Practising The Guitar, Muscle Memory, and Routine

10,000 hours of Practice

There’s a popular myth that  says it takes 10,000 hours of practising before you can become an expert at something.

Broken down into days and years that means an hour of practice every day for about 27 years! Even a dedicated 3 hours playing a day will take nearly ten years before expert status can be achieved. 


I have passed the 10,000 hour mark only because I’ve been on the planet a long time. But I only have to look on YouTube to see some youngsters who have far exceeded my abilities in a fraction of the time.

On the other hand, some people spend a lot of time practising the guitar without progressing very quickly.

What it all boils down to is not the amount of time but the quality of the practice.

The Role of Muscle Memory for Better guitar practice sessions

You may have heard about muscle memory .

It’s a process of repetitive movements which the brain eventually converts into unconscious actions – ones that can be done without thinking about them.

It’s a bit like riding a bike – hard at first, and requiring great concentration -but after a while it becomes second nature. The muscles you used to keep your balance work without any focused thought and it’s a skill that usually stays with you for life.

Practising the guitar helps to develop muscle memory in the hands so that a piece of music which was originally peppered with mistakes becomes fluent and natural.

The trouble with muscle memory is that the mind registers the repeated movements regardless of whether they are good or bad. Repeated mistakes are imprinted in the brain, and it’s why there may be a certain section in a song where you keep hitting a duff note and may even come to expect it.

But there is a way to overcome this.

Slower equals Faster

There’s a great temptation to get a piece of music up to speed as soon as possible. That’s fine for the easier bits but mistakes may creep into the trickier parts.


We don’t want the brain to commit these mistakes to memory. It’s better if we don’t make them very often, if at all.

That may mean slowing down to a snail’s pace in order to play the notes correctly.  And by a snail’s pace I mean as slow as it takes to make sure each note is correct. And that may be incredibly slow! When you can play it comfortably without errors then you can gradually – very gradually – build up speed.

Breaking a difficult phrase down into smaller sections may help. Play just a few notes before repeating them (but getting them right!) and moving on to the next bar or two.

Now this may seem time-consuming but your mind via your muscle memory will help you to play the piece perfectly, albeit slowly at first. You’ll actually learn faster by slowing down when practising.

Make sure you can play a piece without errors and don’t be tempted to speed up too quickly. Using a metronome will help keep you at a steady tempo.

Structured Practising


If time is limited then there’s a temptation to just pick up the guitar in a spare moment and do a spot of “noodling”.

Noodling is an unorganised form of practice where you may test out ideas or play whatever comes into your mind.

It’s not a bad thing! Often you may stumble on something new like an interesting chord sequence or haunting melody – and it can be very enjoyable. And if you don’t allow yourself some enjoyment then you’re more likely to become bored and give up!

Noodle time is when your own creativity really comes to the fore. So be gentle on yourself and allow some noodling to become part of your weekly practice routine. But if you really want to improve your overall guitar playing as quickly as possible, then set aside some time to practise specific skills and techniques as well.

Warm Up

Your hands have lots of tiny muscles. Most guitar skills involve micro-movements i.e. small changes of direction, pressure and position. It’s important to have a warm-up routine to get those muscles working smoothly and fluidly before you try practising anything more strenuous. It’s not uncommon for guitarists to injure their hands while playing so start slowly and gently.

Scales are a great way of warming up both the hands and the brain. It’s always helpful to run through a couple before you start playing a piece of music. Vary the scales you play for each practice session- that also helps with understanding the relationships between notes in a scale. Play around with the rhythm as well – it’ll make it more interesting.

If you can spend about five minutes on warm-up exercises your whole practice session will benefit.

Practice Routine

Not everyone learns in the same way. Following a rigid structure may help for some people but not for others.

That’s why it is worth exploring what works for you and then devising your own routine for practising. That may involve having the same daily workout or a different one for each day of the week.

First, you need to decide how many hours a week you can devote to your playing. That may be 20 minutes every day or an hour for one or two days a week.

If you only have a short period then do a warm up and then concentrate on just one song or piece. Longer practice sessions can incorporate a bit more. Try a warm-up, some exercises for specific skills, maybe some scales music theory, and finish with a song. It’s important to have some fun when you’re playing so add a little variety or some noodling if you want.

Set Some Goals

You may have heard of SMART objectives. SMART is an acronym and for guitar purposes stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based. If you set yourself some SMART objectives for your guitar ambitions it will really help you develop a healthy practice routine that is right for you as an individual.


Specific goals are ones that aren’t vague. A vague goal may be “I want to be a better guitarist” – but how much better? Do you want to improve from a Grade Two to a Grade Three or is your aim to be a Grade Six, for example.

A more specific goal may be ” I want to play Guiliani’s Etude without mistakes four times in a row”. Or maybe to learn a particular song by heart.

Specific goals can be as small or large as you like. Having an overall goal, and then breaking it down into bite-sized chunks is a great way to set yourself a target.


Measurable – you need to know if you are getting closer towards your goal. In order to do that there needs to be a way of measuring the progress. Music grades are a very obvious way of measuring your standard of play. But if you don’t want to do that then you must devise your own system.

For example, your goal may be to play a C Major scale at a speed of 60 beats per minute. You can start with a metronome setting of 30 BPM and gradually increase it. Or a song could be broken down into sections so you know which bits that need extra attention.


Goals need to be realistic.

If you’ve just learnt “Three Blind Mice” then your next goal shouldn’t be the solo from Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine”. That may well be something for the future but your next goal needs to be a little more modest. One of the biggest problems for self-taught guitarists is becoming disheartened when trying something too ambitious. Set yourself a goal which will stretch your current ability but won’t defeat you.


Learn the skills you need to achieve your goal. For example, a left hand tapping technique, although impressive, probably won’t help you with Pachebel’s “Canon in D” whereas arpeggios will. Aim at focusing on the techniques you’ll require for your particular objective.


A good SMART objective always sets a time frame for attaining the goal. If you have to get a piece right for a performance or an exam then you’ll be painfully aware of the need to get up to speed by a certain date. However, there’s no point in putting pressure on yourself unnecessarily if you’re playing for personal satisfaction. Nevertheless, it’s not a bad idea to give yourself a time limit so that you remain focussed on your goal and don’t drift aimlessly.

If you don’t achieve your goal in the time-frame you’ve set then take a minute to reflect on the reasons why. Were you too ambitious in your original goal and was it too difficult? Or maybe you’ve been a bit too impatient and expected to have reached your target sooner? Or could it be that you need to change your practice routine to concentrate on the weaker areas?

Be Patient and Have Some Fun Along The Way

Rome wasn’t built in a day so they say. Likewise, guitar virtuosity takes time.

If you’re having trouble practising a particular piece or technique don’t give up. Play some stuff that you enjoy and have some fun. Then return to the piece another day and try again. It’s amazing how you can crack a tricky section when you come back to it fresh after a break. Be patient with yourself, go slowly, and think about muscle memory again.

Repeating songs you can play well ingrains them further into the brain. It’s better to do that than to stay with a piece that you’re struggling with, as repeated mistakes while practising may also be fixed into your mind.