I recently had a private student ask me what I currently do for practice when I have limited time as well as a few hours.
This is was what I gave him…
The first thing I think when I sit down to practice is, “what do I hope to accomplish at the end of the practice session?” Then, do these things relate to my overall goals as a guitar player? This helps me to organize an effective practice session that brings me closer to my “big picture” goals, how I ultimately want to play guitar. However, there are times (more often than I would like) that I simply do not have enough time to practice all the things I want and need to. This is when I begin to think about practice in a slightly different way. First, for me keeping my hands in shape is the key to holding ground as far as dexterity and endurance goes.
If I have 15-20 minutes to practice I turn on the metronome and practice scales, sequences, arpeggios. I do this at a fairly slow tempo, as I am not really trying to accomplish anything more than to keep my hands (muscles) clued in to the fact that I am still going to require them to play guitar (as if they don’t know by now.) For most people not playing or practicing for even a day or so will cause the muscles in your hands to lose synchronization, independence and lose “groove” or ability to play in the “pocket”. This is what I try to avoid by playing scales & exercises with very limited time to practice. Also, isolate any areas of your playing that are attempting make better. For instance, if you are working on a particular passage in a song that is 5 seconds,but, the passage is 2 minute in, do not waste the 2 minutes playing what you already know. Fast forward to the part the section that is giving you trouble and isolate it. This will make the most out of your limited time to practice.
If I have an hour or more to practice I will start to add things from the list below in order of importance to my goals.
Warm up: Finger exercises at a slow tempo. Not more than 20 min.
30-second trills for endurance and Left hand permutations i.e. 1234, 4321 for dexterity. There are many more you can do but theses are what I start with.
Once my hand is warmed up I will move in to practicing scales, arpeggios applying sequences patterns to both ensuring that my hands will do as I ask in real time when I am improvising. Again, depending on the time I have I may do this anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. You should know at least one pattern for a major scale and one pattern for a minor scale. Likewise, you should know one pattern for a major, minor and dominate arpeggio with a root on the 6th & 5th strings. If you are able to do this move on the to the different patterns and modes of the major scale as well as major 7th, minor 7th arpeggio patterns. After, I will typically do some improvisation with a backing track attempting to apply any new patterns or concepts that were just practiced. After some time improvising I usually begin to hear ideas in my head that have not yet been worked in to my playing which gives me the opportunity to use some of the ear training that I have worked on by trying to get those ideas out of my head and on to my guitar!
Next, I will work on chords and rhythm guitar playing. I may learn or construct a new chord or voicing of a chord I already know and then try to use in my playing. I do not discriminate against styles of music. I love country as much as rock as jazz, ect… so this helps in this category, meaning, if I learn or construct a new chord that sounds “jazz” I will try to place it in a jazz standard. Like wise if I come up with something that sounds like it may fit in a tune I wrote I might try to place it there. As always music and sounds are subjective so just use your ear and try to move your chord knowledge forward.
Ear training may come next and is one of the most important things to me. Early on I really put the time in on singing scales, arpeggios and identifying intervals and chord quality (major or minor) by ear. I highly recommend this type of ear training if you have not done it before as it is very important and for me serves as a catalyst for what I do now which is transcribe tunes. This is a great way for me to keep my ears sharp and use some of that early training I mentioned. The great thing about this type of ear training is when you are done you can work on many different aspects of playing. For example: timing and groove as it pertains to the song, technique if the piece is difficult and if you are really ambitious theory and song writing, as you can analyze the songs format, chord structure as well as chord scale relationships to better understand how others write music and construct solos.
Theory may come next after I have gotten the physical part of practice done. For some (maybe you) this needs to come first as it may be more difficult to discipline yourself to practice theory after you have just played guitar which is favored by most rather than thinking about playing (theory) which is looked at as the “spinach” of music by some. The other reason is that you may want to sure up some theory concepts before you physically practice in order to apply those concepts as you play your guitar. Regardless of the order you decide to put this in to your practice session with theory you should be thinking about the structure and organization of music and how to better understand it. Starting with learning and have a firm understanding of the cycle of keys, better know as the cycle of 5ths and cycle of 4ths. Your understanding of this is absolutely crucial to developing a strong understanding of chord structure, scale structure and chord scale relationships. Memorizing these cycle of keys should be first followed by chord and scale construction. This is only the tip of the iceberg in regards to theory but as I mentioned is critical to further development of more advance theory concepts.
There are many areas of overlap in my practice as there will be in yours. However, in the beginning you may need to isolate areas in order to gain understanding of a particular topic before you can create that overlap or it occurs naturally.