Time is a valuable commodity, and there is an incredible number of things that demand your time before guitar practice. I see players every day dedicated enough to actually set aside time to play, yet their time is essentially wasted, because they don't know how to practice. Practice in itself takes practice, and one must be able to master this aspect before moving on.
Don't Cram -- Pace your Learning
One of the biggest mistakes I see is folks believing they can practice once a week for four or five hours. This is not an effective habit. It's more useful to practice thirty minutes a day, five times a week than to load it all on one day. The reason is that nothing gets reinforced. Think of a time when you've crammed overnight for an exam in school. A week later, did any of that material actually stick? Compare that to a moment in which you paced your studying to an hour or less a day. How much more of the material was retained? The same is true for playing an instrument.
Practice Only What is Relevant
I've talked to teachers who feel that you should set aside equal time to all various techniques, to achieve full mastery of the guitar. I genuinely believe that you should never devote too much of your effort to learning what you will never play. For example, if you are playing in a delta blues band, devoting a significant amount of time to sweep picking or fretboard tapping is not going to be nearly as effective as practicing pentatonic scales or rhythm exercises.
While it's true that you should play what you like, don't spend too much of your time playing things that you've already mastered, or if time is a constraint, things that don't have any relevance to your current goals or practice needs.
Use a Metronome!
Don't let yourself practice without a metronome. You absolutely must be able to play at a consistent rhythm, or everything you play will sound like garbage. Trust me, you may think you have solid rhythm, and that you don't need a metronome, but start using a metronome and you'll see how wrong you are. You'd only be fooling yourself!
An Example Schedule
I'm assuming you have decided to dedicate one hour to your practice time, but you may expand or compress the schedule if you have more or less time. Also, if the things I've suggested aren't relevant to your playing needs, then don't hesitate to change it! Also, to avoid burn-out or becoming bored, you could come up with ways to switch up your guitar tone. Finding little tricks like tweaking the sound of your guitar can add a little more excitement to your practice routine.
Warm Up - Five Minutes
Touch each finger to your thumb firmly, on both hands, about five times. Then alternate making loose fists and opening your hands out wide. Do ten reps of this.
Stretch out both arms, make a loose fist, and roll your hands around your wrists for about ten seconds. Stop if there's any discomfort.
Stretch out both arms again, this time with your palms up, and slowly stretch each finger out parallel to the ground.
Repeat if necessary.
Scale of the Week - Five Minutes
Decide on your chosen scale to practice for the week, and spend the next five minutes ascending and descending the scale, taking "alternate routes". The key is accuracy. If you are having trouble playing accurately, slow down. Accuracy is always more important than speed. Ascend the scale in first position, then descend. Then ascend the scale going across the fretboard, then back down. Finally, use a combination of ascending and descending the scale vertically (changing strings) and horizontally (up the fretboard).
If this becomes too easy, then add string skipping to the mix. Play the scale like normal, but when you go to the next string, instead skip that string, and play the one after that. This is a great exercise for both right and left hand technique, and it reinforces the overall sound of the scale.
Previous Week's Scale - Five Minutes
Practice this scale exactly how you did the scale of the week, and hopefully, this one will go much smoother than the current week's scale!
Scale Theory - Five Minutes
After your scale technique practice, take time to analyze the notes you played, and how they sound in relation to each other. Try to find the different scale degrees and be able to say each note you played by name, instead of fret. You can combine this with the last exercises if you're feeling especially motivated!
Chords - Ten Minutes
Decide on the chord or chords you wish to practice. I recommend using chords that jive with the scales you've been practicing. For example, if you are currently learning the C Major scale, some good scales to practice would be C Major, E Major, G Major, and A Minor. Try to notice relations between the chords you play, like shared notes. Make your chord transitions seamless, making a real effort not to pause when changing chords.
As far as right hand technique, make your strums as smooth as possible. Develop a solid strumming pattern, and switch it up now and then. Once you've established smooth strumming, work on arpeggios or single-note picking, always noticing relationships between the notes and chords.
Site Reading - Five Minutes
If you have decided to learn how to sight read (you should, it's a valuable skill), take five minutes to do that now. Again, I recommend looking for compositions or sheet music that are in the same key as the scales and chords you've been practicing. This further reinforces the sound of the key, and will allow you to find patterns in your sight-reading. The skills you learn are all complementing each other.
Play What you Want! - Twenty-Five Minutes
Now that you've made it through the technical part of the session, it's time to play what you want! Learn a new song, or work on your own song, always remembering, however, to play only what is relevant. You don't want the first half of the practice session to be wasted. Try to learn a song that is not only relevant to your goals, but always one that incorporates elements from the first part of your practice.
There may be some days you wish to learn extra skills, especially if you're becoming bored with your current set of routines. Some other things to learn include:
- String skipping
- Alternate tunings
- Playing along to backing tracks
- Hammer-ons and pull-offs.
Whenever possible, try to practice with people who are better than you. This can be a stressful experience, but negative feedback is a powerful motivator. In the end, the best judge of your skill is yourself. If what you're playing sounds awful, focus on the parts that need more work, and set aside more time to fixing these.