How To Practice Guitar

One of my hopes for this notebook is to collect lesson ideas. Here is my first entry along that line.

When you practice a difficult piece of music, do you repeat the whole thing again and again, stumbling the whole way through, until the music eventually surfaces from under the mess of wrong notes, halting rhythm, and curses? That’s how I used to practice.

I started playing guitar when I was in the seventh grade, learning mostly from my friends Justin, a Jimmy Buffet fanatic, and Matt, a hair band shredder. While it was a varied education, one thing I didn’t learn was how to practice. I would attempt long passages of music—like Jimi Hendrix’s Castles Made of Sand—at top speed, again and again. I thought that was how everyone did it. The approach went something like this: make 50 mistakes on my first try, 48 on my second, 47 on my third, and in another decade, I’ll be able to play the whole thing with no mistakes! Now how the heck do I sing along?

The process was so slow and frustrating, I’m surprised I stuck with it at all. And I never did get Castles down.

Over the years, I got rid of a lot of those bad habits, but things really came together for me during lessons with Jay Roberts a few years ago. Here are the principles I distilled from those lessons:

  • We Repeat Musical Phrases to Build Muscle Memory Muscle memory is a mental record of repeated movements that enable us to move with no thought. When Hendrix sings “Castles Made of Sand” while playing all those gorgeous embellishments on his guitar, he’s not thinking much about his playing—his fingers just remember what they’ve played before. Most of his thought is probably going to singing, making those embellishments sound expressive, and impressing that cute girl in the front row.
  • Muscles Remember Mistakes The process of building muscle memory is simple: The body moves, and the mind records the movement. It records with no judgment, like a security camera filming a bank lobby or a stenographer typing testimony in a courtroom. So when you perform mistakes, your muscle memory records those movements just as it records correct movements. When you mess up, you might think, “Shoot, that’s the fifth time I hit that wrong note!” but your muscle memory is diligently recording the incorrect movement all the same.
  • Avoid Mistakes by Simplifying and Slowing Down When I was practicing “Castles Made of Sand,” I’d try a big musical phrase, and play it as fast as I could. Of course, it sounded like the cat was playing the guitar, and I was digging myself into a hole because my muscle memory was recording all those mistakes. What I should have done was simplify the music by just choosing a couple notes to work on at a time. Once I had those down, I could either try a few different notes, or add a few notes to the notes I’d already learned. Also, I should have slowed down enough to make correct playing easy. This is actually really hard to do—I’m constantly telling my students to slow down. It’s not just impatience, it’s that people don’t realize how slow slow is. Slow is however slow you need to go to play without mistakes. For beginners learning a lick, this could mean one note every three or five seconds. As Jay put it, “The slower you go, the faster you’ll get there.”
  • Simplifying Also Means Isolating the Skill You’re Learning Say you’re learning to strum a new song that has a new strum pattern and new chords. Your job is to build muscle memory both with your left hand (fretting the new chords) and your right arm (strumming the new pattern). The problem is, until you build muscle memory, you have to exert all your focus on the skill you’re learning, making sure you don’t make mistakes. So how do you focus on fretting those new chord shapes while making sure you strum correctly? You can’t. So instead, you practice the two skills separately. Fret the new chords and just strum once to make sure they sound good. Repeat. Then practice the strum pattern while fretting just one chord. Repeat. Once you have both skills in your muscle memory, you can practice them together.
  • Repeat Until You’ve Really Got It Jay said that it takes between 20 and 80 correct repetitions of a musical phrase—with no mistakes—to build muscle memory. If you make a mistake, simplify or slow down, and then start counting from one again. Whether it takes 20 or 80 depends on your natural aptitude. Eddie Van Halen is probably one of those 20-reps guys. I am closer to being in the 80 club, and proud of it. Go 80’s!
  • Learning Strum Patterns Is A Little Different I’ve found that you don’t have to be quite so militant about avoiding mistakes when you’re learning new rhythms, like a new strum pattern. While simplifying and slowing down is helpful, learning rhythms also involves the mysterious process of “getting into the groove.” It demands that you loosen up, stop worrying about sounding bad, and try to feel the music. So don’t worry as much about mistakes. Once you get the strum pattern down, you’ll have plenty of time to obliterate the mistakes from your muscle memory as you strum that pattern over and over and over and over.

