What do you think is the single most important thing you can do that will help you become a better guitar player?
Laying out the money to buy a quality instrument?
Listening to inspiring guitar music?
Finding a great teacher?
Nope. The biggest factor in your quest to become the best guitar player you can be is how effective your practice times are!
It’s funny, because this is something so simple that so many players seem to get wrong. Why do people seem to have such a struggle with their practice times? Maybe it’s because practicing stinks!
Let me clarify that…I should say that maybe YOUR practicing stinks.
Mine definitely doesn’t! I used to hate practicing, but I started to love it. At the height of my practicing focus, I would get up early every morning and get in at least 2 hours of serious, focused guitar practice every single day (7 days a week), and it was my favorite part of the whole day.
What made the difference for me? I finally learned what was making my practice times so ineffective, and then I figured out how to fix it. Here are 10 things I was doing that were making my practice times stink, and what I did to correct the situation. You might be dealing with some of these exact same things:
1) Practicing Stinks When You’re Shooting In the Dark
There’s nothing worse than sitting down to practice and not knowing what the heck to play. I mean, it’s hard enough to find time to spend practicing anyway, much less wasting it trying to figure out what to work on during the limited time that you have. What if the things you decide to practice aren’t even what you should be practicing? I was spinning my wheels like this for years, until I finally woke up and realized that I needed help…and I went out and hired a guitar teacher.
A good guitar teacher will make sure you’re working on the concepts and techniques that will get you the fastest results. If you want to play faster, there are some specific things you need to practice to make that happen. If you want to improve your songwriting, there are certain concepts you should work on to get there. This is true for pretty much everything you want to learn on the guitar. There’s a fast way, and a slow way…an easy way and a hard way. Which way would you rather do it?
Don’t use the “shotgun” approach…where you work on a bunch of different things, all at the same time, hoping you hit the right areas and eventually get where you want to be. I can tell you from experience, that approach never works. Instead, you need to use the “rifle” approach…focusing on the exact things you need to do right now to get the best results, as fast as possible. If you don’t know what those exact things are, find someone who does, and make them your guide through the sometimes frustrating jungle of guitar development.
2) Practicing Stinks When You Don’t Schedule Your Practice Times
Another dumb thing I used to do was only pick up my guitar to practice when I felt like it. I guess it depends on how important your playing is to you, but if this is your approach to practicing, you probably won’t improve very fast. I know I didn’t. In the past, I probably only felt like practicing once a week, so that’s about how often I ended up doing it, and I stayed stuck in a rut with my playing for a long time.
Ask yourself this question: “How important is playing the guitar to me?” If it’s more than just a hobby for you, then you need to take it seriously. You need to create a practice schedule for yourself, and stick with it. That means treating your practice times like they’re a regular appointment with your destiny (because that’s exactly what they are)! Take out your calendar and schedule some time every day to practice your guitar…actually write it in as an appointment. And make sure that you aren’t late!
If you had an appointment with the President of the United States or the Queen of England, you know you would be ready and you would be on time. Even if all you have is a doctor’s appointment, you always make sure not to blow it…why should your future with the guitar be any less important? Take a minute right now to actually pencil in your practice sessions. Think about it like this: if you only practice twice as often as you did before, you could be getting twice the results, and you’ll get them twice as fast.
3) Practicing Stinks When You Aren’t Organized
OK…assuming you know what to practice, and you know when to practice, the next big practice-killer is a lack of organization. I remember going down to my practice room all pumped up about it, only to waste half the time looking for my lesson materials, trying to find my guitar pick and generally digging around trying to get everything together just so I could start. Pretty lame, huh?
Here’s what I did to fix it: get a folder or a 3-ring binder -w- divider tabs and organize your practice life. Make a divider tab for each group of items you want to study (like one for Scales, one for Chords, one for Arpeggios, etc.). Then print off all your lesson materials, 3-hole punch them and file them in the right place in your binder. If you do that, you’ll never have to waste valuable practice time looking for your stuff again.
Even if you’re a big computer geek like me, print your lessons out on real paper. Word and Excel are great tools, but with real paper, you can jot down notes on your pages, you can circle & underline things you want to remember, view multiple pages side-by-side, and you can still get your practicing in even if the electricity goes out. The death of one or two trees is a small price to pay. :)
4) Practicing Stinks When You Don’t Set Specific Goals
This was probably my biggest mistake for a long time. Even if you get the other stuff right, when you actually sit down to practice the guitar, you need to know exactly what you’re planning to work on, for how long, and in what order. The best way to do that is to write down specific goals for your practice sessions. I do this a week in advance, and I write out what I want to accomplish on each day…which exercises or concepts I want to work on, what order I want to do them in, and how long I want to do each one.
This might sound like overkill, but it actually liberates me. The less you have to think about, the less stressed you are and the better you can concentrate on your guitar. It’s amazing how much time we tend to waste trying to figure things out on the spot. Instead of planning out your time when you actually sit down to practice, just schedule a few minutes every week and do it all at once for the next 7 days. It’ll help you in many ways, but mainly it’ll keep you on track and help you waste less of your valuable practice time.
My favorite part about setting practice goals is actually achieving them, and then crossing them off my list. I’ll talk some more about that later!
5) Practicing Stinks When Your Fingers, Hands and Arms Hurt
Duh!?! This might sound dumb, but you need to stop playing if you start to feel pain. I’m not talking about the friction on your fingertips from your developing callouses…I mean real pain in your muscles and joints. Don’t be so impatient that you just push yourself through real pain to try to meet your daily goals. Not only will that make your practice times suck, it can also ruin your future with the guitar.
There are a couple of main conditions that seem to plague guitar players, and they can both be debilitating. The first one is Tendinitis. This is when one of the tendons in your wrist or hand gets irritated or inflamed. It can happen when you practice guitar for a long time with too much tension in your hands, or when you do other stuff like skiing or even a lot of driving.
Another one is Repetitive Strain Injury (or RSI). This one can affect your tendons, muscles and nerves, and it’s caused by doing the same thing too many times incorrectly (like repeatedly running through a scale pattern or arpeggio on your guitar). RSI is also common with people who work on computers all day or on an assembly line in a factory.
There are some effective ways to treat these conditions with everything from deep-tissue massage to surgery (and everything in between), but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right? And sometimes the cure can be worse than the disease. Just stop playing if your hands start to really hurt, and you’ll go a long way toward keeping yourself injury-free. Another good guideline is to never practice your technique more than 3 hours per day. Just be smart, because nothing’s worse than having to quit playing the guitar altogether for 6 months while your wrist surgery heals.
We’ll continue with the remaining 5 things that can make your practice sessions stink in part 2 of this article.
More Experiences With Practicing
What have been some of your biggest challenges and frustrations with practicing the guitar? Share your experiences in the comments below!