Music & Entertainment

Learn How to Practice Guitar: Guitar Playing Techniques With Tom Morello and Carlos Santana

Written by MasterClass

Mar 28, 2019 • 5 min read

You can own the most beautiful guitar in the world, but its potential cannot be unlocked unless you diligently practice your playing technique. A good guitar practice routine involves reinforcing known skills, pushing yourself to develop new ones, and steering clear of bad habits that can snake their way into your playing.

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What’s the Best Way to Practice Guitar?

To be a complete guitar player, you need to practice everything. A well-spent practice session will include:

  • A warm up
  • Finger exercises
  • Working through chord progressions
  • Working up and down scales
  • Fingerstyle playing
  • Flatpicking
  • Two-handed tapping

But does every player really need to master all of those techniques? Practically speaking, perhaps not. Your own personal guitar practice routine will be determined by your own personal goals as a player.

What to Practice for Playing Folk and Rock Guitar

If your desire is to play guitar folk and rock music, you’ll want to spend time on:

  • Open chords. These are chords that vibrate freely (instead of hampered vibrating from have a finger clamped down on the strings).
  • Barre chords. These are chords in which multiple fingers press down on multiple strings at the same time.
  • Fingerstyle picking. This is a technique which involves using the fingers to pick the strings directly.

Lead guitarists in this genre will want to focus on techniques like flatpicking, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and bends. Lead guitarists on the heavier end of rock music will also want to pull out a metronome and practice rapid-fire right-hand picking, palm muting, and (if you want to go really fast), two-handed tapping.

What to Practice for Jazz Guitar Playing

If you’re a jazz player, your practice routine will involve mastering a variety of chordal voicings, including drop-twos, drop-threes, and drop-two-fours. You’ll want to work through scales, modes, and arpeggios for your lead playing—making sure to include more dissonant options like diminished, altered, and whole tone scales.

How to Read Music for Guitar

Guitar players have a somewhat justly earned reputation as being poor readers of sheet music. One reason for this is that many guitarists rely on tablature, which shows players what strings to press down at what frets. While tablature conveys valuable information, it doesn’t translate to other instruments—or even to guitars in alternate tunings!

To be considered a top-level guitarist, reading standard notation has to be a part of your game. To get your reading game up to speed, work on the following:

  • Sight reading off of treble clef (the standard for guitar notation)
  • Committing all major and minor key signatures to memory
  • Understanding time signatures (4/4, 3/4, etc.)
  • Reading from chord charts, and knowing multiple ways to voice each chord.

The great studio musicians, hired to play on chart-topping records, frequently arrive at the studio, are handed a piece of sheet music, and are expected to perform it nearly flawlessly in one or two takes. If you’re more of a hobbyist, or have no aspirations to be a session guitar player, you can probably get away without much sightreading ability.

How to Improve Guitar Playing With Collaboration

Remember that unless you aspire to be a one-person band (like a folk singer-songwriter), music is all about collaboration. Practicing with others enables you to:

  • Take collective responsibility for maintaining a group tempo and being in tune with each other.
  • Listen to what other players are doing and feed off their ideas.
  • Establish reasonable volume levels so everyone can be heard.
  • Test out ideas that are intentionally written for multiple instruments (like harmonized guitar lines or “call and response” sections between a singer and the band).

Whenever possible, seize the opportunity to play with other musicians. And if you don’t know other musicians, play along to a computer backing track. There is plenty of free software for cell phones (like JamPlay) and laptop computers (like GarageBand) that provides tracks to play along with.

tom morello playing his acoustic guitar

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Tom Morello’s Top Tips for Practicing Guitar

Tom Morello, whose guitar playing has been heard via Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, The Nightwatchman, Bruce Springsteen, and more, shares these insights on practicing guitar:

  • Practice is equal parts technique and theory. When you practice technique, you train your fingers to do what you want them to do. When you study theory, you learn where your fingers can go and why.
  • Practice requires consistency and commitment. Tom believes you’ll see more progress playing for one hour every day than you would playing an entire afternoon once a week. Tom himself gradually worked his way up to eight hours per day, dedicating two hours each to technique, theory, experimentation/ songwriting, and improvisation.
  • Collaborate with others. Collaboration allows you to see up close how other people approach their craft.
  • Practice playing live. Playing in front of an audience is its own sort of practice, because it builds confidence and exposes you to unpredictable situations you couldn’t possibly replicate in a rehearsal space.
  • Learn how your favorite players practice. Their techniques might work for you, too. For instance: During his early band days in Sweden, Yngwie Malmsteen would videotape the band practices with a recorder that, for some reason, slightly sped up the recording when played back. Not realizing, Yngwie thought he was playing scorchingly fast during the practices and strived for those tempos while practicing by himself at home.
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Carlos Santana’s Tips for Perfecting Your Guitar Technique

Carlos Santana’s career has spanned over 50 years, from his electrifying performance at the original Woodstock to contemporary hits with Rob Thomas and Wyclef Jean. For Carlos, music is as much a spiritual endeavor as it is a technical one:

  • View practice not as a burden, but as an offering. For Carlos, the art of performing music begins well before you pick up your instrument. Musicians have intimate relationships with their audiences. If you’re going to delve into your audience’s emotions—and even their souls—then you owe it to them to be mentally prepared to perform.
  • Practice proper breathing. Breathing is not as simple as just inhaling air. When you take that breath, you should also inhale trust in yourself and your choices as a player. The goal is to force aside your inhibitions and replace them with confidence that you’re connected to the music and will thus make great choices.
  • Don’t get trapped in your own head. Carlos is clear: “The way to prepare your brain before you practice is to dismiss it.” As he learned from piano legend Keith Jarrett, when you over-intellectualize your choices, you surpress raw emotion.
  • Give yourself time to warm up. Carlos likes to set a rhythm machine and explore a single key for five to ten minutes, so that the key gets inside him.
  • Don’t just practice guitar parts — learn the whole song. One of Carlos’s techniques for practicing is to dismantle a piece of music and put it back together. He first did this with the James Brown song “Night Train.” He didn’t just focus on the guitar—he broke down and analyzed all the instruments. Later he did the same with Aretha Franklin’s entire Lady Soul album (1968). Carlos spends time with notes and phrases played by all instruments, playing them over and over to see how many different ways he can express the musical ideas.