By Jamie Andreas

April 27, 2023 minutes read


what should I practice on guitar

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A recent letter asked this question:

"What specifically should I practice, chords, scales or songs? I am feeling overwhelmed with lessons, books, methods, skills, & principles of practice!"

This feeling of overwhelm troubles many beginning guitar students and can rear its head from time to time with advanced players as well. It is a paralyzing, immobilizing feeling, and so it very dangerous for our progress, and must be dealt with.

I believe it is the teachers job to clear the path through the jungle of guitar methods and material for each student, and lead each student to their musical fulfillment. Of course, it is always the students job to keep walking the path and putting one foot in front of another. Set goals, and achieve them.

The first thing to understand is this: there are certain skills that every guitar player needs, regardless of style. Whether you are going to end up playing fingerstyle, rock, classical or jazz, or even the chords to Happy Birthday, there are certain skills you must have.

After these skill are in place, you can think about the style of guitar that attracts you most strongly. Each style will have its own particular requirements in addition to the skills needed for every style. 

So, you must first begin to acquire the skills every guitar player needs(e.g. scales, bars, hammers & pulls) and then begin to learn the skills necessary for your chosen style. For example, If you want to play rock & blues, you must learn your pentatonics and learn to bend strings correctly. If you want fingerstyle, you must learn how to train the right hand fingers for independence and speed.

All of these things must be learned in a particular order. I will tell you what that order should be.

The First Achievement: Learn how to learn (without this there can be no other achievements)

Most guitar students use this method to learn their music: "I'll just keep trying to play this like the recording". There are a few people, very few, who can make this method work. Most will struggle and never turn their efforts into music.

You cannot learn until you learn how to learn.

For guitar players that means you cannot learn to play guitar until you learn how to practice. That means how to train your fingers to make the movements that make the music.

Knowing how to practice guitar means:

You will know you have achieved this when you see yourself get better and better as a player each time you practice. If you feel like you are struggling to play no matter how much you practice, you do not know how to practice correctly! This training is found in "The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar".

The Second Achievement: Awareness

If the right exercises are done in the right way the student will cultivate the awareness of sensations that lead to good and great playing instead of habits of tension that make playing difficult or impossible.

All of this is achieved through through knowledge of "The Principles" and practice of The Foundation Exercises.

These necessary physical sensations include:

  1. The Light Finger
  2. The Firm Finger
  3. The Heavy Arm
  4. The Floating Arm

(see "How To Touch A Guitar String". )

The Third Achievement: Turning Your Hands Into Playing Tools

You can’t be a carpenter without having tools. You can buy those tools. For a guitarist, our tools are our hands. We can’t buy them, we must build them.

Left Hand : This means that the left hand is being trained so that the
fingers operate with relaxation, curvature, separation and independence. Without this, all future work on guitar will be difficult or impossible. I am constantly bringing long time players back to this point so they can get off the plateau they have been stuck on for years.

Right Hand: For the right hand, it means the ability to use the pick from the elbow, not just the wrist. It also means the ability to place great force on the strings with the pick without maintaining tension in the arm. Lack of this skill is what makes fast picking impossible.

Your hands are turned into playing tools by mastering the Foundation exercises from "The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar"

The Fourth Achievement: Making Music

Now we begin to study first position chords, beginning with G, C, D and E minor. We work on getting those chords, changing those chords smoothly, and most importantly, applying them to a song.

To learn these chords and songs, we use "First Chords & Songs".

At this point, the student knows how to practice, is gaining increasing control of their fingers, and has begun to create a musical experience for themselves, and maybe others.

Many songs can be learned and played with these chords, and every student should learn a good number of them. While they are learning and playing songs they love, they can begin the other group of skills every guitarist needs.

All Future Achievements: Acquiring The Fundamental Necessary Skills On Guitar

These skills are:

Scales: First open position scales in all guitar keys, then the 6 Essential movable scales. IMPORTANT: Students often begin practice of scales right at the start. This is never a good idea. Scales should never be practiced until the fundamental left hand skills mentioned above are achieved. If you struggle with scales, this is the reason.

There is so much to know about operating your fingers with  relaxation and control before you ask them to do the extremely complex motions involved in playing scales.

Professionals are able to play scales accurately and powerfully up to
120bpm in 16th notes and beyond. The untrained student's scales
limp along with a weak sound and a lot of missed notes. Foundation
training is the cure.

Chords: All first position chords should be learned. They are used in
all styles of guitar

Alternate Bass and Bass Runs in all guitar keys

The technique of playing chords with alternate bass is used in all
styles of music.

Bar Chords:
Bar chords are used in all styles. This is a vast subject because there are many types of bar chords and they must be learned in a particular order.

This is covered in “Bar Chord Mastery”. This course develops the
left hand in the very careful way it must be trained to do these difficult chords easily.

