Guitar Practice Advice
Before I cover specific guitar practice advice, allow me to tell you a quick story.
I remember the very first guitar lesson I attended. It was a classroom setting. I knew almost nothing about the instrument. I had borrowed an inexpensive guitar in an old case. I wasn't certain that it was tuned properly (it wasn't). As I waited for the room to open, the guitar felt uncomfortable on my lap, and I was careful to avoid plucking any of the strings.
On top of all that... I was the oldest registered student and I felt uneasy about being there. As the other students arrived and began tuning up, the student next to me pulled out his guitar, tuned it quickly, and started strumming a song.
My heart sank.
I wanted to be somewhere else.
But, like the tortoise in the proverbial race story, I'm becoming a decent guitar player, and that student is still strumming the same song and occasionally attending beginner guitar lessons.
Why? Because I practiced and he didn't.
Two Obvious Points
It will be obvious by now, but my first bit of guitar practice advice is:
You must practice regularly if you want to improve. Period.
Pretty obvious, eh?
It does not have to be every day, but it should be at least five days per week. It does not have to be the same time every day, but don't wait until you're too tired to begin.
Consider this unfortunate corollary: Practice is rarely easy.
You know why? Because we tend to stop practicing the stuff we already know and play well. That leaves the stuff we don't know, or don't play well.
So, we set ourselves up for frustration. However, once you realize that the purpose of practice is to learn the songs and skills that you don't know, or struggle with, you can let go of any ego associated with it and focus on improving.
So, my second bit of guitar practice advice is this: Let go of your ego.
None of us will ever sound as good as we imagine, or as good as we really are, during practice.
The rest of this page contains advice for a successful practice session. None of this is very specific. For example... I won't tell you to play a certain scale in a particular way, or which exercises to focus on. Those specifics are best left to you or your instructor (or your curriculum, if you are using a non-instructor method).
Read through the guitar practice advice tips below... especially the last point. I hope you end up with a new perspective on practice, that you commit to it, and in a few months you can look back and see the improvement.
Make it Easy To Start
It can be hard to get practice started.
One problem is all the time and effort associated with preparing to practice. You need to...
- Get your guitar out of the case...
- Get out your music stand...
- Set up your guitar stand...
- Find the book you're working with...
- Find your tuner...
- Find a pick... Find the right pick...
- Etc., etc.
My guitar practice advice for a quick start? If you don't have a practice room where you can leave everything set-up, I recommend you find a convenient way to keep all of your materials together... For example, put everything you need for practice in your Gear Bag and keep that near your guitar. When you're ready to practice, you need to grab only two items... not five, six or seven.
Some people need quiet... not me. I can practice with the TV going, or with the radio in the other room. But, I don't like to practice if it means I'm disturbing conversation or other activities that require reasonable quiet. So, I'll grab my guitar and gig bag, and head off to another part of the house.
If you need a quiet area, or a particular location, the guitar practice advice for you is to keep all of your materials together in that place... The danger with this method is that "out of sight is out of mind," so don't put everything away if you need a visual reminder. Leave your tuner, or a pack of picks out where you pass them as you go about your business.
Practice Is Training...
A football player does not put on his pads and immediately start pounding into defensive linemen any more than a sprinter would lace up his shoes and dash out the door of the locker room in a hard sprint.
Each would approach a workout in a methodical way. They want to...
- Make sure their equipment is in good condition.
- Avoid injury by warming up.
- Build to the hardest part of the workout where they improve their abilities.
- Have some fun and finish on a positive note.
- Take care of their body by cooling down.
So, what guitar practice advice can we apply from this?
Approach practice like an athlete approaches a work out...
- Tune up, plug in, and check your equipment.
- Start with gentle stretching and warm=ups.
- Build to the hardest part, where you learn new material or techniques.
- Taper with easier and more enjoyable material.
- Take care of your guitar by cleaning it and the strings.
Let's look at some of these in more detail...
This guitar practice advice might seem like a no brainer, but...
The first thing you should do, every time you sit down to practice, is make certain you are in tune.
Your guitar must sound good if you expect practice to sound good.
Practice time, when it's quiet, is also the perfect time to listen to your guitar and decide if it's time to change strings.
Your guitar is in tune... your equipment, if you need it, is plugged in and turned on. But, it's not quite time to start.
