How to Practice Guitar and Keep Your Resolutions for 2022
By Brad Tolinski
Once upon a time, I was a very successful guitar teacher with close to 40 students a week. One of the most common questions was, “How much should I practice?” You’d think after teaching hundreds of aspiring musicians, I would have an easy answer. The truth is, every student is different depending on their goals.
Some of my students just wanted to be able strum chords to accompany their singing. Others wanted to be able read tabs and play their favorite Zeppelin or Hendrix songs, while some aspired to be shredding virtuosos. Each had their own ambitions, and the way I viewed it, my job was to help them achieve their goals in the most efficient manner. The quicker they reached their goals, the more satisfaction they got and the more they wanted to learn.
While everyone was different, I discovered there were at least a handful of practice ideas that were helpful, regardless of their ambitions. The following are a few ideas that applied to almost all of my students.
If your New Year's Resolution is to learn how to play the guitar—or play it better—here are some ideas that will help make sure your resolution actually sticks throughout the year.
Find A Teacher (Even if it’s for One or Two Lessons)
I was a stubborn kid. I thought I was too cool to go to a guitar instructor and taught myself how to play guitar. Even though I eventually became a good player, I now know I made a mistake. It took me much longer to learn how to play guitar than it had too. Basic techniques that I could’ve learned in minutes from a skilled teacher—like the proper way to hold a pick—took months to learn on my own. For that reason, I always advise people who are just starting to take at least a couple lessons to make sure they understand the essentials, like how to position your hand on the fretboard or how to properly strum chords.
If money is tight, you could always see if a guitar playing friend can advise you on the basics in person or via Zoom or FaceTime. In fact, even a handful of pro players have begun offering online video lessons as a source of income now that tours and gigs have been canceled due to the pandemic. A couple hours of instruction will make your future practice time more efficient and may save you hundreds of hours of frustration later.
The great thing about the guitar is that it can be as easy or as complicated as you want to make it. How to practice guitar—and how often to practice the guitar—depends a bit on what you want to play. The better you can articulate your goals, the easier it will be to achieve them.
If you want to learn how to strum the chords to your favorite pop songs, 20 - 30 minutes of practice a day will be fine. If you want to be a virtuoso like Steve Vai, it’s worth noting that he used to practice 10 hours a day! But in either case, if it feels like work instead of fun, you should revise your goals.
This is what the great guitar genius Eddie Van Halen once said about practicing: “Some things were easy, some things were hard. But I didn’t even think about whether it was easy or hard; it was something I wanted to do, to have fun and feel good about doing it. Whether it took me a week to learn a half a song, or one day to learn five songs, I never thought of it that way.”
How to Practice Guitar Chords
For those with little or no experience playing guitar, I’d recommend learning the following chords first. E minor (Em), A minor (Am), D Minor (Dm), C, D, G, E and A. These eight chords will allow you to learn many easy chord-based songs. Diagrams and video instructions on how to play them are available all over the internet. In fact, here’s one on how to play Em – and there are plenty more just like it:
If you want to get good at these chords, practice them every day without fail for at least ten minutes. As long as you practice every day, you will improve at a rapid rate. Short and regular practice sessions are far better than one long practice session. If you practice these chords for ten minutes every day, you will do far better than somebody who practices chords for an hour, but only does it once a week.
As you improve at playing one chord, you’ll find that it helps your coordination to play all chords. Learn to play these eight chords, and you’ll find it easier to master dozens of others.
For those of you that have already mastered these chords, I would challenge you to look for different versions of these same chords. For example, there are many different ways to play a G major chord all over the fretboard. They are the same chords, but each has a little different flavor. You can find four other versions of G at guitar-chords.org.
How to Practice Guitar Scales
If you count all the different keys, there are literally hundreds of guitar scales. The Pentatonic Scale, however, is most commonly used in rock and blues soloing. For an example of how to play it, here is one of the many demonstration videos that you can find online:
Listing all the useful scales to practice is out of the scope of this blog, but if you’re already practicing and playing scales, here are some useful hints on how to master them so you can use them when you want to improvise.
1. Up and Down
The first step on how to practice a guitar scale is you should be able to play it up and down over and over without stopping. This should be done with a metronome at a speed you are comfortable at. Be able to play the scale four times perfectly, without stopping before you move on or move the temp up.
2. Random Directions
Once you can cycle the scale try changing directions at random. Don’t pause, stop or start soloing—just try to stick to the scale, and don’t skip notes.
3. Random Notes
Now it's time to explore the scale. Play random notes from the scale while keeping them even at all times. This practice will give you a chance to get a sense of the scale shape. It’s not music—it’s just a way to explore.
4. Play in Thirds
As you may know, chords are built up in intervals of a third (every other note of the scale). Playing in thirds will automatically make playing your scale playing sound more melodic.
5. Four In a Line
One last way to practice guitar scales is called “four in a line.” Start on the first note of the scale and play up four notes. The start on the second note and play four up. Continue this pattern all the way up and then back down.
If you can master all four of these exercises, you’re on your way to being able to improvise and make music with them.
Practicing with Great Sound
The best kind of practice, however, is when you are having fun and enjoying yourself. And even the most mundane, technical practicing is better and more inspiring when you have great sound. I’m currently using Positive Grid’s Spark, a compact and phenomenal sounding practice amp. With its built-in tuner, the option to summon over 10,000 tones via ToneCloud, plus backing tracks and more, it’s almost impossible to get bored practicing chords, scales or your favorite tunes.
Now, let’s kick off the new year with some new guitar goals. Cheers to more playing!
Brad Tolinski is perhaps best known for his work as the editor-in-chief of Guitar World Magazine for 25 years. He is also the author of Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page (Crown); and Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound and Revolution of the Electric Guitar (Doubleday), which was the basis for a 2019 guitar-focused exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Most recently he edited the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Issue of CREEM magazine, and his latest book Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen (Hachette) will be coming out in October 2021.