What are the best things that beginning guitar payers should practice in their practice session?
If you are a true beginner and don't even know how to hold the guitar I hope you are taking lessons. Then your teacher would be able to help.
There are basic exercises to develop finger independence and proper form for both left and right hand. Assuming you play using the right hand to pluck or pick, and the left hand to fret. The classic method for learning would introduce sight reading in standard music notation (SMN) from day one.
One needs to learn to control the fingers to play scales and chords. Typically the first lesson will introduce something like a chromatic exercise (1, 2, 3, 4) where you play notes on the 1st through 4th fret on each string trying to keep your fingers floating over the correct fret and close (w/in a 16th inch) from the string. Similar exercises exist for pick or right hand finger control, to learn to hit the correct string. A couple simple chords to work on is also a good start.
Last but not least learning a simple tune is a strong motivation for getting better at technique so it helps to have something to work on.
Being a beginner you won't know enough or have enough material to fill a lot of time and you will not have stamina to make good use of a 4 hour practice session.
I have been playing and teaching professionally for a few decades so I'll give some pieces of advice that I've heard from my teachers and you can take it or leave it.
My classical bass teacher once said "every time you pick up the instrument the first thing you play should be musical, a tune or piece of music that inspires you". I freely admit that I do not always follow this advice.
You need to have a set of things to work on, and that are worth working on, to make any meaningful progress and to define a practice session. I'll give you an example of a typical practice session of mine and say that for a beginner this would be scaled back in time and number of exercises.
The specific exercises can be placed in categories.
Musical elements: scales, arpeggios, chord and progressions.
performance pieces, songs.
Some people are of the opinion that if you just work on a song you will get better at the techniques needed to that song and eventually learn the techniques you need to be a good guitar player. I do not advocate that approach for a variety of reasons. Basic technique exercises are meant to focus on you fingers and their relationship to the instrument. Many technique exercises seem unmusical or robotic but practicing them regularly will accelerate your development and are highly recommended. This would include the (1, 2, 3, 4) exercise I mentioned, moving across the strings and up the neck. In addition there might be right hand exercises like the Papararo exercises for classical guitar. Similar exercise exist for the pick rather than finger style. The idea is to isolate the right and left hands and train them to find the right string and fret with 100% reliability. This will make playing new pieces much easier. Pepe Romero's text on classical guitar has a large collection of right and left hand exercises.
You might think that playing scales is a good way to practice technique and if you have a few completely memorized then I'd agree. But for most beginners a scale is a complicated set of movements involving 2 or 3 fingers per string and not the same 2 or 3 on each string. Hence it is critical for beginners to have simple technique exercises that are not musical. This provides a way to develop control of your fingers without needed to focus on more complex patterns. With this last comment you may see that practice sessions will be different for beginners and experienced players. These types of exercises are a great warm up, should not take a lot of time and will be relevant for the rest of your life. Some of the most well known guitarists in the world start their day with (1, 2, 3, 4) or (1, 3, 2, 4) or one of the 4! permutations of the same. Basic technique should also be focused on developing a good tone, constant attack, the ability to control dynamics, etc.
Musical elements are things like scales, intervals, arpeggios etc. For a beginner learning just one of each will keep you busy. But realize that there a dozens of ways to play each scales and arpeggio! Hence you could spend your whole life working through them all. I started our with the classic forms of the 7 modes (one at a time) in one position. After some time moved on to 3 note per string patterns, patterns that involve large position shifts, patterns that ascend and descend differently, etc. Also, sequencing exercises on scales and arpeggios. These types of exercises will challenge technique and as you learn more you will need to go back and add new techniques to that list.
Finally, but not least in importance, a song to work on. The issue here is that if you are a beginner you may not be able to get you fingers wrapped around a simple song! And may young guitarists (at least in my day) want to learn eruption, or far beyond the sun. Trying this with NO technique to speak of can be a downer. That is why I recommend taking lessons.
If you read up to this point here is an example practice session of mine as a starting point. I divide my time between electric, classical, and voice.
- Bill Levitt scales type I-A and I-B speed exercises (push past 200bpm)
4 octave E minor
Prygian mode + all embedded arpeggios
Circle progression with cycle extensions in C-form
Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 overture
Donna Lee, Dexterity, Ornithology, etc.
Chromatic exercise with free and rest stroke (Parkening)
Papararo page one
- Segovia scales (E melodic minor)
Pavans and a Fantasia
Carulli variation number 6
Warm up + musical elements:
- Requiem (Confutatis)
The performance pieces will stay the same for months, even more than a year. But the basic exercises are rotated every week. Notice that I don't play every scale in every key every day. This is just not possible. I rotate among all the variants on over a week and that works for me. This allows me to spend enough time to get the pattern in my muscle memory and push the speed to above 160 (16th motes) while providing enough variation that I don't forget other patterns. Also, I am creating new exercises of my own every couple months. Notice that there is less detail in vocal training as that is a newer pursuit so I do have a large repertoire.
For one of my beginner students a typical practice session might be as follows.
1, 2, 3, 4 exercise all down stroke (5 to 10 times)
Picking exercises: down stroke string skip, alternate pick one string 4 times, etc.
C major scale open string form one octave.
Open string I IV V progression in C maj.
Exercise from Mel Bay grade 1.
For me, each session should have the three basic elements, technique, musical elements, performance pieces (which includes sight reading). This is just my opinion but it works for me.