What to Practise on Guitar?

Have you been wondering what to practise on guitar? In the previous post in the series, I outlined how to not just blindly follow a set practice routine, but to create your own unique routine based on your specific goals.

It’s really no good just saying “I’m going to practice alternate picking for 6 hours a day, because that’s what I heard John Petrucci/Steve Vai/Yngwie Malmsteen did!”.

That may have worked for them, but wouldn’t you rather know will work best for you? I hate to break it to you, but you are not Yngwie Malmsteen (or anyone else for that matter) and you will never play exactly the same way as he does (that doesn’t mean you’ll never be as good…). You need to play like yourself.

How do you Know what to Improve?

Now, this isn’t always what your guitarist friends want you to improve, it’s what you want to be better at! What I mean by that is: there is a lot of peer pressure about in guitar circles when it comes to being able to “shred”. Many people will tell you that you need to work on technique for 90% of the time- and this is simply not true!

The truth is that there are more aspects to being a great guitarist than just having great technique. Technique is only one thing to practice out of many. A good practice routine will also include a fair amount of memorising songs, chords, and scales for example, and you might also want to practice improvisation or transcription (tabbing things out).

How to find out where You Suck

I’m not saying that you suck as a guitarist, but we all have areas of our playing that are weaker than others (yes, all of us, even I have to admit to that) . The question is: how do we find these areas in order to target them?

Firstly, you have to accept that you’re never going to be able to work on each technique equally (although you probably want to try). It’s just too difficult- and I’m not even talking about making time for it in your routine- but how do you gauge how good you are at, say, legato?

It would be good if you could just put a number, a measurement to it! Then I could say to you “oh, I’m level 9 at hammer-ons” and you’d know exactly how well I could play. Unfortunately the world doesn’t work that way. So how do you know how good you are at a certain technique? The answer is: are you good enough to play the songs you want to play? It’s not the other way around- you don’t often choose songs because they are difficult or easy, but you’re probably going to want to play that song you’ve been hearing on the radio, or the title track to your favourite album, right?

Four Main Areas

As I suggest in the video, there are four key areas that you should be focusing on in your practise routines when working out what to practise on guitar. These four key areas will gradually reinforce each other and allow you to play more and more difficult things.

The four areas are as follows:

Technique

The first (but not the most important) area you should have, is your technique. This is basically what your fingers actually do on the guitar, and without it you wouldn’t be able to play at all!

Examples of techniques include: hammer-ons, alternate picking, strumming, switching between chords, sweep picking. They are all physical methods that you use to play the instrument.

Theory

Theory is probably the most missunderstood of all the areas on guitar. It basically relates to why you play what you play- why certain chords fit together in a song, and why certain melody notes or licks go with certain chords.

Although many people shun “theory” because they feel it stunts creativity, this really isn’t true. I mean, just because you know why something works, it doesn’t mean you can no longer use it (it’s the opposite, in fact!).

Music theory is very important for any guitarist or musician, but you should also be careful not to only focus on this one area and neglect the others. It’s not very useful knowing all about pentatonic substitution- for example- when you’ve never come across any need or oportunity to use it in a song!

Listening

Well, music theory is very misunderstood, but listening skills are probably the least worked on skill of all. This is a huge shame as it’s probably one of the most important skills that any musician can develop!

Listening skills are usefull when you’re playing in a band, or playing to a backing track by ear (improvising a solo, for example), because you need to be listening to what the backing track is doing (what chords etc) or what the rest of the band is playing.

It’s also essential if you want to learn songs without having to go to the trouble of finding a dodgy internet tab!

Repertoire

Last- but not least- we have repertoire- which is the fancy word for “songs that you know”. To go with learning all of the above, it’s often very useful to learn other people’s songs. This will work on most of the areas I’ve talked about above. Actually learning to play the song will work on your technique, then you can look at what is happening where (maybe in the solo) and understanding this will help your theory.

Even better, if you’re learning a song that you’ve managed to transcribe (or at least work out by ear) you’ll also have worked on your listening skills!

So this section should never be missed off the list! Besides, what good is it being technically brilliant…when you don’t know any good songs?!

What to practise on Guitar…

What I want you to do before reading the next post, is to take your practise goals from before, and then come up with specific things (chords, scales, exercises- whatever) that you want to work on in each of the areas above. Don’t let this put you off though, even if your list of difficult things is huge, you’ve taken the first step to fixing them. Now you’ll know exactly what areas you’ll need to focus on in practice time, and you’ll be ready for the next step: planning out the practice routine.

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