Practice Tips & Advice
Here, Troy Stetina addresses some common instructional guitar questions and gives a comprehensive perspective on guitar, music, practice, motivation, and more.
1. The Key to Success
The key to success is inspiration. If you keep yourself inspired and motivated, and avoid getting burned out and discouraged, you’ll keep learning. There will be no end to it. This might seem obvious, but it is often misunderstood.
Years ago, someone said to me, "I wish I had your discipline, to sit there and practice so much. I’d love to be able to play guitar like that, but I just don’t have that kind of discipline." I was surprised, because I didn’t see it in terms of discipline. I wasn’t forcing myself to practice. There wasn’t anything else I wanted to do more at those particular times. So it was enthusiasm coming from inspiration that drove me. It was the carrot, and not the stick. And I’ll guarantee you, inspiration will beat discipline hands down, every time. Inspiration is the great motivator.
The real question, then, is "What inspires you?" Maybe the answer to that question is so obvious to you that you don’t even have to think about it. Great! Then skip right ahead to the summary, at the end of this section, and be done with it. If you’re curious, though, and want to delve a little deeper here, read on…
What is it that inspires us? Certainly, music figures in here. That is the point of it all, I think. But it’s not the only motivator. Another big source of inspiration is seeing our own improvement: playing better, faster, more accurate, and so forth. And there are others. The sound of the guitar itself can motivate. Or maybe we crave to be on stage, in front of others. Maybe it’s how being a guitarist and musician makes us feel about ourselves: gives us an identity we like. Maybe we want to be famous. Maybe it helps us guys pick up chicks. Or maybe it’s just the general the way we feel it makes others view us. Maybe it’s all of these things. There are no "right" or "wrong" answers. Just think about it for a moment, and see what resonates within you. What is it that is really important to you? What is it that drives you? Why do you want to play guitar, anyway?
Thinking about this will help you make the right choices for yourself, to stay motivated and eventually get where you want to be. What you should practice? How you should practice? Should you go to a music school? Should you form a band? Different actions produce different results. The right actions for you are the ones that will produce the results that will help get you where you want to go, obviously.
This is also important to think about because sometimes we can get buried in the day-to-day things and forget about where we are headed. We bump along, basically following what we think we want, and what we think we must do to get it. And then one day we wake up and realize that we may have lost our motivation, or a good part of it anyway, and we aren’t sure why.
Well, in a nutshell, we lose our motivation when we get too far away from what it is that really excites us in the first place. And we fall prey to discouragement when what we really want, doesn’t seem to be within our reach. In addition, we may change and our inspirations change, too. So once in a while, we have to re-assess. It isn’t terribly difficult to get back on track, really. It’s just a matter of asking yourself the right questions.
It is this theme or philosophy which basically runs throughout all the answers and advice that follow. It is all about helping you stay motivated, helping you avoid losing your motivation, or helping you recover lost motivation. Because I know that if you keep up your enthusiasm, you’ll eventually get where you want to be. You’ll move consistently and steadily toward all your goals: in guitar playing as well as in life in general. And you’ll enjoy the process, to boot!
Bottom Line: Think about what motivates and inspires you. Then you’ll make better choices to stay motivated and go further. The two main sources of motivation for us guitarists are perhaps first, the music itself, and second, seeing improvement in our technique. Whatever it is, though, find what inspires you and use it for all it’s worth. This is the foundation of everything. It bears on every question and threads its way into every answer. What should you practice, for example? You should practice those things that inspire you most, of course!
2. Balance vs. Burnout
Here I’ll talk a little more about those two important motivators I mentioned previously. Again, they are 1) the music itself and 2) our own personal improvement. In practice, these two things translate into playing songs and practicing exercises (the fastest means for technical improvement). In this section, I’ll be talking about striking the right balance between them.
What you practice determines your niche, or identity, as a guitarist. There is no right or wrong here, but different approaches produce different results. For example, if you learn a lot of songs, but never delve into any real skill-intensive exercise-type practice, you’ll likely never develop a lot of technical skill as a guitarist. Now there’s nothing wrong with this, if this is what you want. Maybe for you, songwriting and melody is where it’s at, and I for one would never argue with you there.
On the other hand, some of us are turned on by speed and precision. We want to take our skills to the limit. For this, breaking things down and isolating them into repetitive exercises is the ticket. This builds speed and technique the fastest way possible. That’s fine, too.
But there is the potential danger here. Many times I’ve seen players who really get into skill-building exercises, and at first it fuels an intense motivation. They see so much improvement, so fast. But inevitably it levels out at some point. They reach a plateau and they can’t seem to break through. But they keep pushing anyway, and one day, they suddenly realize that they don’t really feel like practicing any more! (I, too, burned out on technique once upon a time, so I know about this whole trip from personal experience.)
