Many beginner players want a guitar practice routine that’s both easy and effective. No one wants to put time into the guitar without feeling sure they’re getting something out of it. The goal of this post is to give you some helpful direction on how to structure your practice time.
As you might imagine, it’s not a simple task to create a routine that’s easy and effective. What’s easy doesn’t tend to be effective, and what’s effective isn’t normally easy. For that reason, we’re going to take a balanced approach to guitar practice: not so easy as to be ineffective, but not so difficult as to be intimidating.
Suppose we compare learning guitar to climbing a mountain. The bottom of the mountain represents total beginners on the guitar and the peaks represent mastery. I visualize not one but many peaks in order to accommodate all the forms of guitar mastery we see across countless musical styles. Blues guitar mastery looks really different from classical guitar mastery, for instance, but both are worthy “peaks” after which to strive.
There are many paths up the mountain, each with its own pros and cons. The longer paths are more gradual and comfortable to walk, while the shorter paths are steep and intense. If a climber chooses a path that’s too long for them, they might feel like they’re not making enough progress. If a climber chooses a path that’s too steep, they might find the terrain overwhelming. Both extremes could lead a guitarist to quit playing.
My recommendation largely depends on who you are. If you want guitar to feel easy and relaxed, then you ought to take a gradual path, whereas if you’re hungry to improve fast, I’d direct you to a steeper slope. There’s no shame in either choice; everyone will find their own way.
With that in mind, I hope you agree that the best practice routine is the one that works best for you. It’s the routine you find effective, manageable, and above all enjoyable.
We can conceptualize guitar practice in endless ways, many of which are found in guitar books and blogs. I like to isolate 4 pillars of guitar practice, each covering essential ground for musicians.
I’ll detail each pillar below, but take note that they’re not in order of importance. The relative value of each pillar is something you’ll decide for yourself. I also invite you to adjust my system to meet your own musical needs.
Technical practice is all about training your body to play the guitar well. Players with good technique are able to play difficult music easily. Almost like guitar body-builders, they’ve built up a formidable music-playing mechanism.
There are at least two aspects to good technique: a knowledge of good guitar form (hand position, sitting position, plucking action, fretting action, etc.) and the playing mechanism itself (plucking, fretting, shifting, strumming, and so forth).
You won’t have a good playing mechanism without an understanding of good form, since your technique will likely be inefficient and limiting. However, your knowledge of good form is useless if you don’t train your playing mechanism, which takes time and effort.
I encourage you to explore guitar technique on your own, as I can’t hope to be comprehensive here. Plus, different guitar styles will have their own technical tendencies and challenges.
Once you know the basics of good form, you can use technical practice as a kind of daily workout. You should choose certain exercises based on the needs of your repertoire. I can’t go into everything here, but you can find a ton of great technical exercises online that isolate scales, hammer-ons, pull-offs, barring, shifting, finger stretches, and so forth.
Essentially, the idea behind technical practice is to isolate any skill you’re struggling with and turn it into a mechanical drill until you can do it easily. Once you conquer the technical challenges of the pieces you’re playing, you’ll be able to give more attention to the music itself, which is really what we’re here for.
This one might raise some eyebrows. However, I think sight reading is absolutely crucial for developing players. For those who haven’t heard of sight reading, it’s the practice of playing through notated music “at sight,” or without practicing it beforehand.
The idea is to put a piece of music in front of you (could be tabs, standard notation, or a chord progression) and try to play through it on the spot. I realize this may sound hard, even impossible, to many players. And yet, with a bit of faith and initiative, I think anyone can break into sight reading.
Beginner readers will need to take baby steps. First off, you need to choose a type of notation that’s most comfortable to you. For most guitarists, that’ll be chord progressions or tabs.
Next, try to find music that’s really easy for you. Avoid choosing music that’s repertoire-level for you, since sight reading basically adds a layer of difficulty. You can easily find free music online, but you can also purchase an anthology of easy pieces and read through them one by one.
Finally, you just need to go for it. Very slowly at first, do your best to play through the music. It’s OK if you need to completely stop in order to look up a chord, find the right note, or sort out a fingering.
In the early stages or reading, your role is to explore new notes, new rhythms, new fingerings, and new areas of the fretboard. Take it slow and take frequent breaks.
If you want more help getting started with sight reading, you can find a dedicated post for it right here.
Put simply, sight reading is an incredibly efficient type of practice. One minute of reading will often get you further than 30 minutes of normal practice. It’s a guitarist’s high intensity workout, targeting both the mind and the fingers.
Once you adopt sight reading into your routine, you’ll see outstanding results before long. I myself went from no experience sight reading to reading very comfortably in a few months’ time. If you can just push through the pain of the early stages, you’ll be rewarded tenfold for your efforts.
Guitar players who are good sight readers have an almost magical ability to perform music upon seeing it. Practicing becomes polishing little bits of a piece as opposed to learning the entire thing, top to bottom.
Once you develop as a reader, you’ll be able to learn new music very quickly. For myself, pieces that would have taken me weeks to learn soon took mere hours.
Reading also allows you to cover a lot of musical terrain. If you read a little bit every day, you could easily be exposed to five or more new songs per week.
A regular reader will quickly have hundreds of pieces under their fingers while a non-reader is still trudging along with two or three. But you don’t need to take my word for it—see for yourself!
If you’re looking to improvise, you might choose to spend your time doing that instead of sight reading. Of course, there’s absolutely no reason not to do plenty of both (and reading through lots of music will fuel your improvisations).
I would say, however, that if you’re most concerned with being a good improvisor you might replace my “sight reading” practice pillar with an “improvisation” pillar. Better yet, you can give these practice types equal time by adding a fifth pillar.
