In a previous post, Why You Should Practice the Guitar, I talked about why I think it’s important to practice. In this article, I’m going to talk about how to practice. Or, more accurately, I want to suggest some ideas about practicing—because of course there are a million different ways to approach practice and none of them is The One Correct Way.
Fundamentals of Practicing
Playing an instrument really well requires different skills and areas of knowledge, so a complete practice program needs to cover all the bases. A well-rounded musician is proficient in technique, music theory, sight reading, ear training, improvisation, and more—so, ideally, all of these areas would be covered in a practice routine.
Now, having said that, the reality is that everyone is different and certain aspects of playing will be more important to some players than others. For example, a metal guitarist who is mostly interested in shredding might want to prioritize technique and improvisation over being able to sight-read music. And some people aren’t interested in reading music at all. So there are lots of areas that the ideal “well-rounded” guitarist would need to work on, but that doesn’t mean there’s a one-size-fits-all practice routine. And not every guitar player cares about being well-rounded. Whatever direction you decide to take on the guitar is up to you.
But I do want to highlight three main points that I think apply to all practice routines:
- Regular practice is important
- A little practice every day is better than a lot every now and then
- Practice time is about work
Let’s look at these in more detail:
1.) Regular practice is important
You should try really hard to make guitar practice a regular part of your life—something that you plan for and do every day (if possible). Once habits are firmly established, they tend to keep going (because, you know, they’re habits) and more than anything else, this can have the greatest effect on your playing. When you are so into a well-established groove of daily practice that practice time is just a given—you schedule other events around it, you feel a little empty/unsatisfied when you miss it—then you are on the path toward great things. You’re also in a separate league from 90% of the other guitarists out there—not that it’s a competition.
2.) A little practice every day is better than lots of practice now and then
Again, the key is to get into the mindset that practicing your guitar every day is part of your normal routine. That doesn’t mean you have to spend two hours a day practicing—most people don’t have that much free time. But 15 minutes? No problem. You probably spend more time than that in the bathroom. (I’m not judging.) Anyone that has an interest in playing the guitar can do 15 minutes a day. If you’re so busy that you can’t, then get up 15 minutes earlier each day—problem solved.
You might be thinking “Gimme a break—you can’t accomplish anything in 15 minutes.” Well, if you’re thinking that, you’re wrong. Sorry to be so blunt. First of all, 15 minutes a day is almost two hours a week and you can make lots of progress spending almost two hours a week on dedicated practice. And second, 15 minutes (or 10 minutes, or whatever) is your minimum commitment to yourself. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep going and practice more if you have the time. Like any habit or task that needs to be accomplished, the most important thing is to just get started. Once you do that, you’ll often keep going as you get absorbed in the activity. Getting over the inertia so that you move from “sitting on the couch playing XBox” to “practicing the guitar” is the hardest part. Once you get going, Newton’s first law of motion* often kicks in and you keep going longer than you intended.
* an object in motion tends to stay in motion (but you already knew that).
3.) Practice time is about work
Don’t get me wrong, practicing can be a lot of fun. But that’s not the main purpose. I touch on this in the Why You Should Practice the Guitar article, but it’s worth discussing it again here. You want to get in the habit of practicing because it’s what needs to be done. There are times when it’s fine and appropriate to do whatever you’re in the mood to do. Practice time is not one of those times. You should practice because it makes you a better musician and moves you closer toward your goals. It doesn’t matter whether you feel like doing it or not. If you only practice when you feel like it, you’re guaranteed to make inconsistent, if any, progress because your mood, energy level, attitude, enthusiasm, and confidence will change from day to day. That’s normal. That’s being a human. No one wants to commit to working on something every day. But those who want to excel at something need to go ahead and do the work regardless of how they feel.
Taking Lessons vs. Going it Alone
I think the ideal way to ensure you stick to a practice schedule is to take lessons from a good teacher. A big reason for this is that a teacher (if he or she is any good) will push you to practice things that you need to work on, rather than focus only on things you want to work on. It’s fun to play stuff you already know well, but if you already have something mastered, playing it over and over is a limited kind of practice. It might help you get better at that one song, riff, finger exercise, or whatever, but at a certain point, you start to get diminishing returns and your time would be better spent working on things that you’re not so good at. Human nature being what it is, we tend to avoid our weaker areas of playing because improving them takes work.
However, not everyone has access to a teacher. Maybe there aren’t any teachers in your area, or you just don’t have the money to spend on lessons. That’s okay. You can make steady progress without a teacher—if you make a practice plan and stick to it. It will take a little more effort because you won’t have a teacher holding your feet to the fire and checking on your progress every week. So you’ll have to be accountable to yourself and will have to be disciplined about working toward your goals. But you can definitely do that. I believe in you, buddy.
