As a kid I wasn’t very disciplined and wasn’t particularly good at practicing. When I started playing at age 12 I would just pick up my guitar and try to figure stuff out by ear. Most of my progress was a result of learning by watching friends and listening to recordings but that didn’t give me the whole picture. It was pretty slow going and ultimately this hunting and gathering method left a lot of gaps in my playing and understanding.

For instance, when I was 15 I joined a band with a bunch of guys that were older than me, they wanted me in the band because I could solo from having listened to a lot of recordings, trouble was I knew hardly any chords because I only figured out the solos?

This actually led to a rather comical result in that the band would play the tune with me standing off to the side until the solo came, then I would just wail when I got a nod from the singer. After a while the singer would return to the mic and I would return to my “not soloing” corner until the next tune and my next solo.

Over my performing and teaching career I have met a lot of students in a similar place. They know bits and pieces of songs and when they get together with other players the other players don’t know the same bits and pieces and so band rehearsals go nowhere and are just frustrating. This is where a program of systematic individual practice makes the entire musical journey more rewarding for everyone.

A practice regimen is about developing a balanced program that covers all the areas needed to be a well rounded player and it requires a bit of discipline and organization. There is a big difference between hangin’ out and noodlin’ (which is an important part of learning) and a complete and balanced program of study (I did eventually learn my chords by the way).

Let’s separate some areas that need to be developed to be a complete player, these areas will help us to define a balanced and complete practice program.

  1. Technique – the physical part of playing – requires repetition and consistent development.
  2. Guitar Mechanics – Understanding how the guitar organizes itself musically.
  3. Repertoire– The music material you are working on, what excites you and what will benefit you developmentally. Songs, melodies, licks, progressions, styles, analysis etc.
  4. Reading – Do you want to learn to read on the instrument and thereby learn a broader spectrum of repertoire and be able to communicate with other instrumentalists? I would say, yes and good idea and get on a reading program.
  5. Eartraining – This can be developed during the time that you are lifting tunes from recordings as well as all the rest of your practice provided you always keep your ears open.
  6. Scales – All keys, all types with interval exercises.
  7. Chords – Including triads and rhythm forms and more.
  8. Arpeggios – All keys, all types.

Yikes, you say, that seems like a lot of practice, you are probably wondering how you can possibly accomplish all this stuff and I am going to tell you.

Task – Timeframe – Repetition

The above list and all of their sub headings are tasks and to accomplish these tasks you will obviously need time, we are going to separate this time into blocks that we will call timeframes. The timeframes will be separated into 10 minute segments and each 10 minute timeframe segment will be applied to a task.

Let’s create some sample tasks and apply timeframes for a one hour practice session.

Task Timeframe Repetitions
A Major in Open Position 10 Minutes 30
C major triads string set one 10 Minutes 20
Dominant 7th arpeggios in a Blues 10 Minutes 10
Reading to page 24 in Berklee Book 20 Minutes n/a
A minor pentatonic scales improv. 10 Minutes 5 in Each Position

So now you have spent an hour practicing, in total you have done close to 100 repetitions of various fingerings and forms and there was no need to rush. This is a practice program and template that you can now use consistently. The next day start with a review for a timeframe and then move on to some new areas never leaving behind what you have already been working on. Make sure that each area of your program moves forward progressively, avoid jumping all over the place, think of these as small programs within the overall program, microcosm and macrocosm.

Golden Rule of Practice: Never practice faster than you can think and hear.

But you ask: When do I get to play some music? You get to “play” music after you have “worked” through your practice regimen. Within this first portion of your practice you are building technique and understanding that will inform all of your music making. Think of playing music as the time you get to use the toolkit you have been building and learning to use. You will find that if you approach music in this way you will be able to cover more in your play time than you ever imagined possible.