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I've been playing an acoustic guitar for 5 months or so. I noticed a little problem on my way to success. I feel as if I'm not getting to my potential of playing.

I'm not impatient - I know it takes a LOT of time to be good at guitar. I noticed that I'm progressing at a good rate, currently, but I think I could get even better. I feel like I'd progress faster if I practised more. But that's the problem.

I just haven't got the nerve to sit through long practice sessions. I get bored after, say 20-25 minutes. As I said, I think I'd progress much faster if I practised more, and I believe long practice sessions will help me.

Has anyone got any tips on how to help myself on this subject?

E: To answer a few questions:

I'm self taught, i don't have a teacher. I'm learning guitar online.

I don't have a fixed schedule of practice. I grab my guitar at least once every day, some days i don't play at all but usually i play at least once daily. I practice for how much i feel like practicing. It can be 15 minutes, it could be 30 or 45. I think my usual session lasts around 15-20 minutes, and i usually have multiple sessions in a single day, depends on my mood.

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    How often do/can you practice? – ChrisW Jan 15 at 16:38
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    What is your teacher's view on this? – Tim Jan 15 at 17:26
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    One's potential is intimately tied to their discipline and desire. I could be a doctor or a lawyer - I simply have no desire (I'm an engineer). I could be a great golfer - but I don't have the discipline to work the 8 hours every day to make myself great. Talent only takes you so far - determination and persistence are the keys to success in just about every endeavor. – Tracy Cramer Jan 15 at 18:34
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    I strongly suggest reading the book Deep Work by Cal Newport for some tips on focusing and avoiding distractions (including both "how" and "why"). – Gus Jan 16 at 10:11
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    You say you’re not impatient, but the rest of your text disagrees. – Ian MacDonald Jan 16 at 12:57

12 Answers 12

12

Congratulations on your decision to dedicate time and energy to learning to play a musical instrument. The guitar is my favorite as it is one of the most versatile instruments in the world for playing many types of music using many different playing styles and techniques. Plus you can sing while playing the guitar if that's your thing.

As you have discovered, it takes a great deal of dedication and practice to learn to play the guitar. Many (most actually) aspiring beginning guitarist grow frustrated early in the process and give up.

I teach beginner guitar. My goal with a new student, is to help them quickly connect with the joy and gratification of learning to actually play some music they personally enjoy. Then they will become more passionate about learning to improve their skills and may eventually develop a thirst for learning more advanced techniques so they can learn to play even more songs they love on their instrument.

Learning to play guitar is a chosen hobby and not mandatory. So if practice becomes too much like work or too boring, repetitive, mundane or tiring - you will never develop the passion and desire to continue to improve. I believe that they key to keeping a beginning guitarist from burning out, is to get them having fun as quickly as possible! When playing is fun - a student will want to put in more time with their instrument!

Even playing things you enjoy just for fun will help you improve your skills, timing, rhythm, and technique.

Of course, there are some very basic exercises a beginning student must master before he/she can play much on any instrument. Some basic ideas on how the instrument works, how the notes are laid out, and some hand coordination and basic rhythm exercises are probably fundamental to making much progress with playing actual music. With guitar, I like to start with some very simple and easy chords and chord changes.

My goal with a new student, is to help them quickly get to a point where they can play at least a simple rendition of some songs they will enjoy playing. I start by teaching the minimal skills they need in order to actually play their first song. Then I build on that to help them learn another song in the same key. Eventually we learn new chords in different keys and they can learn more songs. The idea is, I teach basic chords, rhythm, and strumming patterns as the building blocks to learning to PLAY music they enjoy!

I suggest you learn to play complete renditions of songs that you like. Start with very simple arrangements using songs that can be played with basic easy chords. Focus on building your repertoire (number of songs you can play). As you learn new songs, you will need to learn new chords and new chord changes and new strumming techniques.

You don't have to work on every skill a guitarist might need all at one time. If you focus on learning one song of your choosing because you know you will enjoy playing it - then the practice needed to master the new chord changes or strumming pattern will not seem so much like work. You have a simple very achievable goal to focus on (learn to play Song X). Each new song you decide to learn should stretch you just a bit so that each time you set a new goal to learn a new song, you will force yourself to learn a new chord or a new technique.

