Unless you’re a natural genius, you’re going to need to practice guitar a lot to become good. It takes focus and determination before you’re able to perform before any group of people with confidence.
But all practice is not created equally. Here are some basic things you can do to set yourself up for success and make sure that every time you rehearse with your axe, it is time well spent.
Want to learn more about music theory?
Check out our ultimate guide to music theory to find more jumping off points.
Have Guitar Practice Goals and a Plan to Achieve Them
Before you worry about what to practice on guitar, you should take a second to consider where you want to go on your musical journey.
Want to learn a particular style or a particular lick, or emulate your favorite player? Maybe your goals are more general, like learning a certain song or being able to write your own material. Whatever the case, you should write down your guitar goals. Each practice session should be one step toward achieving them.
Here’s a list of a few common goals that many players have:
- Mastering a style (fingerstyle, slide, lap steel, etc.)
- Mastering a technique (bends, pulls, vibrato, etc.)
- Improvisation and soloing
- Memorizing a new song
- Nailing a guitar audition
- Starting a band
- Writing a song
Goals get more specific as you drill down into specific genres. If you’re into heavy metal, you might want to spend extra time working on speed workouts, but if you’re working on jazz, you’ll want to learn the standards and develop strategies for improvisation.
When you have an end destination in mind, it becomes a lot easier to manage your time and decide what you want to focus on first.
Once you do have a few guitar goals in mind, there is no shortage of resources on the internet that can teach you the skills you need to succeed. There are tons of videos, books, apps, sheet music, and teacher-led tutorials, many of them free or at a low cost.
Taking the time to search around and find reliable resources that you can build into your practice is well worth it. Read reviews and check out guitar player forums for ideas. There’s a great community of players out there and chances are there is someone who shares your goals.
With any luck, you’ll soon find a website or video series that you can come back to again and again that helps you develop the skills you need. Just remember not to let devices and screens distract you from your main objective for this time: to improve your playing.
Remember too that development doesn’t happen in a straight line. As you progress, you might decide to use different resources if you feel you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. That’s okay. But rest assured none of these resources does much good unless you have a firm grasp in the first place on what it is that you’re after.
Play Guitar Scales As a Warm Up
Once you have a goal and some good resources to help you practice, you should run a few scales to warm up.
Running scales can be a pain in the neck for many new guitarists. But trust us, becoming familiar with scales and basic music theory is a game changer.
Think of it like learning words. Just like you need to be familiar with words and how they work in order to string together sentences, you need to be familiar with scales in order to string together licks and phrases, no matter what musical style you’re playing in.
Here are just a few of the benefits of practicing guitar scales:
- Build fretboard familiarity
- Train the hands to play economically
- Train the ears to hear intervals
- Learn how notes function in a chord
- Develop music theory knowledge
And that’s just the beginning. With all those benefits, it’s no wonder that scales are usually the number one recommendation for students learning to play guitar.
If you’re still not sold on the benefits of scales, we don’t blame you. They can be a drag. But the thing is, scales don’t have to be boring unless you make them boring.
You can practice them in any number of ways, with a backing track, with or without a metronome, by switching up the rhythm, alternating picking, focusing on arpeggios… you get the idea.
It’s also a good idea to play scales at the beginning of a practice session because they can help get your mind thinking musically. Sometimes having that routine in place to kick off every practice can get you motivated for the rest of the session. Just make sure you switch it up to keep things interesting.
That brings up another good point. It’s important to work on scales (and everything else) with musicality. This is one of the best ways to practice guitar, or any instrument for that matter.
You got into making music to be creative. Feel free to get creative with your scales practice, too. Play in a way that has you tapping your feet or feeling the emotion in every note. If you can do that with a boring major scale, you’ll have no problems doing it with a song.
If you’re a newer guitar player, a good exercise is to put on your favorite song as a backing track and practice a scale that’s in key, first ascending and then descending. You’ll find you can unlock a lot just by doing this. You’ll be working in the rhythm of the song. Eventually you’ll want to improvise and go off script, which can be its own rewarding journey as well.
There’s no best way to warm up. Search around and you’ll find loads of creative ideas that make scales something you look forward to doing, instead of an annoying chore.
Practice Guitar Alone and With Accompaniment
Should you practice guitar solo or with accompaniment? Why not both?
If one of your goals is to play in a band or another musician, it’s a good idea to work that experience into your practice time to build up muscle memory.
