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How To Practice Guitar Efficiently- Building a Balanced Routine

Updated on November 7, 2012
My Fender Stratocaster
My Fender Stratocaster

Introduction

So, you'd like to improve your guitar skills? Great! In this article I'm going to show you ways to structure your practice in order to master the guitar in the most efficient manner.

Before we get going, I want to instill the concept of balance into your mind. It is the key to success in your practice; as musicians, it is crucial we take a systematic, balanced approach to learning our instruments. A wise musician would not spend 2 hours learning a single song, but spend only 5 minutes practicing the techniques they need in order to master it. We must find equilibrium between working on our goals (such as learning difficult songs), and working on the underlying issues that will help us achieve them (the mastery of scales, picking, speed, accuracy, etc).

Are you ready to take your practice to the next level?

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Before You Get Started

Your Instrument

Make sure that your instrument is in good repair: take care of your instrument and it will take care of you! This is as simple as taking a trip to your local music store. Ask for new strings and a set up. They will: put new strings on, clean your axe up, adjust the truss rod if necessary, set the action (height of the strings), tighten input jacks, etc. It's about a $25 dollar investment, but you will be immensely satisfied. Your guitar will play like, if not better than, the day you bought it.

Manage Expectations

Before you tackle the upcoming list you should ask yourself this: "What exactly am I trying to learn?"

Pick a song that you want to learn, or one that you are having trouble with and ask these questions.

  1. What is it about this song that I am having trouble with?
  2. What sounds challenging in this new song?
  3. Are there challenging melodies or solos?
  4. Do I know all the necessary chords?

Knowing the answers to these questions will help you learn what you need to practice to succeed!

Step 1. Scheduling

When building your weekly practice routine you should be as consistent as possible. The easiest way to do this is to practice at the same time each day. Make practicing part of your every day life: It will become something that you just do because it's that time of day again. Personally, I like to get up early in the mornings, have a cup of coffee, and start my 2 hr practice session. I urge you to find a time that works 7 days a week and stick with it. Remember, consistency is key!

After you decide when you are going to practice, decide how much time you can spend practicing. This step is essential in building a routine: you need to know how much time you have to allot to the different sections of a balanced practice session. The ABSOLUTE MINIMUM you should be practicing each day is 30 minutes; however, if you want to see serious progress I would recommend practicing 2+ hours a day (just a suggestion). Later in the article I will provide a table demonstrating a sample balanced practice session.

Step 2. Understanding the Recipe for a Productivity in Your Practice

Now that we have our practice time scheduled, let's get started putting our routine together.

Do you remember what the key to effective practice is? Balance, right? There are several things we need to fit into our regimen in order to maximize our practice results. These are: a warm up, right hand technique, left hand technique, scale practice, chord practice, improvisation practice (assuming you want to be able to take guitar solos), and literature practice. I realize this seems like a lot, but it is possible to fit it all into a single practice session. Let us examine the different sections one by one.

Warm up

The warm up is arguably the most important part of any practice routine. Think of it as stretching before working out, or running a long distance. A proper warm up will get our fingers loosened up and ready to perform at their highest level. A warm up should not be practiced fast; rather, it should be played at a manageable tempo as accurately as possible. One of the best warm up exercises I've found comes from Dream Theater's guitarist, John Petrucci, and can be found in his method book, "Rock Discipline." The video can be found below. He explains the exercise beginning at 7:16.

John Petrucci Warm Up

Alternate Picking Example

John Petrucci Alternate Picking Lesson

Right-Hand Exercises

These would include anything that works on our picking hand. Developing our right hand is crucial to being accurate. It will help us keep good time (not speeding up or slowing down when a steady tempo should be maintained) and allow us to perform more challenging pieces of music.

When working on your right-hand technique I suggest that you find exercises that focus on the following things: speed, accuracy, and endurance.

