How to Make More Progress on Guitar When Your Time Is Limited

Here are several ideas you can apply right away into your practicing to become a better musician each time you pick up your guitar.

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All of us have periods of time when life forces us to practice guitar less than we would like. But this does NOT mean that you should accept/settle for suddenly making a whole lot less progress in your playing. There are many ways to practice guitar highly effectively, even if your time is severely limited.

Below are several ideas you can apply right away into your practicing to become a better musician each time you pick up your guitar:

1. Narrow your guitar practicing focus to the "big eight."

A common error guitarists make when practicing guitar (no matter if they have a little time or a lot) is focusing on too many things at once. Although it's good to have lots of choices and access to lots of practice materials, it's NOT good if this abundance of exercises leads to paralysis and overwhelm. To solve this problem, your practicing needs to revolve around only EIGHT foundational areas of great musicianship. They are: guitar technique, music theory, ear training, phrasing, fretboard visualization, knowledge of chords and scales, rhythm guitar playing and creativity training. 

See the video explanation below where I tell you in more detail about what each of the above elements are and give you advice on how to correctly practice them:

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2. Increase the results you get from "each minute" of practicing guitar

Your total amount of guitar practice time is largely meaningless. The only thing that truly matters is the amount of "progress" you are able to squeeze from each "minute" you practice. This is why you can have 2 musicians work on the same practice item for an identical amount of time and yet one gets results much faster than the other. This happens because one person understands how to maximize results from each minute spent practicing and the other does not. 

Before you worry about spending 'more time' practicing, focus on maximizing the results you produce from the amount of time you have NOW. You do this in 2 ways:

A. By avoiding distractions and organizing your practicing to focus only on the eight fundamental elements of guitar playing (as described in the video above).

B. By focusing like a laser on specific objectives you are trying to achieve with each exercise you practice. Example: if you struggle with making your picking technique better and faster for playing scales, analyze your picking motions in detail, find out which element of your technique is inefficient and focus like a laser on mastering "it." The point of this example is that you focus on specific "problems" in your guitar playing and working on fixing them, vs. finding another 20 exercises to practice using the same sloppy technical motions that you never take time to fix. 

3. Get more value from each exercise you practice

On top of reducing your focus to the eight areas of musicianship I described above, you should also 'alternate' what you are paying attention to as you practice each item in your schedule. To put it another way, instead of using a single exercise to practice your guitar technique, then another item to practice your fretboard visualization, then one more to practice your aural skills (ear training) and one more to practice your creativity, you can become better in all 4 of these elements of playing with just ONE exercise. To achieve this, change what your mind focuses on as you practice. Here is an example:

Take a new scale that you want to work on for 20 minutes. Instead of using every minute of this time to only practice a single area of your musicianship (such as guitar technique for instance), here is what to do:
  • Spend five minutes refining your guitar technique with the scale (by doing what I described above in the earlier section about improving your "results per minute" of practicing).
  • Spend five more minutes learning every shape of the scale all over the guitar neck (instead of being stuck practicing it in only one position of the fretboard like most guitarists do).
  • Focus five more minutes on improving your ear training by "singing" the scale out loud. This will help your ears to learn the sound of the scale and make it easier to come up with creative melodies using it.
  • Invest 5 more minutes on creating scale sequences with that scale that you can apply in your guitar solos.
Focusing on ALL 4 elements I listed during the same amount of time will lead to very different (much better) results, compared to the results you would get if you only focused on a single area of your playing the entire time, neglecting your other skills.

4. Establish specific objectives for every guitar practice session

Before you sit down to practice, be clear on how today's practice session will be a step in the right direction towards your long-term objectives as a guitarist. Literally visualize each day of practicing as a congruent step, aligned with other steps (i.e. practice sessions) that makes you a better guitarist, one step at a time. 

In order to do this, ask yourself this question before you start practicing: "what precise objective do I want to achieve (or get better at) by the time I finish practicing?" This is a vastly different mindset compared to going through the motions of practicing and not keeping the big picture of your goals in your mind at all times. Holding yourself responsible for achieving specific things in each practice session is also another way to make more progress from each moment you spend practicing guitar.

5. Never skip days of practicing

A common mistake guitarists make when their time is limited is assuming that it's no use to practice if you have less than 15-20 minutes of time. This is completely wrong. If you are practicing effectively, then ANY amount of time you spend with your guitar is going to make you a better musician… yes, even 5-15 minutes. Of course the goal is to practice as much time as is realistic for you, but the point is, don't think that you can't make "any" progress with just a few minutes of practice per day - you definitely CAN. 

