In addition to taking guitar lessons, the best way to ensure rapid progress is to practice regularly. I know from experience how easy it is to put off or forget to practice, and how tempting it is to play the easy stuff, skip the exercises, and play fast before you’ve mastered the song or lick.
Even if your schedule is already full, here are a few tips to help you practice regularly and effectively, so that you’ll build your skills as fast as possible. These aren’t required to either play or enjoy the guitar; I’m including them as a reference for those who want to advance quickly:
Remembering/Making Time to Practice
1. Link guitar practice to a routine activity:
If you’re having trouble practicing regularly, think of an activity you do nearly every day that you could practice guitar before or after (e.g. if you have a few minutes to spare in your morning routine, after getting home from work or school, before or after dinner, etc.). Making practice a part of your routine will make it easier to keep track of and follow through, and will probably save you time, since it will cut out any further planning.
2. Commit to two or more short practices instead of one long practice:
Small, convenient changes are much easier to make and stick as habits. If you’d like to practice for 30 minutes each day, but your plate is full already, see if you can’t find a couple of 10 or 15 minute breaks in your schedule to practice.
It’s easier to find 10 free minutes than 30, and increases your likeliness to practice. Research also shows that learning in several shorter sessions is more effective than a few very long sessions.
3. Reward yourself:
You’ll never be able to stay motivated if you aren’t enjoying yourself. Think of guitar practice like a meal: Finish your healthy, beneficial veggies first (scales, chords, exercises, and so on), and then enjoy a well-deserved desert (playing whatever you feel like).
As a young guitar student, virtuoso Joe Satriani would practice all of the “boring” exercises before going to school in the morning, so that he could play whatever he wanted or jam with friends when he got home.
Ideal Habits During Practice
The main things to remember when practicing guitar is that you are training your muscles and nervous system. Your muscles will remember movement over time—correct or sloppy—so it’s important to play everything as accurately as you can. In reality, this doesn’t take much innate ability, just patience.
1. If you can’t play something accurately, simplify it by breaking it into shorter segments and slowing down until you can play it without mistakes:
This and practicing regularly are the two most important things you can do—and both are physically simple, but psychologically hard. We learn by repeatedly training our muscles and nervous system to remember movements. It may be fun to play something fast, but if you play it sloppy over and over again, you may never learn how to play it well.
If every time you tried to TiVo House, you accidentally recorded Desperate Housewives, would you try doing it the same way week after week, hoping one day you’d find House magically recorded? Of course not. You’d check the manual, tinker with the recording options, or contact customer support until you could TiVo the show you wanted to in the first place. Guitar is no different.
I struggled with this for years, thinking if I just kept playing without slowing down, I would magically improve. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. When I finally forced myself to simplify, my rate of progress shot up.
It’s counterintuitive, but by taking one step backwards (slowing down and simplifying), you will be able to take two steps forward. If you can accept this as the natural order of learning, you’ll improve easily, and save yourself a lot of frustration.
2. Repeat new material and trouble spots until you can play them accurately:
This goes hand-in-hand with simplifying difficult material. Research and anecdotal evidence seem to show that it takes around 20 times playing something without mistakes to internalize it.
Steve Vai’s personal policy is to play each new song 21 times flawlessly in a row before he will perform it. If he makes a mistake on the 21st time, he will start all over again. You don’t need to be that much of a perfectionist, but there’s a reason Vai sounds the way he does.
It’s easy to add speed after you can play something accurately, but extremely difficult to fix mistakes at high speed.
3. Play along with your favorite songs, play with other people, and use a metronome:
If you ever want to play in front of another human being, with another human being, or even with a GarageBand loop, you’ll have to learn to play in time.
Try jamming with friends, playing along with your favorite songs, and using a metronome for exercises. Learning to keep time and play off other musicians is crucial, and you’ll be thankful you did (trust me!).
4. Listen to and play lots of music:
Music is like writing or painting or any other art form: You’ll get better by both actively producing (playing) and exposing yourself to new material (listening to lots of music). Exposing yourself to different genres will broaden your abilities and inspire your playing and songwriting.
Countless great artists and bands have drawn inspiration from eclectic combinations of genres. Everyone from Debussy to The Doors has benefitted from a broad awareness of music, and many guitarists developed their signature styles by mixing genres (Leo, Kottke, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Andy McKee, Stevie Ray Vaughan).
Your playing and songwriting will also benefit from exposure to other ideas and experiences. Playing in your room for hours will make you a highly-skilled player, but if that’s all you do, you won’t have much to play about. As Anton Chekhov said, “If you want to work on your art, work on your life.”
5. Shake things up:
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. Maybe your playing has plateaued and you can’t seem to progress, or maybe you’ve become pretty skilled, and are unwittingly resting on your laurels. Shaking things up not only helps you improve, but keeps things fun and interesting.
Try playing in a different genre or style. If you only play rock, try jazz or ska or classical. If you only play electric guitar with a pick, try playing acoustic or fingerstyle. If you only practice recorded songs and solos, try improvising.
6. Relax, be patient, and enjoy yourself:
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Become a skilled guitarist takes time, focus, and effort. It’s easy to get discouraged when starting out: You’ve been playing for two weeks and you still don’t sound anything like your favorite artists.
One of the reasons I stayed with guitar was that I didn’t start with any big expectations. I just enjoyed playing. Even if I didn’t sound great (and I didn’t), it was fun and relaxing. Once I got hooked on playing, it was easy to seek out guitar lessons, round out my skills, and work on becoming a better player.
The whole point is to enjoy yourself, right? If you don’t enjoy playing now, why would you enjoy playing tomorrow or next year?
Most of us are our own toughest critics, which gives us high standards, but can be incredibly discouraging. So cut yourself some slack if you’re not yet as skilled as you’d like to be. You’ll feel better and increase your progress.
It’s a cliché for a reason: If you’re enjoying the ride, you’ll get where you want to go.