How to practice guitar effectively

You become a great player from the practice you put in. There is no other way. The more time and effort you put in to practicing, the faster you will learn. The way you practice also has a big impact on how fast you develop. This article will tell you why so many guitarists are wasting countless hours with ineffective ‘practice’. By the end of this article you will know how to avoid the most common mistakes people make and how to have the most effective practice session possible. When you apply all this information, you will learn faster and become a better guitarist.

Bad Habits to Avoid When Practicing Guitar

Before you learn what makes an effective practice session, it’s important to understand what to avoid. So many guitarists waste hours and hours every week because they practice guitar the wrong way. Here’s the most common bad habits to avoid when practicing.

1. Spending too much time practicing without a break

This is the most common bad habit guitarists face. Some players think that if they sit down and practice straight for 2+ hours, they will learn faster. The sad truth is that a 2+ hour practice session will do more harm than good and a player practicing for 30 minutes can achieve more.

The reason long practice sessions don’t achieve anything is because your brain can only learn things in small block sized pieces. If you spend five minutes working on a technique, you will remember the whole five minute session and learn from it. On the other hand if you spend two hours working on the same technique, you will probably remember the first five minutes of practice and the last ten minutes. Everything in between becomes a blur because it was such a long practice session. The result is almost two hours wasted.

Key Point: Limit the amount of time you spend practicing one session. Practicing guitar for more than an hour in one sitting will simply waste your time.


2. Spending too much time on one thing

Just like the point above, if you spend too much time on one thing (eg: technique, exercise) your brain will switch off and you wont learn anything. Spending five minutes on one exercise will achieve about 80% of the gains that you would achieve by spending 60 minutes practicing. In other words, you gain 80% of the benefits from the first five minutes, then you need to practice for another 55 minutes to gain an extra 20%. Hardly seems worth it does it?

Key Point: Spending too much time on one technique or exercise won’t help you out. Limit how much time you spend practicing any one topic.


3. ‘Just playing’

A lot of players feel that ‘just playing’ will help them learn fast enough and that spending time practicing is pointless. While it’s important to spend time ‘just playing’, you don’t develop as a player as much from those sessions compared to focused practice. A guitarist who has a focused practice session for 30 minutes a day will learn faster and develop better skills than a player who ‘just plays’ for 30 minutes a day. Even if the ‘just play’ guitarist starts out better, in a years time the guitarist who practices will be far more advanced.

Key Point: ‘Just playing’ is not practicing. While it’s important to have time to just play, you gain far more from focused practice sessions.


Practice Smarter – Not Harder

The aim of these points is to help you learn faster with less work. By focusing your practice sessions you can achieve more in less time. The goal is to practice smarter and achieve more.

1. Have a goal

Before you decide to practice, figure out what you want to develop. Do you want to be able to play faster? Play bends properly? Improve your chord changes? Your first step is to find out what area of guitar you want to improve. This may sound obvious but how often do you actually consider this before you practice? If you decide on a goal before starting to practice, you will focus on the goal more.

Key Point: Set yourself a goal before you start practicing. Having a goal will help you focus which helps you learn faster

2. Start out easy and slow

If you want to learn a solo that’s played fast or is technically challenging, you need to start out slow. Starting out slow will help you control your playing and develop good habits. Once you gain control over the piece, then you can start building up the tempo gradually. The result is you will have more control at a higher tempo. Don’t try to achieve everything straight away, you’re better off starting out slow and easy and building up the tempo and complexity.

Want to play something at 200bpm? Start out at 50bpm and build it up 5bpm at a time. By the time you get to 200bpm you would have played it so many times it will feel easy. Compare that to straight away attempting 200bpm. You will struggle to keep up and it will sound sloppy. Building up the tempo in a controlled way wins every time.

Key Point: Start out slow and easy and build the tempo gradually. It will give you control over your playing.

3. Record yourself

While you’re playing, you’re focusing on technique. This means you can’t really listen to your playing 100%. Listening back to a recording of your playing allows you to listen 100%. You will notice things you didn’t while playing such as mistakes. Record yourself and play it back and you might be surprised how different you sound compared to what you think you sound like. The reason it’s so important to do this is because it lets you know how you’re going. If you save your recordings you will be able to keep track of your improvement over time. You will also be able to discover any faults in your playing you never notice while actually playing.

After you finish a practice session, record yourself playing whatever you want (eg: improvise or play a section from a song) then listen back to the recording. Be honest with yourself and analyze your playing. What do you like about it? What needs more work? Write it down and that can be your goal for the next practice session.

