How to Practice Guitar

Dan Mumm

How to Practice Guitar for Increased Speed and Precision

If you’re unsatisfied with your guitar skills, it’s because you haven’t learned how to practice guitar effectively. While there will always be hype about “natural talent” the true secret to guitar mastery is to learn how to practice guitar effectively.  How to practice guitar is more important than what to practice. Knowing what to practice is meaningless without a solid practice routine. A proper practice strategy leads to consistency and skill level improvement.  Let’s get started!

In this article I’m going to take you step-by-step through the process that I’ve used to attain amazing “shred guitar” speed. My progress has been the result of not only hard work but the ability to stick to a fundamental game plan.  That “game plan” is my guitar practice routine.  The following is a brief overview of what I’ll be explaining to you in this article.

  1. The proper combination of skill / challenge will minimize frustration and increase motivation.
  2. There are two fundamentals for a solid practice routine – the mental and physical.
  3. The practice routine will improve… with practice!
  4. Practice clean for clean results. Practice sloppy for sloppy results.
  5. Break the composition down to small, easy to memorize sections.
  6. Memorize these parts before attempting to increase speed.
  7. Practice parts using slow, accurate repetition.
  8. Gradually, over time, increase speed.
The Skill / Challenge Concept

In order for any task to be interesting it must challenge your current skill level.  If you don’t feel like the task is challenging, with the possibility for failure, the task won’t seem worthwhile.  Imagine playing Checkers against a 5-year-old.  If your goal is to win, it might be satisfying the first couple of times that you play. Eventually, it is going to become mind-numbingly dull.  On the other hand, what if it’s too challenging?  If you’re the 5-year-old in that metaphor, all you are getting out of those games is endless frustration.  There’s nothing fun about playing a game that you can’t win.

You must be willing to practice in such a way that it gives you the right level of challenge for your current skill level.  That, in itself, is not difficult to figure out.  If the practice is too easy, you will get bored.  If the practice is too hard, you will get frustrated.  Find the sweet spot!

The sense of accomplishment

This one is pretty simple and easy to imagine but it’s often overlooked.  If you aren’t getting regular rewards, you just aren’t going to consistently practice.  It’s critical.  Set small, attainable goals.  Take time to appreciate the success, no matter how small.  The more these little successes accumulate, the more satisfying practice will become.  You’ll actually get addicted to the process.  Being addicted to guitar practice eliminates procrastination.

Practice technique is an art

The process of practice is something that needs to be practiced as well.  The better you get at this process, the more valuable and effective your practice time becomes.

Be sure to feel some sense of accomplishment from your practice every day.  That might mean that it’s necessary to scale back and simplify your current routine and lower expectations.  Just do it!  The end results will amaze you.  It’s can be the difference between constant improvement and running in circles.

This is how the masters become masters…

How to practice guitar is more science than art. Lack of progress has nothing to do with talent – the blame falls squarely on the quality of your practice routine. It can be daunting for a beginner to witness a master’s technique. From the beginner’s perspective, it seems impossible to achieve that skill level. This is because, if you were to continue at the pace a beginner learns to play guitar, it would take centuries to achieve mastery level. Thankfully, you don’t have to continue at that pace. When you know how to practice efficiently, your rate of progress will increase dramatically. Using proper practice technique you’ll find that improvement isn’t linear. You’ll find the the rate of progress will increase exponentially. In the next six months you may improve at ten times the rate that you improved over the previous six months.

The Mental and the Physical

There are two basic elements of how to practice guitar. To simplify things a bit, let’s just say the mental is your ability to memorize things on the guitar. The physical includes your dexterity, speed, finger strength, etc. While there are definite crossovers between these two elements, it’s extremely useful to see them as being separate things. One requires study and repetition while the other requires focus and controlled repetition. They may sound like the same thing but that’s where the danger lies.

With that in mind, let’s go over some common mistakes people make with guitar practice. First, we’ll tackle the mental side of the equation – commit parts to memory before repetitive practice.  Read the guitar tab or notation only long enough to memorize the part.  Once that’s completed no peeking!  Tab engages the analytical mind and that’s the opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish here.  Guitar is played by the subconscious and the analytical mind completely screws up this process.

Practice clean for clean results. Practice sloppy for sloppy results

If you’re new to something, how can you memorize it without playing it over and over again, risking solidifying your mistakes? At first glance, this might seem impossible. This is where optimized practice techniques come into the picture. Thinking of the two elements I mentioned above, basically the biggest mistakes that guitarists make are to rush memorization and to rush to playing something at full speed.

The trick is to break something down into small, digestible sections and to repeat them extremely slowly.
  • If you’re learning a full song or solo, don’t try to learn the whole piece at once.
  • If you begin with a small section and you’re still struggling to memorize it, make it even smaller.

Don’t worry about how long this takes at first – I promise that, over time, you’ll be able to take on longer and longer sections. The more effective your memorization practice becomes, the faster you will become at memorizing things. That’s just how the brain works.

The next thing is to repeat the small section for the sake of memorization. The key here is to work extremely slowly. Don’t worry about using the metronome until you have the part completely memorized. If you can’t remember exactly what note comes next at an extremely slow speed, how can you possibly remember it at a faster tempo? Take your time and truly memorize the part first – always.

