Still Want to Become a Disgustingly Brilliant Guitar Player?....Here’s How to Practice!

Last week’s post discussed the issue of what to practice, so this week’s post is essentially part two -- how to practice. It’s all well and good if you know what you’re supposed to be practicing, but it means squat if you don’t have a method to tackle all of those things.

As we know from last week’s post, there are a lot of things to practice. Some areas of your practice could take up all of your time. Let’s take chords for instance. George Van Eps, one of the most genius guitar players ever, did the math for us in his book Harmonic Mechanisms for the Guitar, Vol. 1.

George Van Eps (1980) Mel Bay Publications.

George Van Eps (1980) Mel Bay Publications.

“344 billion, 881 million, 152 thousand, combinations – Spending one second on each one of the possible combinations 24 hours a day – 7 days a week – 52 weeks a year – to reach the end of the order would take: 11,036 years…" -- George Van Eps, pg. 17.

So, of course, we have to pick and choose how we spend our time practicing. We have to have some time to go out and perform, right?

My suggestion is obvious: Take an evenhanded approach to practicing. In other words, spend an even amount of time on each area. Once you’ve completed your practicing for the day, you can play whatever you feel like playing.

Last week’s post covered five sections to concentrate on in your practice:

  1. Technique
  2. Repertoire
  3. Sight-reading
  4. Composition/arranging
  5. Improvisation

Here are a few FAQs…

“How should I approach practicing these sections?”

Practice the materials that give you the most amount of trouble. If you spend your time practicing only those things you’re good at, your improvement will most likely come pretty slowly. From my experience, improvement in music is efficiently gained through interaction with those materials or concepts that are most challenging.

Create goals for yourself. Maybe it’s a goal to reach a certain metronome marking with a technical exercise, learn a challenging song, sight-read a sixteenth note intensive etude, or improvise over an unfamiliar/awkward chord progression. Some goals are short-term (attained in a few weeks or so) and some are long-term (attained in few months or even years). Whatever you goals may be, they will help guide your practice in the direction of constant improvement.

“What kind of materials do I need to get the most out of my practice time?”

The list of items for a good practice session is actually pretty short. Gather these items before you practice so you can proceed through your routine with as little interruption as possible.

  • Metronome: Use this to help you develop speed and a steady tempo. You can also use the metronome to help you keep track of your improvement.
  • Pencils: Use your pencil to write down musical ideas, create a list of tunes, tap rhythms on a desk, or throw across the room when you get frustrated.
  • Staff paper: The perfect companion to your pencil! Use your staff paper to practice your notation skills through transcription, composition, and arranging.
  • Recording device: Whatever you decide to use as a recording device, use this to keep a record of ideas, listen to your performance, or create a backing track for improvisation practice.
  • Sight-reading materials: I would recommend any piece of music that is unfamiliar to you or a book designed to help you develop this skill. I have several favorite books that I recommend for this purpose:

  1. "Melodic Rhythms for Guitar" William Leavitt
  2. “Advanced Dance Band Reading and Interpretation” Alan Raph
  3. “The Real Book, Vols. 1, 2, and 3” Hal Leonard Corp
  4. “Advanced Jazz/Rock Rhythms for Treble Clef Instruments” David Chesky (may be hard to find)

“How long should I be practice each section?”

The answer is simple: Take the total amount of time you’ve allotted to practice, and then divide it by five. There are five sections listed above. If you have five hours to practice, you can spend one hour on each section.

  • 5 hours = 1 hour each section
  • 4 hours = 48 minutes each section
  • 3 hours = 36 minutes each section
  • 2 hours = 24 minutes each section
  • 1 hour = 12 minutes each section

At the end of the week, the hours will really start to add up. 

Just think, if you spent 2.5 hours per day for practice, and evenly divided your time across each of the sections, that would equal 30 minutes per section each day.

After seven days of practicing on this schedule, you would’ve spent 3.5 hours on each section in a week and a little more than 14 hours by the end of the month! When was the last time you spent fourteen hours on technique, repertoire, sight-reading, composition/arranging, and improvisation? All in one month!

If you adopt these strategies, just imagine how much your playing would change in just a few months.

Now, of course, I must mention that it can be difficult to focus for long periods of time without any breaks. This is completely normal. I recommend that you take a short break every 20-30 minutes. Go get a glass of water, eat a cookie, or just step outside for a breath of fresh air. These little breaks can really help to restore your focus and keep you on track.

Becoming a great guitarist takes time and discipline. I won’t lie; sometimes finding the time to practice can be hard. But as my instructor used to say, “If it was easy – everybody would do it.”