What Should You Practice Right Now?


By Matteo Miller-Nicolato


One of the hardest things to do when teaching yourself is figuring out what to practice. Especially since there are SO MANY exercises and things to learn... you don't really know where to begin. All you need to do is understand the process of creating music and identify which step is the most difficult for you...



What is the situation?


There are many different situations where you might find yourself in need of playing guitar. Each one of these situations can be approached in a various ways. Here are some examples:


Composition - specific parts separately


Jam (solo) - rhythm to lead, occasional solo


Jam (friend) - rhythm, lead


Backing Track - lead, soloing



Choose a specific part:


What exactly do you need to play right now? When you are clear on what you actually want to play, it will help to determine what you need to practice. It is harder to identify problems when there is a completely blank canvas in front of you. You want to restrict yourself to a small portion of skills to work on. Improving your soloing skills is different from improving your chord progressions.


  • Lead riff
  • Chord progression
  • Solo licks
  • Bassline



Follow this process:


  1. Choose a KEY
  2. Focus on the RHYTHM pattern
  3. What do you want to HEAR next?
  4. Find the RIGHT NOTES to play what you want to hear
  5. Make it sound catchy with REPETITION
  6. Create new VARIATIONS as you continue to play
  7. Plan an interesting STRUCTURE with your flow



Where does this process become difficult to execute?


This is the moment when you will be able to identify which step of the process you are struggling with. Follow the process one step at a time. I find that many guitar players actually need to focus most of their efforts on RHYTHM and REPETITION because it is so easy to play tons of notes without any real purpose... even great shredders have a hard time with this!


1. If you don't know what KEYS or positions are available, you need to study music theory, learn scale positions or chord functions within a major/minor key (roman numerals).


2. If you're struggling to develop a great RHYTHM pattern and find yourself just playing a bunch of notes without a groove, you must practice rhythm by drumming out beats. Listen to some interesting beats and tap them out. Progressive music (i.e. Mars Volta) usually contains interesting rhythm patterns.


3. If you do not know what the notes sound like before you play them, you are suffering from lack of ear training. You want your ears to guide your music, not your fingers, and certainly not the patterns you learned.



4. If you are guessing what notes will sound good together you should study arpeggio shapes so you can target the right notes while you are playing over the root chord. Focus on playing arpeggio notes first, and adding notes from the surrounding scale. This will help to make what you play make sense.


5. If you are constantly playing different notes every time without stopping, you'll want to focus on REPEATING phrases. Repeat the same 5-7 notes a few times so your ear catches on to the general idea. Sometimes it is hard to remember what you just played. So.. play less notes!


6. While you are repeating the same 5-7 notes many, many times... you will soon get bored of hearing the same exact thing over and over. So.. create some VARIATIONS! Change the last few notes, change the techniques you are using, practice your phrasing skills.


7. When you get tired of one particular musical idea, switch to a completely new idea (within the same key) and focus on that one for a while. Try to flow back and forth between 2 or 3 different musical ideas so you can create an interesting STRUCTURE as you are playing.



Now You Know Exactly What To Practice!


This is the process that I follow every single time I play guitar. It has allowed me to identify the weakest areas of my playing so that I can figure out what I need to focus on every single time I practice guitar. While this is not a lesson on theory and doesn't give specific exercises to practice, I believe learning guitar has less to do with 'WHAT to practice' and more to do with 'HOW you practice' so.. If you are still struggling, I encourage you to schedule a free introductory guitar lesson in San Diego and I'll help you make a lot more progress!


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