’m going to add something new to a song I might practice that part in isolation, maybe in a loop, before trying to add it to the song.

On the subject of the silent expletives I’d say give yourself a break. Mistakes are part of learning and you’ll get no joy from playing if you’re cursing mistakes. If it’s the same mistake, each time then I’d suggest practicing that part in isolation (as above). The odd mistake is fine, but if it’s part of a pattern then you’re in danger of it becoming a habit.


Ok, I think learning in layers does make more sense. If I understand correctly you are playing the song well consistently and gradually building it to a more complex version, each time playing it mostly well at first and eventually really well. Then you can take it up to the next level without building in bad habits or techniques.

Thank you all for the insight, I am excited about building this into my practice sessions. I also liked the response that each version you play is practice because perfection is unobtainable. And the other to not to be too hard on yourself, each mistake made is a lesson learned. Sage reminders.


Yes spot on, that’s how I do it anyway. Don’t think that really well has to equal perfect, but you should be able to play all of the sections individually most of the time is my benchmark.

Everyone brings up some excellent points. Personally as one just beginning my musical (guitar) journey, I am very much aware of trying not to embed bad habits into my playing. I typically make a mental note during a song to try and “fix” a problem mid-song. Otherwise I will stop and take a moment (or two) to work on that particular “problem” - before it gets too deep into my muscle/brain memory…

I very much prefer the approach of trying to fix it at the end of the song (although you need to make sure it doesn’t get kicked down the road for a day that never comes). I say this because another bad habit is stopping playing when you make a mistake. It’s much better to see if you can play your way back into the song as quickly and seamlessly as possible, like you’d want to do if you were performing. An audience might not detect a mistake but they will notice you stop playing! It might seem early in the journey to talk about performing but we are talking about embedding good habits


Thanks guys for already sharing what I would hve advised myself; to work in layers <3

Check this document I made to accompany a Live club about reportoire and most all of the second part, about a song in layers. It will tell you in more detail what this layering is about.


I’ve been down that path and I think the most important thing is you keep the fun in what you are doing. That will keep you playing and the rest will sort itself out down the road.

The first couple of times I tried a metronome, it sucked all the joy out of what I was doing so I stopped using the metronome. Later, it really helped me, especially when I started to play with others.

Now I’m working on a new dream song and I know the practicing it without mistakes will help me heaps, whereas in the earlier days that would have just made it all too hard.

I have a repertoire of probably 100 songs. Only a handful of them do I attempt to sound like the original. You’ll figure out how important that is to you over time.

For me, I like songs that are re-imagined different to the originals. There’s a whole thread on that here on the forums. Most of mine are just played how they fit my playing style and not too worried about the original and I’m ok with that. Sometimes that comes back to bite me, one song I do, to me sounds originalish, but when rehearsing with a new duo partner he pointed out tactfully that it just doesn’t quite have the same feel as the original, my words come in just a bit different. Yet I’ve had many people sing along to it that way around a campfire and they seemed to have fun. But for playing it with him I’ll reword it to have the feel of the original.



Thanks to @LievenDV for the link to the document on layers. A lot to digest, will spend more time looking it over.

I agree with @tony about striving to sound like the original. Focusing too much on that leaves your creativity out. I guess what I mean by this is it would be nice if a song sounds similar so you and others recognize what you are playing and you or them enjoy your rendition of the song. Also some stuff from the original sounds really good like the G riff in If It Makes You Happy by Sheryl Crow. Like Justin says in his tutorial you can play without the riff but it seems to be missing something without it.


This is great. I remember when you were going through it but I couldn’t find it.

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To me learning a song and performing a song are two different skills that I approach sequentially.

I like to learn the whole song perfectly - or as close as I can get - first. For that I’ll break it down into sections, slow it down as needed, and work each section until I have it down. I try not to make mistakes and correct them as I go, including stopping and repeating. I prefer to learn the full part, with all the licks and embellishments, from the start.

Then I assemble the song by putting the sections together until I can play through the song. I still try to avoid making mistakes, and I focus on section transitions and problem areas. I’ll still stop and repeat, but I’ll repeat larger chunks.

Then, once I have the whole song down, I’ll work on performing it. I’ll play along with the song or backing track / drum track / metronome and I won’t stop. I’ll still try not to make a mistake, but if I make one I will keep playing or will jump back in as soon as I can.