So now let me throw out some ideas on structuring your practice time. Your options will differ based on how much time you can and want to practice each day. Maybe you’re very busy with a job, school, or whatever, and can only practice a few minutes each day. That’s fine. Or maybe you have a burning passion for the guitar and the time available to dig in deeper. It’s up to you to find the routine that works for you. But keep in mind that it’s more important to stick to a regular practice than to go nuts practicing for a few days and then stop because life gets in the way (which it always does). So I strongly recommend that you start off light and then, after you’ve really gotten into a steady practicing routine, you can extend your practice time to longer sessions. The goal is to develop a regular and sustainable practice schedule, not to cram a ton of practice in whenever you’re in the mood. (I mean, that’s certainly better than nothing, but it’s not ideal.)
Whatever practice routine you ultimately come up with, I encourage you to keep this fundamental idea in mind: Set goals and work towards them. When all is said and done, that’s probably what lies at the core of practicing as opposed to just playing. When you practice, you’re not just noodling around for fun; you have one or more specific goals and you work until you reach them. Then you set new goals.
Let’s look at some sample routines for three different levels of time commitment: light, medium, and heavy.
Light: 15 Minutes a Day
This is your basic daily routine and is mostly focused on getting you into the practicing habit. There’s not enough time to delve too deeply into any topic but you can build an awesome foundation on just 15 minutes a day. As far as what to practice, there are all kinds of options:
- Pick an article/lesson—from this site, from another website, from YouTube, etc.—that you’re interested in and that seems appropriate to your current level.
- Work your way through the lessons in a guitar book.
- Find exercises for a particular skill that you want to improve, like alternate picking or sight-reading.
- Learn a song you like via a guitar tab or YouTube.
Whatever you choose, dedicate yourself to practicing that one topic until you feel like you’ve mastered it or have made reasonable progress and are ready to move on to something else. You might stay on the same topic for one or two weeks, or even more, and that’s absolutely fine. In fact, that’s great.
If it’s a finger exercise, practice it slowly with a metronome every day, gradually increasing the speed as you go. If it’s a song, practice every day until you can play it well; if you have to slow down the tempo to switch to different chords, then practice the whole thing slower until you’re able to play it smoothly at a slow tempo. Then and only then should you increase the tempo.
The key is to not just hop around from one video/article/lesson to the next, based on whatever mood you’re in that day. Instead, commit to getting better at something before you move on to a new topic. This can be challenging because sometimes new skills are hard and not fun to practice. This is where limiting it to 15 minutes can be helpful—even if you’re bored, it won’t last long, and you can quickly get back to doing dive-bombs on your whammy bar or playing those three chords from “Smoke on the Water” over and over again.
Medium: 30 Minutes a Day
Let’s say you have a little bit more time available, or you’re finding that, every time you sit down to practice for 15 minutes, you wind up practicing for much longer. Well in that case, you might want to plan for a longer session—say, 30 minutes a day. Having this much time allows you to broaden your practice routine so you can work on different aspects of your playing.
For example, you might want to spend 15 minutes practicing new chords and 15 minutes working on technique. Or maybe you want to spend 10 minutes each on chords, sight-reading, and technique. You can split it up however you want.
Another option is to alternate days between “Practice Routine 1” and “Practice Routine 2”. Each routine can focus on different aspects so that you keep your playing moving forward on all fronts, but don’t have to spend too much time each day practicing. Here’s just one example of what the two routines can look like:
Practice Routine 1:
- Technique (15 min)
- Reading (15 min)
Practice Routine 2:
- Chords (10 min)
- Theory (10 min)
- Ear Training (10 min)
This approach is kind of like a weightlifter doing a “split” routine: legs on Mon, Wed, and Fri and chest/back on Tue, Thu, and Sat.
Heavy: One hour minimum
What’s that? You can fit an hour or more of guitar practice into your daily schedule? Hooray! You win the jackpot. Get ready to ride the express train to guitar mastery.
In this basic routine, you try to hit on all the main areas in which you want to improve. So there’s a little bit of everything. How “little” depends on how much time you have but the basic idea is that you want to put some time into each of the main areas of playing. This can broken out in all kinds of different ways; here’s one example:
Technique – 10 min
Reading – 15 min
Chords – 15 min
Theory – 10 min
Ear Training – 10 min
This allows you to hit five different areas in about one hour; but you can adjust the times however you want, and add or remove areas to work on. The world is your oyster.
And of course, as above, you also have the split-routine option, if that seems more appealing:
Practice Routine 1:
- Technique – 30 min
- Improvisation – 30 min.
Practice Routine 2:
- Chords – 20 min.
- Theory – 20 min.
- Ear Training – 20 min.
