I made this list because a lot of people ask about what to practice and this is my best shot at an answer. I am not saying to do all of these things in one session, rather, vary your sessions with different combinations of the list, which is in no particular order besides the first point:
Playing for fun and fun only
No matter your skill level, the first and foremost thing to remember is to have fun. Be sure to realize that every time you pick up the instrument!
Learning a solo from a guitar hero
Emulating your guitar heroes will teach you all of the things that scales and theory never will. The soul of guitar playing is the touch, timing, and phrasing elements that magically transform a group of sounds into a emotion.
Beginner: Work on memorizing the notes and making it sound natural instead of mechanical; Play the solo to a rhythm section or backing tracks to master the timing
Intermediate: Know your notes, understand what the rhythm section is doing and how it relates to the solo; Listen to the elements beyond the notes being played
Intermediate Plus: Learn how to play the same solo in the same key but using different string-sets and combinations; Transpose the solo into different keys
Learning the chords of a new song
Don’t neglect rhythm guitar because you want to be a lead player. You will learn plenty of things that will cross-over and make your solos better. So don’t just emulate the solos of your guitar heroes, learn the chord progressions of their songs as well.
Beginner: Learn the chords and work on smoothly transitioning between them; Play the entire song in time from beginning to end with friends, a metronome, or drum track
Intermediate: Learn the subtle rhythmic and melodic elements that help define the spirit of the song; Look up live performances to see exactly what chord forms are played; Learn where the progression fits into chord harmonization; Transpose the song into new keys
Intermediate Plus: Work out the song to fit a new genre: metal, bluegrass, jazz, reggae; Arrange an instrumental version of the song where you simultaneously play chords, bass, and a melody to emulate the voice and/or other melodic elements
Playing through scales
Be wary of anyone who tells you not to learn scales. You do not learn them only for the notes. Focusing on different picking techniques while you run though your notes is the kind of smart practice you should make into a habit. Turn every part of your routine into something that multi-tasks your learning.
Beginner: Learn how to see a pentatonic and/or diatonic scale as one key that goes across your entire fretboard, don’t half-learn it, learn the entire thing in at least one key, this cannot be stressed enough
Intermediate: Play through scales in non-traditonal ways like “Triplet Style” and “Stutter Style”; Switch between the scales of different keys without moving position on the fretboard; Learn target notes to bring out major and minor from within a single set of notes
Intermediate Plus: Look for meta-patterns that make intervals easier to locate; Study modal playing; Learn new scales that explore intervals larger than a whole-step; Relearn the scales you already know using new equations like a different # of notes per string
Playing through arpeggios
Arpeggios are one of the best things to know on the guitar. Relate them to your chords and the scales that surround each chord. Arpeggio study also reinforces your knowledge of target notes, which are essential in lead playing.
Beginner: Learn some basic arpeggios for major and minor triad chords; Study how they fit into the larger scale patterns
Intermediate: Study in the context of chord harmonization by staying on one part of the guitar and going through all triad arpeggios in the key; Learn how to connect arpeggios across the guitar; Learn extended arpeggios: 7th’s, 9th’s, etc…
Intermediate Plus: Learn to recognize the meta-patterns within different arpeggio shapes; Study how to combine arpeggios with (seemingly) unrelated chords to create extended harmonies
Playing with other people (or backing tracks)
The most important thing you can ever do to grow as a musician is to play with other musicians. If practicing alone is like reading a love poem, then playing music with other musicians is like being in love. In my opinion, its the most fun a group of people can have while keeping their clothes on.
If you are not in the position to play with others, opening a backing track is the next best option. The following applies to playing over backing tracks:
Beginner: Play over the backing track in the key of the song; Study chord tones and learn how to target notes to create better licks
Intermediate: Follow the changes: treat each chord change as an opportunity to play something unique to that change
Intermediate Plus: Create lead playing that speaks in intelligent and coherent musical statements, these should reference the changes as well as the unique overall melody you created for the tune (or the established melody if the backing track references a particular song).
Playing along to the radio/music videos/etc…
You can play along to anything: TV jingles, your Ipod, the radio, music videos, etc… This is essential practice for developing your ear and will also teach you how to play well with others.
Beginner: Try to solo along to the tune; Try to add to the music in some way by tastefully providing an interesting rhythmic or melodic element, as if you were in the studio as part of the band
Intermediate: Learn to establish the key(s) of the song by finding a couple correct notes and then reverse-engineering that into the correct scale patterns and key;Pick out the melody by ear and play in time with the lead guitarist; Pick out the chord progression by ear (use chord harmonization to establish what chords exist in the key)
Intermediate Plus: Challenge yourself with songs you have never heard before; Practice to genres like hip-hop, electronic music, and/or foreign music.
