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Effective Practice: Stairway to Guitar Heaven.

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

Ever get the feeling you're not getting back out from your practice what you're putting in?

stairway to heaven effective guitar practice
Take the stairway to guitar heaven!

Going up!

When we get better at lifting weights we see the amount we can lift increase! When we get better at running we see our times improving! So how about when we get better at guitar? Keep reading!

How to Practice Guitar Effectively

Here's my take on practising effectively (ie. how to improve at guitar), presented in flowchart form. IMO this applies to any skill on guitar, physical or mental.

effective practice on guitar flowchart
(Box 1 top - Box 5 bottom)

It's basically trial and error .. with a purpose! The old adage "keep doing it and you'll get it" isn't always true and there's no guarantee that what worked for someone else will work for you. It's possible the solution you are looking for is well covered out there somewhere but if it's not then you'll need to look outside the mainstream for some more incisive ideas!

Too much! Tell me what it means!

What this flowchart says is, if your guitar practice is working for you, keep doing what you're doing! But what if you're not improving? And what if you don't even know that you're not?

Problems lie in box 2 (How can I best practise?) and box 4 (Did it work?).

Box 2 is returned to every time you find a practice method that failed to work. However, if you run out of new ideas of how to attack your problem, you can only repeat previous approaches that have been shown to be ineffective and you are now stuck!

Dealing with facts, not human nature!

Box 4 is a major issue for most guitarists. When we're progressing fast it's easy to answer the question "Did it work?" with a resounding "Yes!". But things get murkier with tougher medium and long term challenges. Without understanding how to deal factually with this question, students of all levels are likely to answer "yes" when the answer is actually "no", and vice-versa. Our perception can be horribly flawed!

We need a way of clearly defining the answer to "Did it Work?" in order to be able to choose the correct next step! We need something we can measure!

The best gauge to use is the top speed you can play something perfectly. You can measure the top speed of a full piece, a 2 bar section repeated or a single beat repeated for 4 bars. The only way you can do it faster than before (while keeping it perfect of course) is by becoming better at doing it, thereby answering the question "Did it work?" with a strong "Yes!". You can then repeat the same practice method until it ceases to yield results. At that point you'll return to box 2 and look for a new way to practise in the hope of further improvement!

Step-by-step upward progress!

As long as we can keep climbing, however insignificant each step might feel, eventually we end up much higher than we once were! Micro-measuring our progress lets us know we're on the right path and to keep doing what we're doing as long as it's offering rewards. The clouds of heaven may be out of sight right now but we're sure to get there eventually as long as we can keep climbing!

Are you stuck spinning your wheels?

If it feels like you've been bashing away at the same old problems for too long, step back and picture a new route through the flowchart above. If you're struggling to come up with new ways to answer the box 2 question, some outside help may be of use (ie. enlist the help of a good guitar teacher). Keep looking for solutions, until you find one that works. Each time you find a method that didn't work, but that you hoped would, you've learned something. This forces you to move forward in your approach.

If your problems lie in box 4, it's time to learn to measure your progress. Knowing whether a certain way of practising is actually benefiting you can save many (possibly thousands!) of hours!


The principles in the above flowchart apply to all levels of guitar learning. I'd say they become more important the longer you've been studying the guitar, but they still apply to the greenest beginner. The big difference is that in the early stages of studying guitar, just about everything is hard work for the physical and mental faculties. Beginners have no choice but to spend most of their time outside their comfort zones, where improvement lives. It's common for guitarists further down the line to forget how tough that foundational practice was, and to spend most of their study time within their comfort zones, hoping, rather than expecting to improve.

One key aim for me as a guitar teacher, is to replace hope with expectation and results. When we learn how to practice guitar effectively we do exactly that!


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