Buying a really nice guitar won’t make you a good guitar player. Neither will reading articles, watching YouTube videos, or downloading an app.

No, my friend, the simple truth is that you need to practice. There is no substitute—never has been, and never will be.

Practice is what separates the men from the boys. If you want to reach your potential as a guitarist—if you want to get really good instead of settling for just okay—you should practice regularly.

 

“Playing” Versus “Practicing”

The word “practice” can mean different things to different people. For some, it basically means “playing your guitar a lot.” This is, in a way, a kind of practice, though it really depends a lot on the individual. Some people just naturally do more exploring when they play or tend to push themselves up against their limits. Other people just noodle around on the same stuff all the time and make slower progress. If nothing else, all players that play a lot are probably at least building up hand strength and maybe some speed. And maybe doing more, depending upon how motivated or naturally talented they are.

“Ed [Van Halen] plays guitar from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep.”

Alex Van Halen, 1986, Van Halen Unleashed

But that’s not the kind of practicing I’m talking about here. By practice, I mean a time that you set aside—ideally every day—in which you work on specific aspects of your playing in a structured way, according to a plan, with specific goals in mind. When you practice, you’re playing your guitar, but you’re not just playing your guitar. No matter how you slice it, practicing involves a certain amount of work and work is not always fun. Sometimes it is, but not always.

Here are the main differences I see between practicing and playing:

 
Just “Playing Your Guitar” Practicing
Unstructured—You might play a song, solo a little bit, play some scales you know well, play another song, etc. You basically just pick up your guitar and play whatever you feel like playing. Structured—You have certain skills or areas you’re working on and you have a plan to spend specific amounts of time on them. Your plan dictates what you’ll be playing during the practice session.
Fun-oriented—This is why you play guitar in the first place. It’s creative, it’s fun, and it relieves stress. You’ve developed a certain amount of skill on the guitar and it’s satisfying to use that skill playing songs, or jamming with other people. Work-oriented—Practicing can be fun too. But the primary focus when practicing is on putting in the effort necessary to improve your playing, even when it’s not fun. Slowly practicing scales with a metronome is usually not as fun as cranking up your amp and playing your favorite riff.
Social or solitary—You can jam with friends or other musicians, or you can play by yourself. Whatever you feel like doing. Mostly solitary—Improving your skill on the guitar involves only you and your guitar. No one else can do it for you or help you. (Obviously, there are certain types of practice that involve other people, like rehearsing songs with your band. But that’s a different thing; I’m talking here about your own guitar playing.)
Uncertain progress—If you play your guitar a lot, you’ll probably get betterat least in some ways. But your progress will be hard to predict and might only be in certain areas, because you’ll tend to play a lot of stuff that you already know. You often won’t be “stretching out” musically. Certain progress—When you stick to a practice plan, you are bound to make progress in whatever areas you are practicing. It won’t always be a straight line up. There are plenty of times where you’ll hit a plateau and won’t seem to be making progress; this is when people tend to give up on practicing. But if you stick with it, you’ll get over the hump and be further along than you were before. Even if your progress is sometimes slow, you will get better.

 

“Living in the limelight—the universal dream for those who wish to seem. 

Those who wish to be must put aside the alienation, get on with the fascination….”

– Neil Peart (Rush), Limelight

What’s more, having a regular activity or practice that you commit to each day can benefit you beyond making you a better guitar player. It can be a steadying force that gives you something to hold on to each day, which can be a surprisingly powerful tool in our chaotic and constantly changing world. Henry Rollins wrote the following about lifting weights: “I have found the Iron [the weights] to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”

Imagine if you could develop that kind of relationship with the guitar—where it’s a steady companion that challenges you but is always there for you, day in and day out. Your guitar playing would look like Henry Rollins’s biceps. (Or something like that…) Well, the fact is, you can develop that kind of relationship, and the way you do it is by practicing every day.

Practicing is one of those things that is simple but not easy. There’s no complex equipment you need to buy, or secret techniques you need to learn. You just need your guitar and the right mindset. Simple. But man, it is not easy, and I’m not trying to pretend that it is. It is actually kind of incredible how your mind can come up with new and creative ways to distract you and derail your daily practice routine, and this is what I think is the hardest obstacle to practicing. That’s why I suggest people start small in the beginning, and just try to focus on the daily routine itself, no matter how brief. But that’s all I’ll say about that here because it’s already covered in the How to Practice the Guitar article. Go check it out!