On Practicing: Creating an effective practice routine through incremental change

In this series I will discuss strategies to create an effective practice routine. Creating and sticking to an effective practice routine helps students at any level – from the beginning guitarist to the most advanced professional musician. While practice material will evolve as you progress, a good practice routine will help you reach new levels at a faster pace. 

In my previous On Practicing article I discussed the difference between playing and practicing. Practice time should be focused on material you are not familiar with – that is the key difference between playing and practicing. When practicing it is easy to let your mind wander and to end up noodling or playing. This article will help you develop a focused practice routine.

Incremental Change

One of the keys to a creating a successful practice is to utilize the power of incremental change. Incremental change is all about making small gains over a long period of time to create big results rather than trying to make a big change all at once. For our practicing this means focusing on multiple topics for less time over and over to gain new skills on the guitar. Check out this blog post by Michael Hyatt for further reading on incremental change.

We will take a one-hour practice session and divide it into four 15-minute segments. Be sure to practice with a metronome throughout your practice routine. Set a timer and stick to a strict schedule. As soon as the timer goes off move on to your next 15-minute segment. The hour will be up before you know it and you will have practiced four skills.

Here are four broad areas to practice. The skills that you practice from each area will evolve as you progress as a guitarist. If you have more than an hour to practice in a given day you can either touch on each skill again or choose a different skill from a certain area.

  1. Technique – scales, exercises, warm-ups, etc.
  2. Harmony – chords, voice-leading, styles, etc.
  3. Linear Playing – scales, arpeggios, licks, melodies, styles, transcriptions, etc.
  4. Repertoire – learning new music and reviewing music you already know.

Keeping a Practice Journal

It is very helpful to document your practice time. Simply write down the date and what you focused on for each 15-minute segment. You can use this free practice journal or a simple notebook to keep track of your practicing. Documenting your practice time will help guide your following practice sections and is also really great to look back and see what you were working on in years past and how you have progressed.

Here is a page out of my practice journal from 2014. My goal during this period was to practice for three hours per day. I did not meet this goal every day but even my one hour days were productive because of the way I was practicing. This particular page also includes my physical exercise during that time.


My practice routine is largely inspired by this video from my friend Jake Hanlon:


I challenge you to dedicate yourself to improving your guitar skills through incremental change. Becoming a fluent musician at any level requires patience. Stick with it and you see improvement over time.

“Sometimes you want to give up the guitar, you’ll hate the guitar. But if you stick with it, you’re gonna be rewarded.”

-Jimi Hendrix