Practice Like a Pro

Practice Like a Pro Guitar Player
by David Isaacs

Watch this video for a quick, yet powerful, tip and then check out the article below to level up your guitar skills.

These Simple Tips Will Improve Your Guitar Practice Sessions

Everyone knows that you have to practice to get better. After all, practice makes perfect, doesn’t it? But if you’ve never learned how to practice effectively, you’re likely to reach a point where you feel like you’re just spinning your wheels instead of moving forward.

Almost everybody hits a wall at some point, and it’s a very frustrating place to be! It’s hard enough just to find time to practice, and if you’re not seeing results from the time you do manage to put in it’s easy to get discouraged. But the good news is, it’s probably not your fault…you may have learned how to play, but you may not have ever learned how to consciously improve. To do that, you need to learn to practice effectively.

The first thing to recognize is that there are different kinds of practicing. Playing something you know well might be enjoyable, but it doesn’t help you get better. Real practice is about problem-solving. It is about identifying the things you’re not able to do, and finding ways to improve those specific skills.

Once you’ve reached a basic level of comfort with the guitar, long-term challenges can have more to do with your mind than your fingers. Here’s an important thought to start with: if you find that you’re going for something over and over again and consistently missing it, there’s a mechanical problem with a mechanical solution. After all, we’re talking about accurately placing fingers on the strings. But you may not be clear on exactly what it is that isn’t working, only that you can’t play the part. To get that clear picture, you need to do two things. First, slow down, and second, break the music down into smaller and smaller pieces until you can see the specific problem.

Something else to keep in mind here is that many people don’t ever look closely enough to really be aware of what they’re doing. It’s one thing to know what notes you’re supposed to play, but it’s something else entirely to know exactly how your hands are working to make each sound. Ideally, the goal is to know exactly what you need to do and to have the control to make it happen. See the target, hit the target. And it really can be that simple when you start to pay attention to the details.

Let’s take a look at this week’s musical example, a series of melodic chordal licks in the key of D:

Complete Lick

There’s a lot here to dig into! So the first thing we need to do is to identify the movements and the challenges they present. Here’s the first phrase, isolated and slowed down:


We’re starting off with an open position D chord, played as an arpeggio (one note at a time). The fret hand middle finger doesn’t come down to complete the chord until halfway through the first bar, though. Essentially, the first chord is a Dsus2, which resolves into D on the second half of the third beat (the “and” of 3). So the first thing you might practice is the timing of that first arpeggio, making sure to plant the middle finger on the first string at the right moment to complete the full D chord.

Measure 2 is a little trickier, starting with a fluid series of hammer-ons and pull-offs that create a nice melodic figure off the D chord. Listen to this lick alone.

We start by adding the pinky to the third fret of the first string, creating a Dsus4 chord. Lift the finger right away and pick the first string to start a slurred “turn,” a quick hammer-on and pull-off in sixteenth-note triplets. This is followed immediately by a second pull-off from the middle finger on the second fret to the open string. This is the first of our real challenges, and so we need to take a closer look.

First of all, notice the way you fret the D chord. Make sure your hand and wrist are relaxed, and that you can freely plant or lift your middle or pinky finger on the high E string as you hold the rest of the D chord. Isolate these movements, first simply holding the D chord and then releasing the middle finger to create the Dsus2. (Don’t worry about the pull-off yet). Then starting once again from the D chord, bring the pinky down to create the Dsus4. If this is comfortable, try each move as a slur. A middle finger pull-off to the open string, and a pinky hammer-on to the third fret.

Pay close attention to the shape of your fingers. How curled are they? What part of the finger lands on the string? Most people will do best keeping the fingers curled and touching the fingertip to the string. For the pull-offs, you may need to “snap” the tip segment of the finger downward – essentially a left-hand pluck instead of just lifting the finger off the string. However, there are several variables at work here besides your skill as a player. The proportions of your hand and fingers, the profile of your guitar neck, and the gauge and action of your strings all impact your ability to perform this lick. If you’re not getting a clear sound, experiment with the position of your hand and wrist, making sure the fingers have room to move. Practice the slurs (hammer-ons and pull-offs) individually, then in sequence, slowly Start with a single gesture of two notes, then add a third, and so forth. Don’t play any faster than you can control. Speed will take care of itself over time, but accuracy won’t! Once you can sound the notes clearly at a slow pace, gradually start to pick up the tempo but keep your focus on maintaining control. You can concentrate on increasing the speed of one tiny element, such as a hammer-on, and then adjust as you add on more notes. Just working on this first two-bar lick should tell you a lot about your degree of control and finger independence!

