Guitar practice is difficult. In fact, I would argue that creating an effective guitar practice routine, and then sticking to that routine is one of the biggest challenges that most guitar players face.
For even though all guitarists know that they should practice, I think the majority of players struggle to know how to practice. And even if they do know exactly what they should be practicing, I think they find it challenging to develop a consistent practice routine that is both rewarding and enjoyable.
Knowing how to practice properly is something that took me many years of trial and error to get right. Along the way I made numerous mistakes. And in all likelihood I probably lost years of potential progress as a result of practicing and playing in the wrong way.
I want to save you that time and hassle. So here I have outlined 10 key ways that you can maximise the time you have to practice your guitar. The advice here ties in with – and to an extent also overlaps – that outlined in one of my recent articles: ‘10 Ways To Establish An Effective Guitar Practice Routine‘.
If you are unsure of where to even begin with your guitar practice, I would recommend reading that article first. The advice there will help you get started with knowing how to develop a guitar practice routine that will work for you.
If however, you have created a guitar practice routine and are looking to maximise its effectiveness, then here I have laid out 10 key ways that you can get more from your guitar practice:
Before we look at the practical steps that will help you make the most of your practice time, I think the first and arguably most important step you need to take is to develop a clear understanding of what it means to practice your guitar.
Specifically, I think it is important to understand the difference between playing your guitar, and practicing your guitar.
This will help you to define your approach and keep you focused. It will ensure you get the most out of your potentially limited free time. And it will allow you to derive a greater sense of enjoyment and fulfilment from these two separate areas.
In my opinion, playing your guitar should be nothing but a pleasurable experience. It is a time for you to play your favourite songs, to improvise and to jam along with backing tracks. It is a time for you to disconnect, to switch off from the outside world and to enjoy the simple process of playing your instrument.
Of course when you play your guitar in this way, you will improve. Amassing hours of playing time will unquestionably improve your technique and baseline skill level. But when you play your guitar, this should not be the focus. Instead, the focus should be on enjoyment.
In my opinion, you should not treat your guitar practice in the same way. I believe that when you are practicing your guitar, the focus should be less on enjoyment, and more on improvement. The aim with practice is to focus on getting better, to strengthen the weak areas of your playing and improve your skill set.
That is not to say that guitar practice can’t be enjoyable. If your practice feels like nothing more than a chore, then you are unlikely to stick to it for long. But it is important to recognise that enjoyment is not the primary focus of practice. Improvement is the primary focus of practice.
And whilst I appreciate that this might sound somewhat extreme, improving your guitar playing is what will ultimately lead to the most satisfaction and enjoyment in the long run.
So with that in mind, let’s get into it. Here are 10 key ways that you can get more from your guitar practice:
1.) Keep it clean
During your guitar practice sessions, try playing with a clean guitar tone. Switch off all of your overdrive pedals, and reduce any reverb you might be using down to an absolute minimum.
When used correctly, guitar effects make everything that you play sound better. A little overdrive or boost will thicken up your tone, help your guitar sustain better and breathe more life into all of the notes you play.
Similarly, effects like reverb and delay will take some of the edge and harshness out of your playing. They will also add a thickness and depth to your tone, and make your playing sound better.
It is for these reasons – in addition to many others – that these types of guitar pedals are so important when you are playing your guitar.
Yet using these types of guitar pedals when you are practicing can be to your detriment. And this is for two reasons:
Firstly, they are distracting. How many times have you sat down to practice your guitar, only to find yourself totally side tracked by trying to improve your tone? You start tweaking your pedals to dial in a better sound, and before you know it, you’ve rearranged your whole pedalboard and spent your hour of free time searching online for new pedals that will make you sound better.
Stripping your rig right back to the bare essentials will vastly reduce the chance of this distraction.
Secondly and arguably more importantly, effects like overdrive and reverb can help to disguise imprecision and sloppiness. They cause the notes you play to blend together and they cover up slight inaccuracies in your playing. And this can get you into trouble and leave you feeling exposed when it comes to playing with a clean tone.
