Sometimes it feels like the more you learn as a guitarist, the more there is to learn.

Think back to your first year of learning. Your goals were easy – learn this song, strum this chord, and then learn the next one next week.

Fast forward a couple of years later (or decades for some of you), and you have scales, arpeggios, techniques, songs, styles, licks and riffs coming out the wazoo.

How can you know what to practice?

This week I’m going to help you develop your very own, personalised guitar workout that will make sure you continue to improve, maintain your motivation as a guitarist, and, perhaps most importantly, make sure that you’re actually using the stuff you’re learning to make music!

Step 1: Work out your long-term and short-term guitar goals

If you’re anything like me, this step can be pretty demoralising. It forces you to think about all the shit you don’t do to the standard you’d like, and actually write it down.

Don’t take this reflection personally. You will never, ever finish learning. Accept that you’ll always want to improve something about your playing, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t already a good guitarist.

Remember, many people would kill just to be able to play Nothing Else Matters or strum 3 or 4 chords, so put your lofty goals of shredding like Randy Rhoads into perspective.

Now, if you have diverse musical interests, you may have a list of 20 things you want to do. That’s okay, but you can’t possibly try to achieve that many things at once. I couldn’t even manage that with my schedule and I’m a full-time musician.

Instead, try to group these goals into similar categories and plan them out in a sequential order wherever possible.

Let’s say I have 10 goals:

  • Learn all the notes on the fretboard for instant recall
  • Play Stairway to Heaven
  • Write a metal song
  • Master sweep picking at 500 notes per minute
  • Learn all the 7th chords for playing jazz
  • Get downpicking speed to 300 notes per minute
  • Learn how to solo using modes
  • Create a really good rhythm guitar tone
  • Learn how to use ProTools to record songs
  • Work out how to set up a floating bridge guitar

Straight away, I can see that downpicking, writing a metal song, getting a good rhythm tone, and using ProTools could all be grouped into ‘Metal Rhythm Goals’; as they’re all related.

Similarly, learning all the notes on the fretboard goes hand-in-hand with learning 7th chord shapes, in that order, as it will make learning the jazz chords much easier. I’d also include Stairway to Heaven in this, as it’s a chordal song and can be complementary, as I’ll explain later.

So let’s say I’ve grouped these into 3 categories:

Metal Rhythm Goals

  • Get downpicking to 300 notes per minute
  • Write a metal song
  • Learn how to use ProTools to record songs
  • Create a really good rhythm guitar tone

Metal Lead Goals

  • Learn how to solo using modes
  • Master sweep picking at 500 notes per minute
  • Work out how to setup a floating bridge guitar

Chord Goals

  • Learn all the notes on the fretboard for instant recall
  • Play Stairway to Heaven
  • Learn all the 7th chords for playing jazz

These goals are sort of in order, but that’s more of a guide rather than a rule. You don’t need to write your metal song before you learn to use ProTools in our above example, and it may even help to do the two simultaneously, but it would help to learn the fretboard (at least on the bottom two strings) before learning your 7th chords.

Don’t be too worried if you aren’t sure how to group each goal. The key is to make the list more manageable, not to go nuts trying to define everything you’re working on. Near enough is good enough for or purposes.

Step 2: Work out your available practice time

Be realistic. Don’t assume you can do 3 hours a day, every day of the week if you’re working full-time and have a family.

For many people, you’ll find you’ll have lots of short windows to play the guitar (maybe 30 minutes) with a few longer windows that come up on weekends or a day off (maybe 1 – 2 hours).

These timeframes are what you’re going to build your workout around.

As a general rule, if you can’t fit in at least 3 sessions a week, it’s going to be difficult to improve. If you’re in this boat, you’ll need to ditch all but one category of goals to maintain focus.

For everyone else who can manage 3+ practice sessions a week, we’re going to develop 3 different workouts to match your timeframes:

  1. Regular sessions: Where we focus on ONE of your group of goals for the entire session
  2. Extended sessions: Where we focus on ALL of your groups’ goals for the session
  3. Short sessions: Where we quickly run through a bunch of little things you need to practice from ANY of your goals

Let’s take someone with a decent amount of time to dedicate to guitar playing (approx. 3 hours per week).

