So, you’ve chosen to learn the guitar.
One thing we know for sure about learning any instrument is that you must spend time in practice.
If you don’t practice, you won’t improve, and if you don’t improve, learning to play the instrument won’t be much fun.
Once you’ve accepted practice as a necessary part of your ongoing growth and make it a habit, you’re well on your way to making steady progress towards your goals as an instrumentalist and musician.
But what exactly should you be practicing?
How should you structure your practice routine?
How can you set yourself up for success over the long haul?
Here are measurable steps you can take to improve your talent.
Determine How Long You Should Be Practicing For
Before we get into anything else, we should look at how much of a commitment practice requires.
For better or for worse, there isn’t a definitive answer when it comes to how long a beginner should practice for, although we will offer some guidelines below.
Someone who’s been playing for a while can probably stand to practice for hours on end (daily) and would even benefit from it.
But this is because:
- Their fingers are calloused.
- They’re relaxed while practicing.
- They’ve trained themselves to focus for longer.
- They have challenging and rewarding material they can work on for hours without exhausting it.
Beginners aren’t necessarily empowered in the same manner.
So, let’s look at why these points wouldn’t necessarily apply to a beginner.
Fingers Not Calloused Yet? Here’s Why That’s A Challenge
First, if your fingers aren’t calloused yet, you’re going to find it difficult to play for longer stretches of time without those strings digging into your fingers and causing pain.
As you keep practicing, the skin on your fingers will heal over and toughen up – but it doesn’t happen overnight.
You will experience some pain while you’re working your way up to that point.
There’s no need to push yourself if your fingers are getting shredded and are even bleeding internally.
Naturally, this will limit the amount of time you can spend practicing, but that’s par for the course.
Why Staying Relaxed During Practice Is Important
Second, if you aren’t relaxed while playing, you could end up sustaining injury.
This is the last thing you want as a beginner, because if you injure yourself, you may not be able to practice for months or even longer while you’re healing.
Though practicing is generally safe, there are many ways in which you can sustain injury from tension in your hands and fingers from overplaying.
Because beginners are still new to the instrument, they often end up tensing up in ways that aren’t helping them.
That being the case, practicing for longer isn’t advisable.
To Practice For Longer, You Need Focus
Third, if you find it difficult to focus for longer stretches of time, it’s safe to say you’re not going to benefit from spending more time in practice.
Focus is cultivated over time, as you practice consistently for months and even years.
Some beginners, however, may have the focus necessary to practice for longer stretches without losing it – still, even if this isn’t a problem, the other factors already mentioned could present an issue.
If You Intend To Practice More, You Need Material To Work On
Fourth, if you’re a beginner, the learning curve is relatively shallow and there are plenty of things you can pick up with relative ease.
The only problem is that you may work through all of it rapidly to where there may not be enough material to keep you occupied.
If you keep working on songs and exercises that are too easy, you’re going to get bored.
This can also hinder your progress.
If you attempt material that’s too hard, you’re going to get discouraged.
There’s a happy middle ground, and it needs to be found (e.g. with the help of your guitar teacher).
Okay, So How Long Should I Practice For?
For these and other reasons, the sweet spot for most beginners is somewhere between 15 to 60 minutes of practice per day (weekends optional, though recommended).
We want to move out of the 15-minute zone and towards the 60-minute zone as quickly as possible, as progress will be slow when we’re only putting in 15 minutes per day.
But when you’re first getting started, just getting into the habit is incredibly helpful.
Generally, 30 to 45 minutes is good enough as it gives you sufficient time to work on various aspects of music theory, sight reading and technique without it being overwhelming.
But you still need to…
Cultivate Your Passion For Music
Honestly, you’re not going to last long if you don’t love music.
If you can’t find any songs, guitar riffs or solos that make you smile, then you might want to do some digging before you even commit to a practice routine.
It’s your responsibility to keep yourself motivated.
Your teacher can’t do it for you.
Your parents, siblings, roommates or life partner can’t do it for you.
If you don’t take 100% responsibility for your own growth, you’re not going anywhere!
So, commit to cultivating your passion for music.
Subscribe to a guitar magazine, watch videos on YouTube, read articles, stream live performances, go to concerts, get into conversations with friends and so on.
This will keep you engrossed in music.
Now it’s time to…
Get Your Room & Gear In Order
A practice routine is of little use if your practice space and gear isn’t in order.
Ideally, you should have:
- Your own guitar.
- A stand to put your guitar on (so you can leave the guitar somewhere it’s easy to access, as opposed to in its case).
- A humidifier (put one in the room, turn it on and leave it on – this will keep your instrument from drying out, cracking, etc.).
- A tuner and metronome. Both can be downloaded as smartphone apps. You can also find hardware tuners that come with a metronome function.
- Your practice material (printouts, method books, notes, etc.).
