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10 ways to establish an effective practice routine

It is not easy to create an effective guitar practice routine. For most of us, this is because of a lack of time. When you have family, friends, and work to juggle - it is easy to neglect your guitar playing. We have all been through those times where we just don't really play at all.

Of course that isn't a great situation to find yourself in. But I would argue that there is an arguably riskier situation to be in. And that is one where you do play your guitar on most days, but you rarely - if ever - practice your guitar.

This is a situation that I found myself in for many years. I had a very demanding and stressful sales job, and was exhausted when I got home at the end of each day. On most days I still managed to play my guitar, but I was just going through the motions. I would pick it up and just noodle around, playing the same blues licks I always did. Then one day it hit me. I realised that I hadn't actually improved at all for years. I hadn't learnt any new material and was technically no better. My playing had totally stagnated.

It was at that moment that I decided to create and follow a proper guitar practice routine. It was one of the best steps I took as a guitar player. And so here I want to share the main steps you need to take to create a guitar practice routine that will work for you.

And this point is key. You need to establish a routine that is specific to you and to what you are trying to achieve. You also have to take into account your personal circumstances and the amount of time you can dedicate to playing.

So without further ado, let's get into it. Here are the key steps you need to take to create an effective guitar practice routine:

1.) Establish specific aims

The first step to creating an effective guitar practice routine is to establish exactly what you want to achieve. This might sound obvious, but it is a step that a lot of players overlook. Or at least it is a step to which players do not dedicate enough focus.

When you are setting up your guitar practice routine, you have to define - in a very specific way - what you want to achieve. It is not enough to say 'I want to play like B.B. King' or "I want to get better at lead guitar playing.' Both of those aims are too broad to tackle. The likelihood is that you won't know where to begin, will feel overwhelmed and might possibly give up or revert to aimless noodling.

Break your large aims down into smaller and more manageable elements, and then really focus on those elements. So to use the example from above, if you want to play like B.B. King, you could first focus on his vibrato and bending style. Then after making progress on those elements, you could look at the scales and licks he used. And so on.

2.) Understand what you want

I think a lot of guitarists feel the pressure to include certain elements within their practice routine, just because other players talk about them. For example, a lot of players feel that they need to have an extremely deep understanding of music theory.

In some ways that makes sense, and it is important if you are looking to become a well rounded musician and guitar player. However if your main aim is to be able to play Stevie Ray Vaughan songs, then you should focus on that. There is enough material there to keep you busy for a lifetime!

Narrowing your focus in this way is not appropriate if you want to develop as a musician. For that you will need to develop a broad set of skills, including music theory. But if you are looking to become a killer guitarist with great technical skills, focus your practice time accordingly. In this way you will progress faster and get much more satisfaction from your guitar playing.

3.) Know your weaknesses

Having said that, regardless of what you want to achieve, you have to identify and work on your weaknesses. We all have these, and they are very easy to ignore. It is just not as much fun to practice areas of your playing with which you struggle, compared to areas where you naturally excel. Yet whilst this is the case, don't neglect your weaknesses. Doing so might work for a while, but it will backfire in the long run.

I speak from personal experience here. I feel that I have quite a developed vibrato and bending style. It has not been an area of my playing that I have had to really work on. And so every time I pick up my guitar, that's where my fingers go. I start noodling around and practising my string bending and vibrato technique. It feels fun, easy and rewarding.

Unfortunately, my sense of timing is not naturally as strong. I have a tendency to rush and get ahead of the groove. For a long time, I neglected to work on this weakness. And this caused me problems when I ended up playing in bands and with other musicians.

Don't fall into the same trap. Identify the key weaknesses that are going to stop you from achieving your goals. Then dedicate at least some portion of your practice time to working on them.

4.) Be realistic

One of the quickest ways to kill your guitar practice routine is to be too ambitious with the goal you set when it comes to how long you practice each day. It is very admirable to aim for an hour or more of practice each day. But if that isn't sustainable alongside your other commitments, then don't set that as your aim.

If you do, you will quickly find you can't keep up, and you are more likely to become demotivated and totally fall out of your practice schedule. Instead, I would suggest being more conservative with the time you set aside to practice. You are more likely to stick to your guitar practice routine, which will keep you motivated and ensure you continue to progress. If you then find that you have more time to practice, you can view it as a nice bonus!

5.) Be consistent

Similarly, whatever guitar practice routine you set out, stick to it. You will progress much more quickly if you practice for a small amount of time each day than if you have 1 or 2 marathon practice sessions each week.

If you leave long spaces of time between your practice sessions, you will struggle to maintain the progress from your last session. It will take you much longer to warm up and to get back to the level at which you were playing in the previous session.