Key Point: Record yourself regularly to keep track on your progress

4. Vary your practice session

It’s important that you don’t repeat the same things over and over every practice session. Not only will it quickly become boring, but you won’t develop as a well rounded player. If today you spent a lot of time practicing chord changes, tomorrow practice something else such as scales. Then you can come back to chord changes the following day. By varying what you practice, you constantly push in different areas and learn faster. Practice sessions will be more interesting because you will always be doing something new.

Key Point: Keep changing your focus and work on different things. You will become a more well rounded player as a result.

5. Keep practice sessions short and repeat regularly

This is the biggest key to success. As mentioned earlier, spending too much time doesn’t automatically mean you learn more. You’re actually better off to have very short practice sessions and repeat them regularly. Spend 20 minutes practicing then have a 5 minute break. Then come back and do another 20 minute session. You will actually be better off practicing this way compared to a 60 minute practice session. Split your practice time up in to short blocks. You will remember more, be able to focus more and will achieve more.

Key Point: A short practice session repeated regularly will always be more effective than a long once off practice session.

6. Practice every day

Make it a goal to practice every day. Even if you can only practice for 5 minutes some days, you will still be better off. Do everything you can to make sure you don’t miss a single day. By practicing every day you will get better every day. Practicing once or twice a week is a slow way to learn because you will have 5-6 days every week where you don’t improve. In fact, every day you don’t practice you’re actually going backwards. You will slowly forget things when you don’t regularly practice.

Key Point: Practice every day without fail even if it’s only for five minutes. Any day you don’t practice you’re actually going backwards.


What to Practice

Now that you understand what you need to do to practice guitar effectively, have a read on what to practice. The two articles below will give you ideas on what to do in your practice sessions:

Ideas for your practice sessions – Gives you plenty of ideas and tools to use in your practice sessions

Five core tips to get the most out of your practice session – Focuses on five areas that will have a big impact on your development


7 Things You Can Do Today to Change Your Guitar Playing Forever

Most of the things you do when practicing or learning guitar will give your playing skills and knowledge a slight boost. Over time these slight boosts help you develop as a player. On the other hand there are things you can do that will dramatically change the way you play guitar forever. That’s a pretty bold statement but once you give these 7 actions a go you’ll see the big improvement in your playing.


Action 1: Play something you have never played before

I don’t mean a new song or learn a new solo, but to play something completely new. This is actually a lot harder then you may think. Just pick up your guitar now and spend twenty seconds improvising. Now think about what you just played. What position did you play in? Did you straight away play in a familiar position on the neck? Did you play licks that you normally play when you improvise? How much of what you just played was completely different to what you normally do?


The revealing truth is that when most of us improvise, what we normally do is recycle ideas we have heard from other players or ideas we have used ourselves over and over. This happens subconsciously so although we may think that we’re creating something completely fresh – we’re not. If you don’t believe that, try playing something again then analyze what you just played. If you’re honest with yourself you will realize that we do in fact play in a ‘safe zone’ where we reuse the same ideas and principles over and over. When you first pick up your guitar and play something, it’s a pretty good bet that you automatically follow a certain routine and loosely play the same thing every time. This action will help you break that automatic process that doesn’t help you improve.


So the challenge in our first action: really try to play something completely different. Throw everything you know about scales, rhythm, melody, phrasing, etc. out the window and try to create something completely different. This is an extremely tough job and it will take a few attempts before you start to break free of your own comfort zones. But once you create something that you truly know is something you have never done before, the ‘aha’ moment you have will open a new door to your playing.


What will this do for your playing?

It will help you learn to be truly creative. As crazy as that sounds it’s true.


Action 2: Use your guitar to mimic a singer

Choose a song where you love the vocals. Choose a song where you know the vocal parts so well you can hear them in your head without needing to listen to the song. Now take your guitar and try to replicate the vocal parts.


To do this you first need to find the right notes. Start off by focusing on a single line. Work out the notes you need to play and play along with the song. Then spend some time thinking about how you need to play each note to get as close to the vocal quality as you can. This is tough so take your time. Listen to the line in the song over and over and really focus on each nuance. Try to copy each nuance using your guitar and really push yourself to open up your playing and match the singer as close as possible.


What will this do for your playing?

It’s one thing to play the right notes. To make your guitar sing changes the game completely. When you learn to make your guitar sing as if it were alive, you will never look back. A guitarist like Santana (and countless others) can create a whole song around four notes if he can make those notes sing.


