Your Guitar Practice Routine
How to Plan an Effective Guitar Practice Session
Today we're going to tackle probably the most critical part of learning guitar: creating a guitar practice schedule . An optimal practice session is what allows us to reach our goals on the instrument, but it requires careful design and a thoughtful approach. Whether you are born with innate ability, a hobbyist, or even a professional, whatever it is you do likely will get better with practice.
As a guitar player, you may not exactly be shooting for the stars, but you will still want to be able to pick the guitar up and show off a little.
Are you feeling you're not improving for some time?
Are you stuck playing the same scale pattern over and over?
Then you likely need to rectify your guitar practice schedule. In this article, we will discuss some basics of guitar practice routine along with some creative ideas to help keep it interesting (even some suggestions about practicing without a guitar in your hands).
Table Of Contents
- General Tips for Developing Technique
- 15 Minute Guitar Practice Routine
- 30 Minute Guitar Practice Routine
- 60 Minute Guitar Practice Routine
- 120 Minute Guitar Practice Routine
Playing is not practicing
Let's first highlight a crucial distinction: playing is not practicing . The last findings of neuroscience tell us that our brains are wired to take what they call " the path of least resistance. "
Our natural impulse is to do what is easiest for us ; it's the evolution law (in the prehistory, it was essential to save time and energy).
The same rule applies to the guitar too: if we don't plan in advance what to practice, we risk to play on autopilot always the same, comfortable things . How many times we have played the same, boring I IV V chord progression ? Or the over-abused 4-frets pentatonic scale box ? This kind of playing does not require too much effort; the muscle memory does the heavy-lifting, but at that moment we are not improving at all, as we are not really practicing.
To improve, we need to challenge ourselves with something not familiar to us : a new chord, a new scale, a particular fretboard fingering hard to play. We must play things out of our comfort zone , with patience and discipline, over and over until we master it, then switch to the next thing. This is real practice.
So you understand that it's essential to create a guitar practice schedule that takes us along a progressive difficulty path — more on later this. For more information about how our brains learn new things, check this article on learning how to learn guitar
The Flow Theory
Now a question arises: what's the difficulty level that I have to set in my practice? Trying to play correctly something way over your head only creates frustration , on the contrary, playing too easy things limits your growth and it's boring.
The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi studied this dilemma deeply and conceived the Flow theory :
"A flow state , also known colloquially as being in the zone , is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one's sense of space and time."
You should try to spend your practicing time as much as possible in the flow state. You can reach this Nirvana by following 3 main rules :
- You must feel confident that your skills will grow to the level of what you're trying to practice. So a right balance is required between the difficulty level of the material and your current skills.
- Have a clear learning path , with goals to reach and progress tracking.
and freedom from distractions.
All the greatest artists and performers work in the flow state, and you should try too.
So the take away here is to remember that just sitting down and playing the guitar is not practicing . It’s fun and sometimes necessary to just sit and jam on known tunes and maybe some new unknown tunes on your guitar.
However, practicing is structured with specific exercises and lessons in timed sections. And it is a lot easier said than done, even the most talented players out there have a hard time focusing on a task at hand and keeping their mind on proper technique. While it is always advisable to keep practice routines fun if it is not ever frustrating or boring then you may be going to easy on yourself. Guitar practice should be a mix of sweet and sour !
Playing guitar you are working both your physical agility and strength, but also mental acuity and listening skills. Just like if you were to go to the gym you need to find a moderate “workout” that leaves you with a feeling of accomplishment. Don’t overdo it and definitely, you don’t want to be left feeling burnt out.
Write It All Down and track your progress
Besides this article there a ton of guitar practice guides and tips all across the vast online world. Most likely you will take some of the best ideas to make a routine that is suitable for you. Whatever you decide to do in your routine the key is to write it down.
It won’t be perfect at first, times will need to be adjusted and new ideas incorporated. That is an easy fix just simply write, erase, and adjust. In this guitar journal, you should also keep notes on what specific parts of the practice worked best.
Writing it down is important because you will not remember everything , and the point of practicing is to repeat good behaviors and fix mistakes. If we have a journal to fall back on, we can adjust and follow our progress.
Use a Metronome, always
Another essential aspect of a guitar practice routine is a metronome . We are living in a time when a metronome can be found almost anywhere. Hardware versions that are old school, sites , apps on the phone, computer, tablet, I even assume Alexa on Amazon will play one if you ask!
The point is there is no excuse not to practice without a metronome.
Some players find them annoying and boring, no doubt, but they are really essential to make sure you stay on top of timing.
