Pandemic Practice Principles for Perfection!

Apr 17, 2020

So. You've got the time. You've got your instrument. You've got a computer, tablet or smartphone with a great connection. And...most have the desire to learn and grow.

What now?

There are so many sources out there for you consume as a guitar student. From raw beginner all the way to gigging musician. Finally - we have the time and quiet we've all been waiting for! You sit down with your guitar and.......

2 hours later, you're right back where you started. Well, maybe tomorrow night, you tell yourself. After 4 days of solid practice, you are just as befuddled, confused, and distracted as you were before. What's going on?

Lack of a plan - that's what's going on. As our witty founding father, Benjamin Franklin, said: "If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail".

You owe it to yourself to sit down - no instrument in hand - and make a list BEFORE you start practicing. It is the ONLY way to avoid failures and plateaus on the instrument. Here are my recommendations on how to do this. This has worked for me and hundreds of my students over my years of teaching. It is quite simple - WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, and HOW.

I hope you already have answered the "Why"...which is 'why' you are here, and motivated to learn.


1. WHEN and WHERE: Schedule your practice. Stick to it. If something comes up, don't use that as the perfect example to self-sabotage. Reschedule and make up the time.

  • Reduce distractions. Just because you're using online learning resources, websites, etc. doesn't mean you should be hopping over to CNN or answering your texts.
  • Prepare for a practice session by making sure you have everything you need - this is because every time you stand up and walk away from your practice session, chances increase that "something will come up" like a phone call or family interaction and you won't come back.
  • Be realistic in your scheduled time. 30 focused minutes a day with measurable outcomes is far, far better than 3 hours of noodling and then realizing you haven't gotten anywhere in a week's time.
  • Reserve Space. Noodling on the couch while Netflix is streaming and your family argues about which Chinese place they'll use for take-out dinner isn't going to work out. A little seclusion goes a long way. Don't have a space? I've taught plenty of learners in college dorm or busy house situations where all they had was a bed, their instrument, a laptop or book, and some headphones. That's all you need. This will require more focus than someone who has a nice little learning space/studio or home office. Even if the headphones aren't plugged in - so long as you can still see and hear your instrument - they will not only give you a little sound protection, they will also send the much needed signal that you are zoning out and shouldn't be disturbed.
2. WHAT. Ah, the question at the center of it all! Every inquiry I receive about guitar lessons from adults has the same issue at the center - information overload! They, like you, have been trying to do this on their own through YouTube channels, videos and purchased online modules and subscriptions It's the rare learner today, for sure, that purchases actual books to learn on their own. And with parents of children, the question is still the same - WHAT do we practice first?

Let's go back to our buddy Ben Franklin. If you don't plan precisely, you're going to hit a wall, get discouraged, and walk away. The only thing worse than walking away from guitar (or other instrument) are the feelings of defeat that come with it.

Beginners practice ONE thing. Late Beginners/Intermediate players should be practicing TWO things. Intermediate/Advanced players can probably support practicing THREE things. STICK TO A PLAN!!!
  • Beginners: You should focus on one item and only one item for success. Maybe it's the D chord. Maybe it's a finger workout. Buy a book, work with a teacher, or purchase a course to help you with this. This is your chance to find out how quickly you will learn and grow on the instrument. You will never get to be a beginner again. NOW is the time to instill effective practice techniques to prevent failure later. Many, many students come to me who never really learned how to practice. Although they've been playing for 5 or 6 years, they don't know how to succeed and achieve their goals because no one ever told them the simplest things when they were just starting out.
  • Intermediate: You can likely focus on two basic items to practice session and be successful. For many learners, that means a bit of book/theory work, and learning your favorite songs with the goal of making music. Maybe you want to learn the pentatonic scale across the neck of the guitar. Maybe you want to learn some John Mayer licks. The content doesn't matter - work a bit of theory, and work a bit of fun stuff. Stay motivated. Schedule wins. End of story.
  • Advanced: You can probably support three basic items in your practice. There is no "set" practice for an advanced learner - you may focus on ONE thing (let's say, how to play hot country guitar leads and licks like Brad to write and play Jazz in the style of Wes Montgomery or Kenny Burrell...). Or, you might be in a band or two; or play at church, or in other projects. That WILL take up your practice time, and it will become your practice life. Are you okay with that? If so - you will learn through what you are told to learn for the band. You can dive as deep as you want. Or - if that's not okay - you're going to have to put a limit on your private practice dedicated to the band/project - and schedule time for you to grow - learn new things, challenge yourself and set new goals weekly.

3. HOW. This is the simplest goal of all, although many think it's the most difficult. Everyone online is trying to sell you their "how". Every book, every guitar instructional video and app. They all say they know best and will make all your dreams come true. Well...I've got some news for you. If you aren't practicing with a metronome, you are throwing your time and money away. If you can't make your chord changes on time, and work with all different rhythms and tempos - whether playing chords or shredding metal guitar - you will not be successful as a guitarist, let alone a musician.

Think of the term "push yourself". This comes from tempo. "Push" the tempo the faster. Push means you are expanding beyond your current ability into a new, more challenging area.

This is what people fear, in my experience. The fear of the unknown. The fear of failure. ALL of that is tied to the "how". Most learners quit right on the threshold of a discovery.

You can set out an amazing practice plan! Reserve your focused, uninterrupted time! Grab your what you already have for 12 years at the same level you have for at least the last 6 years. I see this all the time. All. The. Time. Plateauing is normal for us; however, wasting our practice time is crushing to our art.
  • Get a metronome on every device - phone, laptop, tablet. This prevents the old "Oh, I don't have my metronome with me for practice". Metronome apps are free if you can tolerate a few ads during use.
  • Use drum and groove tracks via Vimeo and YouTube. They are free and come in all styles, grooves and tempos. Did I mention they are free?
  • Track your progress. Paper and pencil never fail. A journal. A tracker app. A spreadsheet. You can geek out or just get down to business. It doesn't matter. Just make it easy and free.

Chromatic Finger Warmup - 5 mins

Day 1

starting tempo: 80 beats per minute (bpm)

Baseline, easy tempo

Day 2

starting tempo: 85 bpm

pushed tempo at end of practice

Day 3

starting tempo: 90 bpm

pushed tempo to 100

Day 4

starting tempo: 95 bpm

pushed tempo to 102 and failed, backed off to 97

Day 5

starting tempo: 106 bpm

pushed tempo to 120; failed three times, backed off to 112 bpm and it felt better

YES!!! I gained 26 beats per minute!!


by The Beatles (Capo on Fret 7)

Day 1

Changed from D chord to G chord smoothly

55 bpm

Day 2

Changed from chord D chord to G chord smoothly

70 bpm

Day 3

Changed from D chord to G chord smoothly

75 bpm; that's my goal; move on

Day 4

Changed from G chord to A7 chord smoothly

62 bpm

Day 5

Changed from chord G to chord A7 smoothly

81 bpm; exceeded goal of 75 bpm; move on

Day 6

Played through entire intro smoothly

55 bpm