1 The Empowered Musician The Infinite Guitar
The Art of Practice and the Practice of Art - Developing a Healthy Practice Routine
Published April 26th, 2007. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

I've recently received many e-mails with specific questions on developing a good practice routine, although I talked about this somewhat in the "Where do you go From Here" article and in "The Infinite Guitar" let's examine this subject a bit more and see if we can shed a little light on what we as aspiring guitarists should and should not be doing during our daily practice routine. Remember the main goal of practicing is not simply learning something but getting that something into our playing. If it doesn't get in to our playing, it means nothing. That is why I always tell my students to only practice what they are going to use.

The Power of Visualization - First of all, before you even decide what you should be practicing, you have to know what your goals are. What you practice is simply the process in which will take you there. Most of us start out practicing because we are supposed to, we know that practice makes perfect and we want to be perfect players. But what is the perfect player? What can he do specifically that we can't? The answer may be slightly different for each of us, and we all have a slightly different image of what kind of player we dream to be. But this image is important. Take a minute and imagine yourself as the perfect player, as if God himself created you that way. Are you visualizing yet? Before you can be anything, you have to see yourself that way. I'll just suppose that you and I are sort of the same, and aspire for the same goals. We'll assume together that the great musician that we both want to become:

  • Does not simply know every scale and arpeggio known to man but uses them to create a guitar solo that paints a picture to the listener. Can play anything his mind tells him to, not hindered by technique. He has a voice on his instrument. Is a virtuoso but not for the sake of virtuosity, but for the sake of musical freedom.
  • Has a complete understanding of harmony. He is capable of playing the chords with both a pick and with his fingers because he sees the virtue of polyphony. He understands chords and their voicings are not to be taken for granted and the subtle differences in these voicings make the difference between average music and exquisite music. He connects these voicing using good voice leading.
  • May have personal musical preferences, but is well versed in all styles. He is connected to the music he plays because he knows where the origins of this music is.
  • Understands the mathematics of music thus is capable of playing over any set of chord changes no matter how abstract or seemingly random these changes may be. Understands that chords and harmony are born from scales and sees that melodic and harmonic concepts overlap. He sees the musical whole picture.
  • Is literate in the language of music meaning he is capable and comfortable writing charts as well as reading them.
  • Is capable of good listening and through listening is capable of absorbing music. His ears are developed to the point that he can transcribe music.
  • Above all, is musical in all he does, to such an extent that what he plays creates an emotional experience for the listener.

Now I said all these things in a fancy way but basically I am saying that to be a good musician we should be well versed in all the scales and arpeggios and have some degree of proficiency at playing them. However we should be able to use them in a musical way and not just have fast fingers. We should also know how to play a bunch of different styles and not necessarily be glued down to one. We should also have a good understanding of chords and pay close attention to the way we play them. We should have a good understanding of the foundation of popular music, which I think is the Blues by the way. We should also have a trained ear. We should also be literate in the language of music meaning that we can read and write it. All these things should be tied together by a good knowledge of music theory, that way we know what to play, when to play it and what our choices are. And last, being the most important, is that we should be able to throw all these things into a bag and make music out of them or none of it counts for much.


By the way, don't misinterpret me; I'm not saying these things are what makes a professional, just an exceptional player. It is half the battle if you plan on making a living as a musician. But the other things you can't practice on the guitar, you have to practice them on your life. Things like being motivated, open minded, responsible, flexible, available, nice, and business minded will come into practice in your professional life, but that is not the subject of this article (it is however the subject of my new book: "The Empowered Musician"). Now back to practicing. Let's start with our daily routine. I say "daily" because that is what it has to be. It can't be four hours today and nothing for the next three. You have to make it a habit like eating and taking a shower. The longer you do it the better but even two hours every day will get you results, as long as it is every day. You can take one day off to goof around, but other than that, every day. The conventional wisdom is that to become proficient at guitar, or anything for that matter, it will take about 10,000 hours. If you practice three hours a day, it will take about ten years. If you practice six, it will take five years. This should make you happy because I am telling you that talent is not that great a consideration, time is the point. Of course good practice habits are very important. Before you start you will want to check your goals, this way you won't be playing, you'll be practicing. Let's see how we can divide up our practice schedule into the five areas of practice: Melody (scales, arpeggios, technique and soloing), Music Theory, Harmony (chords and rhythm), Reading Notation and Ear Training:

practice graph

Melody - Let's start with practicing our scales, arpeggios and general technical exercises. Remember, let's always focus on the goal. What will you gain by practicing these things? Do you want to be able to play scales and arpeggios fast or do you want to be an incredible soloist? The answer is obviously to be an incredible soloist. A solo is music so we need to practice making music with these tools known as scales and arpeggios. But again, be careful, keep the goal in mind, you want to learn how to be a soloist, not the worlds fastest scale player. I may be being insistent here but I'll say it another way to make sure I'm getting my point across. I, a producer, listener or anyone else for that matter could care less if you can play 128th notes at 80 bpm, they want to hear a guitar solo. Make music whenever you can.