Action 3: Give somebody a guitar lesson

You may feel like you fully understand a certain concept or principle until you try to explain it to a beginner. Trying to explain proper vibrato technique to a beginner is quite a challenge and forces you to really think about your own technique habits. Teaching guitar forces you to really make sure you demonstrate everything perfect because you don’t want your student to pick up on any bad habits you may have formed. In other words it’s a great way to put the microscope on your own technique and habits and really make sure you do everything perfect.

It will also test how well you really know concepts such as music theory. How would you explain what C7 means to a beginner? Or how would you explain the Dorian mode? You may think you can explain it properly but what happens if you student doesn’t understand and you need to think up a different way to explain it?


To complete this task all you need to do is give anybody a lesson. For sure one of your friends would have mentioned in the past that they would love to play guitar. Well give them a free lesson on the basics. You might be surprised how challenging it can be to properly explain the techniques you do automatically.


What will this do for your playing?

Learning to explain tricky techniques and theory to somebody else reinforces your own skills and understanding. Teaching other people to use proper technique will ensure that you follow it too!


Action 4: Write an article or lesson and submit it as a guest post on a guitar blog

This may seem like a strange task at first. But writing about a certain aspect of guitar playing opens your mind to think about how you play guitar in new ways. Imagine for a moment you had to write an article about your practice habits, what would you write? Do you practice in an effective way or can you think of better ways to practice? As soon as you put down the guitar and ponder over a topic like this, you start to see outside the box.


Here’s a few topics you could write about to get you thinking about your playing in new ways:

  • How to start improvising
  • Learning to transcribe music by ear
  • How to discipline yourself to perfect your techniques
  • Being creative
  • Writing melodies on guitar
There are so many different things you could write about and each time you do so, your level of understanding increases. Pick a topic you feel confident in to start with then after you write up a lesson, try another one on something you’re lesson confident with.
Submit it to any guitar site offering it as a guest post. Ask for feedback on it and for them to let you know if they don’t want to use it. That way if they don’t want to use it (don’t take it personally) you can send it to a different site. Do this to hopefully get some constructive feedback from experienced guitar writers. They may find out that your understanding of the topic isn’t quite right. This challenge is a great way to learn something about your level of knowledge and try to find ways to improve it. If you send your article to a blogger and they like it, you may even decide to write regularly on guitar topics.


What will this do for your playing?

This challenge will help you get a clear view of your current level of knowledge. You may feel like you understand a certain aspect of theory properly (eg: modes) but until you write about them, you won’t know for sure. Once you start writing on a topic you will find out how well you truly know the subject. This will all help you improve as a guitarist as it will help you refine your understanding of guitar and the theory involved.


Action 5: Spend 30 minutes playing only two notes

When you jam with somebody or just improvise on your own, you probably play all over the neck or at least a fairly large section of the neck. Because you are so used to playing a wide range of choices, a challenge like this will feel incredibly difficult. The aim of this challenge is to get you used to making the most out of a very limited number of notes. By doing this task you can work your creativity and make the most of what you have.


To accomplish this challenge, simply play the two notes below in as many different ways you can for 30 minutes.


Set a stopwatch or countdown timer for 30 minutes and only play those two notes. You can only play the two notes shown, you can’t play D or E anywhere else on the neck. The two notes you play have to be on the seventh and ninth frets on the G string (as shown). The reason for this is to limit your choices down to actually using the notes rather than thinking about where else you could play.

When you start this challenge, depending on your current skill level you will start to run out of ideas after the two minute mark. If you give up at this point you will completely miss the point. By continuing past this two minute mark you will force yourself to come up with fresh new ways to play these two notes that you haven’t tried before.

The longer you can last without repeating your ideas the more your creativity will grow. The reason this challenge is so difficult is because we are all used to having a wide range of choices and the ability to freely play in different positions and choose different notes. When you are forced to actually think about how you will use the notes instead of thinking about what the next note will be, you start to learn to really play. You probably won’t last 30 minutes but the longer you do last the more you will learn and improve.

What will this do for your playing?

If you can successfully play these two notes for 30 minutes without getting stuck for new ideas, imagine what you can do with three notes. Imagine what you can do with a whole fretboard! After the grueling 30 minutes of struggling to come up with fresh ideas, you will really start to think about making each note count. This effect is obvious when you compare the jamming of an intermediate player versus an expert player. The intermediate play will shred like crazy, filling their playing with lightning fast scale runs. The expert play may play some shred and include scale runs, but they will do so only when it’s suitable, and they will choose very selectively which notes they play. They make each note count.