I was fortunate enough to experience this quite early in my playing career.
I am a big fan of both Robert Cray and Mark Knopfler. And whilst these guitarists have quite different styles, they are similar in that for the most part they both play with a crystal clean guitar tone. When I tried to learn some of their songs, I was shocked by how sloppy my playing sounded. I had previously always played with overdrive. And so when I adopted the same clean tone that they use, it exposed some of the areas of my technique that needed focus.
Regardless then of whether or not you actually have the ambition to play with a clean tone, I would always recommend practicing with a clean tone. This will keep you focused, make you a more precise player, and will improve your tone when you do use effects.
2.) Go offline
In many ways, technology has made it much easier to learn the guitar. There are countless different apps and websites which offer effective learning resources. And tablature websites like Ultimate Guitar, and software like Guitar Pro have both made learning songs easier than ever before.
Yet technology can be as much of a hindrance as a help, if it becomes a distraction. And it is easy to get distracted. In fact I suspect that over the years, smart phones have been responsible for the destruction of many otherwise faultless guitar practice routines.
I speak partly from personal experience here. A number of years ago I resolved to take my guitar practice much more seriously. And so I set aside an hour a day to practice.
To begin with however, the amount of productive practice time I managed during these sessions was much less than an hour.
This was because I allowed my phone to constantly interrupt my practice. I would run through an exercise, then pause and respond to a message or notification that had popped up on my phone. I would then get back into the flow of practice, only to pick my phone up again a few minutes later.
This might not sound so bad. But the reality was that every time I returned to my phone, I broke my focus. It would take me a few minutes to get back into the swing of my guitar practice, by which point I was back on my phone again.
You might not have the same issue. But I suspect there will be something that diverts your focus. And if technology is facilitating that distraction, then I would recommend doing your best to go offline.
Turn your phone on airplane mode and switch your computer and television off. If you have to use one of your devices for learning – then minimise the chance of becoming distracted. Mute any notifications, and only keeping open the one window that you need for learning.
Stay focused on the task at hand and you will get a lot more from your guitar practice sessions.
3.) Warm up
One easy practical step you can take to get more from your guitar practice sessions is to warm up properly.
Even if you are playing guitar every day, you will have days when your hands just don’t move as freely as others. I find this is always the case if I spend a lot of time on my computer. Even if I have been playing a lot, after typing all day my hands usually feel tight and stiff.
If I then launch straight into playing, it is unlikely that I will have a very productive practice session. And I suspect that the same is true for most guitarists.
You don’t have to spend a lot of time warming up, but do try to include a bit of time to loosen up. One nice and easy warm up exercise to include in your routine is as follows:
This is what the above exercise sounds like at 80 beats per minute (BPM):
This is a very simple exercise. All you need to do is play 4 notes per string (one note with each finger). Then when you reach either the 1st or the 6th string, shift up 1 fret. Do this all the way up your fretboard until you reach the 15th fret with your fourth finger. Then without pausing, work your way back down to the 1st fret on the 6th string.
This is not a speed exercise. Don’t try to run up and down your neck as fast as possible. All you are trying to do here is get your hands ready for the rest of your practice session. So take it nice and slowly. Focus on alternate picking and make sure that all of the notes you play ring out clearly.
If your practice time is very limited, then you might understandably be reticent to spend so much time warming up. If that is the case, then you can structure your warm up exercises so that they also improve other areas of your playing.
One easy first step is to simply perform the warm up exercise listed above to the click of a metronome. Set the metronome at a pace that feels moderate or a little slow, and play two notes per click. This will help to improve your sense of rhythm and timing, and also loosen your fingers up for the rest of your practice.
You can take this idea even further by replacing the above exercise with the following:
The basic idea here is the same. The key difference is that instead of playing notes chromatically up the fretboard, here you are playing the shapes of the blues scale.