Hammers & Pulls:
Hammers & Pulls are used in every style of music, and must be
learned (correctly) in order to play music beyond the beginner level.
Our "Essential Training For Hammers & Pulls" gives you the vital
info and training you need to master these techniques.

All of the above areas of study are necessary for every guitar player
who wants to play competently in any style. If it seems like a lot, don't worry, it doesn't have to happen all at once! Just remember that the beginning stages are critical, none of the later stages can go well if the foundation is missing.

These are the skills used in all music played on the guitar, regardless of style. It is the lucky guitar player who learns all these skills correctly. All my students are lucky!

All of these skills can be achieved within 3 years. This is the typical trajectory for my students who go through Stage 1 and into Stage 2 training. And I mean the average student doing guitar as a hobby, whatever the age. My Stage 2 Class has students age 20 through 70+. They all succeed on guitar.

Choosing A Style

When the above areas of development are well under way, a student should start to think about what style they are most interested in pursuing. While each student continues to learn and improve on the fundamental guitar skills, at the same time they begin either my Classical/Fingerstyle Course, my Rock & Blues course ,or Jazz guitar essentials.

*Pick Style-General Guitar Knowledge - for those who want a basic knowledge of the music and guitar, the Mel Bay Method is recommended. This book follows the approach of traditional piano instruction, giving you material that progresses through the keys, and teaches you how to read music as well as music theory as it relates to guitar.

Rock & Blues: If it is rock & blues guitar, then learning to read music is not yet a priority. Mastery of the 5 Pentatonic Scales, all their licks, correct bending technique and vibrato are the most important things to learn. All of this is covered in great detail in our "Rock & Blues Foundation Course".

Fingerstyle or Classical: First, we must understand that training the right hand fingers for powerful action on the guitar is a more complex process than training for pick action. There is a lot more that can go wrong here! Very often, students take a random approach, merely working on fingersyle pieces, and find they have lots of problems and can't get any better.

For students wishing to play one of the styles that use the right hand fingers instead of a pick ,such as classical, folk, flamenco, or acoustic blues, the course of study should proceed this way:

  • Study the foundation exercises for use of the right hand fingers found in Chapter 3 of "The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar".
  • Study our "Classical/Fingerstyle Course" to learn the powerful information and methods you must know and use in order to play any fingerstyle music on guitar easily. As with all Guitar Principles courses, the material in this course will not be found in any other method.

Anyone who studies this course will gain real right hand ability, and know how to continue to develop it into the higher levels of playing if desired. You will also learn to read music notation with this course, which is certainly recommended for fingerstyle players, and essential for classical players.

Advanced Practice Strategies

Finally, there is a very powerful group of practice methods that I use and teach to all my students. These methods have been used by professional musicians for centuries. These methods must be used in order to achieve higher levels of development on guitar, which is why I put them in a collection called "Advanced Strategies For Higher Levels of Development on Guitar".

advanced practice strategies on guitar

Advanced Practice Strategies On Guitar

These methods should be learned and used by players of all styles after the methods in "The Principles" have been learned. They turn stumbling and slow fingers into fast and secure guitar fingers!

Learning Guitar Is Not a Linear Process

Here is a very important understanding: learning a complex skill like playing the guitar is not an entirely linear process. It is not a matter of “do this, accomplish that completely, then do that, and finish it, then that” and so forth.

Learning the guitar is more a collection of simultaneous processes,
occurring and maturing together to produce an end result. It’s like cooking. You start lots of dishes, each one at the right time so everything comes out right and ready at the end. You watch the potatoes, the chicken, the broccoli, and the rice. You give
everything the proper attention, making sure nothing get burned. You don’t wait till the potatoes are done before you start the chicken.

So my point is that at any given time, the actual details of our practice material is carefully arranged to produce that final result we desire. In the beginning we start to train the fingers for basic, note by note movement on guitar (scales). While this is developing we also begin the study of chords. Each of these areas of study will impact and aid the other.

The exact details will be tailored to each person, and must be constantly reviewed and revised. I help all students do this.

If you are serious about guitar, and plan to be a lifelong player, use all of this as your roadmap. Understand that there are literally millions of guitar books, methods and lessons out there, but your ability to play any of it competently comes down to your fingers and the mind that trains them in practice.

Guitar Principles is where you find the knowledge and training that enables you to play all of the music you find everywhere else!

Jamie Andreas

About the author

Jamie Andreas has one goal: to make sure that everyone who wants to learn guitar is successful. After her first 25 years of teaching, she wrote the world acclaimed method for guitar "The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar". She put everything into this method that was essential for success on guitar.
Called "The Holy Grail" of guitar books, the Principles has enabled thousands of students who tried and failed to play guitar for years or even decades, to become real guitar players.

In 2012 Jamie was profiled in "Guitar Zero" (Penguin Press 2012), a study of how adults learn to play guitar. Jamie was interviewed along with some of the worlds leading guitarist/teachers, including jazz legend Pat Martino and Tom Morello ("Rage Against The Machine").

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