Do you know how to practice guitar?

Updated: Aug 2

Practice tips to keep in mind at any level.

I teach a ton of guitar lessons in Tokyo, and a topic that plagues a lot of the guitar students that I teach  any every stage  is the topic about “practice”. 


What should I practice?


How much do I need to practice to get "good"?


I’ve been practicing something for xx days/months. Will I ever get good at it?


Hopefully this article will shed some light on the subject.



What should I practice?



So you decide to set aside some time in your days to workshop the guitar. What do you practice? The easiest way to answer this question is ask yourself what do I want to play on guitar? What am I aiming for?


You can start by answering this question pretty broadly no matter what level you are currently at.


I want to play a Christmas song for the family.


I want to play that acoustic song I saw on that youtube video I saw the other day.


I want to get better at soloing with the pentatonic scale.


I want to have a better handle on soloing over minor 2 5s.


Coming up with an answer to the question yourself is what will steer you in the right direction to what will make you the happiest while you’re practicing the guitar. I think there’s nothing worse than practicing something only because someone told you that you SHOULD practice it without any direct link to your future goals.


Ugh. I hate practicing modes of scales, but someone told me that modes are important, so I gotta practice them. Hmm…let’s check out instagram for a bit…*puts guitar down*


Once you answer the question for yourself, you can start to think about what you need to work on to get to that goal. This can often be a bit intimidating, and perhaps even impossible to imagine what you would need to get there. A guitar instructor with experience in how to give you what you need in order to reach your goals is invaluable at this stage.


I want to play a Christmas song for the family, but I’ve never played an instrument before.


Let’s work on some simple guitar melodies to work on your hand strength, and gradually move up to your favorite Christmas song.


I want to play that acoustic song I saw on that youtube video I saw the other day.


Let’s work on some basic guitar chords to work on chord switching to work on your ability to move between different chords.


I want to get better at soloing with the pentatonic scale.


Let’s work on your speed with the pentatonic scale, as well as your ability to make melodies out of the scale on your own.

etc..


Here is generally what I find most students are working on in their designated level.


Beginners are mainly working on fundamentals such as getting sound from their instrument, finger strength, coordination, getting familiar with the fretboard, chord knowledge, etc.


Intermediates are looking for what will take them to the next level, and mainly consists of a wider variety of chords, scales, working on improvisation skills, fretboard knowledge, etc.


Advanced students are usually looking to pursue a complex understanding of a specific style such as classical guitar, jazz guitar, metal guitar, etc. This can consist of specific techniques, sounds, specific musical vocabulary, etc.



How much should I practice?


You hear tons of romanticized stories about epic 12 hour practice sessions for days on end, and that true geniuses are inseparable from their instruments. While that could be true for some, out of experience from confronting a few of my own guitar heroes about their practice schedules, as well as experimenting on my own with these marathon-like practice sessions, and injuring myself time and time again (I’ll leave that for another blog post), I’ve learned that efficient, productive, and realistic practice sessions are the way to go.




Efficient Practicing: What's the least amount I should practice guitar?


So maybe you've finally bought that guitar, started taking lessons somewhere here in Tokyo, but you're having trouble balancing your dream of playing the guitar with your busy schedule.  Or maybe you're someone who has a few years under their belt, and you're starting to notice that in the few times you've tried to pick up your guitar in the last few weeks, your skills are starting to get rusty.  


In these scenarios, students from any age or amount of experience often ask me "what is the least amount of time I should practice?"


One common misconception is that if you can't sit down in your designated guitar practice space in your perfect chair in a good sounding room with that great sound, that you won't have a productive practice session.  Or that if you haven't set aside at least an hour of your day to go through your material before your next lesson, there's just no point at all.  


The reality is that you don't even need an hour to keep things moving forward at a minimal pace for yourself.  


My personal rule of thumb to having a condensed, yet productive practice session is: "Aim for 30 minutes, but at least 15 minutes."


In my own experience with practicing and improving my own guitar playing, as well as watching the progress to my own students, putting at least 15 minutes a day into it is going to help you to maintain your skills at their current level. You’ll be able to keep your dexterity in check, and your muscle memory for whatever you practice will also be in line with whatever you work on.


However while this is going to help you stay at a constant level, you still might not be able to play that F chord to your favorite song anytime soon, nor master that difficult guitar lick you’re trying to get under your fingers. This is where adding that extra 15 minutes to make it a solid 30 minutes really counts.


Your skill in guitar, or anything skill for that matter, is going to benefit from any effort you put into it.  However, more is always better.


Beginners generally benefit much more from shorter practice times in the beginning, especially if you’re taking lessons on a weekly basis. 30 minutes a day is enough to maintain something you’re working on, as well as strengthen and perfect it before your next lesson.