This challenge will change your playing forever because it will get you stuck out of the rut you didn’t even know you were in. It will teach you to make each note count.


Action 6: Transcribe a lick or riff by ear

In the past when a guitarist wanted to learn how to play a song they would either buy a sheet music book, or if they were unavailable as they often were they would learn by ear. This is a skill which is quickly dying off as countless TABs are available in an instant online. It’s a bit of a learning curve to figure something out by ear and when it’s so easy to download a TAB instead, well it’s no wonder people prefer the instant option. This challenge is to get you used to using your ears and learning to hear the music rather than read it.


Choose a song where you haven’t seen the TAB before and choose an interesting lick or riff you would like to learn. It’s best to do this at a computer so you can easily playback the lick or riff over and over without having to fiddle around with rewind on a CD player or iPod. Listen to the lick a few times in a row then try to play it on your guitar. Just give it a go and fish for the notes that sound about right. Listen to the lick again a few times and make adjustments to what you played. Continue the pattern of finding the right notes, listening to the lick, then making adjustments. Keep on making adjustments until you’re certain that the notes you are playing are exactly the same as what you’re hearing.

Once you complete this challenge and manage to figure out an entire lick or riff by ear, you can choose to keep going and learn an entire solo, or an entire song. But even if you just learn a single lick or riff by ear, it puts you miles ahead of so many other guitarists.


What will this do for your playing?

Very few guitarists starting to learn today will learn this skill. Not because they are lazy, but because TABs are so accessible it never occurs to them that this skill is important. Learning to develop your listening skills is paramount to becoming a great musician. You may already be a great guitarist but with this skill you can become a great musician as well.


Action 7: Jam with other musicians

This will have a huge impact on your abilities especially if you have never done it before. If you do regularly jam with other musicians, we can change this action to jam with other musicians playing an instrument you have never jammed with before. So if you have never jammed with somebody playing a Trumpet, try to find somebody who plays it then jam with them.

The reason jamming with other musicians is so powerful is because it helps you gain a new perspective on music. Seeing how another musician improvises and uses your ideas to come up with new variations is a great way to improve your creativity. You will be able to bounce ideas back and forth and try things new you haven’t done before (see action 1).

The more different the musician you jam with is to you the better. If you’re a metal player and jam with another metal player, you may learn a bit but it won’t be anything compared to what you would learn if you jammed with a jazz player or a player who plays something else completely different to metal. The idea here is to break out of your comfort zone and try something new.


What will this do for your playing?

Every single musician you jam with will teach you something regardless of their level of expertise. Even a beginner will teach you something (often what not to do). Whenever you have the opportunity to jam with another musician, make sure you take full advantage and go for it. Even if the musician plays a style you don’t like, just keep an open mind and you may still learn something. One of the easiest ways to kill any progress you make as a musician is to have a closed mind. Jamming with other musicians with an open mind could possibly have the biggest effect on your playing out of these seven actions.


What next?

You may notice that some of these actions you have done before and some you haven’t. The whole point is to try something completely new to you to grow your comfort zone and learn new skills. So after you try these seven actions, you can keep going by finding new ways to challenge yourself. Whenever you come across a guitar lesson or anything else that you haven’t done before, give it a go. It’s the only way to make real progress as a guitarist. If we keep doing the same things over and over, we might gradually increase our skills and abilities but they won’t dramatically change in new ways. These seven actions will each give your development a massive boost in very different ways.


These seven actions were chosen because you can do them again and again and still learn from them. Make it a personal goal to try to play something completely different (action 1) every time you practice. Next time you hear a nice lick or riff that you want to learn, don’t just go find the TAB, try to work it out on your own (action 6). Whenever you meet a musician ask them if you can jam with them some time (action 7). Every time you repeat these actions you will learn new things and become a better guitarist and a better musician.

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How are you improving as a guitarist?

To be able to improve as a guitarist, it really helps to know exactly where you’re at right now. By spending a couple minutes working out where you’re at now you might find that most of the practice you have been working on isn’t what you need. Spend a couple minutes answering the questions below:

  • When you practice, do you ‘just play’ or do you really focus and push yourself to do better?
  • Do you fully understand the theory behind the chords and scales you use?
  • When you improvise, do you often repeat the same ideas and licks or do you push yourself to try something completely different each time?
  • How many different styles of music have you studied? When was the last time you tried to learn a completely different style?
  • Can you figure out the notes to any basic chord without using any reference material?
  • When was the last time you tried to figure out how to play a lick or riff by ear instead of simply looking up the TAB?