I hope this revolutionizes the way you practice. It’s made my own practice so much more enjoyable and productive. Let me know if you’ve found it helpful, have any other tips, or if you’re interested in guitar lessons in Seattle.

Comments 68

  1. Hey, thanks for dropping by at my blog. it’s really great to have teachers like you sharing your tips. how i wish i’m in seatle or you are here so that you could be my teacher. i’m having a hard time struggling to play chords continuously. my chord seems truncated and i couldn’t make the song sound right. If i played, i couldn’t sing along. Well, i just started to learn guitar in January. I was looking at your guitar tabs and chords page. i couldn’t figure out how the strumming part goes. anyway, i’m playing a classical guitar not folk guitar. hope to hear from you. thanks for letting me join in your blog.

  2. Hey, thanks for dropping by my blog too. Great to know a dude who’s teaching guitar the right way =) I’ve been playing the six-string for 12 years, and have never grown tired of it. There are always new ways to rock.


    Big Fuzz

    And yes, Life’s Rich Pageant is an excellent album I own.

  3. Hey Shadow,

    Thanks for checking things out! Getting chord transitions to sound smooth is a big challenge when you’re starting out. Maybe I’ll write a blog entry on that topic soon….

    Check out my Guide to Reading Chord Charts (the link is at the top of the page listing the songs I teach) for help in understanding how I write out strum patterns. If there’s no strum pattern at the top of a song, let me know and I’ll add it.

  4. Great post on practicing. When I learn a song, I practice it till I drive everyone around me crazy. The part about muscles remember mistakes – that is so right! Eventually my hand muscles figure it out, and then I can concentrate on rhythm. I pick a lot in songs, like Hotel California, Is There Anybody Out There, Under the Bridge. I have trouble with bending and strumming, while I’m better at pounding, picking and sliding. I have small hands, and I’ve made my fingers stretch to 4 frets. My poor pinky just didn’t get it for such a long time, but now my pinky instinctively knows where it has to go when I want it to. It all takes lots of grueling practice, but the rewards are tremendous. I play for my friends, and they are always astounded over how far I’ve come in the past 5 years. Calluses are the most important thing to have on your finger tips. The thicker the calluses, the smoother the song sounds. This is a very inspirational blog – thanks!!!!

  5. What a great site you have here…good info and good vibes. I’ll definitely be bookmarking this one!

    I love that you wrote about muscle memory…i’ve definitely experienced that…here’s something I notice all the time, but have never heard anyone talk about it…sometimes I’ll try to play a song and will not be getting it…so after plucking away at it for a while, I’ll put the guitar down and do something else for the rest of the day. Almost miraculously, it seems like when I pick up my guitar the next day, it’s like my muscles/fingers/brain have metabolized what I was trying to do, and the thing i was having trouble with seems to be a lot more effortless. It’s like I put into my brain what I wanted to do, and then it needed to process it, and then when i try again, it works. Is this common? — Lucas …

      1. Thanks so much for openly sharing guys… this whole website has changed my life and your postings have put the words to my own issues. I may be way out geographically (new zealand), but your speaking my language. Thank you!

  6. This post was totally helpful. It really makes sense! something musicians of all types could most-likely gain from reading. keep up the interesting way you are able to present your insight/lessons learned from others. it’s one thing to know a lot of useful info– but to have a captivating presentation is KEY.. guess that goes for both performing and instructing (i was speaking more towards your instructing). 🙂


