Effective Guitar Practice

Effective Guitar Practice

Many students who are "practicing" their guitar are actually playing their guitar. There is a big difference between playing and practicing. Practicing is a focused activity with specific goals designed to increase your skills. Playing is when you get to use what you have learned during practice.

Guitar players often start off practicing, but once they can play some songs, they stop practicing. They consider playing the songs as their practice time. Learning songs is part of practicing, but it's only a small part, resulting in little improvement over time. It also leads to practice ruts and low motivation.

Most people don't need any help with the playing aspect. It comes naturally. You find songs and licks you like to play, and you play them. You should be playing as often as possible, but you also have to know how to practice.

Set Your Long Term Goals

The first step to effective guitar practice is also the most crucial. It's often the most overlooked.

The lack of specificity of the goal leads to a lack of clarity in what action steps are needed to achieve it. It's a bit like saying you want to go for a drive. Technically as soon as the car has moved, you have reached the goal. You would get a different set of actions if the goal were to drive to Miami. Now we have a specific goal that we can work backward from to determine the best route based on where you are starting.

Musical goals follow the same logic. The necessary actions, practice, knowledge, and time will be different based on the goal. If you want to learn a few campfire songs, the path is short and direct. If you're going to compose music, your approach will be different.

It would be tough to have an effective practice routine without first connecting it to your goals and determining the correct actions to take.

As you progress, your goals will most likely evolve. Make sure you are reviewing your goals along the way.

Observe Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Typically this is the most challenging step as it requires an objective point of view and the ability to move your ego to the side. You need to be able to see clearly what your strengths and weaknesses are if you are going to improve as a player.

There is not much growth in repeatedly practicing your strengths. To improve, you will need to isolate your weaknesses, figure out what steps to take to strengthen them and add those actions to your practice routine.

All guitar players have strengths and weaknesses. Using your practice time to improve your weaknesses will get you to your goals considerably faster.

Set and Stick to a Realistic Practice Schedule

There is no value in setting up a practice schedule that you will not be able to keep. It will just lead to you feeling deflated. Figure out how much time you can spend each day without fail. I recommend starting with a minimal time commitment, like 10 minutes per day.

Regardless of how busy your day gets or how unmotivated you might be on a particular day to practice, it is still possible to sit down for 10 minutes to practice. Some days you may be more inspired and put in more time, and other days you will complete the 10 minutes and call it good.

I like to play a game called don't break the chain. The idea is to mark down each day that you complete your 10 minutes of practice. As time goes on, you develop pride in your chain's length (number of consecutive days of guitar practice), and it adds additional motivation.

I use an habit tracking app on my phone to track my progress. It also has a great notification option that reminds me each day.

Focus on the Process

Now that you have your goals, what to work on, and schedule worked out. It's time to focus on the process itself. You need to develop your ideal practice session. The real magic of practice lies in this process.

I wish there were a simple one size fits all answer for what an ideal practice session looks like, but this is an individual thing. Practice sessions need to be based on your learning style, personal preferences, goals, current experience level, and a host of other factors. You will need to develop yours over time.

The advice I can give here is to keep a practice log with detailed notes and observations. You need to be aware of what is yielding results and what is just wasting time. It is easy to get stuck in practice ruts that lead to low morale. Keeping the log and focusing your attention on the process will help prevent this from happening.

I have provided a practice log that you can download and print out.

Tips and Tricks

Focus on musical applications.

Whatever you are practicing, also apply it to real music.

Add a warm-up to your practice routine.

A good warm-up exercise will do two important things.

  1. It will get your fingers warmed up and ready to play. Playing guitar is a physically demanding activity. Without proper warm-up and stretching, you can develop physical problems.

  2. It will help you to focus your mind on the task at hand. We live in a busy and distracting world. Most of our waking hours are spent multi-tasking or at least multi-thinking. To get the most benefit, you need 100% of your attention on what you are practicing. Use the warm-up time as a reminder to focus.

Spend some time visualizing.

You can do this outside of your regular practice time. It is an excellent exercise to do while you are waiting or doing chores. There are three basic visualizing exercises.

  1. Visualize yourself playing at your desired level. Can you get a clear vision of what it would look like?

  2. Visualize the musical concept. If you are learning the major scale, can you visualize it on a fretboard? Can you see the note names? If you are working on a new lick, can you picture the motions and finger positions on the fretboard?

  3. Can you hear the music in your head? Think of a passage of music or create a new one. Can you hear the notes and chords?

Start slow

Whatever you may be practicing, the essential task is to learn to do it correctly. You will need to practice at a speed that you can play it cleanly. There is no value in being sloppy and fast. Accurate practice is your goal. Speed will come with repetition and familiarity; it always does.


Growth is not a linear path. You will find that improvement is slower on some days, and on other days, you will make massive leaps. Try and take it all in stride.