Let’s move on to the next section:


This part starts off simply enough with an arpeggiated G chord. The tricky part comes in the second half of the second bar with a shift up the neck. So our specific challenge is to be able to glide smoothly from the open position G chord to the double-stop on frets 7 and 8 without interrupting the flow of the lick. And once again, a closer look will tell us what we need to know.

You’re most likely fingering the G chord with the pinky and ring fingers of the fret hand on the first and second strings. Because we want the arpeggios to ring out as long as possible, you’ll want to hold those fingers down until the last moment. So your ring finger should still be resting on the second string when you strike the last note of the open position part, the high G on the third fret halfway through the second bar. Looking ahead at the target double-stop on frets 7 and 8, you’ll find that if you keep the ring finger in contact with the second string it’s relatively easy to glide up to the 8th fret. The middle finger comes across from the sixth string to the first as you glide, landing on the 7th fret of the high E string. Practice this specific motion as an exercise in itself:

Notice how the transition can be broken down to a very specific series of movements, which you can practice slowly and deliberately. This attention to detail at a slow tempo should allow you to execute the shift smoothly. Applying the same thinking to the next shift, you’ll probably find that the ring finger will again stay on the second string as we glide down to fret 7. The index finger, which was not being used and easily available, replaces the middle finger on the first string.

Continuing on, we return to the open position. The ringing open D string note at the end of the second lick should allow you to shift comfortably back down, landing with the index finger on the third string to return to a D chord formation.


The challenge here is to keep the notes ringing as long as possible. The D-Dsus4 lick in the first measure is pretty simple, but notice how the final G of that measure rings over into the next bar. Keep the pinky in place as the ring finger moves to string 6 to play the bass G on the next downbeat. This requires some finger independence! Break down the transition into a series of small components just like we did before:

As before, take your time! The most important thing is for all the movements to be smooth and controlled.

If this has been a workout so far, you’ll be glad to see that the final lick is a simple pair of open position arpeggios. If you do find it tricky, use the method we’ve walked through on the three previous examples to identify the challenge and find a solution. Here’s the closing three bars:


Taken as a whole, this is a tricky piece to play. But if you’ve gotten this far, you can see how breaking things down allows you to really zero in on the specific challenges.

Once you’ve worked through the different sections, of course, the next step is to put them together. This can be tricky when you’ve been working on fragments, so practice making the connections. Play a section and add the first note of the next, then the first two notes, and so on. You can also build your way out from the downbeat of each new section, adding a note before and a note after, until the transition is seamless.

The best part of working this way is that you really get to know the music well. It does take time to pull the music apart, resolve the challenges, and then put it all back together again. But by the time you get there you will likely have fixed those problem spots for good, because you made the effort to examine each part in detail.

For more exploration of this process, including another look at this same opening lick, watch my JamPlay lesson on effective practicing:

Effective Practice Habits for Adults

Taught by David Isaacs

Dave lays out his life long experiences related to practicing and guitar. If you have limited time to practice and want to get the most out of your time, you need to watch this lesson.

Of course, the lick we’ve looked at is just one specific example, but the method is universal and can be applied to any challenge. You may not master the full exercise this weekend, but you should come away from your practice sessions with a powerful new set of tools that can literally transform your playing.

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Thanks for reading.

I hope I've been able to make an impact on your playing.

Thanks again for joining us for another edition of Weekend Warrior with our guest author David Isaacs!

Chris Liepe
JamPlay Content Director

Chris Liepe

Chris Liepe is the content director at JamPlay. He was one of the first JamPlay instructors. His talents were quickly noticed, both on and off camera. Chris and the folks at JamPlay soon realized that he would be a perfect fit for the team. He hopped on board as a full time staff member in 2009 and has since been leading the charge towards realizing JamPlay's mission: providing affordable music education worldwide.

David Isaacs is a JamPlay instructor and frequest guest author for the JamPlay.com Weekend Warrior series.

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