How To Practice Guitar

Andrew Clarke  /  Articles UPDATED Mar 23, 2023

Have you ever wondered what the secret to truly great guitar playing was? The answer is simple: Practice. All the natural talent and ability in the world can’t replace consistent, disciplined practice. However, just picking up the guitar and noodling around every day isn’t enough to see real progress. There are some clear right and wrong ways to practice – that means things you definitely SHOULD do and things you definitely SHOULDN’T do.

In this article, we’ll be using two videos to break down the dos and don’ts of practicing the guitar. The first video focuses on the mistakes many guitarists make when practicing the guitar. The second video focuses more on the things you should be doing if you’re trying to learn guitar on your own. By the end of these lessons, you’ll be armed with a strategy that will maximize both your progress and your fun on the guitar. Let’s get into the first video.

5 HUGE Guitar Practice Mistakes

It’s quite common for guitar players to build bad habits as they’re learning and is especially common when you are using online guitar lessons. This is because there isn’t a teacher there with you to identify and remedy your problems. 

In this video, Nate Savage shares his top five practice mistakes guitar players make. Avoiding these mistakes is going to greatly improve the effectiveness of your practice time. 

Practicing Your Mistakes

The first big mistake guitarists make is practicing through their mistakes. This is especially noticeable with a certain technique like picking or hand position. When you practice something incorrectly, you’re programming your body to repeat this bad habit. 

Muscle memory is a very real thing and can be a huge blessing. But when developed alongside a bad technique it is likely to stunt your growth and cause you problems with learning more advanced pieces and techniques down the road.

Practicing Too Fast

Learning the guitar is a game of patience. You can’t just flip a switch and download all the skills and information you need to play a particular song. You need to start slow. Because of this reality, many guitar players push themselves too hard and practice things too quickly. 

The idea here is that players think the issues will work themselves out as they continue to repeat the mistakes. In reality, this just further programs your muscle memory to make those mistakes over and over.

In the book “The Practice Of Practice” by author Harnum Jonathan, a story is told of an instructor at a conservatory for string players. This instructor stated that if he could recognize the piece a musician is practicing, then they are practicing it too fast. 

Practicing Inconsistently

The third guitar practice mistake is all about discipline. Many guitarists believe that a two-hour session once a week is equally as effective as daily twenty-minute sessions. This assumption is wrong. Consistency is the key to seeing a steady improvement in your playing. 

It’s recommended that you practice as much as you possibly can based on your schedule and physical and mental limits. This means longer (one hour or more) daily practice sessions will provide you with an even greater result. In some cases, breaking down your sessions even further into morning and evening chunks can have an even greater effect. 

Practicing Without A Plan

If you sit down to practice without any sort of plan in place, you won’t be making the best use of your time. Make a plan based on your musical goals and make sure they meet the S.M.A.R.T. criteria.

S – Specific

M – Measurable

A – Achievable

R – Realistic

T – Time-Bound

If your practice plan consists of goals that meet these criteria, you’ll be setting yourself up for major success.

Practicing Without A Goal

Tying into the last point, our fifth and final mistake is not practicing with any goals in mind. Goals are entirely unique to every player and can be as small or great as you like. Learning how to play a bunch of scales, chords, strumming patterns, and arpeggios is great, but if you don’t have any way to put them into a musical context, you’re going to lose interest pretty quick. 

Start off by choosing a song that you can learn alongside everything else you’re learning. Many songs contain all the things you want to learn and are infinitely more fun than just learning a technique on its own. Remember that at the end of the day, it’s all about playing music.

Wrapping It Up

Take some time to dissect your own practice time and try employing a few of the things mentioned in this video. The more effective your practice time, the faster you’ll improve and the more fun you’re going to have playing the guitar.

How I Taught Myself Guitar – Rhett Shull

Rhett Shull is a popular guitar YouTuber that mostly makes videos about guitar gear. However, in this video, Rhett talks about how he learned to play guitar and shares some great insights for beginner, intermediate, and advanced guitarists.

Leave Your Guitar Out

Rhett’s first tip is to leave your guitar out. Have you ever heard the saying, “outta sight, outta mind?” Well, this applies to the guitar. When you put your guitar in its case or in your closet, you’re not going to be thinking about it. If you’re not thinking about it, you’re far less likely to pick it up and play it.

