Effective Practice Technique. Part 1

A few suggestions for improving your practice technique to maximize your potential.

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It is virtually unavoidable that every musician, at some point in their training, will run into physical or mental barriers that threaten to limit their progress. On the guitar, such barriers can manifest in several different areas such as speed, accuracy, comprehension, etc. It is important to understand that in most instances, these barriers are the result of a lack in proper practice technique. Being smart about how and what you practice, when you practice, and for how long is a crucial skill to develop on your journey towards reaching your full potential on the instrument.

It is absolutely unnecessary, and very often potentially harmful, to practice for more than a few hours each day. The idea that slaving away on the guitar for 8-10 hours a day is the only way to become an accomplished musician, while romantic, is ultimately false. A word to the wise: many guitarists have seriously injured themselves by attempting such dramatic methods.

No, it is much more important that one effectively maximize the time that you have to devote to practice, and to spend that time EVERY DAY. It's better to practice a little a lot than a lot a little. 6 hour practice sessions every 3 days are not nearly as effective as 1 hour sessions daily. And if you have a day in which you are especially pressed for time, still make the effort to practice SOMETHING. The goal is to get your mind in that place daily, even if only for five minutes. This keeps things fresh, and it keeps your music firmly embedded in your daily thought process. Remember that good musicianship is as much mental as it is physical.

Take a minute before beginning practice to de-stress and clear your head. Entering practice with a clear mind and calm demeanor maximizes your chances of learning something new and retaining it.

Below, I have laid out some general guidelines for practicing that will help you to maximize your potential. These techniques have worked well for me as a guitarist, but they have also been put to excellent use by my friends and band mates who play other instruments as well. Remember that achieving your goals as a musician is directly related to your daily practice habits. It is important to see the big picture, but the big picture is made up of lots and lots of small pictures.

01. Accuracy, Then Speed

Always strive to be accurate. Strive to play each note cleanly, regardless of tempo. Be aware of where your fingers are falling within the fret: too close to the wire and the note will sound muted and dull...too far back and you will throw your intonation off. The ideal position is to fret the string absolutely as close to possible without any part of your fingertip touching the fret wire. Also, take note of how you are using your right hand. The angle and placement of the pick or plucking finger can dramatically affect your tone. Experiment with different methods, and always be conscious of what method you are using and why.

02. Understand It, Then Play It

When approaching new material, review it and try to understand it before trying to play it. Try to hear the music in your head as your read it. Be on the lookout for any sections that you think will be difficult to play, and make a mental note of them. This helps to put you inside the mind of the person who wrote the music, which will ultimately help you to better understand and feel the music.

03. Start Slooo000w

When dealing with challenging material, the basic rule of thumb is, you can't play it fast if you can't play it slow. Begin at a tempo of 60-70 BPMs, focusing on playing every note cleanly and correctly. (By the way, you should work with a metronome for at least 75% of your daily practice. This is critically important to developing accurate timing.) Once you are able to play the material flawlessly, then speed up by 5 BPMs or so and repeat the process. Continue this until you have achieved the desired tempo. As the tempo increases, become increasingly observant of your technique, and of any tension that may exist. Stop every 20 BPMs or so to ensure that your are still playing the piece correctly and haven't accidentally changed something without realizing it.

04. Relax

Muscle tension is your enemy when playing, ESPECIALLY at faster tempos. Focus on the microscopic details of what your body is doing as you play. Is there tension in your hand, wrist or forearm? Are you clinching your jaw? Are your shoulders and neck stiff? Are you using more pressure than necessary when fretting a note or barring a chord? Be aware of tension from head to toe, and always work to eliminate it.

05. Diversify

It is most effective to break your practice time up into different categories. Devote individual blocks of time to each area that you wish to develop, such as warming up, technique, sight reading, music theory studies, etc. This accomplishes several things. First, it keeps you mentally engaged throughout your practice session. Second, it ensures that you will develop into a balanced and well-rounded musician who excels at many things rather than one or two. By devoting a specific amount of time to each area, you give yourself the ability to work as much on the mundane things as you do the more interesting or exciting things.

06. Take Breaks

When you begin to feel frazzled, or if your hand begins to stiffen or cramp, it is time for a break. I suggest taking a 15-20 minute break for every 30 minutes of practice. This helps you to keep your mind fresh, gives you time to vent stress or frustration, and allows your muscles to relax and release any pent up tension that may have developed.

07. Shake Things Up

Be sure to frequently and consistently introduce new material to your practice sessions. For example, learn a new song each week, or buy a new method book of some sort once a month, etc. And don't just learn similar material...stretch your creative muscle by challenging yourself with music from several genres and schools of technique.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article, in which we'll discuss specific techniques for overcoming physical blocks to developing speed, accuracy, and dexterity.

