Life as a guitarist is one of constant self-improvement. No matter your skill level with the instrument, there's always more to learn. As such, it's important to form the correct habits to ensure your progress is both consistent and efficient.
Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned six-string vet, here are seven habits you can form that will help you improve your guitar playing, no matter your experience.
You don’t just have to practice when there’s a guitar in your hands. There’s plenty of time in the day being wasted that you can use to improve your playing. Whenever you have a spare few seconds to daydream or are zoning out in class or at a meeting or waiting in line at the DMV, use the time to go inside your mind’s eye and ears and visualize yourself perfectly executing the lick, riff or song you’ve been working on.
See and hear yourself playing the part with expert ease, gliding as one with the strings, virtually feeling your fingers and your pick in precise synchronization.
Repeat this whenever you can and you’ll find yourself better than you were before the last time you picked up the guitar. The experience of the real guitar in your hands will be enriched for the process.
An added bonus is that when you get better at connecting the disparate experiences of the imagined and the real, you'll find that the accuracy of translating what you hear in your head through your fingers to the fretboard will significantly improve, as will your ability to transcribe things you hear while away from your guitar. If nothing else, you'll be floored at how realistic your air guitar playing will be.
2. Learn something new every day
This is one of the easiest things you can do to enrich your guitar playing, musicianship and, most importantly, your discipline and motivation.
Simply put, find one guitar-related thing a day you didn’t know already and learn it. And play it. It can be a riff, lick, chord, scale, exercise, song, melody, altered tuning, strum pattern, the part of a song you know all the cool riffs to but never bothered to learn its “boring” connecting transition sections, whatever you want.
The discipline of seeking out, playing and internalizing a new piece of guitar knowledge on a daily basis will feed your subconscious musical instincts, add new concepts to your muscle memory and ultimately aid in your ability to express yourself and perform effortlessly on the guitar.
Make this a part of your day and you’ll find that as you continue on your journey, one thing will become two, then three, and on and on until you are devouring as much as you can absorb on the guitar, every day.
While it’s awesome to have perfected that ripping 128th note shred-fest in your bedroom or basement, perhaps the most important thing for a guitarist to do is to play along with or to some sort of accompaniment.
Obviously, playing with another live musician or group of musicians in the same room is the perfect situation – and you should put yourself in those situations as often as possible – but there are many alternatives that can be just as beneficial.
Today we have innumerable options, such as virtual backing tracks on the internet, computer programs like Toontrack's EZdrummer – which we highly recommend for its ease of use and versatility – or Garageband loops, plus apps on our phones that can act as stable backdrops against which we can hone our performance skills.
Playing with an accompaniment will greatly improve your consistency, endurance, improvisational ability and your feel for locking into a groove.
As another fun and educational option, jam along with your favorite songs. You can play along with the song note-for-note and improve your chops by executing the nuances and fitting in seamlessly with the rhythm, or you can use the track as a launch pad for exercising your improvisational muscles and integrating the licks you have been practicing.
Play along with songs outside your comfort zone of style or technicality to gain further benefits from this. Jamming along with TV, commercials or movie soundtracks while you’re relaxing with a guitar in your hands can be fun and rewarding.
4. Record yourself
There is no better way to see your guitar playing objectively and to motivate yourself to work to become a better player than to record yourself.
There are countless affordable media for recording yourself on your own, and when you record, you can listen to yourself with fresh ears and hear the things you like and dislike about your playing. You’ll find it’s infinitely easier to pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses and focus your practice accordingly.
Record yourself playing rhythm and then record other complementary parts such as leads, melodies, counterpoints and alternate rhythms and you’ll learn about composition, production and ensemble performance.
When you begin to focus on these complementary parts, you’ll find that your vision and scope expands, as do your goals, and as you work to create complete songs, your abilities grow exponentially while you work to write and perform to the best of your ability.
The other benefit of recording yourself is that you will consistently maintain a record of your growth as a player. The journey of a guitarist is always – or should be – one of constant growth, and recording yourself is an awesome way to measure how far you have come.
5. Take lessons
As a guitar instructor by trade, I am clearly biased, but the most obvious and productive thing any guitarist can do to improve their playing is to take lessons.
While there is an ever-expanding universe of internet resources, books and instructional videos available, nothing can compare to the one-on-one interaction with the expertise of a skilled guitar teacher.
A teacher will identify your strengths and weaknesses, sharpening your skills and eliminating your flaws. A good teacher also will help you save time in your development by helping you sift through all the information out there and lead you on the right path toward quickly realizing your goals as a guitarist.
Guitar teachers get paid to make you better, and spending the money will make you take your study seriously.
Every story of a self-taught guitarist still involves some part where they learned a lot from someone they knew who was more proficient and knowledgeable than them who helped shape their development.
Even the extremely educated and virtuosic Randy Rhoads – who was a guitar teacher himself – was known to seek out guitar teachers whenever he had available time. while making history touring and recording with Ozzy Osbourne. So break out of your rut, accelerate the evolution of your playing to the next level and get some lessons!
6. Focus your practice time
We’ve all heard stories of guitarists with marathon 12-hour or daily three-hour practice sessions, but for most guitarists, a tight, focused 10 to 30 minutes of consistent daily practice will prove more efficient. There is a difference in practice and playing time, and oftentimes the two get confused.
Practice should involve maintenance exercises to keep your chops up and emphasize your strengths, as well as focused work on specific goals that deal with integrating new knowledge and technique.
Keeping the time spent on practice to an intelligent minimum, and breaking up the topics to be addressed into small chunks, will help avoid wasted effort and will leave time to play.
In an ideal world, we’d all have six or more solid hours each day to spend with a guitar in hand, but for most of you reading this, the time you have available is substantially less.
Oftentimes, setting out to practice for an extended period of time becomes a chore for some, and then the practice gets put off if something else comes up. Planning for at least 10 minutes of consistent daily practice time isn’t much of a chore for anyone, and if you get into the habit, you’ll find that you find ways to make more time to practice more.
Break up your practice regimen into skill sets and techniques, practice them daily, and then use them more efficiently when you’re playing. Let a guitar teacher mentor you through the process of designing a suitable practice routine for your schedule, or do your best assessing yourself and create your own. They key is consistency and brief, yet physically and mentally intense sessions.
20 minutes every day of truly focused practice is tremendously more conducive to development than a two-hour session every once in a while. And if you keep up with a reasonable, steady schedule, you’ll find that those occasions when you have time for an all-day practice session are all the more fruitful for it.
More importantly, keeping a consistent, intense practice regimen will leave all of your other free “guitar time” available for jamming, improvising, recording and experimenting, all the while being able to do so with your skills at the highest possible level.
7. Track your progress
The growth of any guitarist can be greatly improved by the simple awareness of the development of that growth.
As you develop the discipline to be learning and practicing on a daily basis, it is extremely important to keep a log or diary of the process of your improvement in order to further maximize growth. The easiest way to do this is to keep a consistent log of your daily routine.
While this may seem a bit obsessive, you’ll find that keeping track of your daily practice will help you focus future practice sessions, maintain and continue awareness of steady progress, and also locate particularly fruitful practice phases in your past that can be replicated and upgraded when you feel your growth has stalled.