Keep your guitar somewhere that’s noticeable and easy to access. The best way to do this is to buy a stand so you can put it wherever you want. 

Don’t Rely On Guitar Tab

Guitar Tabs are an amazing resource. The guitar is one of the only instruments that has its own unique form of notation and it can be especially helpful for beginners to learn popular songs. The problem is that Tabs are often transcribed incorrectly. They also don’t contain any rhythmic information, meaning you’ll need to rely on listening to the song to know when to play each part.

Guitar Tab is essentially only telling you “where” to put your fingers. This is unlike standard notation which gives you all the musical information. The problem with standard notation is that it’s pretty inefficient for guitar because of the way things are laid out. 

Listen & Learn

So if you shouldn’t use Tabs or standard notation, what should you be using to learn songs? The answer is your ears. Developing your ear is the most useful and effective skill you can learn for your career as a musician. And you don’t need to be born with some crazy talent or anything. Anyone is able to learn how to use their ears to decipher songs and parts. It just takes some practice. 

Use YouTube To Your Advantage

YouTube is a fairly new resource in the guitar community. Many established players weren’t lucky enough to have something like YouTube when they were learning. Having access to incredible performances, free guitar lessons, and just about everything else can send your progress to the moon.

Even just having the ability when learning a song to watch the original artist perform it can make a big difference. Because of the way a guitar works, there are many different places on the neck to play the same thing. So seeing where exactly the performer puts their fingers instead of just relying on your ears alone can be pretty helpful.

Focus On Bends & Vibrato

Rhett’s next tip is to focus on bends and vibrato when you’re learning. Guitar gets its iconic and unique sound in part from the fact that you can bend and shake a note quite easily. This is where guitarists begin to develop their “voice”. Since it’s such an emotional and intimate technique that resembles a human’s voice, you want to spend time perfecting it. 

Don’t Skip Over Theory

Sadly, guitar players are notorious for avoiding music theory. Do not be one of those guitarists! A small amount of music theory can make a massive impact on your playing and ability to play with other musicians. According to Rhett, the most important music theory concepts to learn are the major scale and triads. 

If you’ve never learned any music theory, don’t be intimidated. We have a guide specifically for beginner guitarists. Check out our Music Theory Crash Course.

Set Goals

Rhett’s final point is the same as Nate’s. Set goals. It might seem pointless, but having some specific goals can be the best way to make sure you’re making progress in the right direction. Start off by setting a few short-term and long-term goals.

These goals don’t need to be anything too grandiose. They can be as simple as learning one of your favorite songs. Or maybe playing in a band. Write them down and keep these goals somewhere accessible so you can review them from time to time. 

Remember, goals can be flexible and they might change over time. The main thing is just to come up with a few based on where you’re at right now. Down the road, you can always make adjustments. 

We hope you’ve found this guide helpful. Practice looks different for everyone and at the end of the day what works for someone else might not work for you. Try some of the tips mentioned in this article and make the most of your practice time. Happy playing!

What’s Next?

10-Minute Guitar Practice Routine

Ayla Tesler-Mabe takes you through the perfect practice routine for beginner and intermediate guitarists. You’ll start off with a quick warm-up before moving into some rhythm techniques. Following that, you’ll get into a few lead exercises and wrap things up with a dexterity drill.

Creating A Mobile Practice Space

One of the most important parts of practicing the guitar is having a properly set up space. Join Nate Savage and learn about the different practice tools you can use to get the most out of your time with your instrument.

The Guitarist’s Toolbox

What do you get when you combine 9 of our premium guitar lesson video courses? The Guitarist’s Toolbox! If you’re enjoying learning the guitar online but want a little more structure than random YouTube videos can offer, then the toolbox is perfect for you. You’ll learn how to play your first song, tackle the main progress killers, read music, and much more. And it’s all totally 100% FREE. Just click the link above, type in your email, and get instant access to your lessons.

Andrew Clarke is a guitarist, educator, and content creator from Vancouver, Canada. He's best known for his YouTube channel, where he creates easy-to-follow guitar lessons and informative guitar gear videos. Andrew also manages The Riff.

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