All of the above points make a big difference to your development over time. For example: players who ‘just play’ may think they are doing the right thing but unfortunately their development will plateau very early. A player who focuses on really making improvements will always end up a better player. When you push yourself to become a better player you will achieve it. Don’t overlook any of the above points as each one will make a huge difference to your abilities and understanding of music.

Another way you can figure out your current level of abilities is to record yourself playing and listen back to it. Record yourself improvising then ask yourself these questions:

  • How many notes didn’t fit with what you were playing?
  • How many notes were out of tune (eg: bends pushed too far)?
  • Does your playing sound musical or did it sound like randomly played notes and scale runs?
  • How much noise did you hear (eg: strings ringing out, fretting noise) that distracted from the actual playing?
  • What was your tone like?

Answering tough questions like these and really putting the microscope on your own playing is the best way to find out any problems and become a better player. If you honestly think you’re doing everything fine, then you won’t improve. It’s the player who criticizes his/her own playing that really makes the progress.

Don’t just gloss over these questions, really spend the time answering them and you will find it will be worth it. Check out our lessons here for ways to improve your understanding and read through our articles here to think about your practice and playing in different ways.

A Guitar Player’s New Year’s Resolutions for 2012

It’s that time of year again when people often look at setting a couple overly ambitious New Year’s Resolutions that they know they won’t keep. Instead of setting a massive goal that will never happen, let’s look at a couple very simple goals you can set for yourself to improve your guitar playing in 2012.

Resolution 1: Practice 10 minutes everyday

If you don’t already practice every day, then set a goal to make it happen. Practicing every day, even if it’s only for 10 minutes, will have a dramatic effect on your progress. It really isn’t hard to find 10 minutes out of every day to fit in some practice. Maybe as soon as you wake up you can pick up the guitar or right before dinner you can squeeze in some practice. Instead of coming up with excuses why you can’t do this, find out a way to practice 10 minutes a day.


Resolution 2: Learn a new chord every week

How many open chords do you know right now? Test yourself to find out. Without looking at any reference material try to play as many open chords as you can and keep count. How many can you play from memory? 10? 20? 50? This resolution is simple: memorize a new chord every week. If you think you can learn two chords a week then go for it, but set the minimum at one chord a week. Then by the end of 2012 you should at least know 52 brand new chords. You will be surprised how much this can affect your abilities on guitar. Learning new songs can be a breeze if you already know all the chords.

There are plenty of lessons and methods for you to learn the chords in the lessons section so there’s no reason why you can’t achieve this goal. If you don’t know what chords to learn, check out the 50 Essential Chords Pack as it contains 50 basic chords to start you off. This resolution is a breeze with the pack of cards as you can carry a card around with you for the week until you memorize it.


Resolution 3: Learn to practice with a metronome

Out of all the exercises and methods you can use, this will have the greatest affect on your playing ability. You can buy a physical metronome, download a software version or use the tracks on this website in the Backing Tracks section. If you don’t regularly use a metronome now to practice then this resolution is critical. A metronome can develop your sense of timing and improve your rhythm abilities. There’s a lesson here that covers the basics of practicing a metronome so check it out for more information on how to use one.

You can link this resolution to resolution 1 by setting a goal to practice with a metronome for five minutes every day. A small and simple goal like this is so easy you can’t help but succeed.


Resolution 4: Learn to write your own music

This resolution is a bit tougher than the other three but it’s a goal worth setting. Being able to write your own music is a fantastic skill. When you break the skill down it can be quite simple. For a simple song form like an acoustic ballad, you can break the skills down to three parts:

  • Write a chord progression
  • Write a melody
  • Write the lyrics

When you break a big ambitious goal down into the individual skills involved, it makes the whole job easier. Now you can focus on the three individual skills and will have a clear idea on what needs to be done. There are plenty of lessons available that will teach you these three skills. Check out our lesson section as it contains a couple lessons on chord progressions for songwriting.

With this resolution it’s a good idea to start out simple then look at more complicated forms later on. Set a goal to write an extremely basic acoustic ballad. Then once you write a couple of them you can move on to more interesting or complex styles of music.



None of these goals are outside of anybody’s reach. It doesn’t matter if you have just started to learn guitar, you can achieve these four goals. If you want to improve as a guitar player then these four resolutions are crucial. These resolutions are really very simple to start. When you take small steps in your progress you are more likely to succeed then the person who sets big ambitious goals. So even if you focus on the first resolution to practice 10 minutes every day, you will definitely see a jump in your progress. Make a promise to yourself to push your progress over the next year and you will be surprised how far you will go by the end of 2012.