  7. Excellent advice. I have been playing for nearly 35 years and only recently (in the past several years) have discovered the truth in what you say. I have made more progress in the past 3 years than in 20 of the previous just by following the principles you outline above. The really difficult part is forcing oneself to play SLOWLY to get it right! I would like to add that mental state also contributes to how fast you learn and how many mistakes you make. When I am tired, I make mistakes much more easily due to loss of concentration, and have to slow down appropriately.
    I’m also interested in the physiological and psychological aspects of learning to play and how to best go about it. Another aspect is handedness. I have yet to find out why it is taught that right-handecd people “should” fret with left hand and pick with right. Seems that it would be more effective to do the reverse! FWIW I just want to point out that in “traditional” boxing (I was a martial artist before I got old!) the right-handed person fights with left side foward. Reasoning was that “strong side ” was in rear so that it could be used to deliver power. Bruce Lee rethought this and advocated fighting “strong side foward”, so that the side with more control is being used to deliver precision strokes the weaker side cannot deliver. I have fought both ways (I am a righty) and found thqt Bruce was correct. Anyway, at this point I’m not going to relearn guitar “lefty” style, I’ll just try to improve my current skills as much as possible. Please forgive the long-winded post!

  8. Hi,

    someone plz help. I can’t get strumming with a pick right.I’ve been trying for a long time.
    how to hold the guitar pick firstly.I know the websites mention there’s no one correct way.
    Also I have problem mainly on upstroke. I find the pick gets halted by the lower strings.
    I’ve tried different picks and different hand positions.
    Strumming with fingers does not sound loud enough.

  9. Hey Ashish,

    Check out my “Strumming 101” article for photos on how to hold the pick. The upstroke problem can be solved by one or more of these remedies:

    1) Make sure you’re holding the pick so that it’s perpendicular to the soundboard of the guitar

    2) Grip the pick more lightly (it will fall out of your fingers more when you do this, but you’ll learn how to hold onto it over time)

    3) Use a thinner pick

    4) Keep practicing! It gets easier.

    One other note about strumming upstrokes: Don’t feel like you need to hit all the strings on your upstroke. They tend to sound best if they’re not accented quite as much as a downstroke, so if you just hit three or four strings on the upstroke, that’s fine.

  10. hi all,
    thanx for all the advice.I ve a problem.I ve been studiying guitar for over 2 years now.But still while playing solo the notes seem to cut when i move from one not to another.I m not able to move from one note to another smoothly.I m quite comfortable with the chords n im able to move freely from one to another.Hope somebody will help me with my problem.

  11. I really appreciate your blog! I just started taking lessons at the beginning of December and I am struggling with chord transitions. I know the chords I just can’t get my fingers to move as a unit when changing chords. I am trying to go really slow but even then my fingers just don’t want to do what I want. I must be one of the “80” ++++ guys when it comes to muscle memory.

  12. this is a great site, and the advice is best summed up in one word: Slow! It’s also great to get some free advice; us “financially-challenged” folks appreciate it. Lastly, anyone heard Billy Idol’s last, and newest, cd? Steve Stevens is at his best, and Billy never sounded better. Saw him a year ago and wow!

  13. well done! very informative.. stopped by to say hello but was still enjoying hours later.


    ps#; I have penned a few songs, would you know of any site that a body could send them to in mp3 format

  14. Great tips – I totally agree with all of them with one small exception. I fan my fingers out and I pinky-post for individual notes and as you mentioned it restricts the wrist – and this is exactly why I do it. I use that to tighten my picking motion and I can very comfortably reach high speeds. I know many people are against it, but it works good for me.

  15. Mate – thanks for your tips and for this site. It is really great. I am living on a remote Island between mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea and there aren’t any teachers up here so internet lessons like this are a lifeline! Much appreciated. Meg from Thursday Island, Australia

  16. Hey Meg,

    Thanks for writing! I’m glad I could help. I’ve got a few Aussie friends here in Seattle, and I’m hoping to visit their home town with them some time.



  17. hi rob! just wanted to drop by and tell you how wonderful you are. and i wish you were in toronto so i could take lessons from you!!

    i’ve been playing for about six months but have so little time available to practice. i’ve been singing for years, but figured it was about time i learned to accompany myself. gosh, is it ever hard!! singing along is a major challenge because as soon as i start to sing, i lose the strum rhythm! gah.

    i’m trying to learn one or two songs at a time – right now it’s “the first cut is the deepest” and “boulevard of broken dreams”. thank you for the chords which i got from your site! one question: what do you mean by “A5”, “D5” etc.?

    i’ll take your excellent practice advice to heart – and let’s see how long it takes me to get the sheryl crow impersonation down! 🙂

    thanks so much for this site – it’s wonderful. i hope you can take a few minutes to visit my site – i am a writer.

    rock on!


