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Practicing with the Guitar

David Raleigh Arnold

If you compare the amount of time spent with a teacher with the amount spent in solitary practice, all guitar players, all musicians in fact, are mostly self taught. Whenever you are practicing you are teaching yourself. Someday, if you have a good teacher, the day will come when you are on your own. With or without a teacher, getting the most from your practice time is crucial.

These ideas, principles, and suggestions are for the long haul. Everything here does not necessarily relate to beginners, but very much of it does. If you are a beginner, skip what makes no sense to you and someday all will be clear. If you are a teacher, this article applies to you, not necessarilly to your students.

Of course there may be times when you will temporarily have a routine which is completely different than the usual, to catch up with something you’ve been missing, to experiment, or to learn something new to you. Nevertheless, you should always return to a routine which makes sense over time. In this context, “temporary” could mean up to six years. Adhering too long to a routine which is unbalanced will be at best ineffective and at worst harmful.

A 5% loss of effectiveness over 20 years is the loss of a year of practice.

Attitude is important. You have a lot of time, but you will not live forever. Practice with purpose.

If you apply yourself to making your practice as effective as possible it will be one of the high points of your day. Bad practice becomes a chore. Good practice becomes a pleasure. Make your practice work fun, with the feeling of accomplishment which comes with playing the guitar, not the idle empty fun that comes from playing with it.

Guitar practice is sedentary with a vengeance. You must do core exercise religiously in addition to scheduled breaks during practice. There are library shelves full of books on the necessity of maintaining strength in the muscles around the spine which prevent pressure on the nerves of the spinal column. It all goes double for guitar players, because you must compensate for the reality that your posture cannot always be good when you are playing the instrument. If you do nothing about this situation, there will be problems:

  • Intense debilitating back pain is a virtual certainty. Segovia had it. Mangore didn’t. Mangore worked out on the parallel bars. Segovia didn’t.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome has been shown to be related to bad posture.
  • Musician’s focal dystonia may be aggravated by bad posture, although the fact that guitarists get it in the right hand and pianists get it in both hands militates against the back being a primary cause.

There is no place for relaxation techniques in practice. They are for rest. Muscles which are relaxed are not controlled. Good muscle tone means tension, not relaxation. Tension exists to build strength and improve performance. Short of paralysis, it is a good thing, and it is a necessary part of the learning process. To reduce tension, slow down. That works, every time, and it does not reduce your learning. There is truth in Nietzche’s: “What does not kill you makes you stronger”. Do not dedicate practice time to locating and resolving “tensions”. You are not smarter than the millions of years of evolution which put tensions exactly where they belong every time. Simply slow down and concentrate on control and let tension do its job and make you stronger.[1]


You should practice:

  • with music first.
  • with full attention.
  • with total control.
  • a lot.

Asking the Right Questions

What are reasonable and positive goals?

What equipment do I need?

When should I practice?

How long should my sessions be?

What should I practice?

In what order should I practice?

You should practice in the opposite order from which it is usually done.

Practice complex before simple

Practice the general before the specific.
Put mental before physical
Practice slow before fast.
Practice the unfamiliar before the familiar

Put knucklebusters last.

How should I practice each item?

Things to Have

You will want these articles soon. Do not put anything off because you don’t have something:

  1. a saddle-sewn “composition” book, for a practice record, log, or diary. Ring or spiral notebooks will disintegrate before they are filled.
  2. a decent timer that’s convenient and easy to use.
  3. an electronic metronome. A mechanical metronome must have a bubble level. An electric metronome such as the Franz is fine, but they are no longer manufactured.

“Inner Guitar”

There is a book titled “Inner Tennis” which advocates imaginary practice. It is not clear that such practice is better than nothing, because advocates of such practice find benefit in it but take no notice of possible accompanying harm. The possible harm lies in the failure to exercise the lower nerve centers, to which the brain must delegate some of the work. To put it another way, practice consists in making connections. It follows that making disconnections cannot be a good idea.

Make a daily schedule

Finding time to practice is a big problem for most people. Making a schedule helps. The young have the wrong idea about making a schedule. They think that it takes away their “freedom”. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A schedule makes it possible to do the things you want to do.

Most concert artists practice first thing in the morning, when the mind is most clear and free of the distractions which the day will bring, and the power of concentration is at its best. The fact that the fingers don’t work yet doesn’t matter. If you are too slow, that’s a good thing. If you can’t practice early in the day, find another time.


Do the best you can, but do. Don’t be too insistent on perfect conditions. You’re probably not going to get them very often.