52 comments sorted by best / new / date

    HavokStrife
    This is pretty much exactly how I practice. It was sort of weird reading it. But I don't understand the 'physical injury' for playing for more than an hour or two a day? I do a little of martial arts training and stuff to stay in shape and whatnot, and just from that standpoint I don't know how the hell you're gunna hurt yourself playing guitar.. besides stage antics. Granted, I don't think playing 9 hours a day is really going to do anything for you but make you tired of music faster. But I don't see anything wrong with, I dunno, playing for an hour or two when you get up, then maybe another hour or two after dinner or something..
    Doowhop
    hey there, thanks for that article, i appreciate that mentoring and totally agree. had a hard time myself, when i started to play, but its true, taking your time can help to develop your skill... and i also totally agree with foxygrandpa, for the "blah blah blah zakk wylde blah blah blah 12 hours a day" -part
    roksta101
    sounds like a great article...i just cant seem to get around playin very slow and then speeding up...i just wna learn it! anyway...what if one plays alot every day?
    bortbort
    Wannabe Page! wrote: "The idea that slaving away on the guitar for 8-10 hours a day is the only way to become an accomplished musician, while romantic, is ultimately false."... Both Slash and Zakk Wylde practised 12 hrs a day... did it harm their minds?
    I think he meant People who practice that much later experience all kinds of tendinitis and carpel tunnel problems. Nice article.
    -metalhead-
    i cant really understand why you should have "sessions" in practing, you see im kinda a newbie on the guitar, ive played for like 6 months now, and im already almost nailing the fade to black solo, and thats a result of spontanious playing, and havin fun. and i would NEVER spend 10 hours a day playing by myself, i just pick up the guitar and play as much as i feel to...
    supea
    i play bout 1-8 hours a day.... depenends... but usually 2-4hours straight.. max..
    PhantomNote
    I often play 8-10 hours a day if it's in the weekend. I just take some breaks in between. But yeah, it's all very true. Wish someone told me it all, before I had to figure it out myself. But anyways, I didn't use that much time on it :p
    Teletubbies
    You know what? I practice freaking 8 hours a day (on weekends, I go to high school...), and it hasn't "injured" my ability to play one bit. I think that there are way too many of these articles saying the same damn thing. It's common sense, "learn it, start slow and get accurate, then speed it up". It just kind of offends me that you say that it inhibits someone's playing when they practice that much. You know what? I bet you have never tried practicing that much, so you can you infer that that would "inhibit" someones playing? Can you tell me this? Have you ever TRIED playing 8 hours a day consecutively? Didn't think so. Another thing: granted, playing the same STYLE of music that much will wear you out, thats why you play different styles...I play banjo for an hour or two, then do a little bit of shred stuff, then maybe some blues...ooooh yea and classical is really fun...it doesnt wear you out at all, all it can do is help you.
    ParkerScks
    hmm i play for 6 hours a day and it does hurt the other day my right arm just died on me because i was speed plucking repeatedly getting my arm faster and my fingers just well... lol but ye this is a good lesson but i cant do it lol im too addicted
    willifish
    teletubbies said: "It just kind of offends me that you say that it inhibits someone's playing when they practice that much." mate, its true you ever heard of tendonitis? repetetive strain injury? thats a big pitfall for all musicians ive got too many friends who've got to addicted to their instrument, whether that be guitar or classical instruments, and practiced stupid amounts per day suddenly, without slowly working their way up slowly over a number of years, and found they cant play at all [quote]Teletubbies wrote: You know what? I practice freaking 8 hours a day (on weekends, I go to high school...), and it hasn't "injured" my ability to play one bit. I think that there are way too many of these articles saying the same damn thing. It's common sense, "learn it, start slow and get accurate, then speed it up". It just kind of offends me that you say that it inhibits someone's playing when they practice that much. You know what? I bet you have never tried practicing that much, so you can you infer that that would "inhibit" someones playing? Can you tell me this? Have you ever TRIED playing 8 hours a day consecutively? Didn't think so. Another thing: granted, playing the same STYLE of music that much will wear you out, thats why you play different styles...I play banjo for an hour or two, then do a little bit of shred stuff, then maybe some blues...ooooh yea and classical is really fun...it doesnt wear you out at all, all it can do is help you.
    ZedLeppy
    Wow... This was an excellent article. I'm going to take a lot of these tips into consideration.
    kcap122
