Handcuffed To The Fretboard, Part 2: Forming The Daily Practice Habit

Read Time 3 Minutes

Hi, Welcome Back to Part 2 of the “Handcuffed to the Fretboard” Series.

In the first post we talked about the pain of being a slave to your own habits, playing the same old licks and riffs over and over again.

In this series we’re going to get the noodling habit under control, backtrack, and tackle the fundamentals of music so we can get to work creating instead of just repeating things we’ve played before.

That pair of handcuffs that constrain your hands? This series is about picking the lock.

Clarity of Mind

The first thing you’ll need is a vision of what you want to be able to do with this instrument. Go ahead and take ten minutes to work out a kind of “bucket list” of goals.

Here’s my wishlist:

  • Make practice a daily ritual and habit
  • Sight read music
  • Quickly and correctly notate any melody by ear
  • Identify chords, intervals, and scales by ear
  • Deeply understand the underlying theory so I can freely solo and improvise
  • Understand scales and chords not only by names, but by their moods
  • Mentally untangle and map the fretboard
  • Get rhythm! I want to groove.

No need to be a perfectionist with your list; you can always add to it and make revisions later. All you need for now are some ideas you can start working toward right away.

What’s on your list?

Your Daily Practice

The first item on my list above was “Make practice a daily ritual and habit.” All of my other goals depend entirely on whether or not I can focus and practice daily. All of your goals depend on that, too.

Plus, frankly, I’m sick of the quiet guilt that gnaws at my ankles daily. I know–constantly, in the back of my mind–I should be practicing more. At the end of the day, I feel a little let down. Some nights I lie awake with the knowledge that I’m playing far, far below my potential. Bummer. Much better to just do the work, eh?

So the first thing we’ve got to do is show up. That means setting aside a little time every day. Not an enormous chunk; just a simple, realistic, and sustainable target to get us started. It can even be as small as ten or fifteen minutes, especially just now as we’re starting out.

Here’s the thing: you’re going to show up for that ten- or fifteen-minute commitment every day. So make it a small figure that won’t burn you out. You can always increase the time spent after a week or so, once you’ve formed the habit of showing up for practice.

Keep a Practice Log

Before each practice session starts, I suggest writing a short entry in a practice log or a journal of some kind. Jot down the date and a few words about what you’re about to work on. Be brief and specific:

“July 26th. Sitting down now to write out all of the major scales that have sharps: G, D, A, E, and B.”
After today’s fifteen minutes are up, take a minute to scrawl a note about how you did and where you left off. Make a clear note about what you’ll work on tomorrow:

“–Wrote out all of those on the music staff. I think I messed up on that last one, though. Tomorrow: check these by playing each scale on the guitar. Rewrite if wrong.”

Make the instructions for tomorrow dead simple and clear. Tomorrow, you’ll know at a glance what to work on, and you’ll be able to jump right in.

Whatever you have to do to remind yourself to show up for your daily practice session is fine. Feel free to be absolutely silly about it: notes on the fridge. Notes on the bathroom mirror. Cell phone alerts. It may also help to set a specific time of day that you’ll practice: right after dinner, maybe. Or as soon as you wake up—in which case you should do it before you shower, so your fingertips aren’t too soft.

Or you could follow my lead and just stop bathing altogether. Smell that? That’s the smell of commitment, my friend, and it gets a little stronger every day.


Start a practice log.

Write a short note about what you’re going to work on today. Don’t agonize over the decision–when in doubt, work on learning the notes on the fretboard. Or start on the next chapter of a music theory book.

Next, set a timer and start your first session.

When the timer runs down, note your progress and leave yourself a clear starting point for tomorrow’s session. That way, you’ll be able to pick up where you left off instantly tomorrow.

Then, most importantly: go about the rest of your day knowing that you worked on something meaningful. Something that’s all your own. Rock on.

Handcuffed Part 3 can be found here.

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Nicholas Tozier

Nicholas Tozier is a book hoarder and songbird from the woods of Maine. In 2012 he made a small cameo in Songwriting Without Boundaries by Berklee professor Pat Pattison, and was named one of CDBaby’s top 10 Songwriting Resources to follow on Twitter.

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