At 80 BPM, this is what this exercise sounds like:
As with the exercise above, I would recommend playing this along to a metronome. Start low down on your fretboard (I typically start at the 3rd fret) and work your way up the neck until you reach the 15th fret with your fourth finger.
Once you have gone up the neck and back down to the starting point using shape 1 of the scale, repeat the exercise with shape 2 of the scale. Do this until you have gone through all 5 shapes of the scale.
Personally I like to play the blues scale, as this is one of the main scales that I use when soloing. Having said that, this exercise works equally well with the minor pentatonic scale, or any other scale of your choosing.
This is an amazing exercise if you are pushed for time. It improves your sense of timing, builds coordination between your picking and fretting hands, consolidates your scale shapes all over the fretboard and helps you to warm up.
4.) Get uncomfortable
Once you are warmed up and ready to get into your practice, I would recommend starting with those areas of your playing that you find most challenging. We all have areas of our guitar playing that come to us easily. And perhaps unsurprisingly, these tend to be the areas on which we focus.
It is fun to work on these areas. This is because doing so requires less physical and mental effort, and it also produces results more quickly.
Yet only focusing on your strengths will lead to weaknesses that become magnified over time.
You can see this with a lot of players who focus only on lead, rather than rhythm playing. Over time they become very proficient lead players. Yet if they never place any focus on chords and rhythm playing, that weakness becomes more stark when it is compared with the areas of playing in which they really excel.
This disparity in skill between lead and rhythm playing is perhaps the most common. Guitar solos are a lot of fun to play. And so naturally a lot of guitarists gravitate in this direction.
This was certainly the case for me for many years. I spent huge amounts of time and focus learning to play lead guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughan. And yet I didn’t even know how to play the most basic of chords.
Whether or not this also applies to you, doesn’t really matter. We all have different weaknesses that we need to address. What is important, is to figure out firstly whether you have an area of your playing that you are neglecting. And if you do, the next step is to figure out whether this area needs addressing.
This second point is important. For there will be areas of your playing that you can afford to neglect. You can’t master all aspects of the instrument. But if you have neglected a fundamental area of your playing (like chords), or if your skill set is totally unbalanced, then I would strongly recommend pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and tackling that area head on.
Alter your guitar practice routine for as long as you need until you have strengthened those weak areas. Your progress will feel slow and it will not be as much fun as working on your strengths. But I promise that it will be more rewarding in the long run.
5.) Don’t fly solo
Even if you are actively working on bringing up weaker areas of your playing, you can still develop gaps in your skills.
One particular area that I feel most guitarists struggle with, is their rhythm and timing.
The vast majority of guitarists are not playing in bands or jamming with other musicians. They are usually playing alone, and often in an area of their house where they won’t disturb family or friends.
The problem with always playing unaccompanied is that it is highly likely to leave you with a weaker sense of rhythm and timing.
This is because when you play unaccompanied, you are essentially playing in ‘free time’. You don’t have to conform to any established rhythm or beat, nor do you have to keep in time with other musicians. And this means that you don’t develop the ability to play in time.
I have experienced this problem personally, and it is a weakness that I see with many of my students. Even those who are fairly advanced often struggle to keep in time if they have never really practiced this skill.
Yet it is a vital skill to develop. It will allow you to jam and play along with backing tracks and other musicians. And even if you have no desire to join or start a band, improving your sense of timing will make you a better guitarist. This is true, even when you are playing unaccompanied. It will provide your playing and improvisations with rhythmic context. And this will make them sound closer to those of your blues guitar heroes (who are generally playing accompanied).
To improve this essential skill, I would recommend incorporating one or both of the following into your guitar practice routine:
- Play and practice with a metronome. When you are warming up and practicing scales, do so along to the click of a metronome. This will give you a reference point and ensure you are playing evenly and rhythmically.
- Don’t noodle freely. Jam and improvise along to backing tracks. You can find a whole range of these for free on YouTube. Some of my favourite are these ones here. Whichever tracks you choose though, play and experiment with songs across a variety of different tempos. This will help you to start soloing and phrasing within a proper musical context.
