Guitar Practice Routine: Etudes over Exercises over Licks

I don’t know about you, but my ultimate goal as a guitarist can be summed up in one sentence: to be able to play anything I hear in my head.

Now, in order for that to happen, these elements need to be in place:

  1. You have something in mind to play.  This may seem obvious, but I’ve been in situations where I don’t know what to play.  Discerning the musical context and envisioning (enhearing??) your part in your mind is a skill in itself.
  2. You understand what you have in mind.  This may also seem obvious, but not always true — can you play every melody you can hum, instantly?  Hearing it and knowing how to play it, are two different things.  Again, this is a skill in itself.
  3. You possess the capacity to play what you have in mind.  Finally, here’s the easiest part to practice.  The physical skill of pulling off techniques involved in executing the part you hear in your mind.

So, there are three parts to this act of playing the guitar (or any instruments), and the question is, what guitar practice routine is the most effective in developing all three aspects involved?

3 Types of Practice Methods

To consider this, I’d like to categorize common practice methods into three subsets: exercises, licks and etudes.

  1. Exercises, I define as routines designed solely on making the hands develop the ability to execute the physical motions required to play.  These are mechanical in nature and have little musical value.  It’s like memorizing one word at a time.
  2. Licks are musical phrases, like a complete sentence.  It’s usually organized by the techniques they focus on, and a particular musical style they belong to, such as blues, country, jazz, and so on.
  3. Etudes are actual self-contained pieces of music.  They are designed to make the player focus on certain techniques, but they don’t always adhere to strict repetitions because they also have to make sense a piece of music.  It’s tough to come across etudes that are really interesting as a piece of music, but good ones (Chopin wrote etudes for piano that are concert-worthy) can have a lot of musical values.

The Impacts of Each Approach

Now, of the three, I find that etudes are the most effective in developing all three aspects of playing what’s in your head.  Here are the reasons why:

  • Etudes helps me understand the musical context. Chords and phrases are put together to make sense as a stand-alone piece of music, so I can see how a certain phrase fits/functions within the overall context of the music. This helps me develop the ability to hear what to play in a certain situation.
  • Etudes still make me focus on a particular technique, but it often has some variations built in, so it’s not just straight repetition.  I can learn how to apply a certain technique to make the music work instead of blindly repeating a lick.
  • Etudes have some musical values, which make me learn how to play it musically.  For example, if a certain phrases is repeated twice in a piece, it allows for a whole range of interpretations — play the first time loud, the second soft, and vice versa — so I can practice not just the technique, but how to be expressive.

After etudes, I also have grown to like exercises because they are efficient in making my hands gain ability to move a certain way, to pull off a particular technique.  The problem with exercises is that it’s dry and mechanical — it doesn’t help me visualize what to play or how to play it.  But even after the first two are down, having the physical ability to play is definitely fundamental to my success as a player.  Exercises can’t be all I do, but given that the other two aspects are primarily mental, if my guitar-practice time is limited I often focus on exercises.

Why I Don’t Practice Licks

Licks, I’ve grown to stay away from. And here are the reasons why:

  • They are often presented without musical context. Sure, some do let me see how it fits over a chord progression — but that’s not big enough picture to see how this lick can function within the overall piece.
  • Practicing licks is still repetitive enough so that both my hands and my mind tend to get stuck with it. So instead of hearing what’s in my head, I just pull out some licks because that’s what both my mind and hands have a habit of doing. And memorizing licks by itself doesn’t develop the skill to take a particular technique and apply it to serve a musical purpose.

I can see why there are lots of licks books out there, as they are not as dry as exercises and yet it’s just easy to repeat licks, thinking you’re learning to play in a certain style. But I find that when it comes to playing the said licks in a real, live musical situation, using a set of memorized, habitual-ized licks rarely get you very far. You have to have a huge catalog of them if you want to pull off a complete piece of music without repeating yourself.

It’s one thing if you down the entire “50 must-know licks for blues turnarounds” — there, the musical context is specific enough that you may still find your licks to be practical. But even then, blues turnarounds may seem all similar and rigidly unchanging, but in reality there are countless variations, big and small, that if you’re just pulling out a memorized lick you better know a lot of them and how each fits within a particular flavor of turnaround for it to be useful.  Tempo, groove, arrangements all affect what fits and what doesn’t fit, so forcing a memorized lick can often result feeling just that, forced.

Plus, most musical situations aren’t as clear-cut and obvious like blues turnarounds, and when practiced out of context, memorizing licks can’t help you figure out how to modify and apply them in a real-world situation.


The guitar world is filled with lessons and materials focusing on licks. It’s an easy place to focus on, both from a student’s and a teacher’s point of view. But I challenge everyone to go a step further and construct etudes — put a real, functioning piece of music, centered around a particular technique. Sure, it may not be a real interesting piece of music, though even the simplest etude has a lot more room for musical expression/interpretation than just a single lick. And when a certain technique stumps you, then use an exercise to make the hands learn that move.

This is one of the reasons why I appreciate Tomo Fujita’s material so much, because most everything he does is made up of etudes. They are fun to play and I don’t get tired of repeating them, because a real piece of music has an infinite room for interpretation and expression.

Guitar teachers and publishers, please do us a favor and publish more books of etudes — the world has enough licks and exercises books. And for students, try to see if you can write your own etudes, perhaps by focusing on a particular technique or even a lick. You’ll learn a lot about how to write and put together a piece of music, on top of learning how to pull off a technique and apply it in a musical context.  Build your guitar practice routines around it, and you’ll see a big impact on being able to play what you hear in your head.