A metronome is better than nothing but not the best thing, it is better to practice your scales over a rhythm track, this way you will be practicing your goal. Even if you are just starting out and can barely play a scale, still practice it top to bottom and bottom to top over a series of diatonic chords. As I mentioned in the "Where do you go From Here" article, when I started out on the guitar, my teacher simply gave me the minor pentatonic scale and the Blues chord progression to work on over the week. I didn't put two and two together and thought of them as separate things to work on. I first practiced the scale for a half hour then the chord changes for a half hour every day and that was it. I didn't see the relationship yet. When I went in on the following Saturday, my teacher asked me if I had practiced and I said that I had. He had me play the scale and he played the chord changes. I only played the scale from top to bottom, bottom to top but I became very excited because I could hear that there was some sort of creation going on. I was, in a roundabout way, actually playing a guitar solo. My teacher, Wayne Reese then said; "Good job, you worked on the scale and remember it. Now let's try to make music of it. You can bend certain notes, can change the order and play some of the notes long or short for that matter." The whole thing knocked me out, the concept that you had several notes and could change the order and mix them all up melodically or rhythmically and that is how those guys make guitar solos. After that day I almost never practiced without the use of a backing track. Back in those days I simply recorded myself playing the chords, but never the less there were always some chords going on behind my scales. I practice the same way to this day. Of course nowadays, I use a sequencer which is even better because you can change the chords and change the genre and tempo. If you want to be a great soloist, you have to do it this way.

If you are just starting out, you can start with the major scale and the minor pentatonic scale. The reason I think both these scales are important is because by practicing the minor pentatonic scale over the Blues progression you can make music pretty quickly and as I mentioned, the point is to get you to play music. And the Blues is pretty much the springboard into all other genres. You also have less opportunity to play bad notes using the minor pentatonic scale over the Blues progression. You see, when you play various scales over their corresponding diatonic chord progression, there are certain notes that sound good or not so good over each of the different chords. For example, if you are playing a C major scale over a C - Emin chord progression, the C note sounds pretty good over the C major chord but not so hot over the Emin chord. The minor pentatonic scale doesn't provide too many bad notes. Regardless, the major scale is more important to get a handle on and the reason is because everything, in one way or another, is based on it. To understand music, you have to become intimate with it. This leads me to another question I received by e-mail. This question kept me up at night but I figured it out.

Q: Why the major scale? Why is music based on it and who decided that the major scale is what we will create music from? Couldn't it just as well have been something else?

A: No, it couldn't have. I've always sort of assumed that the major scale was a result of physics but never thought much about it. I did a little research and found out something really interesting. Now, remember here I am not a musicologist, music historian, physicist or archeologist so I'm just giving you my opinion based on some facts, you can decide for yourself if I'm full of it or not. Anyway, it turns out that several years ago Dr. Ivan Turk, a paleontologist, found a bone fragment that looks like a flute. It is between 42,000 and 82,000 years old and was found at a Neanderthal campsite in Europe. I found the essay on the web and believe me it is a hard read. The scale apparently plays part of the major scale which bugs a lot of academics because it possibly means that major scale may be the processor of the pentatonic scale and not the other way around. So what this says to me is that Neanderthal musicians were messing around with the major scale before we were (which also bugs a different group of academics). Do you think it is it a coincidence that they found the major scale and we also did? That a completely different race at a completely different time based their music off of the same scale that we do? No, it leads one to the conclusion that the major scale is something created by some natural force and is most likely inescapable for the most part. Why would this be? I researched this too and it turns out that academics also fight about this (they give me a good crack up). Anyway, the theory is that generally the interval of choice for the common ear is a fourth and fifth from the root. In other words if you were a normal person and sang or played something, you would be likely to sing a C note followed by a F note (the fourth) and/or a G note (a fifth) It is true, take it from me, music and especially bass movement favors 4ths and 5ths. If you play a F or G note against a C note, you get a fairly pleasing effect, very little dissonance. On the other hand any other intervals played against a the root creates a less pleasing effect. Hold on to this thought while I explain something else.

