Get Better Faster - 12 Tips For Improved Guitar Practice

by Paul Bergren soundwavesguitar.com

As musicians, we strive to get better at playing our instruments. Unfortunately, there are no short cuts to improvement. We must practice and put in the time. Therefore, all of us regardless of ability, should assess how we practice. Given the amount of time you could dedicate to your instrument over a lifetime, make sure you make the most it. The payoff can be huge.

Let's crunch some numbers. Say you practice 45 minutes a day, five days a week. But really, you only practice 30 because you often get distracted - checking emails, noodling your favorite Rolling Stones lick, etc. That's 1 hour and 15 minutes wasted a week. If you practice 50 weeks a year, that's 62.5 hours. Now, let's say you started playing at age 16 and, like Les Paul, you kept playing right up until your death at age 94. You would have lost 4,875 hours of practice time. Time you had a guitar in your hand, but didn't maximize. With smarter and more efficient practicing, you will save time and get better faster.

Below are my 12 tips for improved guitar practice. Most, but not all, will help you practice more efficiently. A couple are just general advice that I have found helpful in my own practice. Many are ideas that you may already use, but hopefully you will find at least one new and useful concept.


1 - Expectations Determine a realistic amount of time you can dedicate to practicing during the week, make it a goal, and live up to it. Don't overreach. If later you find you want to spend more time practicing, great. Do it. But if you set unrealistic expectations you might get discouraged and quit.

2 - Schedule Once you've determined how much time you can dedicate to practicing, make it part of your daily routine. Cramming for three hours the night before your lesson is not ideal. Many of us are fortunate enough to be able to eat three times a day. You only need to practice once a day! Awesome. If possible, practice at the same time of the day. If you are not used to this, try an experiment. Find a week on your calendar that's not too crazy. Commit to practicing 30 minutes a day at the same time each day. After only one week, the difference in your playing will be fairly significant. Now, factor that out over a year or a lifetime and you are inspired.

3 - Practice Space Create an environment that makes you want to spend time there with your instrument. It's nice to have a dedicated space for practicing that is quiet and free of distractions. No TV. Turn your phone off if you can. For me, having a clean and organized space also helps me focus. 

4 - Rest
Be rested when you practice. Obviously, it is much more difficult to focus on what you need to learn if you are interrupted by fits of yawning. For me, I am most rested in the morning and that's when my focus is at it's peak.

5 - Plan Your Time
It's also important to develop a routine within the practice time itself. Determine the skills you typically work on then plan out the order you will do them, as well as how much time you will dedicate to each. Consider doing your least favorite things first. For me, that's finger exercises, scales, and sight reading. After that's accomplished, I  move on to the fun stuff...songs. I like to review older songs first as a warm up and then finish up with any new material.

6 - Focus
Concentrate on the practice material at hand and nothing else. Do not allow for distractions. To quote Bart Simpson, they are "time burglars." Time burglars are different for everyone. For me, one is noodling. I used to have a bad habit of breaking up my practice by playing quick little riffs. The riff would only take ten seconds, but I might play it 20 or 30 times during a session. Plus, it would take time to regain my focus on the task at hand.

7 - Tune -
This may seem obvious and unnecessary, but take the time to tune your instrument. If you are a beginner and don't know how to tune your guitar yet, take the time to learn.

8 - Play Slow
You will perfect challenging pieces sooner if you play them at an appropriate tempo. What's appropriate? Slow enough that you don't make mistakes.

9 - Record
Maybe not every time, but it is useful to listen back to your playing -- whether a practice session or a performance. Imperfections that are not always apparent while you are playing them will often jump out at you when you hear them on a recording. I find this especially helpful for improving rhythm and tempo.  

10 - Tempo -
Often, we are so overwhelmed with just trying to play the correct notes that playing with a consistent tempo becomes an afterthought. Don't let it be. Your performance will sound much better if you can maintain a solid inner pulse. For help with this, practice your material (songs, scales, etc.) with a metronome, tapping your foot down on each beat and raising it on the upbeats.  Once you master the inner pulse of a song, then you can begin to experiment with varying the tempo for artistic expression.

11 - Posture Sorry to kill the mood, but it's time to talk posture. Rock on! Good posture and form will help you avoid overuse injuries and stay comfortable during practice so you can be focused and avoid being distracted by sharp stabbing pain. For example, I used to have a problem with my upper shoulder muscles  tightening up because I would slouch forward. By keeping my back straight, I can play longer and not get sore.  Consider standing for at least part of the time and, when you're sitting, make sure you have a chair that is conducive to playing a guitar (or whatever your instrument). A big, soft La-Z-Boy with arm rests is not a good idea.

12 - Mistakes Don't make any. Just kidding. Kind of. Just remember that there are times to correct mistakes immediately and there are times to play through them without stopping. The latter is especially important when you are preparing for a performance. If you make a mistake while on stage, you will want to keep playing and hope no one notices. And since you've been practicing with a metronome (see Tip #9), your tempo will remain solid through that flubbed note and no one will be the wiser.

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