Now that you understand how to get more from your limited guitar practice time, do the following:

1. Watch the video above to get a thorough understanding of the 8 elements of guitar playing that you should be focusing your time on.

2. Examine your current approaches to practicing guitar, to see where you can apply the advice I've given throughout this article to get more from every practice session you do.

3. Change your mindset about your practicing to focus on "solving problems," "developing skills" and "strategically moving towards goals" (vs. mindlessly going through the motions) and your playing will start to improve faster than ever before!

About the Author:
Mike Philippov is a guitar teacher, guitar instructional author and composer in progressive rock styles. Follow him on YouTube to see his videos about practicing guitar, improving your guitar technique and becoming a better guitar player faster.

28 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Always set aside time to play things you like too. Technique-driven instructors often neglect the matter of motivation. Whoever you are, you didn't pick up the guitar to play 1-2-3-4 exercises and scales all day, and while there is no excuse for not practising technique, the guitar's a musical instrument and should be used as one first and foremost if you ever want to get more out of it than being able to say "I'm good at guitar".
    Wynton Marsalis says whatever you are playing always make it sound musical, even if it is scales or exercises. Add feel and emotion. Music is not intended for robots, don't play like one.
    Don't mean to sound like I know any better than anyone else but: Just play the guitar, don't make it a sport.
    Would be nice if you demonstrated what to practice instead of just telling it.
    I'd agree with point five if the guitarist practices like 1 hour a day, but in some cases (more than 3 hours per days) it is crucial to take at least a day off per week to avoid injuries.
    That's true, but the article is oriented to people who have limited time to practice... I am one of these people myself and I can tell you that missing a day makes me lose a lot...
    Hi Mike, it's good post and in 90% you are obviously right. The only thing I cannot agree with is that practicing/playing our favourite songs (covers) will not make us a better guitarist. This is complete nonsense. Practicing and learning techniques from our favourite guitarists is the key thing in the first years of guitar playing. You can't expect creativity from someone who has no music theory knowledge whatsoever and his finger don't do what mind wants them to do. Mastering our guitarists styles, licks give us a whole bunch of 'tools' we can use when soloing, playing rhythm guitar etc. If not Clapton, ZZ Top, Paul Kossoff, Slash etc etc I wouldn't be achieving such huge progress I've made within 3 years. After those 3 years of extensive practicing I was as good as those who seem to play ~10 years. The condition is one - you must try to be as close to the cover song /licks, chords/ as possible and the best thing is to use your ear to figure it out (initially help from a guitarist friend is great to have). I encourage all beginner and advanced players to conquer with your guitar heros to check if you can play as good as them or nearly there. You can't learn great vibrato if you don't play B.B. King or Paul Kossoff for example. You can't learn deep bending if you don't play blues masters - definitely you will not learn that from online lessons, as this is only a hint (doors you need to pass through yourself by practicing, practicing and practicing). One more thing: if you want to start playing guitar well, great is to start from blues, bluesrock, hardrock covers + pentatonic minor is your 95% key to the success. Lear just to main positions and once you know the rhythm guitar, you can play solos in those positions without being lost. Practicing scales is great help as it gives you the knowledge base of how that particular song you play, was created. BTW: Mike, any time of playing gets us closer to become a good guitarist. You can't do that without playing obviously so it's better to play covers if we enjoy them. I do it on daily basis as it's fun. Practicing should be fun. Learning scales cause the teacher said so will make us dump the guitar after couple of weeks. All the 8 things to become a good guitarist are true and needed, but most importantly, let's all have fun /sorry for long post I simply wanted to encourage guitarist to play their beloved covers, and it's not true that playing covers is easy. try to learn playing them as on the tape and then you struggle, but playing the same song 1000 times makes me discover new things I haven't noticed before./ God bless!
    I've played guitar for almost 4 years now and stopped practicing daily about... 4 years ago. When I started, I did most of these things for about the first month and learned super fast. Now it's been so long since I had a practice schedule that I really don't know how to even start it anymore. Tips?
    \\\Never skip days of practicing\\\ Can argue with that. I played a many days successively, many hours in a day, and i did't see a big progress in my game. But when i got one day break in my playings, after that, i feel that i'm playing really better
    I think he may mean not to skip your designated practice days, which I think he should have better clarified. The brain needs breaks from all learning processes, so you're right.
    I notice I get more result practicing well essential things for like 30 minutes than practicing some crap for 3 hours.