By Hal Leonard Corporation, Jon Chappell, Mark Phillips, Desi Serna

Knowing guitar theory is one thing — applying it is another. To become a strong guitar player, you have to practice and play. This article includes suggestions to help you implement an understanding of guitar theory in your playing. The following are some of the best ways to practice along with tricks to help you take advantage of every playing opportunity.

Learn and analyze songs

Learning songs is the absolute best way to develop as a musician. Every song you learn teaches you something new about using chords, playing progressions, and applying scales (not to mention licks, phrasing, fingering, and overall technique).

For each new song you study, identify its components and analyze how it’s put together. For example, answer the following ten questions about every song you work on:

  • What’s the key of the song?

  • What’s the parent major scale of the music?

  • On which major scale degree is the tonic chord based?

  • How would you number the chord progression?

  • From which CAGED forms are the chord shapes drawn?

  • Does the song change keys?

  • Which type of scale patterns does the song use?

  • How is the music similar to other songs you play?

  • What are some other ways that you can play the song?

  • How can you borrow ideas from the song to play over other songs or compose your own music?

Figuring out a song today is as easy as typing its title into a search engine. After all, just about any song you can imagine is available online for download. Plus, you can stream a lot of music for free or a monthly fee online, and you can find tabs to most popular songs online as well. Type your song title plus the word “guitar” into YouTube’s search bar, and you’re likely to find several, if not dozens, of free step-by-step video lessons.

Play along with songs

Aside from learning parts from songs, you can also play along with them as you practice. Keeping up with the pace of a recording helps you develop timing and endurance. Plus, it gives you an opportunity to hear your part harmonically mixed with the rest of the music.

Recorded music makes for a great play-along track even when you’re not playing parts from that specific song. For example, you can practice G major scale patterns simply by playing them over a piece of music based in the same scale. Hearing how the scale mixes harmonically with the rest of the music really brings it to life.

Record and listen to yourself

When you play guitar, your mind can become so focused on the physical tasks of fretting and picking that you fail to properly sense other important aspects of music like pitch, timing, feel, and tone. The way you think you sound while playing is often quite different from how you really sound. The best way to critique your playing is to listen to a recording of yourself. You may be surprised to hear that you speed up or slow down without realizing it. Maybe your touch is too heavy or too light. Maybe your bends are out of tune or you hear too much unwanted string noise. Or — and this is where the process can be very encouraging — you may be pleased to hear that some sounds come out better than you thought!

You don’t need a lot of fancy technology to record yourself, and you don’t have to make a big production out of it. Most computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and other portable devices have features, programs, and apps that you can use to record yourself. You could just set your smartphone on your lap or in front of your amp as you practice and play, using the built-in voice memo. If you want something a little more traditional, you can choose from various types of handheld recorders. Some guitar effects pedals have recording capabilities, too. If you want more visual help, you can make videos of your practice sessions by using a webcam, camcorder, or smartphone.

Become a super looper

A loop is a repeated section of sound material. You can make loops with a wide range of music technologies, like recording programs, drum machines, and guitar effects pedals.

As a guitarist, you can easily add a loop pedal into your signal change so that you can record and play back your playing at the stomp of a foot. The most popular unit for this use is the Boss Loop Station, which is available in different models. However, other manufacturers produce products that do the same thing.

When using a loop pedal, you need to run an electric or acoustic-electric guitar through it. You plug your instrument into the pedal and then connect the pedal to your amp, mixing board, and so on. When you stomp on the pedal, the device starts recording you. When you stomp on it again, it plays back what it just recorded. After it reaches the end of the recorded section, it immediately starts again from the beginning. It continues to loop the recorded material until you stop it. Some models even let you layer multiple recorded parts.

Looping devices, or loopers, as they’re often called, are great practicing tools that you can use for recording, making play-along tracks, and layering multiple guitar parts all on the fly. They come in handy when you’re critiquing your playing, practicing scales and chords, and learning how to harmonize guitar tracks. Loopers have also become a popular performance tool — many players use them in live settings.