I recommend that all my students learn how to properly use alternate picking. It is a simple and economical way to pick with our right hand. An introduction to alternate picking and an example of right handed exercises can be found on the right.

Keep it in mind that this Hub isn't about what to practice, it is about getting the most out of your time spent. Follow my HubPage for future articles in which I will go into greater detail about different exercises you can do to improve in all of these areas.


Left Hand Exercises

Left hand exercises are designed to work our fretting hand. These will increase your speed, accuracy, flexibility, reach, and capability to perform difficult passages. When working your left hand, focus on working all of your fingers (especially the ring finger and pinky). Building a strong and technically sound fretting hand will ultimately make things feel less awkward. Do you remember how strange and uncomfortable the guitar felt the first time you picked it up? We need to make sure we never feel uncomfortable like that again!

Scale Practice

Scale practice can be looked at as an exercise for both hands: it combines the things we work on in our left and right hand exercises. Scale practice is also beneficial because nearly every guitar riff is comprised of different scale patterns. For instance, if you are trying to learn how to play metal or latin music it would be beneficial to master the "harmonic minor" scale because of the frequency of it's use in these styles.

Ideally, a proficient guitar player has a mastery of many different scales and understands their uses.

Scale practice goes hand in hand with our next topic, improvisation.

Improvisation

Improvisation is the act of composing on the spot. It is an essential element in many musical styles including, but not limited to: Jazz, Blues, Rock, and Bluegrass.

There are many great tools out there for practicing improvisation. I would start small: learn how to play the blues. The primary scale used in this style of music is the "Minor Pentatonic" scale. Learn and practice the scale. Once you have it down, take some time and improvise over a "Backing Track" (these are readily available on youtube). It is a fun way to work on improvising, and gives you an opportunity to practice all the techniques you have been working on!

Backing Track in "A"

"A minor pentatonic scale"


E|--------------------------------5--8--

B|--------------------------5--8--------

G|--------------------5--7--------------

D|--------------5--7--------------------

A|--------5--7--------------------------

E|--5--8--------------------------------

Chord Practice

Chord practice is very simple. There are thousands of guitar chord shapes out there, so I wouldn't recommend trying to learn them all; instead, consider the song(s) that you are trying to learn. Find out what chords you need to know to play these songs, and practice playing them back and forth with the next chord in the songs progression. Let's look at Bob Dylan's "Knocking On Heaven's Door" to demonstrate.

In order to play this song you will have to know the following chords: "G" major, "D" major, "C" major, and "a" minor. Start there, make sure you can play the chords with ease: work on them individually until you feel comfortable. Now, let's look at the chord progression.

G----D----am--------

G----D----C----------

I would start by practicing going back and forth between the first two chords, "G" and "D." Next I would practice going from "D" to "a minor." I would continue by practicing "a minor" to "G," so on, and so forth.

Practicing in this manner will make switching chords feel more natural, thus making your transitions seamless.

Literature Practice

Simply put, literature practice is the process of learning songs, and perfecting the ones that we already know. Do you notice how this is only a small facet of a balanced routine? It is important to learn songs: ultimately it is why we play the instrument! If you take the time to work on the techniques that we've talked about over the course of this article you will notice this part of your practice being less stressful, more efficient; and most of all, enjoyable. The purpose of all the other exercises are to give you the tools to SUCCEED in this area!

Step 3. Putting it all together

Alright, now we get to take the things we've talked about thus far and put together a practice routine that will get you on the road to success!

I will assume that we are working with a 1 hour block of time and time everything out accordingly.

Conclusion

Congratulations, you now know how to structure your practice in an efficient manner; taking care of the things we need to become successful guitar players. If you maintain a disciplined schedule similar to this one, there is no doubt in my mind that you will succeed in furthering your mastery of the instrument.

Try this schedule out for a week and let me know how it works for you! I firmly believe that this can, and will, make you a more capable guitar player.

Happy picking,

Halvsies

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