Seating Setup

A strap does not work well when you are sitting down unless the instrument is very heavy. Use different seats sometimes, at different heights.

for flat picking

The instrument may be on the right leg.

for classical or finger style

The instrument should rest on the left leg. Otherwise:

  • You will not have freedom to move the right hand lengthwise along the strings. That freedom is necessary to good playing.
  • You will not be able to hold the guitar firmly without clamping with the upper arm, which will cause excessive and possibly painful bending of the wrist.
  • It will be much more difficult to reach very high notes.

A footstool under the left foot is the traditional way of raising the left leg to prevent a problem from constant leaning to the left. Vary the height. There are alternatives to the footstool. On a low seat you can do without one. If you sometimes stand to perform, some of your easier pieces can be practiced that way.


To rest the eyes and avoid strain:

  • For reading you want excellent lighting of daylight quality if you can get it.
  • Look at something distant or shut your eyes periodically.

It’s nice to have an outside window, but suck it up if you don’t. You can’t have everything.

A Quiet Place

You need to be able to hear yourself very well for practice to avail, but you must be able to tolerate a certain amount of distracting noise and still be able to stay on task. If there is noise that does not permit you to hear yourself well, you need to practice elsewhere. If there is noise which is merely annoying, no matter how annoying, learn to concentrate in spite of it.

Do not allow any distractions that you can do something about. Turn that TV off. If you think you can doubletask, think again. Conciousness is the narrative the mind makes. There is no such thing as doubletasking in the sense of giving attention to two things at once, and there is a heavy cost in shifting the attention from one thing to another.

If you cultivate a mental disconnect with your playing by practicing exercises while watching TV, you will come to have mental disconnects when you are playing. That is as bad as it sounds. It ruins performances and brings down performers. Full attention means full attention. There is no substitute for it.

How Much Should I Practice?

I’m not you. That is a question for you to answer.

The absolute beginner can make progress for a while by practicing a half hour per day, but he should build up to an hour as more music to play (repertoire) is acquired.

Most serious amateurs practice for an hour each day, or so I’ve heard. If you practice six days, making one day into a two hour session is a great idea. Sometimes a very long session, making use of the adaptive response (see below), can get you over a hump.

The person who intends to play professionally should practice a lot more, but three hours of quality work is better than twelve hours of noodling.

Is there a minimum or maximum practical length for a practice session?[2] For whom? It varies, but there probably is no minimum or maximum, provided that the practice takes place. Having said that, if you practice early you are more likely to get back to it later in the day.

Of course performance can be the best practice, so get all the playing time in public that you can under good conditions. Get paid for performing otherwise, even if you are a beginner. Recording can be good too, if the mechanics of it don’t eat up too much time. Don’t bother with interactive computer programs to learn the guitar. The guitar furnishes enough interactivity, and learning to play the computer is presumably not your present goal.

Divided Sessions

If you had a given amount of time to practice would it be better to do it all in one sitting or break it up into several shorter practice sessions?[3] You should always stretch well after each 10 to 20 minutes in any case, to avoid present or future back problems.

If you have a choice between either a one hour session in the morning or two half-hour sessions in the morning and evening, which should you do? The answer is another question. Why can’t you do an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening? Or two? In the real world, breaking up practice time or not doing so is not a controlling factor. It is much less likely to make a difference than something else not mentioned or even thought of, and it might not matter at all.

The Practice Schedule

Allocation of Practice Time

Allotting X minutes to this and Y minutes to that is worthwhile, although practice schedules get old in a few weeks because with any luck at all you outgrow them. If it starts to stink, roll it over. The main thing to understand about plans is that they are impermanent. There are many general plans, but music is always the main thing. Don’t let the reality that plans are impermanent prevent you from making them. It is good that plans are impermanent.

A Traditional Plan

The session is divided into two parts. If you practice for an hour, do ten minutes of tech[4] at the end of your session. If you practice more, give more time and attention to technique, but always at the end of your session.

Well chosen etudes[5] do double duty as exercises and repertoire, so most exercises can be well chosen etudes.

  1. Music: The pieces are divided into those you are learning and those you already know. Those you are learning come first, but don’t drop things as soon as you learn them or you won’t have anything to play.
  2. Exercises: Etudes, tech, and special odds and ends like chords, slurs, rhythmic strumming patterns, &c.

Ivan Galamian’s Plan

In his short book, Violin Playing and Teaching (recommended), Galamian divided the practice session into thirds:

  1. “Fractions”: Practice new things a measure at a time, then two measures, and so on. When studying in this way, be sure to write in enough fingering to remove all doubt that the same fingers end the measure that begin the next one. A practice measure includes whatever is played first in the next measure. The divisions must overlap.
  2. “Performance”: Play memorized music just as you would for an audience, trying to hide your mistakes, avoiding bad showmanship, taking bows, &c.
  3. “Builders”: Tech, etudes, and the rest.