Their guitar schedule may look something like this:

Monday: Regular Session

Tuesday: Short Session

Wednesday: Regular Session

Thursday: Regular Session

Friday: Short Session

Saturday: Nothing

Sunday: Extended Session

After doing this step, you may rethink your goals (“maybe I don’t really want to spend time on my jazz stuff at the moment”), but wherever possible, try to make your schedule fit your goals rather than the other way around.

After all, you’re the one who wants to achieve those goals, so you’re probably going to have to make the time to make them happen!

Step 3: Build your workouts!

Now, onto the fun stuff!

Our goal here is to create an easy-to-follow, easy-to-remember routine that we can play in each of our sessions.

We’re trying to minimise the time spent deciding what to do and maximise the amount of time actually playing and learning.

I generally plan these out weekly for myself and students, spending 15 minutes writing down what I’m going to do in each workout.

To be clear, it’s okay if you get carried away and don’t follow the workout to the letter. Use them as a guide to avoid you having to ask, “Well, I’ve played that scale, I’m either nailing it or I’m done with it for the day – what next?”

I recommend having each of your regular sessions focused on ONE set of goals so you can focus. It’s best to work on this, which I often refer to as the ‘rule of 3’:

  • Something really challenging and new
  • Something you’re semi-comfortable with and want to improve
  • Something that’s now easy that you love playing

Why not just have hard stuff? Because this is a guide for how to improve as a guitarist, not a guide to make you dread and despise your practice time! Besides, you can use the easier stuff as a warm up (or focus on getting that little bit tighter, that little bit faster), so it’s definitely not wasted time.

Let’s do an example regular workout session based on our Metal Leads Goal that we looked at before:

  1. Play through 3 mode patterns, one you’re familiar with, one you’re okay with, and one that’s new (10 minutes)
  2. Play through arpeggio sweep picking shapes or a solo using sweep shapes (10 minutes)
  3. Put on a chord progression backing track, and solo using the modal patterns WITH the arpeggio shapes you’ve been using (10 minutes)

That sounds like a pretty rewarding workout to me – you use your scales to warm up, slowly learning some new ones, then you fly through your arpeggios, before getting to shred it up and try putting it all into practice.

Seem simple? That’s because it is because we have planned out the session based on our goals and availability.

Our extended session would include all of that, plus our workouts related to our other goals, and maybe half an hour watching some videos on how to setup a floating bridge.

So what do we do in the Short Session?

There’s always going to be one bit of a scale, one bit of a song, one part of the fretboard that you just can’t seem to get the first time. You know the bit I mean – the one that makes you curse like a sailor.

Put together a list of these painful bits and spend 1-2 minutes on each one in your short sessions. Yeah, it sucks, but very short guitar practice sessions spent working on these tricky parts pay off much better than one big session.

Alternatively, your short sessions could be based around songs. Pick one of the songs you are working on and play through it in its entirety (ideally, from memory). Not only is this great fun but it will help you master the song as a performance piece a lot quicker.

Bonus Step: Steal from other Guitar Workouts

I very rarely recommend working through other people’s workouts exactly as written, because everyone has different goals, available time and experience as a guitarist.

There’s one exception to this, however.

When your workouts are starting to feel stagnant, boring, or that they’re not quite working, you either need to:

  1. Get yourself in for a guitar lesson with a teacher who can help you work it out
  2. Find inspiration from other players

It’s important that you do keep varying your workouts to keep them fun, interesting and relevant, as there’s no one perfect routine that will work in perpetuity for all guitarists.

You can check out my beginner guitar practice workout guide here (including a look at what my personal routine used to look like in the comments), but I would also recommend reviewing:

Frank Gambale’s Chop Builder (his newer courses are decent, but they aren’t really as workout based compared to this ’80s classic).

Steve Vai’s 30-hour workout (though please don’t try playing for 10 hours per day. More recently we’ve seen that the body is not meant to play the guitar for that long without a LOT of preparation).

The half hour you spend actually building your own workout could be one of the most beneficial things you can do for yourself as a guitarist, so sit, think, and play!

Remember to share your own workouts in the comments below (or shoot them to me at ben@benplantguitar.com.au if you’d like some feedback or ideas).