Play with others

More often than not, music is a group effort. While you can perform on some instruments completely solo, nothing compares to groups of musicians playing together. If you know other guitarists or other types of instrumentalists, such as pianists, bassists, or drummers, ask them if you can play together. You can also accompany singers.

Playing with others is good for both practice and play. Other musicians can give you feedback, share ideas, provide accompaniment, and trade licks. Learning and practicing aside, it’s fun just to hang out with others doing something you love. After all, we humans are relational beings; we’re made to harmonize with one another.

When playing with others, you can have one person play rhythm while another plays melody, sings, or improvises. You can then trade parts.

Play out

Have you ever wanted to practice more or harder but just lacked the motivation? Well, you’ll get motivated really fast when you have to get up and play something in front of others! Finding opportunities to “play out,” as musicians say, is a surefire way to make you take your practice time more seriously. Having a live performance scheduled is kind of like a deadline. So, for example, if your gig is next Saturday, you absolutely have to have your parts down by then.

Aside from being terrifying, playing out can be enjoyable and rewarding, as well. Part of the appeal of playing an instrument is the opportunity to share your love of music with others. Plus, everybody needs to feel appreciated; a little applause now and then is great encouragement. You’ll really feel like you’ve accomplished something after you have a good performance in front of others.

Playing out also gives you more time with your instrument in your hands, which can only make you a better player.

Practice a little and play a lot

Learning and practicing are very important, but you don’t want to overdo it. You need to spend a lot of time just casually playing without always trying to accomplish something. To put it another way, saw a lot and sand a little. Sanding allows you to refine your edges. Although you need plenty of practice to refine your skills and techniques, most of the time, you just need to relax and simply enjoy playing guitar.

You often hear stories about virtuoso musicians who spent eight hours a day practicing. If you really want to be a technical virtuoso, then you can follow a rigid practice routine. But most people just want to enjoy the process. There’s nothing wrong with spending most of your time playing through familiar songs or improvising just for the fun of it. The more you play, the better you’ll get anyway.

Study more guitar and music theory

One of the best ways to develop your understanding of music and guitar playing is to keep on studying. Countless books, DVDs, and websites offer guitar instruction and music or guitar theory lessons. You don’t need to master everything that’s out there, but it’s helpful to always have something that you’re slowly working your way through. That way, you’re always making progress and developing new skills and techniques.

You may even enjoy taking a traditional music theory class at a nearby community college or music school. It isn’t for everyone, but if you’re the very analytical type, you may really enjoy it.

Learn how to read music. Understanding music notation influences how you play the guitar even when you don’t have sheet music in front of you. Plus, you’ll be better able to follow charts and lead sheets when the need arises. You don’t have to learn to read like a concert violinist; just learn the basics. You should learn up to at least the point where you can count and play 16th notes. Start with a book like Mel Bays Modern Guitar Method Grade 1 or something similar.

Set reasonable, realistic goals

If you’re serious about progressing as a guitarist, you need to set some goals. You don’t have to set major goals (“I will be the next guitar god!”) — just something simple that you can work toward. A good goal is to learn a song or a part of a song. Maybe your goal is to play at an open mic night or at church or to make a YouTube video to share with friends. Whatever the case may be, just set small, achievable goals that give you a target to set your sights on. Then work toward them.

As you set goals, be reasonable and realistic. As the old saying goes, “Everybody is created equal, but some are more equal than others.” If you think you’re going to be the next Jimi Hendrix, you probably aren’t being realistic. Some people are blessed with exceptional guitar-playing skills, and others aren’t. In fact, most people aren’t. Accept your limitations, play to your strengths, and enjoy what you’re able to do well. You don’t need to be a virtuoso to make a contribution to music.

Have a good time all the time

When asked about his philosophy on life, Viv Savage of Spinal Tap replied, “Have a good time all the time.” Whatever you study, however you play, wherever your skills lead you, enjoy what you do and be grateful for the gift of music and the opportunity to play this great instrument, the guitar.