by Sam the Scholar
My guitar practice regimen has helped me greatly improve my level of guitar playing. I still want to improve, and I’m not saying this is the right way, but it works for me. Feel free to share your practice ideas in the comments.
First off, warming up is essential. Do exercises that warm up both your picking and fretting hand. You can find plenty of exercises all over the web, and they are simple to devise, but these must be undertaken with a metronome – MUST! Note down your metronome speed and make sure you are tight with the beat. Speed is a byproduct of accuracy! Start slow but get it right. The Guitar Speed Trainer is a great app that gradually increases a metronome speed to specific exercises, and best of all you can add your own. Any tricky riff from a song you can’t nail? Bang it in the trainer and practice it slowly.
Now I realize warming up can be boring. Thus, try watching some YouTube videos or catch up on your TV in the background. I find TED lectures are a great length, have limited music in them, and are very interesting to boot! With basic exercises such as alternate picking you are improving and building up muscle memory in a very small part of your body. You do not need to devote full attention to this, as it can be demotivating to focus intensly on such a boring activity, but this has really helped me get through the warm up stage. Once warmed up I do one of four things:
1. Practice or learn a new song or riff
Practicing a new song is self explanatory – I have found that Guitar Pro tabs are an excellent way of learning new songs as they incorporate a speed trainer where you can slow riffs right down and gradually speed them up. I generally only use 5-starred Guitar Pro tabs from Ultimate-Guitar.com and have found most of them accurate enough.
2. Practice scale shapes over a play list of songs in that key
I have playlists on iTunes of 5 songs in each key. I will play the CAGED shapes over the top of each song, then the pentatonic shapes, then the arpeggios. I have found it is much easier to learn these when playing along with actual songs I like. This website has a list of songs in each key.
The CAGED system is a whole other post, but it has really helped me. Brad Carlton’s CAGED Cracked and CAGED Dominant will help you understand the system really well. However, it’s not enough just to watch these video guitar lessons (unfortunately). You have to practice it methodically and consistently. And practice it well. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice does.
3. Play along with blues jam tracks
Soloing over blues jam tracks is great fun and very satisfying. Get some blues jam tracks and hit those pentatonics. Understand when you can switch from minor to major scales and the difference this brings. Copy riffs from the great guitarists and transpose them into the key you are playing in.
4. Play along with the radio
Playing along with the radio is great ear training. Work out the key and play along, will help improve your ability to understand different music progressions.
Don’t worry if you don’t understand theory, the more you practice the more bits and pieces will make sense. When you feel ready to study it more do so but again don’t worry if it doesn’t all fall into place – there is a great deal to learn and it takes time.
Practice, practice, practice. There are no shortcuts. That guy down the end of the street who can play all those Steve Vai solos? He practiced a hell of a lot. Hours and hours each day. No need to be jealous — if you want to do the same you just have to practice to the same degree! The key is regular (if possible daily) practice and using your practice time constructively.
People tell me they get a natural high from jogging, cycling, going to the gym – I have tried these and get nothing. However, when I hit a stride with my guitar practice, I’m sure I get the same buzz those people do. I seem to improve more quickly when this happens.
When I was 13 years-old learning how to play guitar, I don’t remember anybody telling me any of this and I had a number of teachers (maybe I just ignored them, ha). It has taken me over 15 years to figure out that an organized guitar practice regimen is the best way of getting better quicker – so stupidly, stupidly simple. In the last 3 years of my guitar-practicing life I have got so much better that I shudder to think where I would be had I implemented this at 13 years-old. Maybe I could have even nailed those Vai solos! Better late than never, I guess.