Overtone Series - You also have this thing called the overtone series. When you play a note, you are really playing a few notes. If you listen real carefully you can hear it. I tried it the other day in the classroom to demonstrate the principle to my students. I played a C note real loud on my guitar and let it feed back. After a few seconds you can start to hear some other notes come out. What comes our besides our C note is a G note and to a lesser degree an E note. That is the overtone series. C = C, G and E. There are some other notes that come out too but don't concern yourself with them because they aren't really audible. Once again, besides your root, you get a 5th and a 3rd in that order.

Overtone Series and the major scale - Now let's go back to my last section, I said that C is generally followed by a F or G note. If we look at the harmonic overtones created by all these notes, we get this:

C = C, G, E
F = F, C, A
G = G, D, B

Now combine all these notes in order from low to high: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Wow, it's the major scale! Pretty cool! That is the theory anyway, and academics fight about this too. I'm probably going to get some slack too for writing this as well. I always get hate mail from academics who hate my simplicity. When I wrote about the "Baroque Police" and "Mr. Rodgers Diatonic Neighborhood" I got a bunch of hate mail. Oh well? But that is why the major scale is the basis for what we do, physics has made it inescapable. I would even suggest that if there is life on other planets there is a pretty good chance that they too are making music somewhat based on the major scale. Let's petition NASA to test the overtone series on Mars next time they send a probe. I mean, they bring worms on the space shuttle, why not musical instruments? Hell, I'll bring my guitar along! (Now I'm going to get hate mail from astronauts as well for making light of what they do with worms in space).

Melodic Concepts - Sorry, back to our practicing. So you see, the major scale is important for us to become friendly with. Start off by practicing your major scales over various diatonic chords and diatonic chord progressions. Remember, the goal is not just to remember the scales, it is to become a good soloist. So you have to be musical, this means start on chord tones, play over barlines (especcially where the chord changes), play motifs (repeat yourself), tell a story, use good vibrato, bend to proper pitch, etc. Also, sequences, as these will get you used to using various combinations of your fingers. Also arpeggios, the trick with these is to use them over the diatonic chord of the same name, in other words a Cmaj7 arpeggio over a Cmaj7 chord and a Dmin7 arpeggio over a Dmin7 chord, etc. In as many keys as you can. Even if you practice in two or three keys today, switch to a different set of keys tomorrow. Let's put things into perspective so far:

Minutes Subject
15 minutes Five patterns of the major scale ascending and descending in several keys using a backing track of various diatonic chord progressions.Make sure to pay special attention to starting on chord tones, especially when the chord changes.Try to be musical. Link >>>
15 minutes Five patterns of the major scale using sequences in several keys using a backing track. If you are just starting out, just use one or two different sequences such as intervallic 3rds and group of 3rds. Link >>>
15 minutes Arpeggios over the proper corresponding diatonic chords. As an example, try playing a Cmaj7, Amin7, Fmaj7 and G7 arpeggio over the same chord progression, varying the intervals: 1,3,5,7 - 1,5,3,7 - 7,5,3,1, etc. Link >>>
15 minutes Five patterns of the minor pentatonic scale played over a Blues chord progression in several keys. Try to incorporate dominant arpeggios here also. As an example, play a G minor pentatonic scale over a G blues. Also practice using a G7, C7 and D7 arpeggio over the same chords in the progression. Link >>>

Total: 1 Hour


Music Theory - Since you are working on playing the major scale and as it is the basis of all things musical, you should also get going on major scale harmony. You can start by practicing writing the scales in every key, writing out intervals and harmonizing the scale as triads, 7th chords and even the bigger chords. You can do this on the bus or with your body half hanging out of the pool at your girlfriends house like I did when I was about twenty.

Minutes Subject
30 minutes Write the major scales out in various orders in all keys: C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb. Write out all the diatonic intervals in all keys: M3, P5, P4, M6, M2, M7. Practice harmonizing chords from the major scale as triads and 7th chords.

