Top 4 Things Guitar Players Waste Their Practice Time On

Learn 4 exercises that waste your practice time and what to practice instead to become a much better guitar player.

Ultimate Guitar

You will become a better guitarist in far less time if you avoid the most common exercises too many guitarists waste their time on. These exercises not only "not" make you a better guitarist, but often hurt your guitar playing without you realizing it. Here are four of the most common types of exercises you should stay away from (and what to do instead):

1. Fretting Hand Finger Independence Drills

There are thousands of finger independence exercises of all kinds, but there is a good reason why so many guitarists who practice them STILL suffer from lack of finger independence in their fretting hand. This is because the exercises themselves create a false expectation in your mind that a certain set of random finger movements is what will develop a new skill in your technique. Reality check: it won't. Watch the video below where I explain in a lot of detail what is wrong with practicing traditional finger independence exercises and what you need to know in order to "actually" develop this skill in your guitar technique:

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2. Exercises For Fretting Hand Strength

Fretting hand strength exercises are a nice gimmick, but they have virtually zero value in terms of helping you improve your guitar playing and technique. Here are the most important reasons why: 1. You don't need all that much brute power and strength in your fretting hand to play guitar (and the strength you do need develops very quickly simply from playing your instrument every day). Yes, some techniques DO require more effort/strength than others (such as barre chords, legato and string bends), but doing these techniques well is a lot more about control, coordination and minimizing excessive tension than it is about raw "strength." 2. Most guitarists struggle with their fretting hand technique not because their hands are "too weak," but because they use too much effort ALL THE TIME while playing. This leads to build up of fatigue, hand pain and, (in extreme cases) injury. So making your fretting hand stronger not only does nothing to improve your technique, but it often only exaggerates the problem of using too much tension while playing. 3. When it comes to strengthening the muscles used in guitar playing, it's the PICKING hand that needs the maximum amount of power while playing. The more strength you have in your picking hand, the easier it will be for you to increase your dynamic range while playing and for your playing to sound good at any speed. Ironically, the picking hand is all but neglected when it comes to strength development among guitarists and this backwards approach does more harm than good to your playing. What should you do instead? 1. Quit wasting your practice time on fretting hand strength exercises and instead focus on using less effort (only as much as necessary) in that hand when playing notes. This will help you to play guitar faster and longer without becoming tired. 2. Allocate some of your practice time to improving your picking hand strength and refining your articulation. One of the best (and easiest) ways to do this is to turn the volume off on your guitar and play the same exercises/sequences/licks you normally practice. When doing this, pick the notes as loudly as you can and this will force your picking hand to become stronger. When you turn the volume back on, your playing will feel easier by comparison.

3. So-Called "Guitar Speed Building" Exercises

Guitar speed exercises have the same general problems as finger independence drills (as I described in the video above) and overreliance on them is the primary reason why most guitarists struggle with their speed. The point is that speed exercises (in the way they are typically practiced) put too much of your focus on the "finger movements" of the exercise itself, instead of on any one of the elements you must develop to build real speed, such as: mastering the fundamentals of technique in each hand individually, keeping your hands in sync at higher speeds, using just right amount of tension in each hand, articulating the notes with power, and other factors. I describe some of these elements in more detail in another article I wrote for UG in the past (you can read it here). Bottom line, building speed is not a simple/linear process that can be achieved simply by trying to move your fingers faster or by mindlessly practicing a random set of exercises. At the same time, understand that if your mind is correctly focused on refining the fundamentals of your technique, then "anything" you practice can become a specific speed building exercise "for you." The better you become at using any single exercise to improve a variety of aspects of your guitar playing, the faster you will improve not only your guitar speed but ALL of your guitar skills in general. Learn more about how to do this in this column about practicing I wrote for UG.

4. Exercises That Serve No Specific Purpose

Just because you may find a new and interesting exercise to practice, does NOT mean you should spend any time on it, until you put it through a "relevance test." Until you do this, you risk pulling yourself in too many different directions when practicing and not getting much accomplished in your practice sessions. Before you practice any new exercise, ask yourself a few simple questions, such as:

  • Why should I spend any time on this?
  • How is this exercise going to make me a better guitar player?
  • Do I know EXACTLY (in specific terms) what to focus on when practicing this exercise? If you do not have good answers to the questions above, you will be better off NOT practicing this exercise and instead doing one of the following: A. Find out exactly what the benefit of the exercise is to you and what you should focus on while practicing it (THEN you can include that exercise into your schedule). B. Work on other items in your practice time that you do clearly understand the benefits of. Now that you understand more about the exercises that will hurt your playing, analyze your guitar practice items to make sure that you aren't wasting your limited time on things that don't help you improve. Replace those items with new/more effective materials and watch your guitar playing start to improve faster than ever before. About the Author: Mike Philippov is a music instructor, recording artist and professional guitar player. He publishes articles about the best ways to learn and practice guitar for musicians around the globe. Visit Mike's guitar practice website to learn how to make your guitar practicing process more effective.