Playing with another musician forces you to focus and listen more closely to what you’re doing as well where your part fits in with the larger ensemble.
Here are other options to practice guitar with accompaniment:
- Use your favorite song as a backing track
- Set up a home studio and record your own accompaniment
- Use a looper pedal
Looper pedals are sophisticated and most allow you to provide several layers of accompaniment, which can help you work on chord changes, lead, and solo skills at the same time.
If your goal is to play by yourself and you couldn’t care less about playing with a band, you should still practice guitar with a metronome. Solo guitar is its own challenge because you’ll be keeping time by yourself. A metronome teaches you to feel the beat and trains the muscles in your hands to perform in time.
Some people are just naturally more adept at creating rhythms, but everyone can benefit from the use of a metronome because it builds discipline. And just like scales, practicing guitar with a metronome does not need to be tedious. Get creative and discover offbeat time signatures or explore strumming on upbeats if it gets too comfortable.
Challenge Yourself on Guitar to Get Better
A familiar warm up can be like comfort food at the beginning of practice, but there are also times during a session when you should feel like you’re in over your head. Part of honing your skills means improvement, and you can’t improve at something you’ve already mastered.
It can be a new chord progression, a new technique like note bends, or a particular phrase of a solo, but you should always be pushing yourself to learn new skills. And yes, you should always be failing. Just don’t let it get you down.
This is a pitfall that many musicians face. The temptation can be there to master something right away. After all, your favorite musician makes it look easy, why can’t you play that way too? When this happens, it can be easy to forget that failure is part of the process.
One method that usually works when you’re having trouble playing is to slow down. Practice something very slowly until you’ve mastered it and then speed up until you’re satisfied with the result. This method has worked for countless musicians over the years, all it takes is a little patience.
Another thing you can do if you are having trouble is break difficult passages into more manageable chunks.Tackle the easiest ones first, then when you feel confident with each chunk you can string them all together again.
These tips are helpful, but some days it just isn’t working. If you are stuck in a rut and can’t seem to accomplish what you’re trying to do, take a break and come back fresh after a few minutes. Give your brain a chance to digest what you are trying to learn and then approach it again. You’ll be amazed how this can help sometimes.
When you’ve tried slowing down the tempo, breaking it into manageable chunks, and taking a break and nothing’s working, don’t give up hope. Just recognize that it happens to the best guitar players sometimes. Move on with practice and plan to circle back to the concept in the future. There are plenty of other things to do in the meantime.
As long as you are practicing guitar every day (even if it’s just for a little while), you’ll eventually conquer the new material and be able to move on to even more challenging stuff armed with the experience you’ve gained the first time around.
Practice Regular Guitar Maintenance
Before, during, or after a practice session is a good time to check in on your axe and make sure everything’s in proper working order.
Regular guitar maintenance includes replacing strings as needed, wiping down the neck and fretboard, cleaning and polishing the guitar as needed, adjusting the setup (or get a pro to do it) to eliminate fret buzzing, tuning up properly and more.
This last one is a must, especially if you’re planning to play with other musicians. Plus, tuning the strings regularly is a good way to train your own ears. And just like with scales, there are lots of different ways to do this, and it’s worth checking them all out.
You can tune your guitar using an affordable electronic tuner, off a piano or keyboard (if you have one), or even off a YouTube clip. Search for “guitar standard tuning” and you’ll get video clips that play open string notes so you can listen and adjust as needed. It’s good to get experience with all these methods because you might not always have a tuner handy when you need it.
Some players may also like to tune strings using harmonics. This is a great way to train your ear and to build up muscle memory for recreating harmonic sounds during a performance.
Learning to play harmonics also helps players master hand control, which can be helpful whether you end up using harmonics regularly or not.
What happens if you don’t tune your guitar? The instrument will be fine, but you may find your ears have been trained to hear the wrong notes.
If you don’t tune your guitar, it becomes harder to discern when other players are playing in tune. It’s not something you want to get into the habit of doing if your goal is to become a competent musician.
Final thoughts on how to practice guitar effectively
Hopefully it’s clear by now that the important thing is not what you practice on guitar to get better, but how you practice it.
It sounds cliché, but ultimately, the best way to practice guitar is to have fun. And if you’re not having fun, you should at least be feeling satisfied that you’re improving. These steps are guidelines to make sure that you get the most out of the time you put in.
If you get stuck along the way, you can always revisit these tips or take a break for a few days and come back fresh. Good luck, and happy strumming!