One question I’m often asked by students is, “How can I plan an effective guitar practice routine?” In this post, I’m going to share five tips to help you make the most of the valuable time you spend with your instrument.
(The following is a modified version of a transcription of my YouTube video above.)
Tip #1: Know The Difference Between Practicing And Performing
This is a very important distinction to get clear on. I view performing and practicing as being two distinct operational modes that I can be in. It’s natural when we sit down with our instrument to want to sound good. It feels good when we play well, and we play things well that we’ve already practiced. Now if you’re playing something that you’ve already practiced and more or less mastered, then I don’t consider that “practicing”. I would instead consider that to be an instance of performing. You’re performing something that you already know how to do. But the goal of practice is to learn something new, or to improve on something that we can’t quite do as well as we would like to. I think that both of these operational modes have their place, but knowing which mode you’re in (practice mode or performance mode) is very important, and it will help you to make the most out of your time.
If I’ve only got 30 minutes to devote to practicing the guitar, and I know that I want to get better at a particular skill, then it really won’t serve me very well to sit down and start running through the same licks or the same songs that I’ve done a hundred times and that are just fun to play. While that may be fun, that won’t actually teach me a whole lot. And I might find myself frustrated at the end of the 30 minutes because I intended to practice, but instead I ended up just kind of playing the same things that I already know how to do…and I haven’t really learned anything.
So that’s tip number one: make sure that you understand which “mode” you’re in, and that you’re very deliberate about the time that you spend practicing. If you want to set aside set aside time to perform, that’s fine… but just make sure that you’re very deliberate about it, and that when you want to spend time practicing, you are in fact practicing during that time.
Tip #2: Set Clearly Defined Goals
Before you sit down and practice, it’s very helpful to be clear about what it is that you want to accomplish in that practice session. So if you just have a goal like “I want to become a better guitar player”… while that may be true, that isn’t exactly helpful when it comes to structuring a practice routine, because the goal is too general. “Becoming a better guitar player” is very broad and encompasses a lot of different skills. And when we sit down to practice, being broad isn’t what we’re after. We really want to be precise and focused in what we do.
So instead of saying “I want to become a better guitar player”, which can kind of mean anything, if I instead said something like, “I want to increase the speed at which I can play this alternate picking passage by 10 beats per minute”… now that is very defined, focused, precise, and measurable. I can actually do something about that right away. If I can play this particular passage at 85 bpm cleanly, but I can’t play it at 95 bpm and that’s where I want to get it to… now my goal is very clear. I see the destination, and I can measure my results and set about achieving that goal in a very systematic way. I can get a metronome, I can slowly and incrementally increase the speed, and I can get where I want to go a lot more efficiently than if I just say “I want to become a better guitar player”… because what’s likely to happen in that case is that you’ll start practicing in a very unfocused way and ultimately not really making the progress that you want.
So make sure that you’re very, very precise and defined when you’re setting your goals, and do all that before you sit down to practice. Make sure that you have a game plan in mind, and that the goals you set are actually measurable, and that they’re precise and focused.
Tip #3: Be Consistent
You are better off practicing for 15 or 30 minutes a day every single day than you are spending five or six hours practicing but only doing so once a week. I think a useful analogy here is to think about watering a plant. We all know we have to give plants water to keep them alive. So the way that you do that is to water the plant a little bit each day… you give it its daily requirement of water and you do that every single day. The next day, you come back do it again do it again. What you DON’T want to do is to give it a whole week’s worth of water and dump it all on the plant all at once, because it can only absorb so much at a time. So you have to give it its daily amount, let it absorb it, come back the next day, give it the daily amount, let it absorb it again…
It kind of works similarly when it comes to learning. There’s only so much information we can take in at any given time, and if you continually reinforce the same things consistently, you’re going to learn a lot more quickly, and you’re going to have better results in general. This is really something that can make a huge difference. Try to set aside some amount of time every single day to spend practicing.
Tip #4: Use Exercises That Train Multiple Skills Simultaneously
If you’ve taken my advice on Tip #2 and you’ve made a list of clearly defined goals for yourself… let’s say that for that particular week, one of your goals is to increase your speed in a particular legato sequence that you’re practicing, and another one of your goals is to get better at transposing. Well, you could just design an exercise that requires you to do both at the same time. In this exercise, you could play that legato passage that you’re trying to get faster at, you could be monitoring your results, using a metronome, incrementally increasing the speed, and all that. But while you’re doing that, you could be rotating the key center. So the first time that you play it, maybe you’re playing it in the key of C. Then, the second time you’re playing it in the key of F. And the third time, you play it in the key of B flat. And you could go around the circle of fourths like that (or whatever, I’m just using that as an example).
It might take a little bit of creativity to design these exercises, but the little bit of time that it requires to do that is well worth it! Because, ultimately, you’re going to save time and you’re going to get more results for the same amount of invested time.
Tip #5: Remember To Have Fun!
No, seriously… I think this is tremendously important. As musicians, we spend a lot of time practicing in a very focused, studious, and disciplined way, and that’s all very important and necessary. But I do think it’s very important to balance that out with playing for enjoyment.
This will help you to avoid feeling like your routine is just becoming a chore or a drudgery. It really makes a big difference to sort of give yourself that little psychological reward. I like to do it at the end of a practice session after I’ve done a lot of hard work, and I’ve accomplished what I want to do for the day. I will allow myself to just play whatever I want, purely for fun for a few minutes at the end of each practice session. That really can do a lot to help you to stay motivated, and to keep the process fun and rewarding. And the more fun and rewarding it is, the more likely you are to you want to do it again the next day!
I think it’s really important to incorporate that aspect of enjoyment into your playing, because at the end of the day, why do we spend all these hours practicing in this very disciplined way? It’s because we love music. We love playing the guitar. I assume if you’re reading this blog and you’re serious about learning your craft, you’re doing this because you love playing music! So don’t forget to have fun when you do this! Ultimately, that’s kind of the point of music anyway, right? It’s to be enjoyed.
Ok guys, there you have it. Five tips for planning a guitar practice routine that will help you to make the most of the time you spend with your instrument. If you found this video helpful, please hit that like button. And also subscribe to my channel and hit that bell notification so you don’t miss any videos that I put out in the future. I’ve got a lot of really cool stuff planned and a lot of content coming for you in 2019. So make sure you don’t miss out. I’ll see you in the next video! You guys be well and take care.
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