A simple 30 minute program to incrementally improve your guitar playing… and how to actually use it

I remember when I was a lot younger learning to play guitar, I was constantly looking at practice routines that other guitar players used. Steve Vai had a 9 hour guitar practice routine, that I found in a guitar magazine and I obsessed over it! But could never quite fit it in one day – that always bummed me out slightly.

So I look at other players routines, I check out the DVDs and stuff. The books. The exercises. I wanted to play with great technique so bad… but it always seemed to elude me.

It took me a while (and when I say a while… I mean over a decade) to learn that what I was practising was only one small piece of the puzzle. A much bigger piece was how I practiced.

Exercises and routines by themselves are meaningless. Almost worthless. This is why so many self taught guitar players get no where (I know this for a fact because I’ve a lot of students and this sort of thing comes up over and over again).

The key is what our mind is focussing on when practising

I would go as far as saying, that if our mind is not specifically focussed on one thing, we are not practising at all.

A vital part of how fast we improve, is down to how intensely we practice. When I say intense, I don’t mean we need to be playing at 300bpm, or that our body should be more tense than Soviet – US relations during the Cold War, I mean that our mind needs to be intensely focused on every nuance, sound and feeling.

So here is my super simple 30 minute practice routine I’m experimenting with over the next 7 days…

… and how to actually use it


8 minutes ear training 

This is my weakest skill so I do it first. Usually our weakest skill is the thing we practice the least… because we suck at it. Unfortunately, this creates a negative feedback loop. We don’t practice the skill because we suck at it. We suck at the skill, so we don’t practice it. If this gets our of control, this weak point can then hold back our strong points… which is not good. So I work on ear training first.

For this, all I am doing is playing up and down an A major scale, singing along to the notes. Now here is the “focus”. I play slowly. My playing is not what I am practising here, I am programming my brain to recognise pitches and relationships between pitches. So I take my time with each note, making sure my voice is perfectly in pitch with my guitar. I’m not aiming to get 5000 repetitions up and down the scale, I’m aiming to sing the notes as precisely as possible.

And it’s only for 8 minutes. I can be patient with myself for 8 minutes.


8 minutes on lead picking / scales

For me, this was always super easy to practice, I can spend all day playing around with different scales. I’m doing a bit of work on the harmonic minor scale at the moment, getting the hang of playing all 7 positions (using 3 note per string patterns here, if you are using CAGED you are metaphorically shooting yourself in the foot while hitting yourself in the dick/ovaries with a hammer. Don’t do it), up and down the neck. Each day I’ll change the key and the rhythmic sub dividing that I am using. I’m doing this to a metronome, starting off at a comfortable speed and building it up.

Focus: For this I am focussing on accurately playing each note. So once I reach a speed where something starts to go wrong, I’ll work out what is going wrong, and then focus on that.

So let’s say I was able to play up and down ok at 90bpm, but when I goto 95bpm, something weird starts happening. The mistake can only be on of these three things:

  • Brain problem (not knowing where the notes in the scale are)
  • Fret hand problem (fingers in the wrong place, using the wrong fingers, placing them incorrectly, using too much pressure, too little pressure etc)
  • Picking hand problem (incorrect picking pattern, pick hitting strings by accident, not muting strings appropriately, hitting the wrong string, incorrect motion between strings)

First I figure out which of those three is causing the problem, then I focus in on that problem – with the exercise and my brain. Say my pick was doing something weird, and as my fret hand changed string, the pick hand jumped and hit the wrong string. I will sit and STARE at my pick hand, not play anything with my fret hand at all, and just pick the open strings in the order I would if I were fretting them, using the same pick direction etc. Then I will slowly practice that tiny part where I accidentally hit the wrong string, making sure I hit the correct string.

That’s how you train yourself to stop making mistakes.


8 minutes on sweep picking arpeggios

The one skill that as a teenager I was DYING to learn haha!! I thought it was the coolest thing ever when I finally got this. Unfortunately, everyone had the same method of teaching sweep picking:

Here is an arpeggio. Sweep pick it.

Great. Thanks. Useful.

Not knowing any better at the time, I would try to sweep pick the arpeggio, fail, and wonder why, try again… etc. It never occurred to me that maybe the method was wrong. Or that what I was focusing on was wrong…

For sweep picking, especially when you are learning, you have to be 50% focussed on the pick hand and the motion it makes. Most guitar players and teachers are 100% on the fret hand… which is a critical mistake.

Focus points for sweep picking:

  • is the pick hand moving correctly?
  • are the notes clear, or are they blurring together?
  • are the notes evenly spaced and in time?
  • if you are doing a pull off, are you rushing it?

Those are a couple of good “goto” things to focus on, again, ONE at at time.

You can apply the ideas with anything that you are working on. Personally, I like to have structure and guidance with what I work on with my guitar playing, so I can progress as fast as possible, that’s why I take lessons online with my teacher. He has a free 14 day mini course to double your speed with your guitar playing, check it out, it’s pretty badass



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