Keys to Successful Practice


A lot of students have asked me how they can good as fast as possible. Practice makes perfect is often heard. While that cannot be denied it is also important to keep in mind that not all practice is effective practice. The shortest way to get from A to B is in a straight line. At the same time, it is helpful when you start at point A to know where that point B is going to be e.g. what is it you are trying to achieve in the short and long run. Based on what you are trying to achieve you can now set out and start practicing towards these goals. In the past thirty years I have found that while we all know what the shortest way is, it is not always the way we choose. If you are like me at times it is very easy to get going and get distracted for a while to return back on track. Since you do not have endless amounts of time because of homework, a job, running your own family and business, having a social life, it helps to organize your practice time. In the following paragraphs I will lay down some guiding principles that I use. 

Be clear on your goals and/or what it is you are trying to achieve

You can’t efficiently and effectively go from A to B if you do not have a clue what B is. YOU NEED A TARGET OR GOAL. From these goals it will transpire more clearly what it is you need to focus on. If your goal is to become a blistering fast heavy metal virtuoso, it is of less use to learn lots of finger picking patterns that do not have a relation to what you are trying to achieve. Instead you may have more profit from learning specific style related techniques such as tapping. LOOK FOR AN EXPERIENCED TEACHER OR MUSICIAN/MENTOR to get the components together, someone who can advise or give you some material and understands the requirements that get you where you want to be.


I don’t know about you, but I remember well how I got through some school years. I did what I needed to do at the last moment and would be sitting there complaining how much it all was in terms of homework. I have had several students that worked like that for their guitar lessons as well. The sad thing is that it just doesn’t work. Part of what you are trying to achieve is dependent on finger memory and repetition.

I always say to my students that they may well be better off with 10 minutes of concentrated practice a day than 1 hour a week. I recommend having your guitar on a stand or somewhere where it safe yet easy to pick up. You may just walk by and pick it up ad put it away again after playing a little bit on it.

Right environment

When you practice and your time is limited, it is important to do so in an environment where it is easy to concentrate. Try to keep distractions to a minimum. Where you practice is not the main issue, as long as the area is free from too much noise to concentrate as well as other common household distractions. A lot of my younger students use their bedroom ad have set up a special corner for that purpose. Others may have some room in the garage or sleep out for the purpose of uninterrupted practice and play time.  Wherever that area of practice may be it is preferable to use that same area all times. It maybe be an area where equipment is set up and can be left , as well as a music stand and proper lighting. Nothing is more demotivating than having to set up and pack down every time you practice.

Other things to consider are:

  • a good chair that is height adjustable and supports your back, and if you practice standing up a good quality strap that takes away the pressure on your shoulders and neck
  • a music stand (preferably one that is capable of holding up heave books (like real books) and that fits at least to A4 preferable 3 or 4 A4 pages
  • good lighting that is easy enough on the eye and makes it easy to read what’s on your stand
  • a good temperature; not to warm or cold
  • a metronome or drum machine
  • a recording device
  • and instrument stand

Practice Materials

The number of music books and other instructional materials is mind-blowing and more than anyone could work through in a life time. I suggest you become (within your means) a collector. If they are of a general nature read through them. If they are music books, play from them, and most of all don’t necessarily limit yourself to materials for guitar only. I know I learned a lot from piano books and from books like the Charlie Parker (saxophonist) Omnibook. Nowadays, you could look around on the net and find there are many good sites with good materials. There have been several occasions where I was a replacement for a piano player. This is where you will need to be able to step it up and piano books helped me not only to further develop comping technique but also to understand piano better, from bass books I learned a lot on how to build bass lines that later on could be incorporated in my finger style playing and overall it helped it helped me in becoming a more complete guitarist.

Buy Guitar Magazines

There are so many guitar magazines available on the market that have articles, columns and songs transcribed for you to learn and play. Some are very specific and some are of a more general nature. My personal favorites that I read and play through every month are:

Guitar Techniques
I guess this is the best magazine for the practicing musician. It covers a wide range of styles, electric as well as acoustic and even has a monthly classical guitar section.
Total Guitar Magazine
A stronger focus on rock and metal but I really like the magazine and the lessons and songs in there. They have great gear reviews and articles that have to do with the music business in general and with recording guitar.

The play guitar now instruction videos

Every month a booklet and instruction video looking at a particular style. They are not always very in depth but provide a great starting point to develop more in depth knowledge into a specific style of playing or specific techniques. Some of the area covered are electric and acoustic blues, jazz, classical guitar, ukulele, funk, country.

A great resource also for my students.

Acoustic Guitar Magazine

As the title suggests this magazine is completely aimed at the acoustic guitar player. I love the at times nostalgic look of the magazine and the wide range of styles covered in the magazine. It has helped me inn several areas of my guitar playing and has inspired me to look beyond the obvious.

Every month it has a great selection of songs and training material in the form of lessons. Like Guitar Techniques definitely a magazine for those that want to become a complete guitar player.

With these four regular monthly items I always have more training material available than I can handle but besides that there is always something new at had that helps me to get inspired in terms of new approaches, new techniques (for me) and extending my repertoire and insight into different genres of music. This “investment” has paid itself back in two ways: first of all I keep on growing on my instrument, which as a guitar teacher can easily be neglected. I need to because I am also a performing musician. But second of all it makes it easier as a teacher in terms of preparation because on many an occasion I do not need to reinvented the wheel where it comes to lesson material that is fresh.

Exchange materials with your friends

Share books ad magazines with your friends. It helps to keep the financial burden down and extends the range pf possibilities. I remember well how, when studying at jazz school in the Netherlands, four of us committed to buying one magazine every month and at least one book every term. We swapped and circled around and all had access to more than we could normally afford in terms of resources.