Exercises alone, without music, are sterile. The bare skills by themselves, without an application, are useless and unfinished. They are potential without form. Music is always the destination. Music is the point of it all. If this is firmly etched in your brain, you’ll be too busy being inspired by great music to get burned out or discouraged! Obviously, for those of us in this boat, we have lost sight of the first motivation--music--because we got a little too carried away with our own technical improvement. We are out of balance. (A decidedly un-90’s thing to be, don’t you think?)
Why do we continue on down this path if we see that it is burning us out? Well, we are all creatures of habit. Until we make a concrete decision otherwise, we tend to repeat what we have done before: even when it is uncomfortable or it is producing effects we don’t like. So we must look at our situation and make a new decision.
Re-assess. Take a little time off. Go see a concert. Buy a few new CDs and listen to something else for a change. Search for some new inspiration. Maybe you won’t even play guitar for a few weeks, but so what? The important thing is to rediscover your inspiration. And when you do, it’ll take you far beyond anything you could accomplish by sheer discipline or force of will alone.
Bottom Line: Playing music alone, without any concentrated exercises, will likely limit your level of technical proficiency. On the other hand, practicing a lot of skill-intensive exercises will produce fast technical improvement for a while, but eventually it will level off. And if you keep going at it hard, it’ll likely burn you out. The answer lies in finding the right balance: the right amount of inspiration from the music itself, and the right amount of inspiration from our own improvement derived from skill-intensive practice. Of course, the right balance is a little different for each of us, and it may change over time.
3. Guidelines for an Effective Practice Routine
I once saw a Steve Vai workshop that had been taped at Musician’s Institute years ago. He was basically saying that you’ve got to practice 12 hours a day; you should practice this thing for "x" amount of time; then practice that thing for "y" amount; then practice that other thing for "z" amount; guitar has got to be the only thing that matters, etc... What!? Is this boot camp? I mean, dare I say it? Guitar playing can be... fun?
If I had had that kind of iron attitude as my model to look forward to every day, I just might have put the guitar down for good. Now don’t get me wrong, I like Steve Vai's music and he’s a great player with great insights and ideas. But you are not he. And what works for him, may or may not work for you. Furthermore, there’s another important fact to consider here: What you practice and how you practice can change over time, as your playing level changes. So what I, or Steve Vai, or anyone else may practice is not necessarily what you should be practicing.
What sort of practice routine is best for you? The one that suits your particular goals, your interests, your temperament, and your playing level. This, of course, is a little more complicated than can be answered in a simple, one size fits all syllabus. However, I can give you the basic guidelines and tell you what I have done. Then, you can piece together your own practice routine that will work for you.
Keep some variety in your practice to avoid getting into a rut and burning out. No matter how cool something is, we all have a burn-out threshold.
Keep a balance between playing music (songs and solos) and practicing skill-intensive exercises.
Watch yourself as you practice. No, I don't mean in front of a mirror. I mean to simply be aware of your progress and notice what is working.
Put yourself in playing situations routinely. For most people, that means getting in and playing with a band. It's not exactly technique practice, but it is the repetition that helps anchor those skills you are perfecting on your own.
Add new things into your routine as you come across them, keeping what you like and discarding what you don’t.
A personal practice routine is something that evolves over time. For a few more specific ideas and approaches, see the next section 4) My Practice "Routine".
Now let's talk about the details of making your practice time really count. That is, we want to make sure that when you do practice, you are doing so efficiently:
Repeat the motions correctly, at first slowly. Don't push so much that you are making lots of errors. This builds sloppy technique and poor muscle memory.
If you are practicing an exercise, focus on the purpose of the exercise. If you are practicing a song, focus on laying evenly in the groove.
Find the difficult portions of phrases and lead licks. Determine why they are difficult and practice those difficult motions repeatedly until they become easy.
Listen to your playing. It is easy to get so caught up in the. playing that you can forget to listen. But listening is the means of all self correction. The better you learn to listen as you play, the higher you'll rise as a musician.
Bottom Line: It’s good to take advice from people who have already been to the places you want to go. That’s valuable. But at the same time realize that you are different, and ultimately your destination will be slightly different than anyone else’s. So only you can say exactly what and how you should practice. At some point you need to start trusting your own instincts. Generally, I can say that you should have variety. balance and focus. I can also tell what the general principles are for building muscle memory efficiently. In time you will notice what works best for you and your own practice routine will evolve.
