By Byron Marks

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There are a lot of guitar players that spend a majority of their time playing the same things over and over again. They don’t make any improvements in there guitar playing. They wait for a breakthrough and never change their approach to practicing. They wonder why they aren’t getting any better. Does this sound like you? I know that I used to “practice” this way.


In this example the guitar player doesn’t improve in the area(s) they are weak in. Instead, they play the things that are easy or the most fun to play.

Don’t get me wrong. You should have some time to play guitar for fun and relaxation, it’s cool to pick up a guitar and play for fun. That should not be a majority of your dedicated practice time. Especially if you are a beginning guitar player.

There are many reasons why guitar players confuse playing guitar with practicing guitar.  In this article I am going to talk about some of those reasons. I will also talk about ways to figure out whether you are practicing guitar and playing guitar.

The definition of practice is:

Perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency.

Using this definition, think about what your typical practice session is like. Are you focused and working to push your guitar playing forward? Are you playing things over and over again and making no progress?


Ways to turn your playing into practicing

Let’s use a common example of playing through a song to show ways to turn playing into practicing. In this example you are playing through a song that you like playing. We will assume that you are able to play the song from start to finish.

Do you play the song all the way through without focusing on the techniques needed? Instead of doing that, look at the different techniques/skills that you will need to play the song. One idea would be to write those techniques down, then see how well you are able to use those skills or techniques.

Sample Technique Checklist:

Strumming Pattern(s)



In our example song, you have used these three skills to play the song. If you are playing the song, are you looking at how you can use the song to improve your existing skills. Each one of these skills can be broken down in to subsets that will allow you to focus on specific techniques.



Skill : Strumming patterns

Subset: Rhythm/Timing:

  1. Tempo – Are you able to play the song at full speed, changing chords when they need to change, staying in time with the song? If you can, could you also do this while playing the song at a speed faster than the recorded tempo?
  1. Rhythm – What would it sound like if you played a different rhythm pattern, than what is on the recording? Would you be able to change your rhythm with no issue(s)? Would you be able to go back and forth between your new rhythm and the one you played before?

Skill: Arpeggios


Upstrokes – many beginning guitar players have a hard time playing upstrokes. This is a great way to start to improve your upstrokes. See if your upstrokes are good by listening to the tone of any one note when playing a downstroke and an upstroke. Does the note sound the same, regardless of what picking motion you are using?


Skill: Rhythm/Timing


Tension – When you are playing the song, do you feel any excess tension in your arms, shoulders or hands? Do you notice this at slower speeds? Faster speeds? If so, you will need to practice, playing more relaxed and staying aware of the level of tension in your body as you play. Practice this at a slow speed to begin.

The above examples are some of the things that you can take a look at while playing through a song or many songs. These are effective ways to guarantee that you are getting the most value out of your practice time. Using this approach will also help you notice issues in your guitar playing. You will also make sure that each time you play your guitar you are improving.


About the author:  Byron Marks is a professional guitar teacher who teaches guitar lessons for beginners in Manchester, New Hampshire