What Should I Practice?

by Matt on November 28, 2011

If I had dollar for every student who sat across from me and told me they didn’t know what to practice, I would be wealthy. It’s been my experience that a lot of really motivated people simply crash and burn for lack of a understanding where to get started practicing. This article should help point you in the right direction and get you rocking out in the mirror in no time.

If you lived in a cave and didn’t know anything about guitar playing, and you saw it for the first time, you would observe the player to be doing one of three things at all times. 1.) Strumming (swinging  the right hand wildly back and forth across a given set of strings) 2.) Single-note playing (using the pick or fingers to play a single or sometimes double note melody or solo.) 3.) Or you would see them using their fingers to play several musical lines at once-much like a piano player would.) Truthfully, that’s where you have to start when you think about what you should practice.

Each of these things are separate entities. You should decide which one appeals to you the most first. There is no reason to try to learn all three at once. As a matter of fact, it would probably only hinder you. Here’s a breakdown of three and the order that’s most beneficial to learn them in.


The study of chords, chord theory, and rhythm. Learning to strum with your right hand, oddly,  involves alot of wear-and-tear on your left hand finger tips at first. It also involves learning numerous chord shapes with the left hand and pressing them down with enough strength to let them ring clearly.

Above and beyond that, there is the study of chord construction, which will tell someone what notes belong in a particular chord and why they’re together in the first place. It isn’t necessary to know chord theory to be able to strum a song. It definitely makes sense of why certain chords always seem to show up together. It also helps immensely if you want to write your own music. But, to put it in perspective, there are alot of famous musicians who couldn’t tell you what they were doing if their life depended on it.

Learning to strum also means studying rhythms like a drummer. Half of the time a strumming pattern is just a guitar version of the drum beat. So, it’s not enough to know some chord shapes. You have to be able to switch between them in perfect time to make a song seem cohesive . In a nutshell, it’s learning to keep an obvious, steady pulse going while you play so that people can understand the time frame the song is in.

Single-Note Playing:

This is the next logical progresion for someone who has a good foundation in chords and strumming. This is also an excellent place to start with a child who’s hands might not be strong enough to play chords just yet. Learning single-note playing usually involves learning scales and many of the classical exercises that come to mind when you think of Do Re Mi etc. It’s is not near as hard on the fingers of the left hand as chording.

Along with this style of playing often comes the tradition of learning to read music. Again, I will tell you, it isn’t necessary to know how to read music to play this way. Luckily, there is a modern method for writing guitar music now called Tablature. With “Tab“, as it is also called, all you need to do is know how to count and you can learn how to play almost anything you like. Tab is so common, it’s in the magazine isle at the grocery store.  So much of this style is pattern based. Patterns that you can see and easily memorize. Many student learn this style from copying famous guitar songs and solos. This is also where you go if you want to learn how to improvise your own solos and the like.


Fingerstyle is a whole other animal. This style involves the other two styles in their entirety and then some so it only makes sense to learn this once a solid foundation is established in the other two ways of playing. It is the guitar equvalent of piano playing…or spinning plates for that matter. Practicing this style involves an almost completely different set of exercises than the other two. With fingerstyle a player is usually responsible for a bass part, a rhythm part, and a melody all at the same time. It is much more mentally demanding than the other two ways of playing, however, many people feel it is much more gratifying at the same time. It has a wholeness that many players find very appealing. Fingerstylist usually gravitate towards acoustic or nylon guitars since they generally facilitate this style of playing better. There are seemingly no musical boundaries for fingerstyle either. It is practiced by people from all genres. Good examples of this style can be heard in the music of Chet Atkins, Andres Segovia, Michael Hedges, etc. just to name a few.

Well, there you have it. I hope this helps to break practicing the guitar down into some more easily digested chunks for you. One of the greatest things about the guitar is that there are so many ways to express yourself with it. Pick the style that is most interesting to you and have at it. Private teachers, books and youtube videos abound on each subject so there’s no excuses for not learning anymore… so… stretch those fingers out and get cracking.

Until next time,

Matt Venus







{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

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Matt December 30, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Hi, Matt

I’m learning to play guitar. Would you say that it is easier to read sheet music or tabs in the…in the first place?


Matt December 30, 2011 at 5:59 pm

It’s easier to read TAB if you are learning “where” to do something on the guitar but, on the flip side of that coin, traditional tab doesn’t tell you anything about the rhythmic aspect of the guitar part. That’s why you almost never see tab printed without the sheet music on top of it. Alot of the major guitar publications are switching over, no doubt in the interest of saving space, to a hybrid system of the two. It uses TAB for hand positioning sake but, notates the rhythm like traditional sheet music, for every note. The best of both worlds really. Anyway, hope this helps. MV


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Matt January 7, 2012 at 2:19 pm

I hope it helped.


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