If you have not played to a metronome or jammed along with a backing track before, both of these exercises will feel awkward and difficult at first. But keep going with them, as they will do a lot to improve both your guitar playing and your musicianship more generally.
If you really want to improve your sense of timing and rhythm then I would recommend reading my article ‘7 Ways To Improve Your Timing‘. There I suggest a further range of exercises you can include in your guitar practice to develop a better sense of rhythm and timing.
6.) Build your songbook
In my opinion, learning new songs and material should always be part of your guitar practice routine. There are a number of reasons for this:
Firstly, it keeps your practice fun and interesting. If your routine is nothing more than a series of rhythmic and technical exercises, the chances of you sticking to it are fairly slim. You are likely to become bored and demotivated.
Most guitar players that I speak with don’t have an ambition to write their own music. Instead, their primary goal is to learn songs. They want to be able to recreate the music of their heroes, and to share and enjoy that experience with family, friends, and perhaps with an audience.
Secondly, and arguably more importantly (from a purely developmental perspective) – learning songs will make you a much better guitarist. Learning scales and individual chords is like learning individual words of a new language. It is useful, but it doesn’t actual help you to form sentences, tell an engaging story, or connect with others. To be able to do the latter, you need to have reference material.
The same is true of learning to play the guitar. If you want to play lead guitar like B.B. King or Gary Moore, one of the best first steps that you can take is to learn some of their most famous guitar solos note for note.
Become a disciple of the blues, or of your favourite musical genre. Learn the most famous songs in that genre, and some of the songs of your favourite musicians and bands.
In going through that process, you will learn the techniques that they use to create their music. And this will do a lot to help you to develop your own skills.
7.) Expand your horizons
I think it is important to have a clear focus, not only in your guitar practice, but with your musical aims more generally. If you are constantly mixing up your practice routine and trying out different techniques, songs and genres, then the likelihood that you will make appreciable progress in any of those areas is quite slim.
There are very few guitarists who have mastered a whole range of different styles. And this is simply because it takes a lot of time to make significant progress in any given style.
In other words, if you want to become a killer blues guitarist, then I would recommend spending the vast majority of your time focused on that effort. Learn scales, chords and techniques that will make you a better blues player. Go deep into the genre and build your blues songbook.
Having said that, I do think that you can benefit by spending a small portion of your time learning songs and musical styles which are either somewhat or totally different to the main genre on which you are focused. And there are two reasons for this:
Firstly, it will help to make your guitar practice routine varied. This in itself is beneficial and will help stave off boredom.
More importantly though, it will help to take a little heat out of your main practice routine and playing goals. It is brilliant to be focused. And in fact I would argue that it is necessary if you want to really step on as a player. Yet if you are not careful, that focus can be problematic. You can get so wrapped up in trying to continually progress within the area in which you want to improve, that you start to feel stressed. And that will suck all of the enjoyment out of your guitar practice and playing.
Secondly and equally importantly – spending some time practicing a totally different style will help to enhance your playing skills in a way that supports your main playing goal.
Let’s say for example that your main goal is to improve your blues lead guitar playing. You might think that spending 10 – 20% of your practice time learning genres like funk or reggae will do little to improve your blues playing. But both of them will improve your rhythm, timing and right hand strumming technique.
And depending on the genres of music you branch out into, the crossover with the blues might be even more obvious. There are techniques in country and jazz for example that you can use to great effect in the blues. Even if that is not the case though, don’t worry. Regardless of which style you are playing, your baseline guitar playing skill will improve.
The key here is to strike a balance. You don’t want to split your focus so much that you fail to properly engage with any single genre. As such, if you do want to branch out and add variety into your routine, I would recommend being fairly strict with your time.
Limit yourself to spending 10 – 20% of your guitar practice time on genres and styles outside of your main focus area. Put this section at the end of your practice session, and cut it out or deprioritise it if you are pushed for time.