The next guitar practice advice step? Loosen-up your hands a bit.
I have three exercises that I do. There's nothing special about them: Wiggle your fingers around a bit, then bend each finger independently. Flick your fingers out several times. Flop your hands gently back and forth at the wrists... Repeat until your fingers and wrists are loose.
Then... Pick some. Strum some. Start with familiar exercises, scales, or songs. You can use the time to refine your technique on these familiar items, but the key is to warm up your fingers, hands and arms.
Tackle The Hard Stuff Slowly
Anything new should be played slowly.
You may need to pause to move your hand from one chord to the next... or from one note to the next. That's OK. Remember, that's what practice is for! It's more important that you play correctly, than quickly.
What if you get frustrated by how slowly you move from one chord to another? I had this problem, and the guitar practice advice I got was to repeat it twenty or thirty, or fifty times... Eventually the movement will feel natural as you develop muscle memory. I once spent about 20 minutes playing a C-chord then an F-chord, then the C-chord... over and over... but now I can quickly move from the C to the F. Repetition helps. It's guitar practice advice I can personally vouch for!
Are you ready for a challenge with material you already know? Pull out a metronome and let it set the pace. It's amazing how much harder it is to play a song to a steady beat, rather than playing at your own pace.
Here's a guitar practice advice warning... Any time your hands start to hurt, it's time to move on to something new. Don't allow yourself to become injured. If you need to stop... stop.
Break New or Hard Material Into Segments
Rather than trying to play a new song, or a new scale, begin with only a portion of it.
Learn the chorus of that new song. Then move on to the verse and the bridge.
Learn the first few notes of a scale, then learn the rest.
When I received this guitar practice advice, it made a world of difference. Suddenly difficult new pieces became manageable, achievable, rather than discouraging.
Have Some Fun!
Always finish with a smile on your face, looking forward to the next chance to practice.
Pull out your effects processor and try to discover new sounds. If you have a drum machine, turn it on and play along. Or, try playing a song that you know cold, but faster... or slower... or louder than normal. Slap on a capo and sing along!
Hopefully, after reading this guitar practice advice you will take the time to enjoy your guitar and reward yourself for what you've accomplished.
Clean your strings (or, if they need to be replaced, do so now) and wipe down the surface of your guitar. For additional maintenance tips, see my Guitar Maintenance page.
Finally, secure your guitar on a sturdy stand, or in it's case. Put all your other stuff away in your gear bag, or on the music stand shelf.
Earlier on this guitar practice advice page I made an analogy between athletes and guitarists. Now I'm going to adapt an idea originally preached by A.W. Tozer...
Avoid Rote behavior or you will fall into a Rut, and your abilities will Rot.
A few quick definitions:
- Rote - a mechanical or habitual repetition of something to be learned
- Rut - behavior that has become dull or unproductive
- Rot - is a process of decaying
Now, let's apply these definitions to this guitar practice advice topic.
Repeating the same set of exercises, or songs, over and over, just because we're supposed to - or we think we're supposes to - without any real meaning... without increased expectations... without any happy surprises, is a rote activity.
When we allow our practice time to be habitual repetition, we prevent joy and progress.
So... Change it up. If you plan to practice an hour each day, you don't have to sit down for an hour. Sit down for 20 minutes, then 40... or 30 and 30, or 10, 20, 5, and 25... Mix it up. Fewer sessions are better, to avoid having to warm up your hands over and over. Hey, guitar practice advice tips are no good if they don't work for you and your schedule!
Think about introducing new books, a new DVD, or a new toy. Ask your instructor to assign an exercise that addresses one specific problem you have. Find someone to practice with, or that you talk to about practice. It encourages you and introduces fresh ideas and techniques.
If you don't keep it meaningful, fresh, fun... you are headed for a Rut. Practice will be a drudgery. You will avoid the guitar as much as possible. You'd rather watch the grass grow than practice that stinking D-Harmonic scale one more stinking time!
Once the rut begins, you are headed for Rot... the loss of your skills.
It won't take long, either. One week of missing practice was enough for my instructor to notice that my fingering was a little off... that my frets were buzzing a little more... that my timing wasn't the same.
You work very hard to play the instrument. Reward yourself by finding ways to keep it fresh.
Take this guitar practice advice to heart: Don't let Rote exercises turn your practice time into a Rut, and Rot your skills!