Your Plan

Neither plan above is particularly rigid. Both are quite flexible. Nevertheless, your plan, or your teacher’s plan, is probably best of all.

Order of Items in the Practice Session

The order in which you address tasks in guitar practice is a paramount consideration. Nearly all teaching of complex subjects involves breaking down the subject into topics. This is without doubt the best approach, but that does not mean that there are no serious problems with it. Isolating topics necessarily requires not making connections, mental, physical, and both. Technical practice such as DGT is practicing making individual notes, not music, very like making the colors, not the painting.

DGT is an extreme example of making best use of your time by putting the heavy lifting on the later part of your practice session:

When it comes to technique, some of that time has to be spent in the crucible—which is to say, performance at your highest level. (Not noodling around playing background music for a tea party, or drilling Segovia scales while watching House.) In the crucible, your body will produce an adaptive response. You can try to simulate the crucible by woodshedding with all your might, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as the real thing.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but one of the things Rey de la Torre told me was that Segovia used to go straight back to his hotel after a concert to work out technical matters while the iron was still hot, while Rey would grab some friends and go out on the town after a concert.

I know from my own experience that... if I would go home and work on my guitar playing right after a good performance, while I was still hot, my results were always much better for it.

Intensity, not extensity, leads to the adaptive response.

–J. P. Dimick

Put tech or builders and speed studies at the end of your session,[6] because:

  • Warming up with slow music will warm you up evenly and completely. Scales, for example, will not.
  • What you start with should not involve separating yourself from complete concentration on music, because music is what practice is all about.
  • You want to be able to play music at any time. It doesn’t matter whether your scales and other tech are ready for public performance at any particular time. It is best if you don’t really need to warm up before performing, because you are used to starting with music.
  • Things practiced for the purpose of extending your abilities are bound to be most productive if practiced when your abilities are at their best, and that is after you have been playing for most of your alotted time.
  • Right-left coordination takes six times as much mental effort as the other aspects of guitar playing, by actual measure of calories expended. Playing tech later rather than sooner gives you an edge when you need one.
  • Very strenuous things such as chromatic octaves (at first), rasgeado, certain chords, and power slurs, should always be dead last, after DGT, because after doing them you won’t be much good for anything more. I call them right or left hand horrors, or knucklebusters. They involve little right-left coordination, so while they may require much effort, they take very little time.
  • An admittedly weak analogy is stretching in sports practice. Stretching is no longer a part of warmup but is relegated to the end of practice, and it might be considered a builder. When combined with relaxation techniques as in yoga, stretching before practice actually increases the likelihood of injury. Neither do team practices begin in the weight room.

So there is a desirable order of practice. The order in which you practice various things will vary according to your progress, as the difficult becomes less difficult and further specific abilities become more or less important.

  1. Warm up with slow music, but always vary the tempo somewhat.[7]
  2. Practice the new and less familiar more slowly than the old and more familiar.
  3. Practice your repertoire. Practice the things which need the most improvement later than the things which are ready to go.[8]
  4. Practice your etudes, easier things first.
  5. Do tech. It is for polishing, not for grinding. It fine tunes right-left hand coordination, which is crucial for good tone and speed. It’s for life, but not for all day. It improves slowly. To improve it most quickly, play it almost last.
  6. Last, do the grinding, that is, right or left hand horrors which are truly exhausting or greatly specialized. Such things need not be done regularly. After you have mastered them, do what you must do to maintain the particular strength and ability only when you feel the need. An accomplished player should rarely have to do this sort of thing. The intermediate player will find it a path to rapid progress.


The more you memorize, the better you play.

You should memorize at least half of your material. A lot depends on what kind of music you play. If most of your performing is in an ensemble, you memorize the notes but read anyway for whatever extra notations are penciled into the score.

For the concert soloist, all repertoire is memorized. This is best for the amateur soloist as well.

The jazz artist memorizes the melody and chords of his tunes. He has memorized licks also. Improvisation doesn’t rule out memorization.

Some professional players may only memorize the more difficult things in order to maintain a very large repertoire. Half memorized should still be his quota. He should be able to play a gig with all music memorized.

The better the reading becomes, the harder it is to memorize. The simplest way is to go as far as you can without looking, and when you can proceed no farther look and play some more, and then start over. If you do “fractions” you can get your eyes off the page as you learn from the beginning, when it is easiest.

