10 Tips for More Effective Guitar Practice Sessions
01. Turn off the electronics
I had to put this first because everyone these days falls into this trap. If you can stand it, leave your phone in another room with the ringer off.
The best practice I've ever had was in 6x6 padded rooms in the basements of music schools. All I had was my practice material, a guitar, a tuner, a metronome and a large coffee.
Now that I'm well out of college and don't have access to practice rooms, I have to practice in the tempting layer that is my home studio. This leads me to my next point...
02. Have a Designated, Relaxing Practice Space
You probably aren't getting the most productive use of your time if you practice in the living room while the TV is on or in your messy bedroom with distraction everywhere. The more distraction you have while practicing (or doing anything in life), the less you'll be able to focus deeply on something.
I have a designated Home Office Studio in my house that nobody else is allowed in (including the cats). You can see some pictures of it on my website. I keep it clean and organized so when I get in there and close the door, I can be focused and working within a minute or two. I have everything wired so I can switch 2 switches and be ready to practice and record.
The more stuff you have in the way of you practicing, the less likely you are to sit down and do it. Simple tasks, like having to find your tuner or a guitar pick or finding your practice material, can easily be avoided if you designate a space and materials that stay there all of the time.
I also have spare cables, tuners, metronomes and amps that never leave my house so I don't ever have to look for them or set anything up. I know that I am more likely to have a sub-par practice session if the first 15 minutes of my practice routine is spent cleaning up after myself.
03. Use a Practice Log
It's hard to stress the importance of having a routine for progressive improvement. My Practice Log is modeled after the one that my old college guitar professor used. A good practice log, like a good guitar teacher, keeps track of your progress and holds you accountable for goals and helps you get better at playing.
Along with my practice log, I also use various other goal setting tools like Trello to organize my learning goals for things like Recording Sessions, Music Marketing and Passive Income Streams for musicians.
04. Tune your guitar
Always tune before you play. Always. Even if you have a $20,000 guitar and tuned it earlier that day.... There are tons of factors that affect how in tune your instrument is. Things like having your instrument in a case, humidity, temperature unknowingly bumping your guitar against something, etc... can and will contribute to your guitar unknowingly going out of tune.
05. Warm Up. Seriously.
Did you know that Pat Metheny warms up for over an hour before a show?
You should always warm-up. Every time you play. Period. You won't always be able to have a sufficient warm-up but try your hardest to allocate time for it in your practice session (and definitely before a gig!).
Start off with Finger and Hand stretches.
I usually start to noodle around on some favorite scales, licks and chord progressions. If you plan on singing while you play then now is a good time do to some of your vocal exercises as well. I find it's best to have a couple of go-to exercises and licks that I use to warm up. If I always warm up with the same thing then I know when I am starting to sound good or if I'm having an off day (which every player has sometimes).
Having a specific musical routine of scales, arpeggios, chords, licks, and tunes that you go through to get your fret hand and picking hand working well can mean the difference between having a great gig and feeling a little let down with yourself afterward.
07. Be Aware of Your Posture
Posture is one of those things that slowly slips out of my mind as I dive deep into something. Often times I am too focused on learning or working on something that my posture leaves me looking like a hunch back. This looks bad on gigs, in photos, and in videos.
Depending on what kind of guitar you are using, your posture and how you hold the instrument against your body can actually alter the timbre of the instrument. Especially if you are sitting down playing a hollow-body guitar (like an archtop Jazz guitar), you'll get the best resonance from the instrument by tilting the bottom of the body away from you. This get's the guitar off of your stomach and allows the whole thing to vibrate more. That's how Freddie Green used to hold his guitar.
You also want to have your shoulders back and relaxed so that your arms move into relaxed right angles.
08. Keep a Mirror Handy
Musicians are self-centered. Accept it and work on your image. Start with thinking about how you want to look when you perform. Do you have any habits that you don't want people to see on stage?
The chances are probably great that you either want to or will have to perform live throughout your career so you should work on your image and physical habits. I have a lot of habits that I hate to see come through in photos and videos, but by paying attention to those habits and realize when I start doing them during practice time, I can be more aware of getting rid of the bad habits and reinforcing the good ones, like working on my rock stance or my duck walk.
09. Jam To Your Heroes
Blast your stereo and jam to your musical heroes. Steal their licks. Figure out the chord progressions that you like. I encourage all of my guitar students to transcribe any musical passage that tickles their fancy and also to not let anyone choose their musical mentors and heroes for them.
As a musician, you need to seek out new and old artists as if you need to feed on their music. Have the hunger. If you like a current artist, I guarantee they had influences. Find out who their influences are and where the music comes from. Then, find out who their influences were and so forth.
My musical upbringing occurred at a weird shift in the music industry and how people consumed music (and consume it I did). Compared to the late 1990s, there is an entirely new way of finding and listening to new artists. It can be overwhelming but also open up doors to artists that prior generations had to really search for. Stream stations and pay attention to the artists and bands that you like.
10. Don’t be afraid to mess up!
I read a book on Zen Guitar Playing once. The title alone exhumes a sense of relaxed freedom. Imagine that. Relaxed, free guitar playing where it’s okay to mess up and explore your own cosmic radio. The typical self-conscious performer is replaced with a confident explorer, ready to break new ground on the fretboard.
Think “Jimi Hendrix meets Louis & Clark meets Buddha with a little bit of Miles and Keith Jarrett," in there.
It's okay to mess up. Sometimes, the best way to gauge someone's commitment to success is taking note of how often they are trying something new or leaving a failed project behind. The most successful people are on a constant journey to refine and perfect everything they come in contact with. They are trying to find new ways of doing things and in turn, find a million other ways NOT to do things.
I'll admit though, it's extremely hard to let your significant other hear all of your mistakes when all you want to do is impress them all of the time. For me to feel most comfortable when I practice, I prefer that no one is in my house at the time. Then I know for sure that nobody is out there and I can be free to just sound as awful as I need to in order to work through stuff.
The best thing to do is (a) GET OVER IT and (b) Get good enough at hiding your mistakes where you at least sound respectable when they happen!
Bonus Tip: Do the work!
The most important thing that anyone aspiring to improve (at anything in life) needs to realize is that it takes work. Usually, it takes a lot of work. It can be a lot of fun work, but boy does it take a lot of work and time. If you take shortcuts, you will always end up with lesser results that you originally imagined. Do yourself a favor and commit to doing the work.
Luckily, if you develop a good plan via a practice schedule and set clear goals for yourself then you can devise a plan that works to mold you into the musician that you want to be.
If you would like any assistance in what your plan should look like, please don't hesitate to send me an email.
...If you are enjoying these tips on how to practice guitar, check out my article on Stage Etiquette for Professional Guitarists.