It’s also a great tool to have if what you are practicing for involves precision and speed. Part of your practice will involve the ever-increasing speed on the metronome
Learning material: Books or Online Reference
If this were many years ago, I would suggest having your practice space filled with chord charts , scale books , technique, a variety of guitar books .
Now we have the technology to have all of that info right at our fingertips. It can sometimes be a bad thing, as we must avoid distractions like wiki holes and social media!
It’s always helpful during practice though, to have a quick reference when needed. That and you can find a million practice scales and riffs to keep your lesson plans full of new ideas.
Another great aspect of the online world is the myriad of videos to choose from when learning . True you have to filter out what is a worthy video and those that are awful, but it is still amazing the variety out there.
It does lack that personal touch that a real person would have, but it sure is a better option than having no one to learn from at all.
Warm-up and Scales
The start of every practice is a warm-up, and what better time to mix in scales. A slightly speed increasing scale is a wonderful way to get ready for further guitar practice. That is when it’s always nice to have a guitar scale reference .
Pick a scale or a mode and start playing, making sure to use all four fingers , don’t forget the pinky. Always keep in mind your posture and positioning when starting to practice. Yes, this is much easier when a real person is there to show you, but if you try to stay aware of it you will hopefully keep on top of good posture.
As soon as you start warming up and playing those scales the metronome should be in use. Don’t forget to try different keys , music theory is for every part of practice.
Technique can be practiced anywhere throughout your routine, but you’ll find its best to start immediately during the warm-up. Picking direction , styles, tricks, these can easily be thrown into warm-up scales.
They can be continued in other parts of your practice, for example when learning chords. Or at times when seeking out brand new or unique guitar tricks and techniques.
Learn Chords and Progressions
During most practices you will want to work on chords and how they relate to one another. In the early days of beginning practice you will simply be learning a new chord or two. As you get better you will learn barre chords, inversions, and the basic music theory and building blocks of chords.
Depending on which style of music you like to play you will see they all have specific chord progressions and licks that fit each genre. There are only so many chord progressions out there and by taking time in practice to learn them you eventually be able play almost any song.
You will find the best guitar practice routines are learning the basics and building blocks and cementing them in your muscle memory and brain.
Build Repertoire with new Songs
If you have enough time to practice you should always have a song ready to play . This will take some prep, which is what your guitar journal was for. Perhaps you hear a song on the radio, or you have one in mind that you have always wanted to learn. In the early stages of your guitar journey, it will be difficult to judge what may be a playable song.
Before practice when you look up the chords or the tabs of a tune take a quick glance to make sure it will be playable. Try picking songs that will challenge you with new chords and techniques. After a short time learning music, we all discover that a lot of tabs and chords online are wrong .
Perhaps some lesson challenges can be to use your ear to figure out the right chords of songs online!
Solos and Lead Guitar
Even if you’re playing style isn’t focused on solos it is still an important part of any guitar practice routine. Practicing solos is perfect near the end when your fingers are limber and ready for new ideas. In the early days of learning guitar, it will be helpful to find ready-made solos to give you an idea of what makes a good solo.
Over time you will want to put all your new music knowledge to the test to see how you are faring as a guitar student. Pick different scales and modes to solo in, modulate your keys, throw in every technique that you know. Perhaps a new song or melody may be discovered when practicing how to solo.
This leads us to the next idea, to solo along or play chord changes with a piece of music!
Play Along with Music
One thing we forget in this wonderful world of modern tech is certain old school methods of practice have unfortunately been forgotten. In the days of the early rock stars like The Beatles, they learned how to play music by listening to records and copying what they heard.
They didn’t have internet or easy to access guidebooks. We should incorporate this old method into our modern practice. Ear training is an essential part of any practice and the best thing for that is learning a song by just listening.
Granted some modern music may be so processed that it becomes difficult to decipher ( here a useful software for this ) but for the most part, you can’t go wrong with old fashioned ear training . As you listen to the song flesh out the chords, the main riffs, and even try out your own made-up solos, as mentioned above.
Use Modern Technology
Practice can be daunting once you sit down and attempt to get serious and down to business. In the beginning, we mentioned it being the root cause of success or failure. If you can decide to keep playing and practicing, you will get better.
If you can’t defeat procrastination and laziness than you will eventually find you are not that great at playing the guitar. Playing the basics like scales, repeated exercises, chord inversions, that can all get boring.
The more we can keep some pizza in our practice the more likely we will stick with it. Not only do we have access to a ton of music information, but we also have lots of modern effects and apps to help our playing.
