Creating an Effective Practice Routine

Creating an Effective Practice Routine

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Topics: Lessons

I love to practice. Love it, love it, love it! There is nothing better than being able to set aside a block of time to work on becoming a better player through an effective practice routine.

Sure, just playing the guitar — at a gig, recording, or just hanging out and jamming with friends — is a crapload of fun, but I want to do more than just play what I know, I want to be better at what I know and, obviously, learn things I don’t.

In a recent blog post on Study Hacks, Cal Newport talks about Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book “Outliers,” and specifically about the 10,000 hour rule. Malcolm said in a recent interview (taken from Cal’s site):


When we look at any kind of cognitively complex field — for example, playing chess, writing fiction or being a neurosurgeon — we find that you are unlikely to master it unless you have practiced for 10,000 hours. That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years.


Certainly a lot of time. It may not seem like much to those of us who are constantly playing guitar, but it’s not always that simple.

Cal’s article further states that chess players at the highest levels “expended about 5000 hours on serious study alone during their first decade of serious chess play – nearly five times the average amount reported by intermediate-level players.


5,000 hours of serious study, and then Cal really puts the final nail in the coffin:


To become exceptional you have to put in a lot of hours, but of equal importance, these hours have to be dedicated to the right type of work.


Are you putting in the right type of work?


Focus is Key


Let’s say, for example, that you want to practice scales.

Not exactly the most fun practicing you can do, but it’s certainly an important area for logging serious dirt time.

Usually things start off great, you play at a slow tempo, possibly even with a metronome, making sure your fingerings are correct and that you can seamlessly move through the modes and fretboard positions to create smooth transitions with good tone.

The problem is, once your muscle memory has kicked in you don’t really have to concentrate on fingerings anymore.

Scale practice tends to become more recitation than actual learning.

You let your fingers go through their pre-defined patterns, the scale tempo tends to go up into death metal hyperdrive, and your brain suddenly becomes disconnected from your hands. At this point you’re not really practicing anymore, you’re shredding.

Slow down and really LISTEN to each note as you are playing it. Sing along with each note, out loud, to really get it in your head.

Try naming each note as you play it.

Can you do it? In tempo?

How about your hand placement; are your fretting fingers close to the fret wire, or in the middle of the fret where your tone isn’t as clearly defined?

Is your thumb effectively supporting your other fingers?

Are you relaxed or tense?

Are you breathing while you play, or holding your breath?

Are you holding your pick correctly?

All of these things make for focused practicing, and can be applied not only to scale practice but to all aspects of your practice routine.

If you happen to find yourself going through the motions, by all means stop playing!

Take a deep breath, focus your mind to the task at hand, and start again from the beginning.

It may take some effort and concentration to re-engage yourself to realize that you are just noodling around, but you can do it if you try.


No Distractions


Sorry, folks, but practicing in front of the TV during commercials just doesn’t work.

You need undivided attention to get results.

A clean practice environment is also important, as is comfortable lighting and a good chair or stool to sit on.

All of your resources (lesson books, staff paper, pencils, picks, etc…) should be prepared in advance and readily available for use. (I prefer Passantino and Archives for my staff paper.)

If you have to keep getting up and down each time you need something else to use you’re wasting time and creating an excuse to be unfocused.

A nice, heavy-duty music stand is important so your music doesn’t fly all around the room.

I have the Manhasset M54 conductor’s stand, because I like to have all of my music laid out and organized, with enough space to write, too.

I know that sounds rather pedantic and somewhat counter-culture to your alter ego as an axe-wielding rock star, but we’re talking about practicing and not a gig at Wembley Stadium.

You have to try and see the bigger picture here… the more productive you are when you practice, the hotter the girls (or guys) will be that you meet backstage. (It’s true, folks, I have the research papers to prove it, I swear!)

Create a Progressive Practice Plan


You should never just sit down and start shedding without a practice plan.

If you are taking lessons from a teacher, then obviously your practice material has already been laid out for you.