  18. Hi Al,

    Thanks for writing! I’m looking forward to checking out your website.

    Singing while strumming is hard to learn. You have to get a strum pattern deep in your muscle memory, so that you can take your mind off it and it’ll keep going. Then it’s like jogging and talking at the same time–no problem.

    A5 and D5 are “power chords”. They’re like an A chord and D chord with one note (the “third”) removed. If you don’t play power chords yet, just play a regular A and D and they should sound fine.

    If they don’t, try an Am or Dm. Power chords are neither major nor minor, so figuring out whether to substitute a major or minor chord for them can be tricky. Your ear should clue you in, though.

    Have fun,


  19. Hi Rob. I can really relate to what Nick Maris says (from number 9 above) about him playing for many years but learning more in the past three years than the twenty before that. I have played strumming acoustic for nearly 28 years and have no major problems with it – but what i’ve REALLY always wanted to do is play smokin’ lead. Recently i have aquired several electric guitars (92 SG and 63 Guild T-50)and have been practicing nearly every waking moment. I am mainly working on scales, and will from now on slow down…i seem to have more problems with picking consistently and making unwanted non-played string noise than anyting else. Any suggestions my friend?

    Thanks for giving back to music!!

    Phil T.

  20. Hey, this is great advice! I am 37 years old, been playing on an off since I was sophomore in high school. I am mostly self taught, took lessons for about a year when I was 27. I have played rhythm in a cover band and sang. I got competent at guitar in my late 20’s early 30’s. That is, I could strum and sing just about any popular song you could think of on the radio. However, I could NEVER even come close to soloing, let alone bend a string.

    Over the past 3-4 years, I have been trying to get better at playing some lead. I struggle big-time with speed.

    The advice here is spot on! I would also like to add something to this advice though. Get yourself a good metronome and invest in some “slow down” software. I use a product from Roni music called “the Amazing Slow Downer” (cheesey name but it’s awesome – PS: I am NOT affiliated with this company at all – Tascam also makes a device you can use). With slow down software, you can start to attempt to tackle some of the solos you have been listening to for years and bring it down to a level that is possible to achieve success. I wish these tools were available when I was first starting out! I still can’t shred, but I find my playing is a little more fluent, smoother, and I am able to play some slower solos rather well, and the faster stuff usually at 80% of original speed or better – depending on the song. There is something to be said in successfully completing a musical passage – this can be possible with slow down software – rather than getting frustrated and telling yourself, “forget it, I cant play this – its too fast…NEXT!!!” I believe the 80 reps part too….. if you learned like me – you have probably developed some bad habits that you will need to “re-train” your muscles on. If you can’t play it right slow….. how do you think it’ll sound fast? Also, really watch (focus) on your hands and technique too minimize movement – tape yourself if necessary. I have found that many times I make more mistakes when I slow down – this is probably because I haven’t fully integrated the movement to muscle memory – it’s so hard to have the patience to go slow and break down a solo into to bits – but I am seeing the value more an more. Also, Slow down software is great for transcribing music too.

    Finally, I just want to comment on the lessons I read in Guitar Mags/videos etc – all the lessons based on speed are always played at tempos that are already too fast (well over 120bpm). This really ticks me off, don’t these people realize their target audience is probably struggling with speeds over 80bpm or less!!! I am not looking to be the next Michael Angelo Batio or Vai just able to pull off solos like Sultans of Swing, Heaven, and be able to execute some flurry’s of speed if you will. Why don’t these guys get it?

    Oh well good luck to all of you on your pursuit of playing better guitar

  21. cool site. i learned the guitar quite a few years ago, but kind of let it go. Now a few of the guys from work have started jamming. They needed a bass player, so i just went out and bought one. Ive never played the bass before,but i figure the acoustic guitar experience should help me. Going to try some of the free lessons tonight and see how it goes. Rock on everyone!!

