The Four Pillars Of Guitar Practice

by | Sep 8, 2015 | Articles

Pillars of the Great Mosque of Cordoba

(Image courtesy of on Flickr)


This post is about a topic I’ve been mulling over for some time now – what are the essential elements that make a guitar practice session truly worthwhile?

Basically I’ve boiled it down to 4 elements. Just like the 4 legs of a table, if one of the legs is missing your table will be rather wonky. If 2 or more legs are missing, then you probably won’t be able to eat your breakfast! I digress.

Herein I unveil the 4 Pillars of Practice! They are:

  • Intention
  • Attention
  • Repetition
  • Awareness

I suppose you could make an acronym that spells ARIA to help you remember, however the order is quite relevant. If there are any readers out there with a catchy way to remember these 4 words please let me know!

Anyway here’s what each of these words mean:


This is your goal for the guitar practice session, which is clearly definable within a timeframe.

You may have quite a few goals for each practice session. An example could be:

“For the next 10 minutes I am going to figure out all the technical details for the left hand in bars 4-9 of this Scarlatti sonata.”

Or it could be much less specific – “I’m going to play this piece a few times just to have fun and get the feel of it.”

A practice session without a clearly definable goal is probably the main reason why students seem not to get very far in their practice. If you aren’t achieving many results, then you probably won’t be enjoying yourself that much either.


This basically means concentration. If you don’t focus on the task at hand that you set as your intention you will not get anywhere.

You may be surprised how many interruptions can take place during your practice session if you’re not careful, generated both by others or yourself – iPhones are a most excellent way to distract yourself from what you should be doing!

Be diligent in continually bringing yourself back to the task at hand, asking yourself “have I really done this for 10 minutes yet?” or “have I actually played it 3 times?”


Ok – so you’ve followed the first 2 pillars and you have actually figured out how to play bars 4-9 in the left hand of your piece.

However, this is the crucial mistake many students make: they have figured out how to do something, however they have not learnt how to do it. These two things are quite different.

Learning new words in a foreign language, remembering a friend’s phone number, or being able to sing a melody off the radio all use the mechanism of repetition to record the information in your brain.

We are creatures of habit: just like every time it rains water tends to form depressions in the earth over time to make streams and then gradually to rivers, so do our minds become accustomed to information.

Repetition is actually carving out the electrical channels in your brain that is the stored patterns of your pieces.

Repetition is a double-edged sword though – if not used carefully it can create a lot of problems. Read on to find out why…


This is like your quality control mechanism to your repetition.

If you are lacking an awareness of how good each repetition is, you may actually be learning the wrong patterns!

Quite often students are quite perplexed as to why things don’t seem to sound as good in a lesson. I’m sure the reason is that it was sounding exactly the same at home, however in a lesson they are much more aware of their mistakes!

Each time you repeat a passage, think to yourself along these lines:

“Was I happy with the sound of what I just played?”

“I’m noticing a recurring problem – should I play only a section of this passage?”

“Is this section feeling easy and playable or do I feel like I’m only barely getting it under my fingers? Maybe I should play it at an easier pace?”

Questions like this to yourself can ensure that you aren’t wasting too much time practicing inaccurate patterns that you will eventually have to pick apart at some point down the track, essentially doubling the time taken to learn a piece.

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Wrap Up

If you are very mindful in your guitar practice and cultivate these 4 pillars (and I’m speaking from experience), you can achieve loads more on your instrument in far less time, and the time you do spend on your instrument is far more enjoyable.

You don’t get bogged down in technical problems or memory lapses so much when your practice has a firm foundation, and you can then focus more of your energy on expressing the meaning and feeling in the music.

Thanks very much for reading and I hope these thoughts help you on your musical journey. Do you have any more ideas on what the important elements of guitar practice are?

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below, I would love to hear from you. Happy practicing!

(Image: pillars in the Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain, courtesy of on Flickr)


    • Greg O'Rourke

      My pleasure Willie! Thanks for reading :)

    • rob

      good article thanks

      • Greg O'Rourke

        Thanks Rob! Glad you enjoyed this one :-)

        • Catherine

          Maybe the four pillars could be remembered in this fashion: I intend to attend to this repetition with awareness.