Even if you can only play for 10 minutes each day, you will get more from being consistent at that level than you will from not playing at all and then playing for 2 hours in one go at the weekend.

6.) Warm up

Factor some time into your guitar practice routine to warm up. Even if you are playing every day, there will be those days when your hands just aren't ready to play. I find this is always the case if I spend a lot of time on my computer. Even if I have been playing a lot, after typing on the keyboard all day I just find that my hands are tight and stiff.

If I then launch straight into playing, it is unlikely that I will have a very productive practice session.

You don't have to spend a lot of time warming up, but do try to include a bit of time to loosen up. How much time you dedicate to this will depend on how long you can play for each day. If you are really pushed for time, then I would recommend combining your warm up with another exercise that isn't too demanding on your hands.

For example, you could warm up by following some of the exercises I have outlined in this article here (exercise 2 is the way I usually choose to warm up). In this way you will warm up, whilst improving other areas of your playing.

7.) Create a practice space

Practice your guitar with intention. Treat your guitar practice routine seriously and create an environment where you can focus. You don't need to have a studio or a dedicated practice room. You just need a space where you will not be distracted and where you don't allow yourself to be distracted.

In other words, don't practice your guitar in front of the TV or computer (unless you are using online resources). Don't practice and try to have a conversation with someone at the same time. And absolutely do not try to practice with your mobile phone next to you. I was guilty of this last point for quite some time. Every time a message or notification popped up on my phone I'd get distracted. My attention was always being broken and my guitar practice was much less effective as a result.

Of course you don't have to lock yourself away every time you play the guitar. But separate practice from playing. You can play your guitar in front of the TV or whilst chatting, and those hours will add up and do a lot to help your playing in the long run. But when practising, try to focus as much as possible. You will get a lot more out of your guitar practice routine, and can be more efficient with your time too.

8.) Expect disruptions

Having said that, it is important to recognise that there are going to be many occasions where your guitar practice routine is disrupted. You might go on holiday, have a weekend off, or have an impending deadline at work. Or you might just find that a range of factors leaves you struggling to practice as normal.

In those moments, there are 2 important things to keep in mind:

1.) You can still improve, even if you are practising less. As an example, let's say that you normally practice for 30 minutes per day. If you suddenly find that you can only practice for 15 minutes, try not to stress too much. There is still a lot you can do with those 15 minutes.

All you need to do is strip your guitar practice routine down to the elements that are most important to you. So if at this moment you are working on bending accuracy, just spend the whole 15 minutes focusing on that. In this way you can continue to progress, even when you are busier.

2.) It is ok to take time off. Not only is it inevitable that there will be times when you can't practice, it is also healthy to break your routine every now and again. It will help you to relax, and you are likely to return to your guitar playing with renewed energy and focus.

9.) Mix it up

Similarly, when you are creating your guitar practice routine, it is important to remember that this will have to change with time.

Firstly, this is because you will progress. The areas you need to work on today will not be the same as those you need to work on in a few weeks or months. Secondly, changing things up every now and again will help to keep your practice interesting and engaging. Finally, changing things up will broaden your skill base as a guitarist, which is important - even if your overall aim is still quite narrow and focused.

There will be certain elements of your guitar practice routine which will remain basically unchanged. But I would shift your focus in other areas every 6-8 weeks. This will give you time to develop a specific area of your playing, before you move onto something slightly different. As an example, for a single 8 week block you might focus on improving your playing speed.. And during those 8 weeks you would dedicate a fair chunk of your time to that aim.

After those 8 weeks you might then move on to improving your timing. You would still need to continue playing and practising at speed, but your primary focus would shift to something else. In this way, over the course of months and years, your baseline skill level as a guitarist will improve dramatically across a range of areas.

10.) Have fun

Finally and perhaps most importantly - focus on enjoying yourself! For most guitarists, playing the guitar is not a job or a profession. It is something that you should enjoy and which should enrich your life, not make you feel stressed.

There will be times in your guitar playing journey where you feel frustrated. And this is totally normal. In those moments, it is probably a good idea to take a couple of days off. Generally speaking though, you can prevent that frustration from ever really setting in by making sure you actually enjoy practising.

Of course, some parts of your guitar practice routine are going to feel like hard work. But make sure you include things you really enjoy. This could be learning new songs or licks, learning a new style or genre of music, or jamming along to backing tracks. Whatever it is, don't neglect it. It will ensure you continue to enjoy your playing, which is crucial for your long term development.

Well there we have it, 10 ways you can create an effective guitar practice routine. Follow these steps and you can set up a killer routine that will ensure you continue to progress, and more importantly, that you enjoy yourself along the way.

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Aidan Bricker
The Happy Bluesman

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