Whenever someone asks “how much time,” a teacher is going to respond “as much time as you can.” That’s almost a pure reaction.
The reality, however, relies on two separate things: the amount of free time you truly have and the physical condition of your hands. Let’s tackle the second one first.
If you’re a pure beginner at the guitar, at some point your hands are going to start to hurt. It doesn’t matter what type of guitar you have, electric, acoustic or classical. Everyone who picks up this instrument has to go through this. If you’re practicing the guitar and your fingers start to truly hurt, then stop. Take a half hour off and then go beck to it. See if you can go another ten minutes before they start hurting again. Your first few months of practice may consist of grabbing ten minutes whenever you can.
Now I’m also assuming that whomever is reading this for advice also has a bit of a brain and can tell the difference between when one’s fingers are merely sore and when they are, indeed, in pain. To put it bluntly, don’t be stupid when it comes to knowing what hurts and what doesn’t. Learning the guitar is not a race unless you make one of it. Most of us already know that, regardless of how quickly or slowly we started out, we have the rest of our lives ahead in which to continue learning. I have yet to meet a guitarist (or any musician, for that matter) who believes that he or she has learned everything there is to know about his or her instrument.
The thing is, for most of us anyway, the only time we get to do anything even remotely like playing the guitar is when we play the guitar. So while taking five or ten minutes here and there may not seem like much, there is indeed a “cumulative” effect that will happen. If there’s a wait of five to ten minutes until supper is ready (and if there’s nothing you can do to help out…), then spending that time switching between the C and the G chord or do a few dozen runs of the major scale.
And this takes us back to the first part of the question – how much free time do we truly have? It’s important to link this question with another: what do I mean by “practice?” This is an important question, one that is essential to understanding how we improve as players. When we’re first starting out, everything can be thought of as practice. But as we look for more and more out of our playing, it is important for us to have focus. Goals are what Darrin Koltow calls it in his great article, A Musician’s Most Important Skill. A goal can be anything from “changing from the G to D chord without missing a beat” to “being able to play all of Classical Gas.”
I think it’s safe to say that most of us simply want to get better. Our imagined audiences consist of ourselves and friends and family, not a stadium full of frenzied fans. If this is the case, then more than likely you have to find your practice time in the busy-ness of everyday life. But it is there. Many people I chat with find the best time to practice at either the beginning of the day or at the end. It’s not that hard to get in a half-hour to an hour if you’re willing to do so.
But making the time for practicing, setting aside a part of the day for yourself, also has its own rewards. It becomes an appointment that you look forward to, a time when you can unwind and get away from the hectic pace of life.
When you know you’re going to have a block of time, as opposed to five or ten minutes snatched from somewhere, then it indeed becomes important to have a goal or a schedule, a plan for your practice. On the Guitar Noise page devoted to practice tips, you’ll find all sorts of articles devoted to this subject. I don’t even mind recommending one of my own, A Question of Balance.
Understand, too, that your practicing is going to be very fluid, meaning that what you need to practice will change as you grow as a guitarist. The chord changes you work diligently on as a beginner will yield to scales and bass runs and all sorts of interesting things. It’s important that you have an honest and realistic approach to what you hope to accomplish. Keeping a journal of your practices, again making certain it is an honest account of them, can help immensely. And it will also give you some satisfaction during one of the many moments of “plateau malaise” that you’ll encounter to see that you indeed have been making improvement.