  • 31 comments sorted by best / new / date

      First off, your top 4 things are actually talking about just 1 thing, speed exercises gives you fretting finger independence, strength and build speed. These patterns do serve very useful purposes, your picking gets more clearer and articulate overtime, you make use of your pinky and train strength in that little finger. Most useful part, you warm up your finger and gets you started playing songs. I don't see how finger exercises can be a waste of time, in fact, I don't see how playing any form of exercises can be a waste of time
      "There are thousands of exercises but they're all a waste of time." If they're a waste of time, why are there thousands of them? I agree with madaniel, playing anything in any pattern is still building something.
      "This is all bullshit. Pay this article no mind everyone. Go practice your guitar." - Abraham Lincoln 2073
      Some great points made, I think most of us have fallen into the 'random atonal' exercise trap and wasted many an hour. However I think even most guitarists these days are to some extent bored of 130+bpm sextuplet runs (including Paul Gilbert, for one!), which seemed only to appeal to other guitarists, rather than non-guitar playing music fans, back in the 80's and 90's anyway. It's all about playing over changes these days and you'll get more respect being able to negotiate changes, even if you can only pick 16th notes at 120bpm max. I think when you practice you should ask 2 things - 1) Is this musical? and 2) Can I use this when I gig/jam/play live? True musical speed isn't about how fast you can wiggle your fingers up and down a minor scale, but how spontaneously your musical mind can bring meaningful melodies out over increasingly complex harmonic soundscapes (i.e., improvising!)
      When I Practice, I pretty much only ever play songs. Yet I'm (not bragging, just saying) the/ one of the best guitarists in my school. Across a number of genres. Guitar should be fun- once it becomes a chore, its time to stop playing.
      The biggest innovation in my playing style since the beginning ? The finger independance. How ? By the finger independance exercice I started this summer.
      I think what you said about finger independence exercises is bullshit. I think they're really good - great, even.
      Well i guess it depends on what your aim is for your guitar playing. I guess pretty much every excercise has its own reason to do it. You'll have to practice different stuff for playing fast shredding then for musical guitar playing. Also, every excericse turns out to be more or less effective depending on the guitarist. In the end, not everyone has the same goal to become the greatest guitarist of all time, some are content with playing the stuff they like.
      Ironically enough, you played that chromatic run with an arcing motion of the fretting hand, where every finger distinctively drags the ones next to it along. That's the opposite of finger independence. Either you have the wrong terminology or you're not as competent as you think you are.
      Great great points. The catapillar (snake, spider, chromatic run across the strings) is good for beginners to get used to fretting and picking with. But not much past that unless they plan to go full on flight of the bumblebee in a month. Although I have 2 files of target specific exercises. 1 being warm-up first half and speed building exercises second half. They are specific goals (position shifting, odd shapes, picking dexterity) for each one. The second file is technique specific chops. things like shifting chromatisism, diatonic scale run ideas, arpeggios. I need to create a chord section to that one. But the idea is there. The ideas need to be goal specific and have musical value.
      op didn't show any exercises, only stated that you should practice the licks that you use. that's quite ok. next, he just recommended to pay attention to your finger movements and exercise slowly. it took him 9 minutes. oh well...
      I find it strange that a 'professional' guitarist and teacher would make blanket claims like that . Its my experience that certain learning tools are great for some students and almost useless for others . Its up to the teacher to tailor the learning experience to the student , the fact that the author is completely unaware of this really makes me doubt his credentials and his abilities both as a teacher and player.
      I think the best "exercise" for finger independence for the more awkward finger pairings, are limitation exercises. For example, if you wanted to develop using the 2nd and 4th finger together, you would do this: find a backing track you like, improv over it using only the 2nd and 4th fingers as much as possible (but if you do you use a different finger, ignore it and try to go back to using only the 2nd and 4th). this is also a good way to practise string skipping, sweeping, etc
      I have a question, when so many guitar instructors appear to contradict each other and state that you shouldn't do what other guitar instructors state you should do, how does anyone ever improve on guitar at all? I find this kind of advice unsettling as how am i supposed to know who is and who isn't right?
      This stupid. Finger independence has a huge impact on peoples playing. It builds strength in your fingers and def helps on the coordination. Stop trying to sound smart.
      Then, go write an article about it. Trying to argue in the comments section with the author is useless.
      Not really. Arguing on the internet is best done with an audience.
      On top of that, most of these authors comment back with their own responses if they see a comment where they can't look like total twats if they comment back. So, it is in fact useful to give some feedback on these forums edit: After going through mike's articles, he's not one of those guys Mike, if you ever read this, please stop writing your articles like essay reports. They're boring and feel as if you're really drilling your point, opposed to as if you actually have some actual input on how to improve our skills. It really seems like you just read the most generic guitar articles, sum them up in your own words, and then spit them back out with your own little spin, and numerous paragraphs on the same topic. My 2-cents
      You know. A man once told me you don't need theory or a schedule to practice and/or play guitar. And to just pick it up when you feel like it. That man's name was(still is) Mick Mars. He played in a kickass musical project known as Motley Crue. All this talk about theory and technicality & "the right time"(yawn) is just bullshit. Just pick it up and make some noise. Let it come from your heart and soul rather than trying to be the next Eddie Van Halen. This guy's article makes some strong points