    willifish wrote: teletubbies said: "It just kind of offends me that you say that it inhibits someone's playing when they practice that much." mate, its true you ever heard of tendonitis? repetetive strain injury? thats a big pitfall for all musicians ive got too many friends who've got to addicted to their instrument, whether that be guitar or classical instruments, and practiced stupid amounts per day suddenly, without slowly working their way up slowly over a number of years, and found they cant play at all [quote]Teletubbies wrote: You know what? I practice freaking 8 hours a day (on weekends, I go to high school...), and it hasn't "injured" my ability to play one bit. I think that there are way too many of these articles saying the same damn thing. It's common sense, "learn it, start slow and get accurate, then speed it up". It just kind of offends me that you say that it inhibits someone's playing when they practice that much. You know what? I bet you have never tried practicing that much, so you can you infer that that would "inhibit" someones playing? Can you tell me this? Have you ever TRIED playing 8 hours a day consecutively? Didn't think so. Another thing: granted, playing the same STYLE of music that much will wear you out, thats why you play different styles...I play banjo for an hour or two, then do a little bit of shred stuff, then maybe some blues...ooooh yea and classical is really fun...it doesnt wear you out at all, all it can do is help you.
    dude... it's not an issue of musical burnout. You shouldn't practice 8 hours a day for the same reason that you shouldn't go on an 8-hour jog. If you haven't worked up to the 8 hours slowly, giving yourself time, to adjust, you will hurt your muscles. Finger muscles are very sensitive and are not naturally built for endurance. Sure, you can play 8 hours a day...eventually. You have to prepare yourself for it, though. Be prepared for the fact that you are wearing down the ligaments in your finger joints much more quickly, and that you will be greatly raising your risk of carpal tunnel, tendonitis, and focal dystonia. It can be done, if you really want to work yourself up to it. But dude, I don't want to see you unable to play in 10 yrs anymore than you do. Take it easy. Also, find some other hobbies so you don't have to practice for 8 hours straight.
    Guitar Hurrican
    think thats funny, steve vai has a 10-hour workout in one of the recent guitar player magazines and said he used to practice about 10 hours a day.. exactly what I was thinking... and I can imagine John Petrucci, Satriani, Hendrix etc. etc. practicing alot more, say.. 8 hours a day.. ---- i myself am workin on petrucci, vai, and satch songs...and i practice them until perfection which yes..takes sometimes 6 to seven hours a day
    ultimate-slash
    I think this practice technique is an excellent way to begin with but I also think you should try to figure out what is most comfortable for you, the time you need to practice is different for everyone, some people got talent and only have to practice for like an hour or 2 but other people may need longer to get well. Whatever you do, the most important thing is that you're having fun in learning and playing, getting good at guitar isn't everything.
    Jawshuwa
    Wannabe Page! wrote: "The idea that slaving away on the guitar for 8-10 hours a day is the only way to become an accomplished musician, while romantic, is ultimately false."... Both Slash and Zakk Wylde practised 12 hrs a day... did it harm their minds?
    ROFL. I can respect that Wylde is a good guitarist, and no one shreds like he does, but Slash is sloppy as Hell. He's a good guitarist, yes, but apparently Slash has always had bad technique and never got rid of it.
    Kirkcrimson
    i practice like three hours everyday and according to people i know and some i dont im the best guitar player for fifteen miles, probably because most people around here dont get too far from home but yea, i rock long and hard! every day its like doing a private recording session, sing and play sing and play! i could get away with practicing for about ten twenty minutes but i always try to improve my skills.
    rejectno8
    OK so i know how much to practice and how often...but what do i practice...just sit down and learn some songs?
    foxygrandpa
    First, good article, second, For all the people here that said "blah blah blah zakk wylde blah blah blah 12 hours a day"... the point the man is tryin to make is that will not improve by playin 12 hours a day once a week. you need to play a little every day. And if you become more seroius about guitar, then you can build up the time u practice in order to maintain and improve on your playing. If you are a professional musician, which i doubt you are, then of course you need to practice all day each, its your job. just hop off nubs.
    uvq
    I didn't read all of it cause although in theory you are correct,I don't do it that way, but I am gonna try the parts I did read, but yeah, good article
    the boogieman
    Wannabe Page! wrote: "The idea that slaving away on the guitar for 8-10 hours a day is the only way to become an accomplished musician, while romantic, is ultimately false."... Both Slash and Zakk Wylde practised 12 hrs a day... did it harm their minds?
    but that is only 2 people out of many each person would react differently to spending 8-10 hours a day playing guitar
    ~ac-dc~
    Very good, i already had prior knowledge of this but you captured it very well.
    HellBlazer
    this is such a good article it really helps, I realised many things before i read this article and they are true as you say
    snuggleblade
    i think thats funny, steve vai has a 10-hour workout in one of the recent guitar player magazines and said he used to practice about 10 hours a day..
    ncgunn