Start a lick book

When I was still studying music I kept a note book with lick and ideas for melodic lines, fragments of potential songs and whatever came to mind. Some of these things have resulted in songs, some of these have resulted in licks that have become part and parcel of who I am as a player and some have pushed my technical limitations where I had an idea for a lick but was not able to execute it. I would categorize in style, or theoretical concept. Things like  II-V-I, pentatonic scale lick, right hand tapping, chord voicing.

Create your own exercises

I think it was Steve Vai that said that there is nothing that cannot be put into an exercise. Some of my students who do this end up becoming the best. It is a great way to develop in areas that are part of your goals and that are not part of your strengths (yet). It is the area where you can transform your weaknesses into a strength and where you deepen your strengths to new levels. I stimulate all my students, to let the imagination, inspiration and that which you hear in your head to be a guiding factor in finding your own “voice”.  Almost without exception they find that their imagination and ideas are well ahead of their technical abilities. This is where your imagination becomes a guidance for your practice routine. YOU HAVE AN IDEA, BUT YOU CAN’T PLAY IT (yet). TURN IT INTO A EXERCISE!!!!

Six Key Areas of Practice

After getting to grips with the basics ( open chords, bar chords and simple single line playing and reading) the six key areas of practice are technique, song book, sight reading, ear training, theory, general knowledge.


Technique is the result of hand brain coordination and knowledge of the fingerboard. The only way to gain technique is by regular practice of scales , arpeggios, chords, melodic patterns, harmonic patterns, played in all possible ways throughout different relevant keys and different places on the neck of the guitar. Good technique is the key to being a good player. I personally have been helped a lot by various “shredding” resources. I will never be a shredder but focus on speed has helped me a lot in realizing to play some of the music that I was hearing in my head. It has helped me being more accurate in the execution of slower materials because I gained more control.


Repertoire is the learning and memorizing of tunes in the chosen area of study. If you are like me, someone with a very wide range of musical preferences, it will mean that you expose yourself to a wide range of ways to play the same chord sequences and to play solos in a way fitting to the style. It teaches you about traditions and intricate differences between different styles of music but most of all, IT TEACHES YOU WHAT THE COMMON DENOMINATORS ARE. Just imagine how much more effective you will be in practice if your practice regime includes common denominators.

Sight reading

Guitarists in general are not known for their sight reading qualities. And with tabs  available for almost anything it does not help. However, when you want to grow in a professional environment, sight reading will give you the edge and more importantly, it is achievable to play a sheet of music through daily practice. I require all my students t learn how to read rhythm at a minimum so they can read tabs with the music notation above. Combined with getting to know the names of the notes on your neck most will eventually get to learn music notation. It is a good thing however to learn to read music notation simply because there is a world of great music that does not come with tabs.

Ear training (Aural)

Good ear is not something you have to be born with, it can be trained. It is so beneficial if you can hear chord progressions and melodic lines and play them by ear immediately.


Is very helpful and helps you to understand what you are doing on your guitar, it helps seeing the bigger picture and the smaller details, how to use a capo, write music and arrangements.

General knowledge

Read about the history of music, biographies, know more about leading artists and different styles, how songs were written and produced, listen to a wide range of music and open yourself up to new ideas and concepts.


While all the key areas are of importance, to me music should at all times be fun as well. So in my practice routine I always incorporate some free play time. I think it was Vicky Genfan that said that she would start every day with ten minutes in which she tried something she had never done before. If that something you just imagined is to hard to execute: you now have an exercise. It could be just playing along with your favorite artist, groove with a drum machine whatever puts a big smile on your face.

In the next part we’ll have a look at how these practice areas could be made into a practice routine.

Key of G major workout

The following patterns and licks are aimed at building speed and strengthening the left hand and use groups of notes /motives in the key of G.

Exercise one is a legato way of playing the G major scale using three per string

This is a great way to start building some extra strength in those fingers and you will find it is a great way to build some extra speed as a result of all the legato notes. In the next tab I wrote down the same scale but the beat is now divided in groups of 4 (sixteenth notes), go this a go as well, the rhythm will give things a different feel.

Clever use of the different legato techniques will help you build speed, the following lick is an example of how this could be approached, using motives.

Again also in sixteenth notes

These licks will work of course great over a G chord, but I suggest you try them as well over the minor parallel Emin chord, or over the A minor chord and the C major chord.

For those that have been paying attention: the lick was derived from Steve Vai‘s blazing lick in “I would love to”

Around 2:47 the lick starts in a blazing speed!

Finally for some additional strength building here a final legato lick sliding up the neck.

The lick is hard work on the muscles if not used to it so don’t overdo it.

Also: work out some scalar patterns for yourself and see what you can do with it. And at all times do try to go faster than you can handle. You will find that over time your speed will get higher. One way to do this is by practicing a certain) series of licks and gradually build up the speed to the max, that will be your starting point for the next time and do the same again.

Have fun.

Thoughts on play along tracks and metronomes

I get regular questions as to whether to use a play along track or a metronome.

I guess it depends somewhat on the purpose: both are equally capable of helping you with your time. At the same time however when it comes to using it for the purpose of improvisation, I generally prefer the metronome. While having the whole band behind you, for instance using Band-in-a-Box or play along CD’s may seem great, I generally find that they are a limitation to my imagination. I can’t help but feeling that when it comes to improvisation practice: less is more. More than once it seems like the play along tracks direct you in a certain direction. So, I would generally prefer a metronome.

At the same time however, I realize that it may well not be that easy to hear the harmonic structure of a song and improvise on that especially when you are starting out. I guess that is where I’d go for using a midi file or band in a box file with just the bass or bass and drums.