- A music stand to put your practice material on.
- A pen and a pencil for notetaking.
- A notebook for jotting down your ideas and to use as a practice log (more on this in a moment).
- Guitar picks of various thicknesses and materials.
- Extra strings and a string winder (if you aren’t sure what gauge you need – bring your guitar to an instrument store and ask).
- An amplifier and instrument cable (if you have an electric guitar).
Keep your practice space organized and furnished with everything you need, so from the moment you sit down to practice to the moment you finish your session, you can remain fully focused on what you’re doing.
Focus is key.
These days, as an advanced player, I can achieve a lot in just 10 to 15 minutes, and I can easily pick up 80% of songs with ease.
As a beginner, there’s only so much you can accomplish in that time.
You may not even be able to master a single bar of music in 10 to 15 minutes.
So, keeping your focus is paramount.
On that note, you should also try to…
Shut Out As Many Distractions As Possible
While practicing, you should try to eliminate all distractions.
Here are a few tips that can help:
- Turn off all notifications on your phone. You can even leave your phone in another room if you think it’s going to distract you.
- Remove devices from your practice space. You can print up all practice material instead of staring at a screen. This is better for your eyes and if you don’t have an internet connection, you’ll likely be able to maintain better focus.
- Shut the door. If possible, close the door and put up a “do not disturb” sign while you’re practicing, so people in the house don’t bother you.
- Focus on the material and your technique, not on the clock. Don’t watch the clock as it ticks by the seconds. Engage in your practice session and develop your focus.
Keep A Practice Log
Having taught hundreds of students, I found that many people found it hard to track their progress.
Parents would often come to me and ask if their children were doing well.
To be fair, many of my students and even their parents had unrealistic expectations about how much progress they could make in the limited time they had been playing.
One does not become Jimi Hendrix overnight.
I also found that many of my students didn’t practice, which was a bit of a problem.
Finally, I recognized that there was a simple solution.
It’s called a practice log and I encourage all my students to keep one and bring it to all their lessons.
It only takes a second for you to jot down whatever you’re working on and for how long.
Plus, you get to see for yourself, how much you’re practicing and what you’re working on.
The practice log doesn’t lie.
Here’s an example of how you might keep your practice log:
January 1, 2020
- Finger exercises: 5 minutes
- Major scales: 10 minutes
- Guitar method book (exercise 32, 33 and 34): 22 minutes
- Rhythmic exercises: 5 minutes
- “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cheery: 10 minutes
- Songwriting: 3 minutes
If you don’t want to use a notebook, that’s fine – you can use your smartphone or tablet too.
Some apps that make it easy for you to store and search your notes later include Evernote and Penzu.
Here’s What To Focus On During Your Practice Sessions: 7 Key Areas
If you’re taking lessons, then you should always prioritize whatever your teacher gave you to work on.
It’s okay if the entirety of your practice sessions are taken up by whatever you’ve been assigned.
If you don’t have a teacher, then here are some thoughts on how you might organize your practice session.
I find it helpful to break up practice sessions into seven distinct segments, which we will explore in more detail below:
Work On Your Exercises & Drills (5 – 10 minutes)
No matter how long you’ve been playing guitar, it’s always a good idea to spend some time warming up your fingers before diving into the rest of your practice session.
This doesn’t need to take more than a few minutes, maybe five to 10 – it could even be less.
If you don’t have any exercises to work on, simply Google “finger exercises for guitar” and you should find plenty of examples.
If you’re working with a teacher, then make note of any exercises they’ve shown you and practice the ones they’ve given you to practice.
Work On Sight Reading/Music Theory (10 – 15 minutes)
A portion of your practice session should be dedicated to sight reading.
This isn’t an absolute necessity, but if you have a method book (or your teacher has given you one to work on), this is what you’re going to be doing anyway.
Most method books are geared towards beginners and provide you with plenty of simple exercises you can work your way through without difficulty.
If you don’t understand how to read off the treble clef, then you can always take lessons or Google it.
Again, you don’t need to spend more than a few minutes on sight reading or music theory – if you make daily progress, even if it’s gradual, it’s all good.
There’s plenty you can learn from fretboard and guitar chord diagrams as well as tablature, but sight reading can be a valuable skill, especially if you end up wanting to learn the great works of composers, past and present.
I would suggest working on this aspect of your playing for 10 to 15 minutes during your practice sessions.
Work On Your Rhythm & Timing With A Metronome (10 – 15 minutes)
Even the best players should be dedicating some time to working on their timing and rhythm while playing along to a metronome.
Though you don’t need to spend a lot of time on this (I usually recommend students only dedicate a portion of their practice time to practicing with a metronome), you’re probably going to want to do it for at least 10 to 15 minutes to get any benefit from it.
Fortunately, practicing with a metronome doesn’t need to be a separate exercise from any of the other pieces of your practice routine already mentioned.