One of our favorite practice enhancers are effects apps or software . Let’s face it, it would cost a fortune to buy tons of effects pedals or amps. However modern software gives us digital emulations that really sound just as good. Amps and effects apps can really spice up a practice.
If you want to practice the blues, metal, or rockabilly you could load up the right setting and your practice feels that more authentic. There are also plenty of apps and software geared towards chord progression generators and music theory. Let these modern apps help you in your guitar path.
Another modern technology that will help your practice is loopers and DAW’s . Being able to record and play along with yourself is fantastic for guitar practice!
Teach To Others
Learn by teaching someone else a topic in simple terms so you can quickly pinpoint the holes in your knowledge. Richard Feynman
This is one last technique to build better practice routines, and that is to teach. We don’t necessarily mean for money or for a career, for many guitar players their skills increase when they show others how to play.
Sometimes it takes teaching to even realize your own mistakes. As you attempt to show someone a song you know, you realize they are using poor technique mimicked from the teacher.
At the end of the day, teaching is sharing ideas and it is rarely a one-way relationship. Building an example practice routine for another guitar student can help you see flaws in your own.
Practice Without a Guitar
You can even practice when your away from your guitar . Here's a list of things you can do to grow your musicianship without your guitar in hands.
- Driving? Commuting? Then do some audio based ear training exercises. Here's a set of mp3 for functional ear training .
- Sitting in front of a computer all day long? Memorize fretboard notes and geometry with our fretboard trainer (this tool runs online in the browser, you don't have to install anything... don't tell your boss!)
- Close your eyes and visualize your hands playing scales, arpeggios and chords shapes. Imagination actually helps your brain and fingers work better and faster, according to the latests neuroscience researches on learning process .
- Take pen and paper and draw a guitar neck notes map.
General Tips for Developing Technique
Here's some additional food for thoughts that might help in building a better practice routine.
Identify and isolate technical difficulties
If you figure out that you always fail on a particular passage (a note in a scale, a tone of a chord, and so forth), create a small, specific exercise that addresses the problem; don't play over and over the whole scale. You don't want to waste time practice things you already master.
Also, it's important to use the proper tone: clean, crunch and distortion sound have their pros and cons and, depending on what you are studying, you should practicing with all of them.
Record yourself and listen (and build an archive)
When you are playing, your brain is busy in controlling fingers. If you develop a habit of recording yourself and listen to the recordings, you can become fully aware of your performance , (even better, you should think before you play) what are your most frequent mistakes, and where you need to improve.
Furthermore, if you create an archive of your past recordings, you can re-listen to them and have a clear idea of your progress . And this, of course, will fuel your motivation for getting better and better.
Ready-Made Guitar Practice Session
In the following, you find a number of ready-made guitar practice routines. Use them as a starting point for tailoring your own guitar practice schedule. There is no one-size-fits-all, then you might want to adapt them depending on your taste.
We recommend you to use a timer and turn off all the distractions.
15 Minute Guitar Practice Routine
To be honest we aren’t going to be accomplishing too much with only 15 minutes to practice. However if that’s what gets us playing then we will settle with this time. We aren’t just looking to play though, it’s very important to have a structured practice. Below we have some specific ideas with time limits.
15 minutes is realistically going to be broken up into 3 parts. For muscle memory to really kick in the guitar playing must be repetitive for a set amount of time . The process of music practice is very similar to going to the gym to work out and lose weight or tone muscle. Just like exercising in practice we want to use resistance and reps (here's an insight about memory and repetitions) to build our skill. You should also choose to practice at the best times.
Not after a big meal, drinking or smoking, when dead tired, after all, you want your brain and hands to be alert and ready to learn . The best part about such a small amount of practice time is that you can fit 15 minutes into about anywhere on your schedule . So pick a time when you can be the best student.
0:00-5:00 - Warmup
The first five minutes are dedicated to warm-ups, and the best way to prepare is scales . If you are a true beginner you will stick to playing one simple scale, the more advanced you are, play a few in this time. Turn your metronome on and make sure to start slow and hit every note, using your pinky. Depending on your goals as a musician you can be more specific about what you want to practice . If your aim is to play blues than take this initial time to focus on blues scales.
A heavy metal fan? Focus on your various minor and Dorian scales. Just remember to focus on a scale or two as time is limited. Here is a scale generator for some ideas.
5:00-10:00 - Chords
We take this time to focus on chords. It’s ok to get creative with music practice ideas, but you still need cohesion. Pick a few chords that fit with your scale(s) you started with. If you started with the C major scale in your warm-up, why not now learn the chords C, D, and G.