The point here is to take it in small steps that lead to a reward (the satisfaction of knowing you conquered yet another song on your list) relatively quickly. The other point is to make sure that you are thoroughly enjoying your playing time - which will increase your passion for playing and desire to learn more songs - which will require actual "practice" to learn the new chords etc.

Finally, while you are in the beginning stages of learning guitar, keep your practice/playing sessions short but practice several times per day. A good schedule might be 30 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes at lunch, and 30 minutes in the evening - depending on your personal time constraints.

Shorter sessions will give your finger and hand muscles time to rest before they get too tired. Shorter practice sessions will keep you from getting frustrated and burned out. Be sure that every practice session incorporates as much fun (playing) as it does work (practicing). As you develop more stamina and the number of songs you are able to play for fun increases, you will actually look forward to picking up your guitar and it will become harder and harder to put it down!

Good luck on your journey towards a hobby and skill that can bring a lifetime of enjoyment for yourself and those you choose to share your music with. Most importantly - HAVE FUN!!

  • A really solid answer that deserves more love. Practice is when you push yourself to play things that you can't play; practice is work, but it should be enjoyable and engaging work. Letting musical needs drive your practice (which I think you are advocating) is a good way to maintain motivation and engagement during practice time. Completely agree that it is good to get beginners playing music ASAP; if a beginner doesn't want to play (or even need to play), the energy to work through the rough spots will never be found. +1 – ex nihilo Jan 16 at 3:23
  • @DavidBowling: Just gave it some extra love, as I agree wholeheartedly. For most people enjoyment is the goal, not the complete mastery of their chosen instrument. An instrument needs to be explored (enjoyed), not just practiced. Practice makes you more proficient, and opens up other avenues of exploration. – Willem van Rumpt Jan 16 at 6:17
  • Thanks for the long and detailed answer. I agree with you - Playing and practising should always remain fun. I never "force" myself to practise as i feel it will make learning a bit faster but far less enjoyable. – Nikad Jan 16 at 9:49
  • Lots of good stuff here. One area where I have a possible philosophical or possible semantic difference is with this: "it takes a great deal of dedication and practice to learn to play the guitar". My view of the word "play" is that it only takes a guitar to play guitar. It takes years of learning (via some mechanism) to (what I might call) work guitar, meaning to perform exactly what is desired exactly how it is desired. But one can enjoy making random sounds on a guitar ("playing" in the sense of a child enjoying some aspect of the world) from day one. That is what I recommend. – Todd Wilcox Jan 16 at 22:18
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Don’t practice. Don’t force yourself to practice. Play. Have fun with it. Start learning to play your favorite songs. Or make up your own music. Every time you pick up your guitar, do some kind of warm up exercise for five minutes max, then start playing your favorite song or inventing sounds or music, however well you can. Eventually you’ll be playing it very well. Work on other favorite songs. Join a band. You don’t need to be good to be in a band, you just need to find people who want to play with you regardless of how “good” you are, for fun.

Amplification:

To this day, I keep music fun. I have to cut myself off from playing piano, guitar, clarinet, and violin or else I won’t go to my day job or sleep or run errands, etc. One of my biggest challenges when teaching is resisting the urge to just play. The instrument is in my hands and all that’s stopping me from writing a song or playing some zeppelin is customer service.

Some have commented about learning “technique”. I’ve found that in order to play the music I love, I have to develop the techniques used by the original artists/composers. If I run into trouble with something specific, I do research and I may “practice” something like tapping or sweep picking, but it’s really playing for me. Starting really slow with sweep picking (for example) is boring for about 30 seconds but once I start to get in the groove it’s just like playing. And i don’t let the materials I’ve researched dictate what I do. Maybe I found a sweep picking tutorial that starts with a major 7th chord. Ok, a couple minutes of that, but then I’m going to make my own fun by doing a minor 7th or fully dimished 7th sweep. Whatever I like to hear coming out of the instrument.

The only reason I play is to be able to play and write the music I want to play, so playing anything else seems like a waste of time. And I’m doing it for fun, so doing anything not fun is almost always a waste of time. And this attitude has never held me back. I’ve played professionally (ok maybe semi-pro; paid at least) in musical theatre pit orchestras, I’ve taught many styles for over ten years, I’ve been in several gigging bands, and I’ve written and composed a lot of music. If you don’t like “studying” or “practicing” but you love guitar, then just do what you love with the guitar. Reading a book doesn’t have to be studying if you’re enjoying the read and you just take away whatever excites you the most from it.

