Practice is the repeating of an action with the goal of improving.
Sounds simple enough, but what we often do during the time we refer to as practicing is just rehashing stuff we already know. We think that just because we are playing something on guitar for a while, we must be improving.
It’s not specifically the amount of time you practice guitar that’s important – it’s the quality and effectiveness of your practice.
The keys to effective practice are consistency, focus, and working on learning things at lie at the edge of your current abilities.
At the end of each practice session, you should ideally be better (albeit very slightly) than you were at the start of it, or at least learn something you didn’t know before.
Below are the 5 keys to effective guitar practice
1. Minimize distractions.
This probably seems obvious, but it can be pretty hard to do. Turn off your TV. Put your cell phone in airplane mode (so it’s not connected to the Internet and your can’t receive any notifications). If you’re on a computer, you can use an tool like StayFocused (Chrome browser extension) to temporarily block access to sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Try plugging directly into your amp without using any pedals (or just using an acoustic guitar) helpful. If you’re plugged into your pedal board, it can be easy to spend a good chunk of time fiddling with pedals, and not actually practicing.
There’s definitely a time and place for practicing with your pedals (as mastering your effects can itself be a challenge), but when learning new material, try learning it without effects first.
2. Focus on deliberate practice
This means practicing specific material, and with a specific goal in mind. Instead of just noodling around on guitar, keep your practice session focused on one small thing. You want to practice material that is just beyond your current ability and comfort zone.
Most people either practice things they already know, or brand new things they don’t know. The sweet spot for practicing is right in between those 2 things. You’re taking what you’ve already learned, and then slowly tacking on new information.
We usually resist doing what we can’t do. Even when we want to practice and think we are practicing, we end up just repeating what we already know. We hope to get better by just doing more of it, but that unfortunately doesn’t really work.
Or we do the opposite. We practice material that is way past our current ability. We try to tackle something complex before being able to play individual parts of it well.
The more we practice playing incorrectly, we reinforce playing it that way. A lot of guitar is muscle memory, and practice makes permanent. It’s important to be careful what you’re practicing.
3. Break things down into small parts
Take the goal “play this song at the normal tempo”, and break it down to “Play 4 measures of the song at the normal tempo”. Then break it down even further, to “Play 4 measures of the song at 50% speed”. You can make the criteria even easier. “Play 4 measures as slow as slowly as it takes to play it with 95% accuracy”.
3. Start out slowly
We build up coordination from repetition – whether your are playing correctly or incorrectly. If you start playing something fast, but sloppily, your brain and hands will learn to play it that way. Start out slowly – learn a riff or passage at the slowest speed you need to play it correctly. Gradually increase the speed, only when you are able to play it correctly at faster speeds. Use a metronome (such as the Tempo app for iPhone), and increase it only 5 or 10 beats-per-minute at time.
4. Take breaks
Breaking up your practice into short sessions, with breaks in between them, is more effective then a long practice session.
We retain information better when learning smalls bits of info at a time.
5. Use visualization
Visualization can be an incredible way to learn and retain information.
After your learn something on guitar, visualize the fretboard when you are away from your instrument. Run through things like scales positions, chord progressions, arpeggios and more in your head.
One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to other people, and visualization can be a great way to mimic teaching something. You are essentially teaching it to yourself.