How and What you practice on guitar is as important as the time you put in...
Malcolm Gladwell said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at a subject. However the amount of time you practice guitar is only part of the equation. WHAT and HOW you practice makes a huge difference in how good a guitarist you'll become.
Think of it this way: If you play one song over and over for 10,000 hours you're not getting better at guitar. You're only getting better at that song. Simplistic, yes, but I have many new students coming to me because they're in a rut. And it's usually because they're not pushing themselves into new territory.
The biggest culprit is not having a good plan for practice sessions. So let's outline the perfect guitar practice session.
I'm going to base this on a 30-minute session. If you want to practice longer than that, definitely do so. Just expand each of these steps proportionally. I also suggest taking a 5 minute break at the 30 minute mark. It will help to refresh your brain and refocus your attention. Don't get caught in something else (TV, blogs, tweeting, etc.) But get up and stretch and grab a glass of water. Then get back to it.
Pre-Practice: Listen to some music for a few minutes. Pick out a couple songs that get you totally jacked to pick up a guitar and play. Think about the songs that made you want to play guitar in the first place and tap into that energy to gear up for your practice session.
2 Minutes: Stretches - Do some wrist and shoulder stretches to loosen up and avoid Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Tendonitis. I've had them. They hurt. You don't want them. You can do these stretches while you're listening to your pre-practice music.
5 Minutes: Warm-Ups and Technical Exercises - Start with the stuff that's no fun and get it out of the way. There are hundreds of exercises you can do here: Chromatic 4-finger runs, diagonal picking, string skipping, arpeggios, different scales, finger combination exercises... I recommend mixing it up and changing exercises every couple days to keep it interesting. And ALWAYS use a metronome. When you use a metronome, you'll not only work on whatever the exercise is, but you'll also be working on speed and keeping a solid groove.
18 Minutes: Project Pieces - This is the most focused part of your session. Work on whatever your current project songs are. I specify "songs" because you don't need to spend a ton of time doing technical stuff (unless you're just really into that). You're going to get more enjoyment and advancement out of applying your skills to actual pieces of music. Work on one or two songs at a time. Don't just learn how to play it. You also want to know why you're playing what you're playing. So be sure to look at the theory and structure behind the piece. The more you know about how a piece is put together, the easier it is to learn other songs.
Don't always expect to learn a whole piece in one session. Depending on where you are as a guitarist and how difficult the piece is, it could take weeks or months to get it right. That being said, sometimes you'll hit a brick wall with a song and not be able to improve it past where you are. That's fine. Put it aside for a few months while you work on other things and come back to it later.
In fact, if you're regularly learning whole songs in less than 18 minutes, you're probably not pushing yourself enough. Try to find pieces that are just above the level you're capable of. This is the biggest step to improving quickly on guitar. Save the easier stuff for the last chunk of your session.
8 Minutes: Free Play - After you've put in your hard work, here's where you can loosen up a bit. Play absolutely anything you want! Try out some simple songs you can learn in a few minutes. Grab some internet tabs. Go back to old songs you like to jam on. Improvise. Write your own songs. This is your Super Happy Fun Time on guitar!
As I mentioned, if you're doing longer sessions than 30 minutes, just expand each of those segments proportionally. For a 60 minute session - 10 minutes of technical stuff, 36 minutes, of project pieces, etc.
A couple bonus tips:
- Again, use a metronome for everything. It's not always fun, but I guarantee you'll be a better guitarist for it.
- Keep a note pad and some sort of little sound recorder with you while you practice. Ideas for songs, lyrics, and even non-music related stuff will occur to you while you practice. Write it down or record it real quick to get it off your mind, and come back to it in your Free Play section.
- The most common excuse I hear from my students is "I didn't have time to practice." The cure for that is scheduling it into your day just like stuff to "have" to do. Work, school, cook dinner, play guitar. If it's important to you, treat it that way.
- Leave a guitar out where you can reach for it whenever you have a spare minute. Of course you want to keep your guitar clean and safe. But don't put it in the case when it's at home. Keep it on a stand where you can grab it and play. Even the task of getting it out of the case will keep you from playing it as often as you could. If you're worried about your main guitar, buy a cheap beater guitar that you can leave out and play on. Mine is always sitting right next to my desk for the next time I'm on telephone hold.
To really get the most out of your guitar practice time have a solid plan and always challenge yourself to try something harder. If we're all going to spend 10,000 hours doing something, we should do it right.