Working out established melodies by ear
Building your “musical ear” cannot be stressed enough. Along with the exercises below, make a point to build the mind-ear-fingers connection by trying to sing the notes that you play, and also by trying to play notes after you sing them.
Beginner: Start with very simple melodies like Happy Birthday, use trial and error to figure them out by ear alone
Intermediate: Work your way up to more advanced melodies; There are many different ways to play the same thing so don’t just play it one way
Intermediate Plus: Transpose your melodies into different keys; Challenge yourself to play it on only one string; Play it on different sets of only two or three strings; Put your guitar into an unknown tuning and start the learning process over
Working out new chords/inversions
Learning new chords is not just something that a rhythm player needs to do. The best lead players also know many chord shapes and inversions all across their neck and they reference them during their solos.
Beginner: Expand your chord vocabulary using visual aids
Intermediate: Expand your chord vocabulary (without visual aids) using an understanding of intervals; Learn every new chord in at least three ways (from the E, A, and D string root)
Intermediate Plus: Work out inversions all over the neck; Learn different chord (and inversion) progressions by interval knowledge so you can transpose them instantly into any key
Fingerpicking and/or playing without a pick
The right hand/fingers can do a lot of things that your pick will never be able to do, so explore those possibilities. Many of the things you learn will eventually even translate into your picking style.
Beginner: Play through everything you know without a pick; Learn how to play your bass strings with the thumb and your treble strings with index, middle, and ring finger
Intermediate: Look into different fingerpicking styles; Learn how to create a bass line over your changes; Learn how to strum percussively with your hand
Intermediate Plus: Look into hybrid picking and more advanced fingerstyle techniques; Learn how to play chords, alternating bass, and a melody line simultaneously
Something that a lot of people forget is that the best solos in the world are just a tasteful combination of a handful of guitar techniques: hammer-ons, pull-offs, vibrato, bends, etc… When you start playing guitar and your fingers are still weak and soft, some of these techniques will be hard and not sound perfectly clean. Remember though, everyone needs to suck at something before they become an expert. Keep at it!
Beginner, Intermediate, Intermediate Plus: Practice, practice, practice! Food for thought: there is a Chinese stringed instrument called the guqin where they have documents describing 25 different types of vibrato. Just vibrato.
Fretboard mastery is a process that takes a lifetime and there are many, many completely valid ways to reach the same conclusions. Whether using the CAGED system or some other framework, don’t let the “Master Player didn’t know theory!” crowd to steal a resource away from you. Or go ahead and listen to them and when you become famous send me an autographed $100 bill telling me how wrong I was, you’re rich, whats 100 bucks?
Beginner: Learn your note names on at least the E string and A string; Look into your basic intervals: octaves, 5th’s, major and minor 3rd’s
Intermediate: Know your notes on the E, A, D strings; Learn all of your intervals; Connect your moveable chord shapes with the scale shapes around them; Learn to look at a scale and see all of the different chord combinations within it
Intermediate Plus: Everything on this entire list in the context of the chord-harmonization (and borrowed chords) for every key, with knowledge of all possible major and minor triad combinations including inversions and open-string variations, and as many chord extensions as possible built from those triads by interval knowledge alone
Some people know zero theory and make wonderful music. Some people know everything about their guitar but cannot make an original melody to save their life. Some players work their whole lives to play in orchestras and ensembles and could care less about making their own music. Some people think going fast makes them good. Some people think flawlessly playing covers makes them good. Others have totally different goals. And every shade of musical personality in between.
If you are having fun and you love to play the guitar then its best not to worry about what anyone else thinks. Music runs deep, you can not look at at person playing a song, a lick, or a scale and tell how they good or bad they are because you have no idea how deep their understanding goes, or what their musical journey has been. So don’t worry about comparing yourself to anyone or the very shallow people who try to judge you or size up your playing.
This list is by no means “the way”. It is just something I came up with from my own experience. Don’t look too deeply into the order of the list because there is no order, make up your own order according to your own goals.
I am also sure that I forgot a lot of things and that a lot of things can be added or elaborated upon. But thats the thing about music, its far too big to capture in one page, one book, or honestly… even one life. Just remember that this list exists like a snapshot, a tiny picture from one angle on “how to practice” that some people will find and it will motivate them to get that guitar in their hands. Thats all that matters.
Thanks for reading!