When I started teaching myself to play guitar I didn’t know where to start. Everything I tried seemed impossible. The most simple lesson books felt out of my league. I still struggle to figure out what I should be practicing and working towards. There are so many types of music that I would love to play but there is such a huge gap between the skills I have and the skills I need.
Eventually I chose two introductory lesson books, Hal Leonard Guitar Method and Guitar Aerobics, and over the last 250 hours of practice I have been working my way through them. While I have made progress in both I have caught myself multiple times skipping exercises that were too difficult and spending too much time on exercises that came easily to me.
As a result my progress would eventually stall as I reached a point where the skills I failed to develop in the earlier exercises caught up to me. Each time I realize this I start back at the beginning of these books and force myself to focus on my areas of weakness instead of my strengths.
During my last self-review I I realized that there were two major areas that were holding me back: Sight-reading and Barre chords. Once I had uncovered these two areas of weakness I created a practice routine that focused on improving these skills.
My Practice Routine
- Tuning (2 min)
- Warm-up (5 min)
- Sight-reading (5 min)
- Barre chord arpeggios (5 min)
- Sight-reading (5 min)
- Barre chord arpeggios (5 min)
- Open chord strumming (5 min)
The first thing I do every practice session is tune my guitar. I used to use an electronic tuner to tune each string individually but based on some advice from Lukas over at The Aspiring Guitarist I have been trying to tune my guitar by ear in order to train my ears.
I start off by tuning the low E string using the electronic tuner. This gives me an accurate starting point and then I work my way up the strings tuning each string to the previous one. Once I have tuned each string by ear I will check them against the electronic tuner to see how close I got. If there is a discrepancy I will try it again by ear to see if I can hear the difference.
Once the guitar is in tune I do a simple warm-up exercise. This is a pretty common exercise where you play every note in the musical scale in first position. I know what speed is at the edge of my abilities so I usually start right below that. Currently that means I set the metronome at 180-200 bpm and work on going up and down the neck about ten times. After 10 reps my hands start to cramp up and I shake them out and jump into my first exercise.
As I am doing this warm-up I focus on a number of things:
- Playing each note in time. I sometimes go too fast as I am ascending or descending on the same string and too slow when I transition to a string above or below. Since I always practice with a metronome I can hear when I am getting ahead or behind.
- Playing each note clean. I listen to the clarity of each note that I am playing and strive for clean notes without any buzzing. If my fret hand has shifted and I am no longer in the correct position or if I am not applying the appropriate amount of force I will make adjustments.
- Releasing each note clean. I also focus on releasing each note cleanly. If I come off rough then it will let out a noise on release. I try to stay gentle and release each note cleanly so that I don’t make a noise.
Sight-Reading (5 min)
Now that my guitar is in tune and my hands are warmed up I work on a sight-reading exercise. I have been working my way through the Hal Leonard book so I figure out what exercise I am on and I play it at increasing speeds: 40, 48, 58, 72, 84, 96, 108, and 120 bpm.
A normal practice session will involve starting on an exercise at a low speed and figuring out the notes and rhythm. As soon as I can play it cleanly I increase the speed. Once I have played it a couple times clean at 120 bpm I move onto the next exercise.
Since I am playing simple exercises and tunes I have been able to work through one or two exercises a day. Eventually this will slow down as the exercises get harder and longer.
When I am sight reading I find that I am going through a series of mental steps:
- Translate the musical notation. The first thing I have to do is translate the symbol on the staff into a note and time. This is harder than it sounds and reminds me of translating Virgil word by word in Latin.
- Find the note on the fretboard. Once I know what note to play I have to figure out where it is on the fretboard. Right now I am working mostly with the C scale in first position but I imagine this step would be much more challenging as you change scales and positions.
- Place my finger in the right location. Now that I know the note and the location on the fretboard I have to get the correct finger in place. The hours of practice I invested in learning a variety of minor pentatonic exercises come in handy here because my finger independence and dexterity is greatly improved.
- Play each note in time. Once I have the finger in the correct location I have to play it on time and for the correct duration. I always practice with the metronome and over time my ability to stay on beat has definitely tightened up.
- Read ahead to the next symbol. While the previous steps are going on I need to look ahead to the next couple symbols to anticipate what is coming up. I find this takes a tremendous amount of focus, akin to doing math in your head, and if I am distracted in the slightest all the information I had stored in my mental RAM crashes and have to start over.
Barre Chord Arpeggios (5 min)
I usually have to stop myself in the middle of sight-reading to do some work on my barre chords. Right now I am working on a G-D-C chord progression using the 6th and 5th root barre chords.