8.) Go deeper
Whilst learning new songs is a highly valuable and necessary part of guitar practice, if you really want to improve as a guitarist, I would recommend going one step further.
And here I think that John Mayer offers some simple and very sound advice:
My advice might sound a little ‘un-fun’. But…with everything you learn, learn the thing that is the building block for the thing you just learnt. And that might be scales, instead of…parts of songs. Trace back why you like the thing, and learn the thing that made the thing you like. And you will be 5 times better, every time you do that.
In other words, don’t just learn songs at their surface level. Study them and try to develop an understanding of the techniques, progressions and scales that appear in the songs. Focus on the sections which really interest you. Then try to figure out how those sections are constructed and how they function.
Once you do that, not only will you be able to replicate them in multiple different playing contexts, you will also be able build upon and adapt them. This will help you to develop a broader understanding of your guitar. It will also empower you to take inspiration from your guitar heroes, without directly imitating them.
This might sound novel, but it is in fact the approach that famous guitarists have adopted for years. Albert King and Jimi Hendrix influenced Stevie Ray Vaughan. Freddie King influenced a young Eric Clapton. And Eric Clapton then went on to inspire a whole range of modern guitarists, including Joe Bonamassa and Eric Johnson. Almost all famous blues guitarists – past and present – have been influenced by the players that went before them.
Take the same approach. Understand and learn the specific techniques of your favourite guitarists. Mix them together and incorporate them alongside your own style. Do this, and your playing will improve significantly.
9.) Push your boundaries
Use your guitar practice as a time to experiment and try out new ideas. Step outside of your comfort zone and push the boundaries of your playing.
As noted above, one obvious way of doing this is to work on your weaknesses. Yet if you really want to step on as a player, you need to push yourself when it comes to your strengths too.
For example, let’s say you have a great vibrato technique. That is brilliant! But even if it is a strong area of your playing, you will still have some room for development. So don’t sit on your laurels. Keep pushing yourself and working on it. Learn to vary and adjust your vibrato to create a different feel in your playing. Keep pushing the boundaries of your abilities, in all areas.
It is not easy to practice in this way. It is challenging and can be psychologically difficult. This is because when you really push your playing, you will increase the likelihood of making mistakes.
If you want to improve however, I would recommend getting comfortable with this idea.
So often I see students getting frustrated when they hit the wrong note, or miss a chord change. And whilst I appreciate that it is frustrating to make mistakes, it is a necessary part of learning. Getting worked up is just going to cause you to tense up (both mentally and physically). And in turn this just increases the likelihood of you making further mistakes.
If you can’t make mistakes when you practice, when else can you make them? Instead of fighting them, learn to embrace them. You will get much more from your guitar practice if you do.
10.) Chill out
As you may have deduced from the previous 9 points listed here, I strongly recommend that you treat your guitar practice sessions seriously and go into them with a real focus. And although this can at times be both physically and psychologically challenging, it will be immensely rewarding in the long run.
A big part of ensuring the success of your guitar practice, is creating the right practice environment. And as noted above, removing digital distractions can really help here.
Having said that though, over the last year or so I have had success (both personally and also with my students) by actually introducing some distraction into the practice environment on occasion.
There are elements of improving as a guitar player which require very little mental focus, but a lot of repetition. And in my experience there are two specific areas where this tends to be the case.
This first is improving some of your baseline technical skills. Your ability to pick your strings proficiently, play at speed and develop strength and dexterity in your fretting hand all require repetition but little mental focus.
The second is perfecting any songs, scales or chords that you might have recently learnt. I am not talking about learning new material. That requires focus and I would always recommend doing that without distraction. Instead, I am talking about improving material that you have already learnt.
We all have those chord progressions and solos that we wish we could play with a little more fluidity and precision. And the way to make them sound better is through playing them repeatedly.
The problem, is that continually practicing technical exercises and returning to troublesome sections of songs can be a little disheartening. Progress can feel slow. And by its very nature, this type of guitar practice is repetitive. As such, it is more likely to lead to boredom and demotivation.
