How To Improve At Guitar

Dave Mustain of Megadeth

Guitar is an extremely fun and rewarding instrument, however it’s also an extremely challenging and often frustrating pursuit. The learning curve for guitar hits a plateau after a short amount of time and progress becomes difficult until you break out of the stalemate.

Here’s a few tips to improve your playing at any skill level.

Have A Setlist

You. Need. A. Setlist.

You will find it extremely difficult to see any real improvement if you spend all your time learning bits and pieces of songs. Sure, this is fine when you’re first learning the basics and there’s nothing wrong with picking up a catchy riff every once in a while, but you need to have a list of songs that you can work towards playing in their entirety.

Pick four to six songs that you want to learn. At least two of them should be within your skill range (preferably ones you already know how to play). At least one of them should challenge your skills. The others should hover around or slightly above your skill level.

It’s at your discretion as to what your skill level is. There’s no way to measure it, so just start with a few songs you think will work and don’t be afraid to change them.

Don’t Get Caught Up In Exercises

Exercises are non-musical, technical practice routines meant to build mechanical proficiency on the guitar. While exercises are an essential part of improving, it’s easy to spend all of your time doing them.

This will harm you in the long run because you’ll end up in a situation where you’re great at picking through scales or string skipping, but you won’t be able to apply those skills to an actual song. Why? You’ve already taught your brain to play the exercise and not the skill that the exercise builds.

Have A Practice Routine

With the above two tips in mind, it’s time to talk about a practice routine. The single biggest way to improve at guitar is being consistent with your practice.

A routine will help you find and keep this consistency. Your practice routine should have four main components; a warmup, exercises, practicing new songs/scales, playing songs/jamming.

Every practice session should involve a five minute warmup. This will improve the quality of your playing as well as prepare the parts of your brain that are going to be involved with playing guitar. Warmups can involve chromatic scales, playing a few licks, or any simple exercise.

You should then move on to your exercises. These are boring, but essential. I usually have two to three exercises in my rotation at any given time and each exercise helps build a different skill. Power chords, palm muting, trills, tapping, scale patterns, and dexterity exercises are all fantastic options.

After you get the mundane exercises out of the way, you should start working on songs in your setlist. I work on two per day and usually just pick up at whatever riff or solo is giving me trouble. After a few days of practicing, you’ll usually be able to progress farther through the song. If you’re practicing with an emphasis on improvising, learning new scales is a good substitute for playing songs out of your setlist.

Finally, you should end off your practice with something fun; playing guitar! Play through the songs you already have down pat. Enjoy it, rock out. If you’re going the improv route, put on a backing track and lay down some solos.

Practice in Sprints, Not Marathons

You should be going through your practice routine daily. I usually dedicate Monday through Friday to my normal practice routine, then spend some time over the weekend picking up little bits and pieces to songs I want to learn in the future or learning about new skills I can incorporate.

You should avoid taking time away from the guitar all week then trying to fit in a huge three hour practice session over the weekend.

Play The Same Axe

Having more than one guitar is a lot of fun and gives you options, however it’s important that you have a “main” guitar. Your main guitar is whichever guitar you’re playing the most.

You should be practicing consistently on your main guitar. When you advance to a certain level, you’ll be able to play any guitar as long as it feels good to you, but as a beginner or intermediate guitarist, stick to one. You’ll gain a lot of familiarity with that guitar and you’ll be able to memorize the neck by feel.

Use A Metronome

You’ll hear this one a lot. You absolutely must use a metronome if you want to improve. It gives you a way to measure your progress and will also keep you focused and ensure you’re practicing at the right speed.

For example, at the time of writing this I’m learning The Trooper by Iron Maiden. In the first solo, there’s a particularly fast set of three notes in the pentatonic scale. Approaching this without a metronome, I had no way of gauging how fast I should be playing and quickly gave up. When I started using the metronome, I was able to play the pattern easily at 100 BPM. The following day I upped it to 110 BPM. The next day, 150 BPM. Now the next day I tried upping to 160 BPM, but found this was a little too fast, so I practiced another day at 150 BPM. I repeated this process and now after only one week, am able to play the lick faster than the original.

Watch Covers

Listening to the original is great, but watching other people’s guitar covers is often more helpful. It gives you context to the song. You can see what it looks like to play. You can recognize the riffs and where they fit into the song. It’s often easy to miss the big picture when you’re working through the tab or sheet music measure by measure. Watching covers will fill in the blanks and give you a comprehensive picture of the song structure.

Take this tips to heart, build a solid practice routine, and stick with it. You’ll instantly start to see yourself gradually progressing along the rewarding path of guitar playing.

Happy shredding!

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