A Practice Log or Diary

Schedules are great, but a practice log, record, or diary is a million times more important. A record of when and what and how long you have practiced each day over time is extremely helpful, not the least for making your next practice schedule. Time everything, put it in the practice log, add it all up, and record the weekly summaries starting at the end of the book. Tear or cut a corner off each page as you finish it. The few extra seconds per day that you spend doing this is well worth it.

Further Suggestions

  • Practice slowly. You cannot give full attention if you are practicing fast. Pushing a bit is good for your reaction time, but it leads to erratic playing and it tires you quickly, so if you do it at all, keep it down to less than, at most, 5% of time spent on a particular thing. Or none.
  • Practice at various tempos, not only at or near your target speed. If you practice as fast as you can, you are necessarily out of control, because you can’t practice faster. You always want to be able to play faster or slower than at present.
  • More variety in tempo than necessary is good for control. It is not entirely a matter of not messing up from playing too fast. Variety in practice tempo is an end in itself.
  • Practice different guitars or similar instruments if you can. Do not hold the instrument in the best position all of the time, but never hold it like a shovel the way some 4-chord players do.
  • Beginners should start a session with the things least familiar, to make sure they get attention. If they are not good for warming up, precede them with a short slow warmup. You don’t want to tackle the things that take the most effort when you are already exhausted. You do want to tackle them when you are fully warmed up.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of the will and of concentration. Practicing while watching TV, for example, is not necessarily better than no practice at all, because practicing without your mind being fully engaged is like driving a vehicle with the gears not fully engaged. Such practice may do a tiny bit of good, but it does harm also, and the harm may outweigh the good.
  • Stand and stretch every 10-20 minutes, take a bow, and look at something distant.
  • Also take a break, away from the instrument, at least every hour.
  • Sight is slower than sound in mammals. You cannot see the right hand make a note because the end of the finger is moving too fast, but the left hand is stationary when the note is actually played. In order to get any benefit from watching the left hand, you must take account of the fact that eyesight is slow. Do not follow the left hand with your eye, but instead look at where the left hand finger is going to be at selected times. Aim at the target. Don’t try to follow the bullet.
  • Practicing in the dark makes sense as a help to concentration with other senses, but it could be a problem if it leads to being too easily distracted in the light. The more connections, the better.
  • Piano teachers make a very big deal out of not looking at the hands, but concert pianists do it often. Don’t make a worry out of it. It’s a reading thing, not a playing thing.
  • Some guitarists sway to and fro and from side to side when they are playing. Not a bad idea, at least when no one is watching you.
  • Do not make a habit of tapping the foot. It would be nice to be able to tap at will either on the beat or only on the 2nd and 4th beats. Do it only with music with which you actually want to hear tapping.
  • Better yet, don’t make a habit of anything at all. Do what you intend, not something else. Practice is all about control. Aim for total control.


Thanks to Robert Gallagher for two excellent suggestions. and J. P. Dimick for the quote and “adaptive response”.

End Notes:

§1 Dr. Freud to the contrary, there is no such thing as mental tension. There is nothing in the brain to be tense. Stress disease is caused by resentment and hatred rooted in the self. Loving kindness is the cure. This was well understood when the term “stress disease” was coined, and it should not be considered to be a mystery.

§2 This question came from alt.guitar.beginner: On Mon, 25 Mar 2013 14:43:44 +0000, Bigguy wrote:…

§3 from Bigguy, same message.

§4 Technique in the sense of musical exercises which are not music is sometimes called “tech”. Learning a scale and arpeggio or two from DGT (Dynamic Guitar Technique) is plenty for beginners. It is not music. It is mechanics. Therefore it should be beautiful because it is mechanical, not in spite of being mechanical.

Tech is working on individual notes, not music.

For the accomplished performer, tech is an indispensable part of his training. Without it, the professional classical guitarist will not be able to maintain a high standard of performance very far into middle age. But it still should not be allowed to monopolize one’s practice.

§5 Etudes are pieces of music written to teach some specific techniques or musical elements of playing. Unfortunately, “studies” cannot be relied upon to mean the same thing.

§6 This is contrary to what Segovia did on the one time that I heard him practicing. He played his scales first. Please believe me that he was making a mistake, and that it cost him. He knew better. He was being inconsistent.

§7 Varying the tempo is an example of practicing around a goal. The principle applies to both time and space. To practice a nasty chord with a stretch, play it higher and lower on the neck, spread it over more or less strings and frets. Such practice is especially helpful in learning how to recover from mistakes as well as how not to make them.

§8 I have always given the opposite advice to students. Again, if you are a beginner and have a teacher, this may not apply to you. It applies to your teacher’s practice though.

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