The simple part of taking on any new challenge is deciding that you’re interested and want to do it. Perhaps you have always enjoyed listening to a tune being plucked from the strings of a guitar, you are intrigued by the history or music theory behind the instrument, or you’ve been an on-again off-again musician who's never managed to progress your skills. These are all common reasons that push people to consider picking up a guitar. But it’s what happens after that initial decision that decides if you will, in fact, be a great future guitar player.
A common theme among those who give up or never improve their guitar playing skills is that they don’t have a plan for learning their instrument. Whether taking lessons or going it alone, having a plan for your practice sessions is key to your success.
Most of us guitar players start because we love music, and we love being able to produce songs, or at least emit sounds that can be deciphered as songs, from our guitars. If we master a whole song, or even a bit of one, we naturally gravitate towards playing what we know and have fun strumming along to. While this can be extremely enjoyable, especially if we picked up this string instrument as a leisurely hobby, focusing solely on what we’ve already learned keeps us from improving our techniques and learning new material. A structured and well-rounded guitar practice routine ensures that you hit all the right notes to grow your skills and meet your goals.
Great practice routines are individualistic. What works for a child may not work for an adult. What works for a professional-level musician won’t work for a beginner. Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing a routine to incorporate into your practice time.
Knowing what you want to accomplish should be directly reflected to what you spend the bulk of your time working on during precious dedicated practices. For example, are you a beginner-level player who wants to work on forming chords, or are you a professional guitarist who needs to master new material in time for upcoming performances?
Ensure that you choose a plan geared toward your skill level. If you’re a beginner just learning your instrument, avoid routines meant for intermediate players, as they’ll only work to overwhelm and confuse you if you don’t already have a good hold on the basics.
Set expectations regarding the length of time you will dedicate to each session before beginning a daily practice routine. You don’t have to set aside two hours daily, seven days a week, to increase your guitar-playing abilities. In fact, trying to hold yourself to that sort of commitment when starting off and eager to learn will likely set you up for failure, leaving you frustrated when the routine becomes unsustainable. Whether you dedicate an hour or 30 minutes to practice, choosing a routine that already aligns with your timeframe will make the plan incredibly easy to follow. However, if you find a plan that seems perfect but requires more time than you can give, simply adjust the times down to meet your needs.
Whether or not you’ve decided on a practice routine you can commit to, there are some things you should do and consider before jumping in.
Have an idea of where you want to end up before practice begins. How can you ever arrive if you’re not even sure of the destination? If you’re a beginner, your goals may include forming chords or stringing them together. More advanced musicians may have goals pertaining to learning particular songs or focusing on a technique they wish to strengthen. Think about what you want to achieve over the next several months, and write down specific weekly and monthly goals to help you get there.
Consider journaling about each session once it’s over. Write about how the practice made you feel, both the high points and the low. Note areas that require extra attention for your next practice. Looking back at your writings will give you visual reminders of what you should work on and will help determine if you’re ultimately making progress.
For many people, listening to themselves talk or play is an uncomfortable experience; however, recording your rehearsal time provides invaluable insights. Listening back to your recordings helps you pinpoint weak areas easily overlooked when you’re in the moment and singularly focused.
Sometimes the greatest motivator is simply picturing “future you.” Visualize yourself as the musician you dream of being. This could be as simple as having a comfort level with the basics or mastering a few numbers and playing in front of a larger audience. No matter what your dream looks like, picturing yourself there gives you the motivation to push through and make it a reality.
While your goals and skill level ultimately determine what your personal routine will contain, here are five components that should be included within any practice session to ensure it’s well-rounded.
If you’re about to embark on a grueling workout, you would warm up before jumping into the difficult stuff. The same is true of starting a guitar practice. Partaking in simple warm ups allow you to acclimate to the mindset needed to focus on your studies and will prepare your fingers to perform.
Unless you find the how’s and why’s fascinating, this is likely an area that you may find yourself trying to skip. Oftentimes, we just want to do, rather than learn how it all comes together and works. Skipping the study of music theory could definitely hinder your musical abilities in the long term.
It’s easy to focus on what you already know, but continuously doing the familiar won’t allow you to grow. Practicing within a balanced routine means stepping outside your comfort zone and working towards learning or improving new skills or techniques.
While new is good, don’t completely forget the old. Never returning to practice something already learned will cause that skill to weaken, or you may have to completely relearn it.
There’s nothing quite as enjoyable as playing whatever you’d like in the spur of the moment, and this is what makes learning the guitar a joy. While you shouldn’t spend the bulk of practice time here, it’s important to incorporate some improvisation into every practice.
Here’s an example of a great routine for someone playing at the beginner level. You can easily adjust the activities to account for the particular skills you are growing, or to make the practice more intermediate. This routine is for one hour of practice, so simply adjust the times down if you have less time available.
Get your fingers moving to build their strength with warm-up exercises. Use your favorites or give this one a try. Starting from the fifth fret, place your four fretting fingers in a line on the first string. Lift your index finger, placing it on the second string and play that note. Meanwhile, the rest of your fingers should remain in contact with the first string. Do the same with your middle finger, moving it to the sixth fret on the second string and playing the note. Again, all other fingers will remain in contact with the first string. Continue doing this down the row with each finger, moving up and down the strings.
Take this opportunity to further your guitar knowledge and learn fundamental concepts. You could utilize a method book to work through, or learn and practice new chords from a chord book to name just a couple of examples.
Begin by choosing a scale shape to work through. Play it at a comfortable tempo before increasing the speed. Do this exercise with a metronome to ensure accuracy and keep track of your timing and speed. Don’t feel the need to rush this or practice until it’s perfect right away. If this is a focus of yours, simply work on the same one during your sessions for a couple weeks.
Choose just one or two songs to focus on at a time. Continue working on these over the course of your practice sessions until you can confidently play them. If your creative juices are flowing, you could even give songwriting a try.
Use this time just for cutting loose and having fun! You’ve worked hard during your practice routine, so now take a few minutes to relax and play how and what you’d like.
In the end, the best guitar practice routine is going to be one that actively helps you work towards your goals. Choose or create a well-balanced routine that includes a mix of the different components we mentioned above, and stay consistent with your practice to watch your skills grow.