If you are in the process of learning new songs, then by all means your practice sessions should be about learning the songs.

I’m talking about the third group of Fretheads, the people that are doing it on their own… essentially, the hardest group of people to stay motivated and focused because they only have themselves to measure their progress.

In order to make true, steady progress, you need to be able to look back at what you’ve done previously to build upon the foundation and correct any mistakes that develop along the way.

Professional baseball players videotape their swings, as do golfers and tennis pros.

Quarterbacks will constantly look over video footage and pour over pictures of defensive looks from the opposing team during the course of a game.

They are constantly trying to improve upon past performances, so why should guitarists be any different?

If you are creating a practice plan for the first time, start from scratch.

Identify some weaknesses in your playing and work slowly.

Try to be well-rounded in your practice.

Scales, arpeggios, chord studies, transcribing, ear training, sight singing, improvisation using specific concepts, composition, rhythm studies; all are great areas of practice that I’m sure most of us can find some deficiencies.

Here are two of my own (very old) lessons with progressive guitarist Scott McGill as examples of what you can use to set up your own routine.

Scott McGill Lesson – 02/28/2006

Scott McGill Lesson – 09/02/2003

Keep a Practice Journal


As you may or may not have noticed, I created a new category here in the Fretterverse called “Practice Journals.”

I will be posting my practice sessions, and I hope my reports will be good motivation for others to do the same.

It certainly will be good for me! Journaling your shed sessions is an invaluable tool to measure your progress over extended periods of time, as well as being able to look back and see what else you need to work on.

You should also journal your overall physical and emotional state in your journal.

If your hand is giving you pain, analyze what you’ve been working on and see if you can figure out the cause.

That would certainly lead to some course-correction in trying to fix the issue.

It can also prove to be helpful for you to know how productive your sessions are when you’re very happy, pissed off, or neutral.

Some people are more effective in certain moods.

I’m not suggesting you go out and rob banks just because you work better under an adrenaline rush, but you get the idea.


How Long Should I Practice?


I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, “As long as you can.”

Or perhaps better stated, “as long as you can while still remaining focused and effective.” I typically practice for about an hour before I take a break.

I’ll rest for 10 or 15 minutes, get a drink, go to the bathroom, say hi to the wife, and then head back into my music room for another go.

I don’t know very many people that can remain focused and effective for much longer than that.

If you can, I certainly applaud you!

There is nothing wrong with stopping for a few minutes and decompressing a bit.

Even the greatest jazz musicians in the world take breaks in between sets. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.

You don’t have to force yourself to endure a six-hour shed with no breaks.


Effective Practice Routine Final Thoughts


At some point you’re going to want to take all of this shed time and apply it to the real world.

Most of us want to be heard, after all.

Here are some post-practice suggestions for setting up your future lesson plans:

  • During a gig or jam with friends, try to break out one of the things you’ve been working on. It’s okay if you mess up, but see how well you do. If you do clam it up, try to remember how you went in and out of it and see if you can work that into your next practice session.
  • Tape your gigs and jam sessions (audio or video). Not only listen to yourself, but the other musicians as well. Anything you can steal from another player and integrate into your practice plan? How good of a listener were you to react to the rest of the band? Anything you can add to your practice?
  • Keep Going! There will be those days, the ones where you get home from work completely fried, wife is yelling, kids are screaming, and the last thing you want to do is have to concentrate. But believe me when I tell you that THOSE times are generally the most productive in the long run. You may not reap the benefits of those practice sessions right away, and it may take two years before the ideas take hold, but they are worth the effort.

Good luck!

Do you have any tips on building an effective practice routine? Share them in the comments section below.

1 Comment Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Ilya says:

    Great article! Thanx Josh!

    “You let your fingers go through their pre-defined patterns, the scale tempo tends to go up into death metal hyperdrive, and your brain suddenly becomes disconnected from your hands. At this point you’re not really practicing anymore, you’re shredding.” HERE’S WHERE THE DOG IS BURIED!!!

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