Playing vs. Practicing

Whenever you pick up your guitar, it’s important to be aware of whether you are planning on ‘practicing’ or ‘playing.’ These are two distinct mindsets that will determine a number of things: how you think and feel while playing, whether or not you try to fix mistakes, how critical you will be, and so on.

The ‘playing’ and ‘practicing’ mindsets are both important, and to optimally grow as a musician each one should take place. Let’s take a look at what each mindset entails.


The ‘practicing’ mindset can be thought of as analytical, detail oriented, goal oriented, and critical. Usually there is a specific skill that is being targeted for improvement. Making full use of rational, logical ways of thinking is a big part of the ‘practicing’ mindset.

The process should resemble this: You pick one thing that you want to improve in your playing. Then, devise an exercise that specifically targets that skill, and repeatedly do it. Make small adjustments along the way as needed. Pay close enough attention to be sure that you are doing the exercise correctly so as to repeat the right set of movements or concepts involved. If mistakes are made, analyze their cause and go back to fix them. Be self critical, but in a specific and insightful way. Try to discover things that need improvement, or that are holding you back. Then, make adjustments to your practice approach to incorporate those things, or branch off in to an entirely new approach/exercise to work on them.

‘Practicing’ is the engine for improvement on the guitar. It’s how you refine the complex movements involved in playing. It’s how you work out the weak points in your playing. The work you do while ‘practicing’ will manifest itself when you are ‘playing.’


The ‘playing’ mindset can be described as free, non-critical, intuitive, creative, and fun. Anything from playing through some songs you know on your own up to performing in a band can be considered ‘playing.’ You could also think of activities like writing music, riffing around, improvising with a backing track, or getting together with some friends to jam as ‘playing.’

‘Playing’ serves a number of important purposes. Most importantly, it is the main thing that keeps the guitar fun. It also helps to build a more intuitive way of thinking when playing the guitar. It heightens the emotional connection you have to the things you play. Over time, it can lead to improved tone and dynamic control on both acoustic and electric guitar.

When and where you do your ‘playing’ is different for everyone. If you regularly get together with friends to jam or play in a band, I’d suggest saving your ‘playing’ time for then and focus on ‘practicing’ when you have available time for yourself. However, doing short bits of ‘playing’ as a test of your ‘practicing’ can be useful to see what still needs to be worked on, as I describe in the next section. If you don’t play with others regularly, it’s a good idea to work a longer segment of ‘playing’ time into your practice routine in order to maintain balance between the two mindsets.

Common Pitfall #1: Doing Both at Once

Problems occur when you are not fully aware of whether you will be ‘practicing’ or ‘playing’ when you sit down with the guitar, resulting in an unproductive mish-mash of the two mindsets.

For instance, I’ve noticed that some students tend to neglect the difficult areas of songs they are in the process of learning, and instead spend more time playing the parts that are easier for them. They might work on the difficult spots a little, but then take the path of least resistance and drift back to playing the easier parts. The result is that after a week or two of working on the song, the status of it is the same: easy parts are easy, hard parts are hard.

A better approach would be to work almost entirely on the hard parts (in the ‘practicing’ mindset) until they become more or less as easy as the easy parts. Then, switch over to the ‘playing’ mindset and play through a long segment of the song and observe how things hold up. If it breaks down in places, go back into practice mode on those places and repeat the process. Depending on the difficulty of the hard parts, this process could still go on for quite some time. But, steady progress will still be made. And, you can still have fun by playing through other songs that you already play well while in the ‘playing’ mindset during another segment of your practice time.

The key is to avoid mindlessly drifting from one mindset to the other from moment to moment. Instead, intentionally go from one to another with a specific purpose in mind.

Common Pitfall #2: Too Much of One, Not Enough of the Other

As I said at the beginning of the article, the playing and practicing mindsets are both important. When a person spends too much time in one mindset, they will develop imbalances that limit their playing.

Some people are inherently logical and goal oriented, and they will tend more toward the ‘practicing’ mindset. Others shy away from confronting the difficulties and weaknesses in their playing, and just want to have an easy, good time with the guitar. These people tend to spend more time in the ‘playing’ mindset.

Too much ‘practicing’

Guitar players who spend almost all their time in the ‘practicing’ mindset will tend to end up with stiff, uninspired playing. They will lack dynamic control and have brittle tone. They might know a lot of scales and chords, but their use of these things isn’t particularly melodic or beautiful. They’ll lack an emotional and intuitive connection with what they play.

Too much ‘playing’

There is a range of what might happen here. In this case, a guitarist will be at the mercy of how much natural ability they have. Players with little natural ability probably won’t develop past the point of playing disjointed chords or riffs with bad timing. Players with more natural ability might be able to get to the point of playing some things that sound really good. But, they will be limited in the scope of what they are able to do. They’ll likely fall into playing the same types of chords or rhythms, and most of what they do will sound similar. They’ll lack versatility, and if they find themselves in a situation that is slightly outside their comfort zone, they’ll feel like a fish out of water.

The Ideal

The really good guitar players out there understand the need to operate in both of these mindsets, and they will do both on a regular basis. They are good at judging when they need to get in and do a focused study on something specific for the sake of the greater good of their playing ability. They also know when to toss all the thinking and criticism aside and let it all fly. As a result, they have good technique and a solid understanding of the fundamentals, yet their playing is still beautiful and moving.

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