As you advance in your skills the practice will need a little more planning. This is where a guitar journal will help you keep track of ideas and plans for your lesson. Keep track of what works and what doesn’t. If you have a good number of chords memorized than take this second part to learn some new chord progressions.
10:00-15:00 Mix scales and chords
Put it all together, mix your scale and chords . Arpeggiate the chords, play individual notes. This allows your brain to bring it all in and see the big picture. It also will force you to basically improvise. What do you hear as you play? What order do the chords sound best in? When you play a wrong note, did it sound bad or good?
During this last part you can also add some technique into your practice. While mixing your scale and chords together, try hammer-ons, slurs, various picking styles. Like the scale and chords don’t go overboard as time is of the essence but keep different techniques in your guitar journal for reference.
30 Minute Guitar Practice Routine
This gives us a little more realistic time frame to effectively learn guitar. Remember our goal here isn’t just to play for 30 minutes but instead have a successful practice. Set aside the time when you have an uninterrupted half-hour. Below are some time guidelines and specific ideas on how to have a great practice.
Either keep a metronome on hand or use an app on your phone, but make sure you always have one. Make sure you play at appropriate times that allow you to make as few mistakes as possible . If your goal is to become a shredding master, then you will want to keep track of your specific BPM and increase the speed every few practices.
0:00-5:00 - Warmup with scales
Every practice starts with a warm-up, and one of the best is, of course, playing scales. Ascending and descending, making sure to warm all fingers up including your pinky. Stay in time with the metronome, the goal here is to get your fingers loose and limber. If you have a few specific riffs you know by heart these can’t hurt to be thrown into the mix.
5:00-20:00 - Scales and chords
The main focus here is further scales and chords. If your goal is to play more rhythm guitar than solos, then focus more on chords. Have a key in mind at the start of each practice and stick to it. For example learn the blues scale in E and the chords E, A, and B7. With only 30 minutes we want to keep our focus narrow. Pay attention to the flats or sharps in your chosen scale . Learn inversions of your chords and various positions up the neck, try them as power chords.
If you are more of an intermediate guitar player than you can focus on more complicated chords and progressions. Advance on your blues chords with 9ths, 13ths, suspended and you get into the realm of playing funk. Now you just need to work on the way the chords are played.
20:00-25:00 - Style Technique
This is where you bring technique and style into your practice by improvising on what you have learned. This is the part of the practice that you hone what you are learning into a style. If you were interested in playing funk then you would improvise playing in sixteenth notes, staccato rhythms, getting the different patterns and grooves down. If you want to be a heavy metal shredder than improvise a specific scale solo around a set minor chord progression.
This part of the practice gets better as you gain more skill. In your guitar journal keep notes on specific techniques and styles for the genre you like best.
25:00-30:00 - Learn a new song
Try a new song out. If it has chords or a theme that fits practice, great. Otherwise, have a song prepared that you have always wanted to learn.
With a computer or tablet in front is very easy to do a quick random selection and chord find, giving you a ton of possibilities.
If it happens to be a very complicated song than continue it during the next practice. Just keep in mind to pay attention to what key the song is in and how its progression is similar to which other songs you have played in the past. You take what you have learned over the course of many lessons and use that knowledge to study the tune while playing it.
60 Minute Guitar Practice Routine
With an hour to practice, we have a lot more time for each section of the lesson. The only downside is keeping the mind on the task at hand. We don’t want to take a whole hour but only actually practice for 15 minutes. To plan sixty minutes we will need to put a lot more effort into filling the lesson with just the right amount of activity. This is one reason why some musicians don’t bother going into teaching, the fee a student pays also has to cover the preparation for the lesson!
0:00-10:00 - Warmup with scales
As usual, the warmup will consist of scales, but with added time. Of course, use the metronome and play at a speed you can handle. Increase as you feel comfortable and use all four fingers.
With more time for this warm-up, we want to try various positions of a scale. This is a great time to see how scales and modes relate to one another. At the end of the warmup attempt to play without looking at your hand , let the muscle memory do its job!
10:00-20:00 - Chords and theory
Chords are essential and here we take the time to learn some new chords and progressions. Try not to just look at the chord chart and copy it. Look at each individual note, which inversion is it, how is the chord built from the scale? Make sure to keep track of any particular chords you have trouble with and to quiz yourself on past lesson chords. Pay attention to how chords sound in relation to one another and which progressions are the most used.