This might seem elementary. It should, as it’s a real fundamental. But all of us, at times, get so used to fundamentals that we stop taking advantage of them. Impatience can put us in the complete opposite state of mind that we should be in while practicing.

The Ultimate Secret Practice Technique

So far I’ve covered quite a bit in relation to getting the most out of your practice routine. Here’s a quick review.

  1. The proper combination of skill / challenge will minimize frustration and increase motivation.
  2. There are two fundamentals for a solid practice routine – the mental and physical.
  3. The practice routine will improve… with practice!
  4. Practice clean for clean results. Practice sloppy for sloppy results.
  5. Break the composition down to small, easy to memorize sections.
  6. Memorize these parts before attempting to increase speed.
  7. Practice parts using slow, accurate repetition.
  8. Gradually, over time, increase speed.
Now that you’ve mastered the mental side, let’s tackle the physical process

Next, I’ll explain the most effective practice technique in existence! This is the technique that the masters (of any instrument) use to achieve absolute perfection in their playing, increase their speed indefinitely and achieve perfect articulation and fluidity. With the information we’ve covered so far, people will begin to diminish your hard work by calling you “gifted” or a “natura!” That’s okay, tell ’em you were born with a guitar in your hands. Your secret is safe with me.  And now for the icing on the cake.

The Practice Technique of the Masters

Once the part or section you are working on is memorized, it’s time to lock it in with a metronome and begin practicing the physical side of things. Keep in mind that, while practicing your dexterity and speed for one pattern or section, you are simultaneously practicing your general dexterity, speed and even timing that will benefit your entire playing ability. It can be compared to building physical strength by resistance training. You’re not just lifting weights for practice, the goal is to increase your strength and build muscle mass. Similar to lifting weights, the repetition of licks, exercises, and scales gradually increases your overall dexterity and performance skills.

The Speed Process

Take the memorized part or section and play it with the metronome at a very slow setting. I always like to say that it should be “ridiculously slow” to start with. The point, again, is that you are able to play it perfectly without making any mistakes (and in this case, the slightest muffling of a note counts as a mistake). Once you find a speed that is extremely easy to play mistake free, play the pattern 5 times in a row without making a mistake. This means that you will repeat the pattern with the metronome indefinitely until you have played 5 perfect iterations in a row. It’s incredibly important that you are strict with yourself. If you start to let little things slide, you will drop off a sheer cliff before you know it. Don’t give an inch!

Once you’ve achieved 5 absolutely perfect renditions in a row, increase the metronome by 2 bpm. Repeat the process. Work your way up the metronome this way until you hit a speed where you can’t get through 5 perfect repetitions in a row. Once this happens, take a break from practicing that part or section for the day.

Strangely, when you wake up the next day you may find that your skill has increased beyond where it was when you left off the day before. Studies have been done on this phenomenon and the evidence points to the idea that your brain continues practicing while you are sleeping. It might sound ridiculous, but my own experience has made me a firm believer. I utilize this technique for preparing every song I learn.

The following day, find a speed where you can easily play the section perfectly. This speed should be at least 10 bpm less than the previous day. This tempo should be easy as the extremely slow tempo at the beginning of the process. Remember that the more you play the part sloppy the more you solidify that sloppiness into the section and your overall technique. Avoid practicing sloppy at all costs!

Let’s break it down into steps:
  1. Find an extremely slow tempo with the metronome where it is easy to play the section absolutely perfectly (there should be virtually zero challenge here)
  2. Play the section along with the metronome until you’ve played 5 perfect renditions in a row (if you so much as invert your picking direction on the last note of the 5th repetition, start the 5 over again!)
  3. Increase the metronome by 2 bpm (don’t be tempted to increase the metronome any more than 2 bpm at a time)
  4. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 until you reach a bpm where you are unable to get 5 perfect renditions in a row (you’ll know when you get there)
  5. Stop practicing the section for the day and sleep on it
  6. On the following day, start from at least 10 bpm lower than you left off the previous day (I recommend reducing the speed by more than 10 – the speed you start at on the following day should be easy for you)
  7. Repeat Steps 4-6 until you’ve reached perfection at a speed faster than your final goal (if your goal was to play the section at 150 bpm, try to achieve perfection up to 160 bpm)

While this might seem tedious at first, it becomes quite rewarding after a short time. The cumulative effect is incredible. I know you can do it because I’ve been there. I can typically perfect an entire song in two days using the methods described in this article (save for when there is new and extremely difficult technique involved). That isn’t because I have some special talent, it’s strictly from utilizing these steps and principles. The more I follow this process, the better I get at practice. The better I get at practice, the faster I can learn anything. Follow these steps and you will find yourself experiencing the same results.

Every process I have mentioned gets faster and easier the more you do it. Like anything, it can seem endless at first. I promise that doesn’t last. Stick with it and you will find yourself addicted to the process of practicing and achieving results beyond your wildest expectations!

Dan Mumm

Ready for that next challenge?  Check out my massive catalog of guitar lessons with Metal Method covering everything from Shred technique, Sweep Picking, Neo-Classical techniques, finger tapping, and more!   Click here and see what program or package is right for you!

Dan Mumm is a Metal Method instructor and shred master.  Dan has a huge following on Facebook and YouTube.