Okay, enough about practice routines. You get the idea.
To wrap up this loooong post, I want to throw out some general notes and ideas about different areas of practice:
Working on technique is kind of a natural area to start each session with because it helps get your fingers warmed up for everything that follows. When working on technique, it’s important to start off at a slow tempo and gradually increase speed as you go. Using a metronome is highly, highly recommended so that you can clearly measure your progress. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and say that it’s a requirement.
There are many different aspects to good technique and all kinds of different exercises for each of these. But some essential skills include alternate picking, tremolo, and string skipping.
Being able to read music is a valuable skill and it has many benefits beyond just being able to quickly play a piece of music that someone puts in front of you. However, it takes regular and dedicated practice to develop this skill and many players are just not interested. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you want to learn reading, based on your specific musical goals. Personally, I think you should definitely learn to read music—but hey, that’s just me.
If you do want to learn to read music, there are many great books out there that will take you step by step from being an absolute beginner to acquiring real skill as a reader. The beginning books can be kind of boring because the songs are basic but they’re still very important in helping you learn the locations of the notes on the guitar and the fundamentals of music notation. As with any challenge in life, the fastest way around is to go straight through so don’t skip the boring stuff in the beginning and try to jump to more interesting songs. Be patient and do the tedious work up front so that you lay down a solid foundation for more difficult stuff later.
Not to state the obvious, but there are many different chords on the guitar and lots of different ways to play them. So dedicated chord practice can really open up new possibilities on the instrument. Learning a new chord and chord shape is pretty straightforward and is practiced the same way you learned your first chords: learn the fingering (which includes knowing the actual notes that you’re playing) and then practice playing the chord at gradually increasing tempos. Next, practice switching to and from that chord by incorporating it into a chord progression. There are a lots of articles and videos about chords online so you should be able to easily find new chords to learn. And of course there are plenty of articles on this site that show how to play chords. In particular, check out Your First Chord: E Minor first, since it talks about basic techniques that apply to all chords.
A lot of people are intimidated by music theory—they see it as complex, mysterious, and closer to math than to music. And many guitar players don’t think theory is important or relevant to their playing. The reality is that the basics of music theory are actually straightforward and totally understandable, and a knowledge of theory is very important to improving on the guitar. It’s true that music theory does get complicated—but that happens at a level beyond which a beginning or intermediate guitarist needs to go. There is so much theory that can be learned that is understandable and useful without wading into the deep waters of chromatic mediants, figured bass, and four-part harmony. Learning about key relationships, how chords are built, basic harmony, and more will expand both your ability as a player and your appreciation for music that you listen to.
There are many ways to incorporate the study of theory into your practice sessions. Whether you use a book, YouTube, or other articles online, you’ll want to focus on the following fundamental topics first:
- Keys and key signatures
- The major scale
- Triads: major, minor, and diminished
- The modes of the major scale
- Tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords
Often neglected, but super-important to all musicians, ear training develops your ability to identify musical elements like pitches, chords, intervals, harmonies, and rhythm. Some people are born with this skill already highly developed—they can easily remember and sing back melodies they hear, and can identify differences in pitch. Others—most people—need to spend time and effort developing this skill. And it absolutely can be improved if you work on it.
Here are some common and effective ways to develop your ear:
- Use an ear-training app or website (a bunch of free ones exist) and practice identifying intervals and chords. You can also have someone play intervals and chords on a piano or guitar while you try to identify them.
- Play something on your guitar or on a piano (or have someone else play something) and sing it back.
- When you practice a scale, sing each note as you play it.
- Spend time listening closely to sections of a song or a musical piece and sing the melodies you hear, or try to play them on your guitar.
- Try to figure out the melody and chords for a song without using any tabs, watching videos, etc.
- Pick a piece of music (or just one section) and transcribe it using tab or standard notation. This is more advanced and requires that you know how to read and write some kind of musical notation. But it’s very effective because it forces you to listen very closely to the piece so that you can hear everything that’s going on.
I realize that some of these suggestions might seem lame but I really encourage you to give them a try. Developing a good musical ear is extremely rewarding and can improve your skill as a guitar player in a profound way.
Let’s Wrap This Thing Up
Congrats for making it this far. Even though this was a long post, we’ve really only scratched the surface when it comes to practice. My main goal is to try to persuade you that regular practice is totally doable and very beneficial for your playing. But to be clear, I’m not saying that if you don’t practice you’re wasting your time and should sell your guitar. Playing guitar is its own reward and, ultimately, the most important thing is that you enjoy playing, regardless of what you play or how often you play. If you can carve some time out of each day to work on reaching your musical goals, I think you’ll find that it’s time well spent, and that it will help you get even more satisfaction out of the instrument. So give it a shot and see what happens.