Total: 30 minutes


Harmony - Since you are hopefully going to take my advice and practice your scales over some chord progressions, why not try to record yourself playing the chords as well. You can knock out a few birds with one stone this way. Even if you don't have to means to record yourself, at least practice playing some chords over your sequenced tracks. See if you can play the chords in the chord progressions as triads, 7th chords and as 9th chords. Practice playing the chords from the root on the 6th, 5th and 4th strings, staying in one position at a time will insure good voice leading. As well as some standard voicings, try to make your own voicings using the intervals as your guide. Try playing with your fingers as well as a pick.
Minutes Subject
10 minutes playing various chord progressions using triads varying between pick and fingers. Link >>>
10 minutes playing various chord progressions using 7th chords. (same link as above)
10 minutes playing various chord progressions using 9th chords. (same link as above)
10 minutes Come up with new voicings for these chords by arranging the proper intervals. Link >>>

Total: 40 minutes


Reading Standard Notation - Like most guitarists I got started late. I actually started reading music in college. What I did was, a few days a week I would get together with my pal Kevin Stever, he was a bassist studying at college with me, and we would read Bach chorales together at his house. I would read the top voice and him, the bottom. Sometimes we would get daring and I would read the top two voices and him the bottom two. We would read the chorales with the metronome clicking away and try to not stop or screw up. I was fun. I think that classical music, especially from the Baroque period is a great place to start because rhythmically and harmonically it is pretty simple. You won't find yourself scratching your head too much trying to figure out the rhythm of the notes. There are two ways to read music, the hardest is to sight read. This means you put the chart in front of you and read it without stopping or screwing anything up. The other is to not sight read, which basically means you sort of take things a measure at a time, working it out and repeating it until you can play it. You sort of memorize it. Obviously you can't do this on a gig so you tend to do this to prepare for a session, especially if you are not confident you can sight read your part. Even guys who are great sight readers (not me) can not read everything and have to rely on this method from time to time. Sometimes I find it easier if I focus on the rhythm of the notes first and then the actual pitches.

Minutes Subject
20 minutes Reading various music, preferably short Bach pieces. Take things slowly reading a measure at a time until you can play the music top to bottom without stopping. Link >>>
20 minutes 20 minutes sight reading. Set your metronome at slow tempo and read some somewhat simple music without stopping. If you make a mistake keep going.

Total: 40 minutes


Ear Training - This subject has a wide variety of activities to do, some on the guitar and some not. Try picking out the chord changes of some of the songs you like and also the solos. Start simple, working on Blues or other three chord type songs. I can't emphasize how important this is, you really have to steal licks from other people. The things you get from other people is like rocket fuel to your playing. I still do it to this day. When I was younger I remember that some of the things I stole propelled me to the next level. Some solos that had an enormous impact on me were the solos from Jimi Hendrix' "Watchtower" and Jeff Beck's "Cause we've Ended as Lovers" to name a few. It is okay to use tab if need be, just be sure to play along with the recording to develop the phrasing and timing. Also work on identifying intervals. Have one of your friends play two separate notes and try to identify them. Start with a small pool like perfect 4ths and 5ths. When you can effectively identify these intervals from different roots add in major 3rds and 6th to the mix. Eventually shooting for all the intervals including the chromatic ones. Also spend a lot of time listening to music. As you are playing the Blues for your scale practice, listen to some Blues everyday. If you are a more advanced student and are starting to work on Jazz, make sure you are listening to Jazz. You can do this whenever you have a little time, in your car or shower.

Minutes Subject
30 minutes Working on songs.
15 minutes Working on interval identification. Link >>>

Total: 45 minutes


Lets add up the minutes of our daily routine and see how long we need to practice everyday:

Minutes Subject
60 minutes Melody
30 minutes Music Theory
40 minutes Harmony
40 minutes Reading Standard Notation
40 minutes Ear Training

Total: 3 1/2 Hours

This practice schedule assumes that all the five areas are at equal levels but of course everyone is a little different. We all have our strong and weak points, which means that your practice routine needs to be tweaked to match your needs. When you get through all this and can do it or are simply at a different level, you should go to the next stage for each of these five different areas.


More Questions:

Q: Do you still practice 3 or 4 hours each day.

A: Unfortunately no. I should be more dedicated to practicing than I am. My work generally keeps me playing everyday however. So I may play for three hours a day in one capacity or another. When I am teaching at MI for example, I may play Real Book tunes for several hours a day. I sort of train like a body builder I suppose. Before a recording session I tend to get into condition, practicing a lot of technique. But when I was younger I probably averaged five or six hours a day. When you are in the beginning learning stage, there is no excuse to not practice a minimum of two or three hours a day.

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