As a rule of thumb, I’m prepared to say that the more advanced you are, and the more music you have under your fingers, the more you might improvise as opposed to read through music. But if you’re still in the early stages, I think you’ll find sight reading more time-effective.
When most players think of practice, they think of repertoire practice. They think of sitting down with the guitar and playing through music they already know, hoping it gets better. This is an important kind of practice, especially for performing guitarists.
That said, I think too many beginners spend time on repertoire when they should really be developing their technique. After all, you’ll only learn a song so well if your technical building blocks (fretting, plucking, strumming, chord changes, etc.) are inadequate to the task.
Another danger of repertoire practice is that it’s a little too fun. I know I’m being a guitar Grinch, but it has to be said that “fun” isn’t the aim of good practice.
Don’t get me wrong—effective practice can be fun in a certain way, but it’s more the type of fun you have going for a run (the mystical “runner’s high”) than the type of fun you have eating chocolate cake. The former is fun but also a little hard, while the latter is fun and deliciously easy.
I hate to say it, but if you want your practicing to see results, it should probably feel at least a little hard. The key is to find the right balance for you. But overall, if you’re mentally disciplined you should take full advantage of that in the practice room.
If you take nothing else from this post, remember that you should practice slowly. I won’t say too much about slow playing here, but it’s basically the whole secret to 1) developing accuracy, 2) preparing for speed, and 3) becoming a skilled player. When it comes to practicing repertoire your refrain might be “play it slow, play it right.”
Fast playing leads to careless mistakes. You can think of these mistakes as bad information you’re putting into your body. Whenever you mess up, you’re slightly more likely to mess up in the exact same way the next time. You’ve trained the mistake instead of the right motion.
Good repertoire practice is all about repeating the right movements and producing the right sounds. Going slow is the easiest way to accomplish this; it’s almost like a guitar hack. You’ll also find that if you’re careful to train the right motion every time, you won’t need many repetitions before you get something down.
Another great practice tip is to divide and conquer. Instead of playing through an entire song at once, break it into small sections. I often isolate a single measure at a time. It can also be helpful to isolate a chord change, drill it until you have it down, then return it to its musical context.
Prioritize the most problematic sections of each piece you’re learning. Spend little time on the parts you’re good at and lots of time on the parts you’re bad at.
I’d encourage you to mark all the difficult bits in your music so you know exactly what to hit in the practice room. In this sense, repertoire work is mostly about problem-solving.
Let’s put the guitar away for a minute. The final practice pillar, which I’m calling “guitar study,” has little to do with actually playing the instrument. Instead, it’s all about taking the time to study anything and everything related to music-making and guitar-playing.
Many guitarists spend a lot of time playing but neglect an academically-oriented study of music. I realize that cracking a book or watching an educational video isn’t as fun as jamming out with friends, but it’s a very useful type of practice. Even a basic knowledge of music theory (especially as it maps onto the guitar) can save you an enormous amount of time in the long run.
You might protest, naming a few great players who don’t seem to know their theory. Or maybe you’ve just heard that theory isn’t necessary for guitarists.
My take is that music theory is just another learning tool at our disposal—we can improve without it, sure, but we can also improve without practicing hammer-ons, shifting, or the dreaded F chord. Why compromise our guitar tool-kit when we don’t need to?
What I’m calling “guitar study” is fairly broad. You can use this time to fill in any knowledge gaps you notice as you progress as a guitar player.
For example, if keep hearing about dominant seventh chords but don’t know what they are, you might take a few minutes to read about them. Or maybe you want to understand sonata form, or why the 12-bar blues progression keeps popping up. Obviously, guitar study will look really different depending on the style of music you’re invested in.
Guitar study could also mean ear training. Whether you want to play by ear or just level up your listening skills, ear training is a fantastic idea. You don’t need perfect pitch or any sort of natural ability to develop your ears; all you need is patience and dedication.
Another good use of your study time is to memorize the fretboard. In my view, it’s actually easier to learn the guitar grid outside the practice room. Print out a free guitar note chart (either letters or standard notation) and take in a little bit every day. You’ll notice a lot of repeating patterns. For instance, both E strings have the same sequence of notes two octaves apart.
Finally, you can do worse than to spend time with a good guitar book. And there are tons of them! If you read about guitar on a regular basis, your efforts will be reflected in your playing. After all, guitar is as much a mental discipline as it is a physical one. Be sure to use the full power of your mind. Check out this page for my best book recommendations to get started.
We’ve discussed 4 pillars of guitar practice, but how should we fit them into a daily routine? Obviously this partly depends on your personal circumstances.
As a rule of thumb, however, I’d encourage you to practice frequently in short sessions rather than infrequently in long sessions. If you’re like me, you’ll find that two 30-minute sessions are worth more than a single hour-long practice.
With that in mind, here are a few suggested routines based on your level of time commitment:
Each of the above routines works best if you space out each type of practice. Don’t finish your technical work and dive right into sight reading. Take 5 minutes at the very least to relax and recharge physically and mentally.
Even if you feel like you have enough energy to press forward, your sessions will be higher-quality if you rest between them.
When it comes to any sort of session, prioritize accuracy, comfort, and musical beauty, and slow down whenever needed.
Guitar practice is less about the total amount of time you put in than the quality of that time. If you’re serious about getting better, you’ll find that frequent, short, and intensely focused practice sessions will produce good results.
This is easier said than done, so you’ll probably need to adjust your routine gradually if you’re looking to make changes. You might look to apply one new idea at a time, and that’s perfectly fine. Even if you’re taking baby steps, at least you’re moving forward.
Best of luck ironing out your own guitar practice routine!
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