  22. hi, i just started to learn how to play guitar and some of my m8’s told me this was the best place on the web for beginners. So like im going to try this site out.

  23. Just found your website last night while searching for a guitar tab for The Weight. You have pretty much everything here that I have been searching for for the past 2 months.

    I just started slowing down myself when learning new songs. It has helped me a lot. Go Muscle Memory. 🙂

  24. Just read your articles and you are bang on, my strumming isn’t that good at the minute but after a bit of muscle memory I can now do the start of Summer of ’69 Unplugged (Dsus2, D, Dsus4, Dsus2, D and then the A bits). It really is fantastic when someone gives you that little nudge that everything is going OK and a few days later you can play properly part of a song.

    Also thanks for the strumming article I am working my way through it ASAP.

  25. Nice article. I will definitely try to incorporate these into my repertoire.

    +1 on The Amazing Slow Downer! It’s been a tremendous help to me trying to learn leads too.

  26. Hi Rob your website is excellent love the look of it and the neat sections you have on different topics.I was wondering if can you please post the strumming pattern for the song El Mariachi by Los Lobos(OST-Desperado)
    Keep up the excellent work.

  27. Hi Rob!

    I’m a beginner beginner, and your site is a huge help. I love Patty Griffin, and I was really excited when I noticed that Moses only has three easy chords. But I can’t figure out her strum pattern for the life of me. Could you add that to the tabs?

    Thanks for everything you’ve posted!

  28. Just realized you didn’t post tabs for Moses–I just posted about that on your Strumming 101 page, because I thought it was this page…

    Apparently the internet confounds me. Anyways, keep up the great work.

  29. No problem, Julia. And I love “Moses”–my ex-girlfriend was really into Patty Griffin, and she got me hooked. I’m hoping one of my students will request it.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  30. Really aaprecialbe lessons.. ut matters how much one can take from it … The best sayin’ for one and all is the slower you go the faster you reach there

  31. This was extremely helpful. One thing that guitar playing has definitely taught me is patience. I’ve heard of muscle memory but I didn’t really appreciate how to develop it until reading this. Thanks again.

  32. The greatest example of learning slow and eventually commiting everything to muscle memory is driving. When you start out 30mph seems extremely fast and your head is spining with trying to remember all of the functions required. When you are an experienced driver you don’t think about changing gear (shift stick cars) or any of the other operations to successfully drive a car, in fact you have sometimes driving quite a distance without remembering you drove that distance (this is scary). Great web site and info.

  33. Hi Rob,
    I’m having some problem with the Celtic strumming pattern that goes something like this DUD UDUD but i’m not sure it’s correct. Much obliged if you could help with the up down strokes and the timing. Thanks very much

  34. Hi,

    I am teaching myself how to play guitar and I find your site really helpful. You have a generous heart indeed to put up those 300 songs absolutely free.

    One of the most frustrating things that a beginner like myself faces is figuring out the right strum pattern. And one of the reasons I love your site so much is because you have also included the strum pattern with almost all the songs. I’m glad I found this site. God bless.


  35. thanks so much for the tip!! ive been trying to get that remy zero – perfect memory songs’ strumming.. it just doesnt seem right.. 🙁
    anyway.. ill try your tips.. thanks a tonne!!


  36. Hi Rob!
    Thanks for the tips in this entry. I’ve been applying them to the way I practice for a few weeks and the effect is dramatic!!

    I actually see myself improving from session to session! Thanks for all the great tabs too, really excellent (the strum patterns are worth their weight in gold!).

  37. Some great info! I’ve been playing for a lot of years, and although my training was more classical, I’m branching out more and more as time goes on.

  38. Great advice! You should put one other aspect up. Sleep. Sleeping allows your mind and your muscles to digest all they’ve learned. And I don’t mean sleeping all night, even a nap seems to help when I’m strumming away and my head and hands start to ache. Thanks and here’s to your continued success!

  39. hey man thanks for the great post. i have a huge problem with practicing and improving on skills. this helps learn exactly how muscle memory works with playing guitar. I easily get discouraged on playing and making mistakes, im too one of those people who play a piece as fast as possible and try to get it on the first try.