    • Ed whiting

      A way to remember the four elements: IARA good guitar player (with apologies for the bad grammar)

    • Renko Benjamin

      Well said. Thanks

    • Ricky Garcia

      This is just spot on! I’m the type of player who would noodle around endlessly around the fretboard and feel lost. After reading this, I thought I’ve been doing this wrong all these years. It’s only this year that I’ve picked up the guitar again after 12 plus years of inactivity. Great article! Maybe now it’s gonna make all the sense in the world. Thanks!

      • Greg O'Rourke

        Thanks for your feedback Ricky! Great to hear you’re getting back into your playing :)

    • Joseph

      Guilty of not applying the 4 PILLARS and the lack of objective productive results!
      The 4 Pillars will hang in my practice room as a constant reminder.

  1. William Glen Crandell Jr

    I’m going to apply this right now! Thank you kindly

    • Greg O'Rourke

      Great to hear William! These are really important principles to keep in mind for an effective guitar practice session. Btw I’ll be doing a live session on this topic on Periscope this coming Monday (tomorrow). See, my username is @gregoguitar.

  2. BlindGuitarist

    Excellent post. The concept of really simplifying this to core principles reminds me of Kenny Werner’s “diamond”. Anyway, I’m still trying to think up a handy phrase to remember the four key points, but so far all I’ve come up with: “I am really awakened”. At least it suggests being mindful, which we all know is the buzz word de jour. :)

    • Greg O'Rourke

      I love your helpful phrase on remembering the 4 pillars, in the end the pillars are all about being mindful with what you are doing, so “I Am Really Awakened” is perfect!

  3. Joe Gonzales

    Right on target Greg. I’m an old hand at this, but your outline is good for me to apply as well.
    You mention how a smartphone can really distract our attention. Yes, yes it can. But we can also use a smartphone to enhance our awareness simply by recording our performances, whether in the practice room or in front of an audience. (BTW: You don’t have to post it online if you aren’t happy with it.)
    Intention, Attention, Repetition, Awareness.

    • Greg O'Rourke

      Hi Joe, excellent point, I should have revised that point to say ‘turn your smartphone on airplane mode’ :)

  4. Paul

    I’m finding this out to be so true. Practicing slowly,and tryin to do as you posted makes for a much better end result. Trying to apply this each time I practice…great information, thank you.

    • Greg O'Rourke

      My pleasure Paul, glad you enjoyed this post.

  5. Sunny Whaley

    Thank see a lot of things I was doing wrong.

  6. Wayne


    to learn jazz guitar.



    to learn jazz guitar.

  7. Arthur Thorpe

    Thanks. I like this disciplin. My problem is when I start to practice I get carried away by’,usic’ I start to play the latest tune I’m keen on rather than practice ‘ boring ‘ scales.
    I will try!

    • Greg O'Rourke

      Nothing wrong with that Arthur – much better than the other way around, which would playing scales all day and never playing tunes! I think if you are bored when you practice something there may be too much repetition, and a lack of intention in pracice. Always ask yourself why play an exercise, or scale or whatever – don’t just play scales for the sake of playing scales.

  8. Charles Pinto

    Thanks for the article. I will try to put your tips into practice.

  9. Stephen

    Still waiting to get my hands on the guitar, but I’m getting some excellent advice from you before that day. One question is it better to learn the basic chords, scales or tunes or does this not make a huge difference as long as you practice?

    • Greg O'Rourke

      If you are just starting out, I would start with chords – a good way to train your fingers and you don’t need many chords to most basic songs. Once you’re confident with the chords I would move on to tunes, and then alongside that work on scales and other technical work.

  10. Bill

    Hey Greg
    Thanks for the article very helpful and it is working for me

    • Greg O'Rourke

      No probs Bill, great to hear you found this one useful.