    snuggleblade wrote: i think thats funny, steve vai has a 10-hour workout in one of the recent guitar player magazines and said he used to practice about 10 hours a day..
    exactly what I was thinking... and I can imagine John Petrucci, Satriani, Hendrix etc. etc. practicing alot more, say.. 8 hours a day..
    Tvr
    it's true that all the greats are obsessed and possibluy a bit authistic. van halen played like 6 hours straight and frusciante played like 12 hours a day (they still do). I guess it's just a matter of practicing effectively.
    Wannabe Page!
    "The idea that slaving away on the guitar for 8-10 hours a day is the only way to become an accomplished musician, while romantic, is ultimately false."... Both Slash and Zakk Wylde practised 12 hrs a day... did it harm their minds?
    think11270
    Thanks for this article. Using a metronome helps quite a bit. I'm just lazy. I need to start using one more often. Bleh. I've been playing for 7 years but I'm not as good as I should be :-\. I need to relax like you suggested when playing faster things. I've never noticed how sense I am until you mentioned it.
    recklessftw
    That was a good one, good comments and the last one I think is one of the most important
    blazingchaz
    Really good article. There were a few points I wasn't following. I'll make sure I start doing all of this while practice
    CobenBlack
    plus this played 6 hours or played 12 hours of it varies on where you read or hear it. sometimes its not true. in some places u'll here slash played 12 in others 6. which is a vast difference. but the point it, time is unimportant if you dont have the technique.
    NYMTDrebel
    ncgunn : snuggleblade wrote: i think thats funny, steve vai has a 10-hour workout in one of the recent guitar player magazines and said he used to practice about 10 hours a day.. exactly what I was thinking... and I can imagine John Petrucci, Satriani, Hendrix etc. etc. practicing alot more, say.. 8 hours a day..
    Okay first off I have to say great article, I read this then did exactly what the article said, except I played for about 45 minutes (going over songs off of my bands demos, old songs we killed, personal songs) then took a brief break and went back. I killed it when I came back, went for about another 45 minutes and played better then I usually do. Did it again today, but longer again, and was even tighter. To the guys I quoted. I read those articles as well, but if you really play through the article, it doesn't work out to be that amount of time first off. Secondly, those articles themselves say that those pratice techniques are to be done over the course of a week! It's completely bullshit to put out an article saying to play 10 hours a day! Whether you do or don't, if you can't jam with a band, you aren't sh*t. To play for more then a few hours a day would just exhaust any player and drive them to stop playing. That's not mentioning CTS. I could see playing 4 or 5 hours a day, if you're playing with a full band everyday. Anyone who's played in a band can attest to how quickly time goes by. It's never enough, right? Playing for 10 hours a day would simply exhaust anyone. Guitar virtuosos' really bore me anyways so anything I say is simply my opinion of course. There's nothing exciting to me about the way Zakk plays, and Steve Vai is a hairband throwback. I'm not interested in playing crazy solos, I'm a rhythm player, and Zakks rhythms are a snoozefest. Vai's rhythms are good but if you strip away the solos all you have is bad background rock.
    ncgunn
    I guess it depends what type of guitarist you are and how far you go with the instrument. If you do it as a hobby or just wanna play in local band then yeh, 2-3 hours a day is good never the less rhythm and lead guitaists (or be both) would have different ways to practice. If you wanna be a professional session guitarist than you would have to practice at least 6 -7 hours a day no doubt since there's so many other guitarist out there an a lot of competition to get he spotight.
    ch3z-zY
    like it...no wonder i cant stand it when i force myself to practice for more than 3 hrs. a day (as a punishment for those days im too lazy to practice)...
    OmniGuitarist
    Just plain brilliant I read this kind of stuff earlier and put it to practise e.g Practising slowly with metronome. I believe it truly works! Though, I can't believe that the proffesionals play over 8 hours a day. I'm Satisfied with just an hour or 2! Great stuff, keep at it!
    BiöprA
    Great job!!.. I belive that it's easier to practice this way.. It's also a help just to listen music every day (if playing covers try spending more time listening the song than playing it).
    mhylands
    ShamiqSevenfold wrote: wats a metronome
    You're kidding right? If not, it's basically a timed beat maker in essence.
    Rockstarscat
    I totaly belive in the the practice of playing for way more than 8 hours. It is very plausable that artist like thoes could practice for that long. but not just anyone sould start practicing like that. I have been playing sence I was about 5 years old my father played guitar so I started young.32 years. I play as long as I can stand it. I love guitar so much! 8, 10, 12, 13, 24 hour. I fall asleep with it.wake up and do it agin.my hands are strong and they don't ever hurt "any more"..... but he is right, these practice are the way to go. rest between jams, relax,when your hurt take breaks. you can't have the good olde 12er and allnighters with out first establising good practice habits.