  40. Thanks for the advice it helps to know if you are playing wright or not.I had doubts but now i don’t.Thanks for the lessons.Please post more of you’re lessons if you have any.About certain sounds that you can make whit you’re guitar.:D

  41. I’ve only just found this site and already enjoying it. I have learnt to play the guitar mostly through watching others. Through this post I’ve been able to find out the name of the chords. My learning has always been through hearing. This is OK with only a few chords and the song is quite straightforward. I have problems differentiating the sound of different chords so that I can play songs which do not have chords to guide you. Is there a quicker or easier way of learning the different sounds of the various chords to be able sing and play any song you like?

  42. Heh i just started playing guitar and im teaching myself just by looking up tabs and lessons and i came across this blog today and its just really great.
    Ive been practicing like crazy but apparently the wrong way 😛

    anyways i started off on an acoustic guitar 2 months ago ( epiphone dr200s ) and i started practicing picking parts of songs like say the solo from californication ( ez stuff) bought a epihpone riviera 2 weeks ago ans since then praticing chords and actually its going great! already learned wonderwall and like half the songs u got listed in another post u made ( btww another ez song for strumming and picking and great to learn the Bm is Kryptonite from 3 doors down 🙂 )

    but with the tips u just gave on how to practice its going to be even better

    just wanted to thank you for all the tiem u put in this blog

  43. hi thanks for all your very usefull tips, ive been practising sultans of swing dire straights, ive been playing a number of years on and off, i have no probs with all the fiddly bits in the song, all the small riffs in between verses… then comes the final solo, i cannot for the life of me get that fast twiddly bit to anywhere near the speed mark knopfler does it, ive even slowed the backing track down to 92 percent of the original speed, mark uses his fingers not a pick, and my fingers wont let me get that speed, ive practiced this song only for 4 weeks now, slowing down my pace, i play along no prob then when it comes to that final bit in solo 2 my fingers give up.
    i know exactly what notes and how to play it, but speed is the only prob.
    what do i do to sort this prob out, any suggestions please.

  44. over the past 6mos to a year i’ve been teaching myself to play with a dvd format, and its and excellent format, but i feel it falls short on strum patterns. now, my ever so faithful friend just hangs on the wall, wanting to be in my hands. im stuck im at a plateau, and i dont know what to do. if i cant strum, i cant play. any advice as to how to learn how to strum so i can pick back up with my lessons and move on? thanks.

  45. I always like to play the guitar phrasing separately and then join the phrases together after getting them down pat individually – divide and conquer. I also wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts on muscle memory. It is a very powerful phenomenon and the reason that a musician must learn a piece right the first go around. If you learn it the wrong way, the muscle’s memory makes it hard to correct later on. I’d also like to add one should always audiate, or listen reflectively and carefully, the entire time they are practicing the guitar. Audiation will have a profound impact on deliberate and reflexive control of the muscles. Most would think this goes without saying and that they already listen well enough. But, if you stop to assess how intimately you are actually listening, you’ll most likely find that you haven’t been doing it carefully enough.

  46. Your tips have really helped in my guitar playing. I always used that method of playing continuously. I only started learning last year but my teacher wants me to perform a jazz solo onstage. This helped me learn better so i was able to play that solo. thanks

  47. Just stumbled on your blog. I’ve Been playing for 14 years. To make things short, this is by far the best article on guitar I’ve ever read on the Internet. I took me years to figure this out.

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  48. Thanks for all the great information on your site. I have been playing for 6 months (learning on my own) and knew that I was not using great technique but for motivation I had to get playing songs right away so I went ahead and banged out the chords using pretty flat fingers and strings “abuuzzing”. Now that I have a pretty nice set of callouses and can make some chord changes without dropping the beat, I want to learn the many strumming patters and also incorporate chords with some lead notes. I am now taking it slow to curve those fingers while picking out notes in between chords. I know muscle memory is both a curse (if you are using the muscles incorrectly) and a blessing, but I know with practice–as long as I keep making changes that result in correct notes ringing pure while keeping the rhythm, I’ll get there. Thanks again!!

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