So, for example, you could practice with a metronome while you’re working on your drills and exercises as well as your sight reading.
That’s how to hit two birds with one stone.
By the way, when playing with a metronome, the basic idea is this:
You want to start at a relatively low bpm, like 60.
As you start to get comfortable playing at that tempo, you can bring it up by 5bpm at a time.
Then, you would work towards mastering that tempo (65bpm, 70 bpm, 75 bpm, etc.).
You must take your time, however, as no one masters any one tempo in a matter of minutes.
10 to 15 minutes of working with a metronome during your practice sessions is likely enough.
Work On Your Chords (10 – 20 minutes)
As a beginner, you may not know any chords yet.
Or, you may know a few open chords.
Note that chords can be kind of challenging, and if you haven’t attempted to play any yet, it might prove easier to start with dyads and triads.
Anyway, for as long as you’ll be playing guitar, you’ll probably be playing chords.
There isn’t some destination off in the distance when you graduate from playing chords.
So, it makes sense to set aside a certain amount of time to work on your chords during your practice sessions.
If you have a teacher, and they’ve given you a few chords to master, prioritize those.
If you haven’t started working on your chords yet, then you can Google “guitar chord diagram” and you should find plenty.
As a beginner, you should prioritize open chords.
Barre chords will likely prove too difficult (if you can play barre chords, then you’re probably an intermediate guitarist already).
You can certainly make some progress with your chords by working on them for 10 minutes or so, but don’t be afraid to give it 20 minutes or more if you’re struggling.
Work On Your Scales (10 – 15 minutes)
Working on your scales is a lot like working on your drills and exercises, and it could even go hand in hand.
But this should be considered separate from your warmup routine.
You’re going to want to work on specific scales like E minor pentatonic scale, E blues scale, C major scale, A minor scale and so on (these are all good places to start).
Scales aren’t just used in lead guitar.
When you understand scales, you hold the key to understanding music and music theory in general.
Being able to play scales on your guitar can help you:
- Play melodies.
- Play riffs.
- Play licks and fills.
- Play solos.
- Figure out what notes belong in a specific key signature.
- Figure out harmonies.
- And more.
Again, as with chords, you’re probably never going to come to the point where playing scales is irrelevant or unimportant (even as a rhythm guitarist), so it makes sense to dedicate some time to it.
You can accomplish quite a bit in this area just by working on it for 10 to 15 minutes.
Work On Songs (5 – 30 minutes)
I always tell my students that practicing should be fun.
Though you might spend 10 to 30 minutes working on specific areas of playing that aren’t enjoyable, you should spend the remainder of your practice session just enjoying the process.
As a beginner, you might be working on simple children’s songs (“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, “Wheels On The Bus”, “Old MacDonald Had A Farm”, etc.), songs in method books (usually public domain traditional or classical works) or maybe simple riffs and melodies (“Seven Nation Army”, “Smoke On The Water”, “Secret Agent Man”, etc.).
It’s always best to work on these tunes with the help of a qualified teacher, but you should also be able to find plenty of lessons online to help you along.
What’s the point of learning music and working on your technique if you never work on a song?
Plus, songs are always built on music theory, so as you begin to pick up more theory, you’ll get better at analyzing each song you learn and be able to connect the dots.
You can spend as much or as little time working on songs as you please, up to 30 minutes.
Work On Your Creativity (0 – 30 minutes)
Working on songs is fun.
Writing your own melodies, riffs and songs is also fun.
I think it’s a good idea to dedicate part of your practice routine to coming up with your own ideas.
- Explore variations on drills and exercises you already know.
- Mess around with scales and come up with riffs, licks and solos.
- Write you own songs.
And, if you just want to noodle around, there’s nothing wrong with that either.
You can spend as little or as much time as you want working on your creativity.
The key is to set aside a bit of time for it, preferably towards the end of your practice session, after you’ve given your fingers and your mind a bit of a workout.
What’s the point in learning all this theory and technique if you can’t apply it to something you can all your own?
You are not required to spend any time coming up with new ideas, but if you think you might want to write songs or play in a band one day, it’s a good idea.
Feel free to spend as much as 30 minutes on your creativity after you’ve worked on the other areas suggested.
There’s no such thing as a perfect practice routine.
You can adjust your routine based on what you’re trying to accomplish.
But you need to make practice a habit.
And, you need to be diligent about it, or else it will fall through the cracks.
There is no scientific basis for the 21-day theory, the idea that you can build a habit in 21 days.
It might not take that long.
For many, it will take a lot longer.
So, don’t give up.
Sit down in your practice space at a consistent time daily, and put in your time, whether it’s 15 minutes or 60 minutes.
Be diligent about practicing material that challenges you, at least a bit.
Track everything you do.
You will make progress if you focus on the right things.