I already wrote about how I have really slowed this exercise down in order to develop the dexterity to transition from chord to chord and the strength to hold them down so that each note rings out clean. I started at 20 bpm and have climbed up to 65 bpm . I try to do as many reps as I can in 5 minutes but my hand strength usually fails before time is up.
I have been using arpeggios instead of strumming to learn barre chords. Arpeggio just means that you play one string at a time instead of strumming them all at once. They are very useful for learning new chords and provide better feedback than strumming.
When I am practicing Barre chord arpeggios I try to:
- Use my arm and back strength. It is easy to rely too much on my finger, wrist and forearm muscles to hold down the barre. I try to channel Little Jenny and pull the guitar into my body using the larger muscles of my arms and back. By recruiting the larger muscles of my body I can take the load off my fingers and wrists and play longer.
- Play each note clean. The trickiest part of barre chords is holding down all the strings with one finger. If you don’t have steady pressure across all the strings then they won’t sound clean. Whenever I get a buzzing or muffled string I check my finger position and fix it before moving on.
- Play each note in time. It is so difficult to shift to the next chord shape that it is tempting to rush the last note of the arpeggio and jump to the next chord. I force myself to stay on time and I do not increase the speed unless I am regularly making the switch in time.
- Make efficient transitions. As I increase the speed I am finding smoother ways to transition between each chord. The goal is to have as little hand and finger movement as possible to reach the new chord. For instance, to transition between the 5th root C chord and the 6th root G chord I merely “roll” my 2nd and 3rd fingers and do not even lift them off the strings.
- Relax my body. When I am practicing barre chords I find my whole body tensing up. It starts with my fingers and wrist but it spreads up into my arms, back, core and legs. The more tense I am the harder it is to play and the faster I get tired. When I focus on relaxing my body I find it easier to both hold the chord and to pick the notes.
Sight Reading (5 min) & Barre Chord Arpeggios (5 min)
Once I have exhausted my grip strength practicing the barre chords I will return to the sight-reading exercise I was working on earlier and will try it again at the fastest speed I had reached. By taking a break it provides somewhat of a fresh read on the music and results in a slightly more accurate test of my sight-reading skills.
The sight-reading exercises give my muscles a chance to rest and recover and then I jump back into the barre chord exercises. I almost always play smoother during the second set.
Open Chord Strumming (5 min)
I use strumming chords as a cool down and to have a little bit of fun. Chord progressions are enjoyable for me because they are the closest thing I can do that actually sounds like real music. I have a number of different chord progressions I play: G-Em-C-D, D-A-G, D-A-E-B7, Dm-C-F, etc.
I am not content just playing the same chord progressions at the same speeds over and over. Here are a number of different ways that I spice up and challenge myself while strumming chord progressions:
- Change the tempo. I like to speed up and slow down the tempo gradually while I play. I will start strumming at a slow pace and then slowly and smoothly increase the tempo. Once I am at full speed I will reverse direction and begin to slow down. It really tests your ability to feel the rhythm and to gradually change speeds.
- Change the volume. One night my son was getting excited by my loud playing when he was supposed to be winding down for bed. I tried to play the same chord progression quietly and realized that it can be really challenging to strum the chords softly and still get a nice tone out of the instrument.
- Improve the tone. There are an infinite number of ways that you can hold and play a chord. Depending on how your fingers are placed, proximity to the fret, angle of attack of each finger, how much pressure you are applying, force and direction of the pick, etc…. you will get a slightly different sounding chord. As I am strumming I try to adjust these variables to get the best tone.
- Change up the strumming pattern. I probably have ten strumming patterns that I practice regularly but I am constantly looking for new variations to learn or create on my own. A new strumming pattern can make an old chord progression sound fresh and new. It also changes the workout focus from your chord hand to your strumming hand.
I plan to stick with this practice routine until my 300 hour milestone at which point I will assess my progress. Right now my goal is to continue practicing 30 minutes a day. I don’t have an over-arching goal to my playing other than to be good enough. As I have stated before I am not planning on becoming a professional musician and I don’t expect to master the instrument.
I also am not sure what type or style of music I want to specialize in. Eventually I hope I will be inspired to focus more deeply on a certain playing style or genre of music but until then I will continue to work through these exercise books and develop the base skills that will allow me to test the waters of a number of different styles as I find my way.
If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy:
300 Hours of Deliberate Practice on Guitar
How to Practice Deliberately on Guitar
Pushing Through a Learning Plateau on Guitar
Focus on Base-Skills to Build a Solid Foundation
Who Wants to be a Master? I Want to be Good Enough!