However if a student really starts to get into their instrument, especially entering the intermediate to advanced levels, it’s very normal to see students practicing no less than an hour a day. A lot of that is mainly due to what exactly people practice at any given level.



Divide your practice time in percentages


For the intermediate/advanced students who are practicing several hours a day, usually they are working on several different things at once:


Often they are faced with planning out their practice times using amounts of time.


For example: technique building = 30 minutes, improvisation = 30 minutes, scales = 60 minutes, etc.


Might I recommend to you as opposed to thinking in time brackets when planning out your practice time, think in percentages instead. This is mainly due to the unpredictability of life. Perhaps you have a nice 4 hour chunk of practice time one day, but then the next day your practice time shrinks to 2 hours because of an unexpected change of schedule, you can still get in everything you want to work on despite the time change. For example:


G Mixolydian in Triads = 25%


Improv over Stella by Starlight = 25%


Transcription = 30%


Note reading practice = 10%


New tune melody practice = 10%

etc.


Structuring a solid practice routine

Now that you have an idea on what your goals are, now it's time to structure a solid practice routine to work towards those goals. As we talked about before, what you practice should always be related to what your ultimate goal is. Your practice routine should also be balanced enough to incorporate different aspects of your instrument.


Scale warmup/exercise = 25%

Chord-involved practice = 25%

Practical use = 50%


For beginner students, I recommend something like this:


C Major Scale (1st position) as a warmup = 25%

Chords and chord switching = 25%

Note reading exercise = 25%

Ode to Joy (or any simple melody) = 25%


A more advanced practice routine could look like this:


G Mixolydian in 3rds across the neck as a warmup = 25%

Drop 2 voicings = 25%

Solo Transcription = 25%

Stella by Starlight Improv = 25%



Frustration during practicing

We’ve all been there. A certain melody or chord switch just isn’t coming together, or worse, something you thought you started to get a handle on has taken a bit of a dive despite your constant slugging away at it in the past few days. Here’s how I’ve found how to deal with these issues personally.



Slow it down!


You’re practicing with a metronome, right? Take it at a slower pace, and grasp it at a pace that you can get it smoothly. Can’t get it at that pace? Go even slower. You want to find the breaking point that you can actually play it at a smooth and clean pace.



Walk away for a few minutes


Usually when I’m slugging away at a particular lick, and starting to let the expletives fly, and my forearms are burning due to constant repetitions, I walk away for a few minutes. Go do the dishes, vacuum, watch some youtube, etc. Surprisingly, 90% of the time when I come back at it, I have a better handle on whatever I was working on than I did 10 minutes ago.



Put it down for the day, and come back tomorrow


Perhaps a good hour has passed, and it’s still not quite clicking. This is usually a sign for me to put it down, and move onto the next item on my practice agenda for the day.



Don’t be afraid to shelve it


In rare cases where something just isn’t coming together for whatever reason after a week of solid practicing, don’t be afraid to shelve something for a week or two. For me anyways, if I’m going into week-two of trying to get a particular part together, and it’s only bringing me agony when I start to practice it, I know it’s a good time to put it aside a while and replace it in my practice routine.


I know lots of people say you should just slug it out until you finally get it. I totally get that way of thinking. However I also think that if what you’re working on is turning into more of a chore, then maybe it’s fine to put it down for a bit, and come back to it with a fresh perspective.



Take things day by day, week by week


I was fortunate enough to get two pieces of great advice from the great jazz saxophonist David Liebman back when I was studying at Humber College. I can’t remember his exact words, however it was basically:


1. Take the good days in one pocket, and the bad days in the other pocket.


You are always going to have bad practice days. Days where you can’t get the sound right, where things sound worse than they did the day before, etc. The important thing is that you put the time in. Absorb the session and move on with your day. There’s always tomorrow.


2. Get at least one thing done a week.


If you can get one “thing” done a week, whether it be a scale, exercise, chord switch, melody, song, tune, concept, etc., that’s a great pace to be at. Ofcourse it’s tougher as a beginner if you don’t have a lot of previous experience to build on, so start small.


“Okay, let me perfect ‘Happy Birthday to You’ this week.”


As your experience grows, that “thing” should get a lot bigger.


“Okay, let me perfect the solo to ‘Back in Black’ this week.”


Advanced students should probably grow that thing into more concepts than written music.


“Okay, let me perfect descending A Altered Scale triads all over the neck this week.”

Etc.



Trust the process


No matter what the outcome of the practice session you have on any given day, you’re always moving forward. Just put the time in for the day, and trust that you’re improving each day. I think that’s a really hard concept to grasp at no matter what level you’re coming from. Even advanced players sometimes struggle with the fact that even though they’ve put in several hours into a concept or idea, it’s still not getting to the level that they like yet. The key is that you have to put a bit of trust into that it will get to where you want it to be as long as you’re investing enough time into it.


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