There are plenty of articles, including a fair few on this site, written about what you should practice in order to improve various aspects of your guitar playing. What often goes overlooked are the ways you can make that practice more effective, or motivate yourself to start practicing in the first place. The best way to do this is to look at common obstacles to practicing effectively and work backwards to creating the ideal environment.
Far and away lack of tie is the most common excuse I hear for not having practiced at the start of a guitar lesson. Sometimes life feels relentlessly busy, and if your cat is ill or your gran gets stuck up a tree then fair enough, you probably have bigger priorities than playing guitar that week. But if you find that at the end of three or four consecutive weeks you are looking back and thinking “I didn’t play guitar as much as I would have liked” then the odds are that you’re finding just the idea of sitting down for an intensive hour of scales and chords too tiring to even think about. Something needs to change.
The solution: Shorter practices
This isn’t really about practicing less, but being less demanding of yourself. Noticeable improvement doesn’t happen in a single day, but through multiple much smaller improvements. Instead of expecting hours of dedicated practice each day, try this. Aim for just 20 minutes of ‘serious’ practicing, focussing on a very small part of your technique, such as smooth legato playing, picking technique or whatever you feel weakest on. Work hard for just those 20 minutes, and then allow yourself to relax a little. If you need to go do something else, that’s fine, you’ve achieved your goal for the day. If you have time to carry on playing for fun you can play what you like. If you’re still motivated to work on the technical stuff then by all means carry on, but if you’d rather learn a song, or just play through some things you already know, then that still has value to you from a learning perspective too. Don’t forget that the reason you first picked up the guitar was because it was fun. Take the time to enjoy the skills you already have, safe in the knowledge that you’ve made a little progress today. Over time these small improvements will lead to bigger ones without you even noticing.
The Right Equipment
Guitarists, more so than most other musicians, are notorious equipment collectors. I hear a lot of people saying they don’t feel motivated to practice because they can’t get the sound that’s in their head with their current guitar, amp or pedals. They then spend time looking for new equipment that could be better spent practicing. On top of that there’s also the other equipment you feel that you need to practice. The amplifier, the laptop, the speakers/headphones, the metronome, the practice book, the music stand… the list goes on. Getting hold of these things can be tricky on a budget, and getting set up for a practice can take so much time that you lose your motivation or feel like you don’t have time (see point 1)
The Solution – Simplify or make room
You have two choices here depending on your circumstances. My first recommendation would be to simplify your practices. There are a ton of methods for learning guitar, and many of them can be done with little or even no equipment. Try looking in to mental practice (as referenced in Daniel Levitin’s Your Brain on Music, or this article). Whether you’re on the bus or bored on a lunch break at work, as long as you’re awake, and not operating heavy machinery, you can mentally picture a song or exercise you’re trying to improve on and run through it in your head. What’s amazing is that, if you do it right, you’ll even make the same mistakes you do when practicing with a real instrument. Zone in on those mistakes in your mental practice, and when you have access to a guitar later you may find you’ve made some improvement.
For practice with an actual guitar, try practicing with just a guitar, pen and paper. Write down a few scales and exercises and then try to make progress with them. You’ll be amazed how much improvement you can make to the actual mechanics of your guitar playing when you de-clutter your practice space and go as basic as possible. Remember that, while the internet is an incredible resource, it’s also the place where all the worst distractions live. Yes you can find any backing track you want, but sooner or later you’re going to give in to the temptation to try and remember what the hell was so brilliant about Gangnam Style, or find yourself reading an article on the world’s top ten richest cats.
If the type of practice you want to do involves having more gear (perhaps you want to work on your live sound, or do some practice with a loop pedal) then you need to consider dedicating a section of your house, whether it be a whole room, or a portion of a room, solely to “guitar stuff.” Aim to set your gear up in a way that means you can start playing within a minute of sitting down. This might involve a bit of negotiating with any cohabitants you may have. But if you can find a workable solution, such as setting it all up for just three days a week, then having everything laid out for you is a real practice motivator.
Additionally here’s a little note on ‘tone.’ At 32:20 in this video you hear Brian May’s guitar tech Pete Malandrone talking about other guitarists coming in and playing May’s exact setup. They sound nothing like him because the most important thing to any guitarist’s sound is the way they play. Before you go down the rabbit hole of tone-chasing and blowing hundreds on pedals, do a bit of experimenting with the guitar, hold the pick differently, play with the tone and volume knobs, work on your vibrato. I’d also recommend watching the whole of that video for some other interesting ideas on how to get different tones just out of a guitar and an amp.
What Do I Practice?
Another thing that frequently comes up when new students come to me for guitar lessons is that they don’t know what to practice in order to improve. The internet is jammed full of different practice ideas, but knowing which one to go for, or what level to go in at, is really tricky.
The Solution – Guitar lessons, or analyse your own playing
The most important reason people still go for guitar lessons, despite the abundance of information available online, is that a good guitar teacher should be able to look at your playing and tell you where the improvements could be made. If a guitar teacher isn’t available then the next best thing is to attempt to play a song you would like to be able to play. If you can play it, brilliant; but if you come up against a passage that you find particularly difficult to play you need to identify the different component techniques that form that passage and begin work on those. In many cases the song itself can be used as an exercise, simply by slowing it down, playing it to a metronome and bringing it up to speed. But if the piece is too complex you may need to check out some technical exercises on the technique(s) involved and come back to it.