  11. Mike D

    At one end of the spectrum is the eternal student, too busy seeking and perfecting the next exotic scale to actually gig. At the other, the perpetual player, too busy fumbling through the latest number to develop worthwhile technique. Gotta find that sweet spot, eh.
    ” If you have to make yourself practice, you’re into music for the wrong reasons.” – Keith Richards [Ouch!]

    Cheers Greg

    • Greg O'Rourke

      This is so true, it’s very hard to find that sweet spot. There has to be a middle way to follow. Thanks for your discerning thoughts Mike!

  12. Andy

    Thanks for useful input. It is helping me focus my practice better

  13. Michael Bostock

    Hi Greg have another pillar you could add is Patience. We all know the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” Perhaps with guitar playing as with many other skills accounting to Ten as it were can be a great benefit. Leave something for a while or even come back to it another day.
    If you wish to continue the idea of a mnemonic for the pillars then introducing ‘P’ could give “a pair”. And what are we thinking about in guitar practice but a pair of hands!?

    • Greg O'Rourke

      Great points Michael – yes patience wasn’t mentioned in this article but it’s one of the most important aspects of developing a skill for sure!

  14. ricco

    Ciao Greg
    Thanks for this very useful IARA tool.
    How about repetition and over-repetition?
    Is it a good idea, once you finally got it the way you want it,
    to stop, let it rest, do something else, then pick it up again a little later?

    • Greg O'Rourke

      Good points you’ve raised here Ricco – I think with jazz guitar especially you shouldn’t underestimate how much you need to repeat things to work them into your playing. A teacher of mine once said ‘once your family can sing along the lick you’ve been practicing that week, you’ve nearly practiced it enough!’

      I find mixing up my practice and periodically doing a repetition session on a phrase or concept useful as you’ve suggested – good tip.

  15. Daniel

    I am a former rock and classic guitar player. I want to study jazz, but I alway seem to stray away. Is it fair to assume that if I follow the four pillar of practicing jazz guitar, I should have a good start? What do you suggest?

    • Greg O'Rourke

      Hi Daniel,

      The Four Pillars of Practice us a general kind of framework for directing attention in guitar practice, be it jazz or otherwise. To make a start in jazz guitar, I think you need a couple of things – really secure knowledge of the fretboard so you can play in any key in any position, and once that’s established some vocabulary of the jazz idiom. Joe Pass’ Book, ‘Joe Pass Guitar Method’ is a good introduction to some of the approaches, you should check that out. Hope this helps!

  16. Gary at 83 yrs. old

    Your easy gentle style makes lesson content something the student wants to do—-motivational!!!!

    • Greg O'Rourke

      Thanks Gary – I appreciate your kind feedback :-)

  17. Rosie

    Good advice! I am a psychologist and understand theories of learning and macking tracks in your brain. There is another VERY important point though. It takes 17 times of achieving something correctly to get it to ‘sit’ in your memory.. retrievable memory. But if you learn something becomes ‘fossilised’ ie..set like concrete, and is very, very difficult to unlearn. It takes about 37 times of doing it correctly to begin the undoing process! Learning correctly, going slow and repetitive, ensures you learn it right first time. Further, like a new made track, if you don’t visit that same place in your memory, it ‘grows over’ and disappears with time. Regular, routine practice of new learning attached to OLD learning (chunking down songs, learn a bit today, add a bit more tomorrow, etc etc. Play other songs with same riffs or chords) is absolutely the best way to ensure learning. I really enjoy your site. I’m getting a nylon string jazz guitar coz I love that sound, and will follow all of your lessons. Thanks!

  18. Dave Ritter

    Great article, Greg!
    From my own personal experience, I tend to start with a plan for what I want to do (for example, work on my right-hand technique), but then I get distracted by either, other competing objectives (i.e. working on new chord voicings, or working on a tune I’ve been wanting to learn, etc.) In the end, it usually devolves into to me noodling around on riffs and tunes I already know how to play. This is great for “escaping” my usual (non-musical) daily routine, but terrible for making any meaningful progress! I like your clear framework. In the end, it is all about maintaining focus, and these 4 pillars provide good, tangible focus targets. Thanks for this!


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