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    'Don't practice'. Do you say that to your students?! – Tim Jan 15 at 14:36
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    This is dubious.. It's certainly necessary to not get so obsessed with improving some skill that you lose sight of why you're interested in it, but there's no way of getting around the fact that some things just need to be learned by rote. – mowwwalker Jan 15 at 18:36
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    I agree with @mowwwalker, No musician or music teacher I have ever met would equate playing with practice. technique needs to be applied to something to make it worth while but just playing songs you like does not lead to god skills. – ggcg Jan 15 at 19:05
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    @ggcg I think this applies to beginners and amateur musicians in general. I never spent much time practicing, but I can play a few instruments in a sufficient level to play lots of songs I like, have bands, mess around with friends, etc... I think motivation is much more a key factor in the beginning than technique. – coconochao Jan 15 at 19:16
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    Todd thanks for your answer. Saved me a great deal of time composing a similar answer. Very few aspiring musicians will devote the time needed to learn to play an instrument unless they enjoy it. When I teach, my primary goal in the beginning is to ignite the passion and fan the flame by teaching the student simple arrangements of songs they want to play so they can feel the joy of making music. That will inspire them to want to learn more songs which will eventually require them to learn more chords and different playing techniques. I learned to play guitar by learning to play songs. +1 – Rockin Cowboy Jan 15 at 22:34
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You may not know enough yet to practice longer. If this is the case be patient.
So first of all 20 min is a respectable about of time for a beginner. The key to steady improvement is that you do this every single day (with some exception for vacations etc). Like going to the gym, you body (and mind) needs the constant reinforcement. So don't just practice a few times a week.

Even a pro would "get bored" or tired, back aches, etc after too long. They key to longer sessions is breaking it up into shorter sessions with breaks in between. You have two options here, (1) you could go for three consecutive 20min sessions with 5min breaks, or (2) do 20min in the morning then another 20min in the evening, etc.

Regardless of being bored you should take breaks. Now, as for getting bored rather than tired and sore, one thing that will help is making a practice schedule so you don't spend too much time on one thing. This will help prevent boredom and give your practice session some purpose.

Since you are a beginner, as I stated, you may not have enough to practice. I've been at it for 40 years. My regular sessions are about 4 hours (I wish it was more but just can't afford the time). I have learn enough that I need to drill several basic techniques every day and I do have enough to not get bored. I make a schedule every Sunday for what to practice the following week. The list of exercises and pieces (including just improving and composing) are fixed for the week but change every week. I pick a variety of things to do to cover everything. Some exercises I get out of books, other I make up. An example might be:

Basic Tech:

  1. Scales: Harmonic minor family, standard form, 3 note per string form, alternate + consecutive picking on all.

  2. Arpeggios: 3 string patterns, alternate + sweep picking.

  3. Cyclic patterns: One or two played over the scale of the week.

  4. Chords: A few pages from either Mel Bay Rhythm Guitar System, Chord Chemistry, or Another classic text.

Actual Music Work:

  1. Charlie Parker Heads: Donna Lee, Dexterity, etc.

  2. Paganini and/or Wieniawski violin pieces

  3. Improv over number 5.

This is just electric, there is another list for classical. I try to cover each basic technique to avoid getting stale on rhythm guitar for example, I get to spend too much time shredding.

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    This seemed too tiresome to me, and may bore the OP even further. I think Todd's approach is more appropriate to instigate passion for the instrument, and maybe in the future he will want and like to practise longer, what do you think? +1 anyway for the excellent practice tips! – coconochao Jan 15 at 16:07
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    That is your opinion and you are entitled to it. But be clear any and every musician I've met would agree that "playing" is NOT practicing, and that to forego regimented practice will necessarily lead to stunted development. If practicing is tiresome you are in the wrong business. Besides, you are probably judging equal time per topic and that isn't the case. – ggcg Jan 15 at 16:52
  • Playing can be practising, but in a different way. When I was learning bass, I'd turn up at open mics and play along with others. Did the same with guitar, drums and keys. Chances to try out things - with no detriment to others - that weren't really available at home in the studio. – Tim Jan 16 at 10:45
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Long practice times do not always mean more productivity. Ask yourself, what are the things you do that do allow more time before boredom sets in. Maybe you can't find many/any. In that case, your 20 mins or so is long enough. Instead of elongating that time, do two or three sessions spread out. When boredom beckons, put down the guitar, as after that point there's only time wasted.

