How Should I Manage My Practice Time on the Guitar?

One of the most frequent comments that I hear from new students is “How should I arrange my practice time? What should I be doing? Do I work on my scales or should I practice playing songs?”

The issue here for me as a teacher is the fact that there are numerous correct answers to this question. So, I will look at some typical case studies and, quite probably, you will find yourself falling into one of these categories. From there you will be in a position to see what you might do to improve your wood shedding.

First up is the beginner that has started to work through some online videos on YouTube.

Secondly, the intermediate player who knows his scales and quite a few songs and is confident with his style of playing but realizes that there is still a lot more he could learn.

Thirdly, the experienced player, who possibly already plays in a band but wants to improve his playing and his theory.

Finally, the slightly more mature players that had lessons when they were younger and possibly played in a band, but due to work or marriage had to stop. Now the kids are grown up and work is more secure and they want to start playing again.

I know there are other groups out there but I have focused on what I call the lone wolf. These are students that are trying to learn by themselves or have stopped taking lessons through choice, work or social commitments.

OK, let’s look at each case in turn.

Let’s start with the beginner.

First of all I would review the material they have been watching or learning to ensure that not only is the material suitable but it is also correct. The internet is a wonderful resource for free information but, of course, there is no way to regulate the source. Anyone can be a teacher online, they don’t need to have graduated from college or hold a recognized board certificate. That doesn’t mean they don’t know what they are playing and why, but the videos or material might not be provided with a learning process in mind.

When I mentioned suitable I didn’t mean possible adult content, I was referring to the material being at the correct level for there current capabilities. We all love a challenge and it is good to push ourselves but if we push too hard we could end up frustrated and possibly discouraged. “Stairway to Heaven” in the first few weeks might be too much for a beginner.

Once I had checked the material I would recommend a schedule of a minimum of 15 – 20 minutes practice per day 5 days a week. Commencing with some simple warm up drills that are also musical, working some chords over a 3 or 4 bar progression. Then have them work on songs from either a recognized curriculum course, or songs they like and enjoy playing at their current level. Preferably I would have them working with a backing track. If not, then a metronome to ensure correct timing. Finally some scale work but not just running up and down a scale. I give the exercises that sound melodic but combine the use of scale. Examples of this can normally be found in most commercial course books.

I will set the goals to aim for each week and larger targets per month to keep them focused and have direction to work to.

Number two on the list can be the hardest ones to work with. They can play quite confidently and know, or should know, their major and minor scales. They also have a conflict wanting to learn new technique and theory but feeling musically restricted having to focus most of their practice time on the songs their band had chosen to perform. The way I approach this student is to try and combine what he wants to learn with his band’s style of music. No point teaching Jazz to a guy in a metal band and vice versa. If the student is in a covers band I try and find songs that challenge the student technically but can also be used as part of the band’s repertoire. I get the student to understand the difference between practice time and rehearsal time.

Number three can be the most rewarding student for a teacher but demanding at the same time. I have to understand their goals, look at their weaknesses and strengths then develop a strategy based on these factors. For me their practice time is about discovering an answer to a question or a task that I set. This can either be a theory question that has a practical answer or a technique that needs to be developed to handle a particular style of music.

Finally, number four. I have always found this group more open to theory and expressing a desire to understand what they are playing. So, they will have a combination of challenging songs to play with a in depth look at the theory behind these songs. This group will practice just purely for enjoyment so the progress might be slow but learning must be kept interesting. Quite a few of these students started out learning blues and rock with me and ended up playing jazz.

The one thing that each group requires though is direction. YouTube is great but it’s hard to ask a person behind the video a question. And if you do ask it might take some time before you get an answer. Many years ago I fell into category number two. I felt good as a player and everyone who saw me play commented on my technique and ability. But in my mind I knew that there was much more to learn. I decided to seek help and found a wonderful teacher who opened my eyes and ears but most important my mind. He focused and disciplined my playing.

I can’t stress how important I feel it is for a musician to find a Yoda who can instruct and also discuss the art of guitar. All athletes have a coach, in a gym we have personal trainers. Golfers have pros. Your instructor is actually more important than the guitar you play or the rig you use.

This article wasn’t written to give a definitive answer but to help a student recognize where they are in the learning cycle. Please, feel free to comment, that’s how I learn from your feedback.