In these instances, a little bit of distraction can be helpful.
So in contrast to almost all of the advice offered above, when you are trying to work through these sections, I would actually recommend distracting yourself. This will help to give you a focus beyond just playing short sections of songs or exercises over and over again.
When I am working on very repetitive sections, I often practice them whilst watching a relaxed and easy going series on TV. Doing this helps me to amass playing time. And it allows me to do this without obsessing over the same phrase or chord progression and potentially getting bored or frustrated.
Now truthfully it is a little misleading to include this here. This is because I would actually recommend doing this in addition to your dedicated guitar practice, rather than including it as a core part of your routine.
There are two reasons for this:
Firstly, there are many times during your guitar practice where you need to focus. It is difficult to study theory, as well as to learn new chords, scales and songs with one eye on the TV. As such, this style of practice is only intended for those areas of your playing which require a great deal of repetition and very little mental focus in order to improve.
Secondly, the likelihood of you actually becoming distracted when practicing in this way is quite high. That is not a problem if it is ‘bonus’ practice time that is additional to your more structured practice. But if you are convincing yourself that you’re clocking up hours of quality practice, when you are in fact binge watching your favourite series, with a bit of guitar practice on the side, then you are short changing your own progress.
Provided that you take that into consideration then, this style of practice can work very well if you are looking to improve certain technical aspects of your playing – and you are finding yourself feeling bored or demotivated including them as part of your core practice routine.
Well there we have it – 10 ways that you can get more from your guitar practice routine.
Guitar practice is not easy. And it’s not always fun. It can be mentally and physically challenging. And sometimes it can leave you feeling frustrated and demotivated.
The key to creating a successful guitar practice routine that you can stick to in the longterm, is to develop a routine that fulfils you.
A fulfilling guitar practice routine is not always enjoyable. And in some instances you will have to actively shift your attention away from elements of playing you really enjoy, to those that you find challenging. Whilst this might sound counter-intuitive, it is the best way to prevent your playing stagnating. And stagnation in your playing is what will eventually lead to demotivation and frustration.
Yet having said that, you need to enjoy your guitar practice. If it becomes overly challenging, and you find that you are constantly pushing your abilities to their breaking point, then you are likely to burn out.
It is all about striking the balance. Be determined and focused in your practice approach. But remember that playing the guitar is something that should enrich your life. It is normal to get frustrated from time to time. But if it starts to feels like a chore, take your foot off the gas a little. Take a few days off, or adjust your practice to be a little less challenging and a little more enjoyable.
It is not always easy to achieve this balance. And it is something that you will have to continually adapt in response to your life and personal circumstances. But keep working on it, and I promise that not only will you improve, but you will also derive more enjoyment from learning the guitar.
Let me know how you get on with your practice! And if you have any questions at all I can help with, just pop them in the comments below or send them over to email@example.com. I’d love to help!
Image of B.B. King – Heinrich Klaffs, Flickr (the license for the image is here)
Point 10 – Chill Out has been my secret weapon of practice for a while since
I resolved to dedicate a whole weekend to learning Travis picking. However once I’d watched a couple of YouTube tutorials I realised that only hours of repetitive practice would consolidate the technique to the point I could do it without thinking. So I put on an audiobook (Patrick Suskind’s Perfume) and picked away as I listened with my mind somewhere between the two activities. Two days (Ten hours) later the book was done and I could play Freight Train, Dust in The Wind, and the intro to Little Black Submarines without ‘thinking’ about each finger.
I find ‘boring’ distractions that don’t demand too much attention work best. It’s much easier to divide one’s attention between guitar repetitions and yawn inducing literary classics for instance!
Thank you so much for sharing your experience Pól – I actually used the same trick when I was working on improving my playing speed. I performed speed drills whilst watching the American version of ‘The Office’ on Netflix. I demolished a couple of seasons whilst practicing! 😆 As you said, it’s a great way to put the hours in, whilst also distracting yourself from some of the more monotonous elements of practice you might be working on!