You could even take it a degree further, and do less than 20 mins, but more often. Just having a play now and again won't feel like practice, but is beneficial in that you approach with a different mindset, but any playing has to be a good thing. Maybe you don't do things that well on your own, and prefer others round. Find those others who also play, and get together in a band - maybe with a target of playing a few numbers at a party in a few months time.

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A few tips:

  • Try building up your practice time slowly and gradually.
  • Try having multiple shorter practice sessions instead of one long one.
  • Plan your practice sessions carefully, deciding what you want to cover in a given time so you don't ever feel like you're just trying to pass time. It might help to have a routine that you follow each day made up of technical exercises, repertoire that you have already mastered as well as new pieces.

And just a note, it's not all about how much time you spend practicing. It may be better to spend 20 minutes each day in effective, well-planned practice than a few hours being bored and practicing aimlessly just because you feel you have to. That kind of practice may actually harm your progress by stripping the enjoyment out of the process.

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I was having a similar problem. My solution was to increase the amount of sessions and not the time each session lasts. So i could stay full focus the whole session and increase the amount of time i actually played.

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I'll tell about my own experience and maybe there'll be something you can use for yourself there. When I first started studying guitar, my teacher told me not to try and practice for more than about 20 minutes at a time. I went along with that idea for a while but then I started feeling I wasn't making progress fast enough so I tried longer sessions of an hour at a time, but after about 25 minutes I'd find my abilities to concentrate would disappear and my mind would wander. Then I tried short sessions multiple times a day and that seemed to get me past the mind wandering problem, but my fingers would get too sore because I hadn't yet built up my endurance and callouses. To give my fingers a chance to catch up I needed to back off my aggressive approach but I couldn't so I started studying music theory, which involved my reading and trying to understand harmony and melody and that gave my fingers a break, while I was continuing the learning and development I was hungry for. When my fingers felt better, I resumed my practice sessions a couple of times each day for 30 minutes and I would also study the theory when I didn't have a guitar in my hand. I just needed to learn to balance between manual exercises and book study. Eventually I got in a band and that's when I really began to develop musically, playing in a band has been the best learning tool I've had in my life. It has inspired me to continue the book study so that I have knowledge of what other players already understand, and when music is being played well, I find the reward substantial and inspiring.

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Join a band. Try to find people that are at approximately the same level of proficiency as yourself. Challenge yourselves to learn songs together -- it'll keep it interesting for you, and you'll learn rhythm in a way that you never could by yourself.

Source: personal experience. You can only do scales and chords in your bedroom for so long. Music should be delightful and surprising.

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    Can't believe I had to scroll down this far to find this answer. And apart from the positive things you mention: Fear might be a poor motivator, but a bit of apprehension about upcoming practice sessions or gigs works wonders for me when it comes to prioritizing practice over other things. – Douwe Jan 17 at 16:09
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I think it's more about doing the correct exercises in the correct way rather than practicing for hours and hours. I also think you should be having fun, otherwise you'll get tired of it.

Make yourself a schedule: which exercises, for how long each, in which order. Do that every day. After that, feel free to learn songs that you like and stuff like that, which is what keeps it interesting.

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You can go to juliard off only 3 hours of practice a day. If the quality of the practice is high, it is a matter of quality over quantity. I know Berkley is famous for having students that practice 8 hours a day but after hour 4 there is going to be a real drop in the quality of your practice. Rather do something else at that stage.

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Play Rocksmith, it's highly motivating. You can still do your regular exercises, of course.

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Buy the video game Rocksmith where you use a real guitar and have fun playing songs you like. Get a beginners chord book, learn simple basic chords and play simple songs from the book that you are familiar with by simply strumming. This will start fingers conditioning of placing fingers in unnatural positions and pressing down on strings. Start with the lightest strings you can find to ease the pain. I used to use the heaviest strings my guitar would allow just to help build calluses and would play through the pain into numbing and try to make my fingers bleed (never did draw blood). That doesn't sound fun but I got good calluses which make playing much easier.

  • Downvoted for encouraging production of callouses. – Tim Jan 16 at 8:44

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