20:00-30:00 - Developing Technique
After playing your scales and chords spend the next ten minutes on techniques specific to your favorite style or if you like to learn multiple genres just pick one. Strumming, string flourishes, picking, and even using a slide are great for this section. Perhaps as a beginner, you will focus on some different strumming patterns, or if you are into heavy metal work on your down picking and palm muting.
30:00-45:00 - Learn a new song
Learn new repertoire and songs here. If you have plans to busk on the open streets for money than here is the portion of practice where you cram songs into your brain for future use.
If you pay close attention to chords and chord progressions the more, you will see patterns in most all songs . If you are a guitar player looking to learn very complicated pieces than this practice can be devoted to one song. It all depends on your final goal.
45:00-60:00 - Ear Training
This last chunk of time is devoted to ear training. Unfortunately, it is severely lacking for many musicians . In the old days when a burgeoning guitarist wanted to learn a song from their favorite Rockstar, they bought the record and learned to play by listening to it.
With all our modern technology and access to so many tabs, chords, and lessons no one really trains their ear anymore. You will potentially find this part of practice to be very difficult if you have always learned alone and on a screen.
There are a variety of ways to train your ear in this last 15 minutes. You can find specific ear training exercises. Or just simply play your tune and start fleshing it out on the guitar. Headphones will likely help at times and you just keep trying until you can make the sound that you hear them making!
120 Minute Guitar Practice Routine
If you are already working with 2-hour practice routines than you are very much on your way to being a phenomenal musicia n. These very long sessions can have the chance of devolving into plain old playing instead of practice. However, they can also evolve into discovering new ideas and unlocking talent. For most guitarists I would suggest trying the different practice times on various days , seeing which helps them the most. One day when you have a large chunk of time to devote, try this 120-minute routine out.
0:00-0:10 - Warm-up
As always, a warm-up with scales. Don’t just learn one common scale, learn how to make that same scale in any key. On the scale generator really find some obscure scales to play. Don’t forget to use all four fingers and keep that metronome ticking.
0:10-0:20 - Chords
Take the time for a few chords in this section. Besides learning the different inversions, barre chords, also pay close attention to the makeup of each chord. Eventually, you will feel comfortable enough in this part of practice to reverse build chords.
Using the notes they are made up of try and find locations on the guitar, a brain teasing challenge (unless you know all your chords!).
0:20-0:40 - Scale and chords theory
Using the scales and chords that you know to take the time to read how they relate to one another in music theory. During this time you want to have the guitar available as you will be needing it as a reference, but we want to give our hands some rest .
0:40-1:10 - Learn a new song
Have a recording device available to get an idea of what mistakes you are making. As you play a new song you can record it and get a good idea of how your progress is moving along. In fact, if you are so inclined to take this time of practice to write your own song. It need not be perfect; you can finish it in the time allotted.
1:10-1:20 - Learn a new technique
A completely new technique is learned here. Do some deep internet searching ahead of your practice and find some of the lesser-known techniques that you may add to your guitar stylings. Try to pick hand bending , tapping, slip harmonics, there are even folks out there who play guitar with a drumstick or string bow for very weird effects. You have this huge chunk of time to practice, get crazy with it.
1:20-1:40 - Ear Training
This can be ear training with specific exercises or listening to a song and breaking it down. Listen to more than the guitar part.
What key is it in, does it modulate?
What is the bass playing compared to the guitar? Learn the old fashion way, play a lick from a song you love and figure it out all by ear! This part of practice can be awesome if you invest in a decent stereo and headphones.
In fact we suggest a vinyl record collection for the best ear-training available!
1:40-2:00 - Improvisation
The last part of practice is improvising and putting everything together that we have learned. This part actually goes with our ear training. With ear training, we are attempting to learn the song by listening, but now we want to play along with the song in an improvisation. If you find it too difficult to improvise with a complete song you can always find some basic backing tracks on many sites and apps.
Experiment with different genres, drum beats, and time signatures . If necessary, take your time with improvising, remember what you have worked on during your lesson and bring it all together at the end. You may wish to also record this improvisation . That would be a good idea as you may stumble onto a perfect riff or melody after these two hours of practice!
Guitar Practice Routine - Conclusions
The more you practice the more it will become a comfortable and smooth flowing process . In fact, if you really stick with it, your biggest issues will be stirring things up and breaking the routine.
Until then you have to do everything you can to make sure that you practice your guitar. Build a routine using the ideas above , keep progress in your journal so you know what works and what doesn’t.
Regularly watch videos from a variety of teachers to get any new ideas or to find a new way to approach a problem. At the end of the day, the key is to practice! Even practice itself gets better with PRACTICE!
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