Five Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Guitar Practice.

So you've been playing guitar for a couple of years now. You can string a few chords together and play along to your favourite bands, and you practice several times a week, learning new songs and jamming along to CDs or with your friends. 

There's just one problem: you're not getting any better.

Every guitarist has at some point found themselves stuck in a rut. You're pretty good and you enjoy playing, but somehow the hours of practice you put in result in only minimal improvements, and you end up frustrated, stuck, and possibly wishing you'd picked up the drums instead. With that in mind, here are five simple tips you can apply immediately that should give your playing the boost it needs and get you back on your feet.

1) Set clear goals.

This is the first and most essential step in so many aspects of life. Without a good reason to practice, you'll never find the motivation you need to seriously improving your playing. Take some time to think and answer the question: 'what do I want to gain from my guitar practice?'. Do you want to form or join a band? Play at your local open mic night? Learn a particular song? Why?

Get out a piece of paper now, and don't move on until you've written ten clear goals for your playing. Set a good mix of easily achievable and 'stretch' goals, and give yourself a time limit for each one. A good goal should motivate you and pull you forward, provide a concrete measure of how you're progressing, and give you a real sense of satisfaction once you achieve it.

(Bonus hint: This piece of advice can be applied to so much more than just your guitar playing)

2) Before you practice, decide what you're going to practice.

When I was sixteen, I would sit in my room for hours at a time, jamming along to Led Zeppelin or Guns N' Roses until my fingers hurt. I enjoyed myself, and I got very good at learning and playing other people's songs, but I actually look back on those times with a hint of regret. I could have, and should have, improved a lot more than I did. 

Nowadays I have a folder full of sheet music, snippets of songs, and guitar exercises printed off from the internet or ripped out of magazines. When I sit down to practice, I pick a small selection of exercises (usually two or three), and do nothing that practice session but beat them into submission, playing them hundreds of times at faster and faster speeds. The result? I can feel myself improving day by day.

Doing guitar practice exercises is like lifting weights at the gym. The value isn't is in the specific exercise itself - it's in the strength and endurance they give you, which can be applied and used to everything else.

3) Stretch and warm-up before playing.

This is an idea I resisted for a long time. It might not seem very rock and roll, but then again neither do Slayer when they perform neck warm-ups before every show to protect themselves from headbanging injuries. Guitar practice is primarily a physical exercise. Would you run a marathon without stretching before and afterwards? 

When I started doing warm-up exercises before practicing, I noticed the benefits immediately. Five to ten minutes of warming up made my fingers feel lighter and their movements more effortless. Nowadays, I've gotten so used to this extra ease of  playing that if I try to practice without warming-up I feel slow and lumbering, like I'm trundling along in fourth gear and I just can't shift up to fifth.

I can't teach you how to warm-up effectively within the scope of this article, but a quick Google search should get you started. Personally, the best system I've come across is that of John Petrucci of Dream Theater, who demonstrates his warm-up routines in his excellent DVD Rock Discipline.  

Search around, experiment, and discover what works best for you.

4) Use a metronome.

This is such a simple step and you really have no excuse for ignoring it. Building up speed and chops without practicing to a metronome is impossible. Once you've picked your exercises for today's practice session (you did read step 2, didn't you?), pick a slow, comfortable tempo, and keep trying until you can play the exercise comfortably and cleanly with no mistakes. Then up the speed and repeat. There are no shortcuts. This is the only way to increase your playing speed.

If you're struggling, reduce the tempo and analyse. What particular snippet of the exercise is holding you back? Is it a particular bar? A particular note? A particular finger movement? If necessary, break down the exercise into smaller pieces and practice each one individually.

Don't practice until you can get it right. Practice until you can't get it wrong.

5)  Learn some music theory.

A lot of musicians seem to view learning theory as an optional extra - something that's nice to have, but not really necessary. This is true up to a certain point. You can certainly get pretty good at guitar without any understanding of why the particular notes under your fingers sound good (or bad) together. However, without learning theory you're missing out on a huge pool of knowledge which can only enhance you're playing. You don't need to study extensively (and it's important not to let learning theory get in the way of your actual practice), but a basic grounding in why music works will act as a springboard to launch you to new heights in your playing, understanding and enjoyment of guitar. Don't shut yourself off to the massive opportunity that theory provides.

The unfortunate truth is that becoming a great guitarist takes huge amounts of hard work. Jimi Hendrix didn't emerge from the womb with a Stratocaster in one hand and the lyric sheet to Purple Haze in the other. Instead he put in thousands of hours of solid, diligent practice throughout his youth until he was finally in a position to become the most influential guitarist in history. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and the previously-mentioned John Petrucci both confess to practicing upwards of eight hours a day in their teens and early twenties. 'Talent' is little more than a myth used an excuse by people who aren't willing to put in the hard work necessary to master a skill.

To get better at guitar takes years, maybe even decades. What are you waiting for? Start today.