I too struggle a bit with trying to get pieces perfect before I attempt to play them in public. This is especially true for doing single note stuff like a song’s signature riff. I’ll get it to where I can do it right 8 times out of 10 but then I’m afraid to play the riff because it might come out like one of the 2 times where it’s wrong.

Don’t know if I should strive to get it down 100% of the time before I try it in a performance or if 80% is good enough and if there’s a mistake I should just learn to play through it. After all, several here have mentioned that the audience doesn’t notice quite often. I suppose it depends on how bad a mistake it is.


Well, both skills are important (playing the piece correctly, and recovering from a mistake without losing the rhythm and tempo), but of the two, in my OPINION, playing it correctly is more important.

So, believing that both skills need to be practiced, here’s what I do:

  1. I use focused practice to reach the threshold of playing the entire song correctly, including all chord changes, strumming patterns, and picked notes, but a a slower-than-full tempo. I use my 5 minute focused time to work on whichever part of the song is the most challenging at a REALLY SLOW TEMPO, like 50-60bpm, then, once I’ve got the song fully under my fingers, I’ll speed it up 10bpm. Once it’s solid at this tempo, I take focused practice off my practice schedule.

  2. Now, the song is considered part of my repertoire, and is on the list of songs I choose from for my 5-minute “repertoire revision” warm-up at the beginning of each practice session. Here, the song gets the additional repetition my fingers need to slowly get the song up to speed. Since I’m not focused on getting it perfect, it provides the opportunity to practice how to gracefully recover from occasional mess-ups without burning a bad habit into my brain.

  3. If I notice myself messing up the same thing in a song multiple times, I’ll put the song back into my focused practice to drill that part until I “can’t get it wrong”.

I’ve had songs that took 2 weeks to fully develop in step 1, and others that took 6 months! The longer ones weren’t “dreamers”, but there was some fingering technique, chord grip, or picking pattern that was challenging for my brain.

To me, “correctly” doesn’t mean “exactly like the original”. My goal is to make the sound coming out of my instrument sound like what my ears and brain hear when listening to the original. With a riff, this may match the original, but a song with multiple guitar parts gets interpreted into a single guitar part that represents the feel of the song to me.

I also think that LievenDV’s layers method is great! I use it to build complexity to songs I already know as my skills expand. For example, I play some blues songs with no bending, because I haven’t taught myself string bending yet. But, when I do learn the technique, I’ll go back and add that “layer” to my performance of the song. In other cases, the desire to make the song sound more like the original will help me decide what new technique I want to learn next.



Agreed, to me it’s something that sounds musical and is recognisable as the original (assuming you’re trying to sound like the original).

To my thinking, you’re better off playing a simplified version of a song well than struggling through a version that attempts to be note perfect to the original. I prefer the approach of layers rather than painfully trying to master the original from day 1. Maybe when I’m more accomplished I might change that approach but with my current beginner-ish ability level, trying to be note for note with an original from the outset sounds soul destroying. I think I’d learn one new song approximately every 2 years if I did that!


Hmmm, It’s probably bad for overall progress in technical skill and accuracy. But to me those times where I switch of the analytics and just allow myself to feel what I’m playing and just flow, mistakes be damned, are the best part of playing.

Might sound a bit hippy dippy :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:, but I thought I’d add my 2cents.

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My approach:

Step 1: before learning a new song I decide on the target: sometimes that’s simply being able to strum the chords and sing, at other times there is an intricate picking pattern to learn or unusual chord voicings. Sometimes the target is to sound close to the original recording, sometimes that’s not possible and sometimes I don’t even want to sound like the original

Step 2: Learn the song by heart. Guitar part first, lyrics later. This is the muck-around-phase where I don’t really care about anything other than learning the song by heart. Every practise session I see how much I remember and naturally stop when I hit parts that I don’t remember yet. tempo and a lot of other things are all over the place. I apply layers when learning by heart: first remember the chord progression, then chord voicings, basic strumming patters, then where are the fills and embellishments. At the end of this phase i often already know which parts of the song will require more focused attention.

Step 3: Practise perfectly. I know the song by heart now and which areas I need to work on so go through them. This step ends when I can play the song beginning to end without major hickups most of the time. I try not to stop when I make mistakes, but that doesn’t always work out.

Step 4: Endurance workout: I often find that I can play one verse + chorus at a time without mistakes, but in later verses and chorus repetitions concentration drops , fatigue sets in and then I make mistakes in the last verse on the home run. So annoying. So this phase is all about playing the full song beg to end several times in a row. Or playing faster than target speed to see where and when it cracks up.