By Griff Hamlin
Coming up with the best guitar practice routine is a matter of first deciding what your goals are. For most guitarists when they think of a practice routine, the goal is to improve speed and technique. For some, sight reading may also be an area that needs work, as well as improvisation, soloing, rhythm and timing issues. What follows is what I've used and developed over the course of the last 20 years to get my technique and artistry to where I want it to be.
First, let's look at where you are. If you don't already know how to play the Pentatonic scales and diatonic scales, you need to do that first. Once you have them all memorized, let's look at how to work with those, and chromatic exercises as the basis for the best guitar practice routine for you and your needs. There are links to pdf files of these scales on my website as well as many others out there.
To start with, you need to set aside about 30 minutes for nothing but technique practice, and it shouldn't be the very first thing that you do. My suggestion is to start with reading practice while you get your fingers warmed up. That way, they're ready to go when you start with the metronome. If you're not working on your reading, then warm up with some easy music. I like to warm up with a couple of studies from the book "Classical Studies for Pick-Style Guitar" by William Leavitt. There's 2 studies in there by a violinst named Kreutzer that I really like to use. I use these for warm-up, so don't try to play them at top speed. Paganini also has some famous violin pieces that have been transcribed for guitar and make good practice tools.
If you are practicing your reading, my former teacher, David Oakes, has a great book called "Music Reading for Guitar" that is very good. In addition, I like the "Reading Studies for Guitar" book by William Leavitt. There are certainly others, but these are well known and respected books on sight reading for guitar, which we all know is a big problem. As for the amount of time, I've done everything from 2 hours per day to very little, and I can't see that past about 15 minutes there's a huge amount of benefit. If you read for about 15 minutes per day, you will get better, it's that simple. Reading is something that must be practiced daily or close to it to keep your chops up.
Now that you're all warmed up, let's start working the scales and pushing the speed a little bit. I start with the pentatonic and blues scales. You'll notice that they are all written in the key of A minor/C major. Once you have learned them in this key, they transpose to other keys simply by moving them. If you want to be in the key of F minor, just move all of the boxes down 4 frets from the A to the F and away you go. What I like to do is set a metronome at an easy pace, around 120, and play all 5 boxes in F minor at that pace. You can use eighth notes, triplets, or sixteenth notes depending on your level of proficiency. In other words, either play 2 notes per beat, 3 notes per beat, or 4 notes per beat depending on how fast you can already play the scales.
Once you've finished all 5 boxes, move up to the key of F# minor, and increase the speed on the metronome by 5 BPM. Repeat the process with every key. Once you get up to around B, you'll probably start running out of fretboard. No problem, when it gets too far up the neck, just go down an octave by subtracting 12 frets. You'll be playing the same notes, just one octave lower.
Once you've done this with all of the pentatonic and blues scale patterns, move on to the diatonic scales. You can do one scale in all keys, then move on, or do all the scales in one key, and then move on. I would start with F# since you'll have open strings if you use F. What I do is to start with G major, then A dorian, B phrygian, C lydian, D mixolydian, E aeolian, F# locrian. Then move on to G# major, A# dorian, etc.
Once I've done just the scale patterns, I go back and practice the broken thirds and stepwise thirds and usually stepwise fourths as well if I have time. Another fantastic book to add to your collection is from the Guitar Grimoire series and it's the Exercise Book. The author, Adam Kadmon, has written out what effectively has been my own personal practice routine for years. It's an outstanding book if you want the best guitar practice routine right in front of you without having to come up with it.
After all of that is done, take a break! Your hands will likely be tired, and you've been concentrating which tires your body out. Get up for a few minutes and walk around. Shake out your hands and wrists. Get some water, a bite to eat, whatever.
After all of that, it's play time. Depending on what you're trying to learn right now, this is always open ended. If you're working on your improvisation, then play with some jam tracks and work on licks. If you're learning a song, now's the time to do that. Spend some time at the end of every practice session doing what's really the most fun to you. You should notice that after having practiced all of your scales and taken a few minutes of break, you're playing better than you have before. Now go practice!
Griff Hamlin is a professional guitarist, singer, and songwriter in southern california. For more information on him or his music, please visit http://www.griffhamlin.com. For access to Griff's Guitar Community pages visit http://www.griffhamlin.com/community.
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