A Good Practice Attitude:
Too many music students get hung-up on their poor performance. If something is too complex to learn in one sitting, it might need to be stretched out over time. However, many students just can't wait that long, they want instant results. Unfortunately, musical skills take time. And, some music skills take months and months. So, we need to drop the idea that technique, or phrasing, or good timing will have to occur quickly. Most often it won't ...so set short time frames for success. In the weeks that follow, be pleased with every small plateau. The small achievements will build over time and in a few months the results will be fantastic. Every time you fail, you are one step closer to nailing it.
Practice with a Routine
Your hands and your mind will not achieve the needed stimulus from hap-hazard practice. The study of an instrument needs to occur at least 5 out of 7 days through a week. If you only practice on Friday night, you'll never build the skills required to become proficient at playing. If you only have time to play here and there, you'll have big gaps in your skills. You'll need a very regular routine. Set aside five days during your week and stick to them. Give yourself at least an hour to review what you want to gain better skills at. And, balance that time with academic ideas as well as fun playing. This will yield the best results.
Establish a Daily Formula for Practice
Jamming on a Van Halen song and playing an "E Minor" Pentatonic scale for five days straight is probably a pretty sad practice formula. We need variety and we need exposure. Without these we get bogged down with the same old - same old. And, trust me, that approach won't give back much in terms of skill. Start your day with a metronome and a few exercises. Push yourself faster on those studies through the week. Get into a series of academic subjects after the technique warm-ups. Head toward scales of major and minor. Explore Melodic and Harmonic Minor and play through the Modes. Work on sequences and try using arpeggios over pre-set jam tracks. Compose jams in a key. Compose rehearsal pieces and write them out as charts. Include some daily music reading and ask a few players who are better than you for feedback. Doing a daily practice routine like this will begin to create big changes in your playing.
Notate Music in Chart or TAB Form
Lifting a part from a CD or MP3 is great, but you'll never really "Get" the idea until you notate it. Use a piece of software like "GuitarPro," "Finale" or "Tux-Guitar." And, get the parts into notation. Test the rhythmic concepts, and print out the charts for rehearsal on your music stand. Using your ear to lift a riff or lick is great, but its only the beginning. The next steps are knowing how those ideas look in chart notation. You could take this a step further and work on charting out your own original music as well. I'd suggest notation exercises like this for almost everything you compose, lift-off or jam on with your friends. The skill is invaluable, and what it teaches you is incredible.
Understand the Music Theory
Anything and everything you play has a key signature, and you should know what it is! Scales are applied to all music, and you should be able to recognize them. Arpeggios get a lot of application, and you need to be able to spot them as well. Music is never random. It's been around for hundreds of years and every concept has a name and a principle. And, when you can analyze it, you're ability to play it goes up ten-fold. Musical concepts have rhythmic, harmonic and melodic direction. If that side of music is a mystery to you, its time to start studying. Theory is the key to becoming a highly skilled player, and the more you know, the more in demand you'll be (and the more money you'll make).
Write in a Practice Diary
When I was attending the Musician's Institute I kept a daily log of what I was practicing, what tempos I was working on, the note durations for different drills, and how I was feeling about my progress. After 2-3 months I was really motivated by looking back at where I was. This also helped to keep me better on-track with all of the different material I was rehearsing. Logging the tempos was another big help that kept me better tuned into my ability level with all of my drills and exercises which I was using to help build my speed and accuracy. Practice logs are excellent for your mental state as well, since you will be writing how you feel about areas that trouble you. Over time, this log-book will help you reference many attributes of your practice days and of how you are doing on your long path to becoming a really solid guitar player.
Listen to a Lot of Different Music Styles
The music you listen to, analyze and break down theoretically needs to come from many different genres. If you love Metal, try listening to Brazilian Jazz. If you only listen to folk acoustic fingerstyle music, try learning a piece by a classic rock band. Try Reggae, Pop music and Country. Every music style has something to offer. You could learn a Metallica lick and modify it into a great Jazz idea. You could take a reggae groove and remake it into a classic rock jam. Musical inspiration tends to come from the strangest places. So, therefore work on different musical concepts stylistically. You never know what one style of music will do for your general playing skills and for your musical awareness.
Jam With Other Players
This is huge. You absolutely have to do this. You simply cannot keep yourself in a vacuum having zero contact with other players. Find a drummer, or a bassist in your neighborhood and try and jam once, or twice a month (or more). Interaction is key and the more you interact, the better you'll become at all of your musical skills. When we play music alone in our home studio we lack the ebb and flow of human interaction. When you play with others, you gain far better control over your skills to interact and react. The drummer you play with might add a feel that you never expected, you'll have to compensate. The bass player might play really busy at a moment that you never expected, and you'll need to react to that. This is the value of playing with others. Your skills as a musician will become stringer and stronger over time when jamming with others!