4. My Practice "Routine"
Actually, I don't have one, and I'm not sure I ever did. Or maybe I did, but it was always constantly changing depending on the needs of the moment and my inspirations.
First, a few points to clarify: After you achieve a level of proficiency, you don't need to keep practicing in the same way as when you were developing that proficiency. For the most part you can maintain whatever technique you have developed just by using it--in other words, just play guitar. There are times when that's been all I needed to do. But of course I don't always keep up on my playing. When I don't play for a few weeks or months on end, and I need to get back into it and polish the rust off, I'll sit down and play in a very focused way for a while to get everything working again. At those times, it's a kind of practice routine. But it's not quite the same as developing the skills in the first place, because it all goes much, much faster.
Back in the "old" days of the 1980s and early 90s, however, I did practice A LOT... So I'll tell you about my routine back thn. Let me warn you, though, it's ugly if you're someone who likes to have things organized. Maybe you are looking for someone to tell you, "Play scales for 15 minutes to warm up, then work on a song for 15 minutes, then practice lead for 30 minutes, then look cool in front of a mirror for 10 minutes, then finish up with another song." Well, I can’t stand that sort of. thing! I have always practiced whatever I felt like pursuing in the moment. In fact, I don't think I every really even stuck to any sort of "routine," although I did tend to do certain things in certain ways:
I might compose and record some music. I always had an uncanny knack for composing stuff that was just a little too hard for me to play, so this always made for a good challenge.
If I was in a really detailed and patient mood, I might sit and play up and down through different scales in different keys, sequencing them improvisationaly.
I'd learn a new solo that I found interesting or inspiring. I might practice it using different tones... first clean, then with gain. I'd do this a lot when playing classical pieces.
For variety, I'd play in one style, then switch gears and play in a different style. If I where focusing on exerices that used a certain type of key, I'd apply the same idea (same mechanics) to a key with an opposing feel.
I might get out the metronome and work up individual patterns to push to even higher levels of speed and accuracy. Maybe pull a few at random out of Speed Mechanics, then make up some variations on them.
I might take a difficult classical piece that I already knew fairly well, play it up to the first trouble spot, then stop and isolate the difficulty, creating exercises and variations that work it out repeatedly, then go back to the phrase and bring it up to speed. Then on to the next difficultly, progressing forward until the whole thing is exactly the way I want it.
I might run through an entire piece, or song, just like it is performance: no stopping allowed. This kind of "performance practicing" balances the previous idea. And after all, when you perform you don't want to have created a habit of stopping. Playing through one's mistakes is an essential ability!
I might pull out a brand new piece of music to sight read, and learn it from scratch.
I might jam over some rhythm tracks, improvising.
Stop and pet my cat...
Hit record and play the first thing that comes to mind. Often, improvised riffs are the best ideas!
I might arrange some previously recorded ideas into a song. Maybe I'd lay down a drum track (I use Groove Agent these days), and add guitar and bass lines. Maybe even vocals?
At rare moments I've also been known pull out those special, top-secret mystical, cryptic practice secrets that I keep to myself, and, when I’m certain no one is watching, I employ them to gain guitar superpowers beyond those of ordinary mortals!!! Oops, forget I said that.
Play with other musicians--and a drummer.
And maybe I'd do a few other things that I can’t think of right now...
The purpose of those approaches may be a little different than what you may need at this stage of your development. And of course, my list is by no means complete. Compile your own--if you need a list--and add to it whenever you come across something interesting. Of course, you can assign time periods to each part of your practice routine if you like. (And I’ll give you a suspicious, sideways glance.) Or maybe you prefer the freedom of a non structured practice schedule. (In which case, you get an affirmative nod.)
Bottom Line: There are two kinds of people in the world: the organized and the disorganized. I know I’m organized somewhere deep down, but I apologize for it , preferring to indulge the intrigue of chaotic, reckless abandon and creative mess. That’s the way I like it. Maybe you like it that way, too. Or maybe you’re a guitar Nazi. Or worse yet, an accountant!! But seriously, just take what you like and see what works for you.
Footnote: Perhaps the reason I never had to organize my practice was because in the course of teaching and writing I was doing a lot of organizing already. Teaching is a great way to keep reinforcing all the details like scale patterns, theory, etc. -- I mean, after you've taught your 357th harmonic minor scale, it's pretty well burned in your brain! Plus, over time learning hundreds of songs on the spot, by ear, does something for you as well.. So don't take my anti-discipline theory too seriously.
5. How Much Practice Is Enough?
Never! It's never enough! Well, okay, sometimes it is. If it's burning you out or you are damaging your tendons, it's too much. (See 10 When is pushing the limit okay, and when is it not okay?) Basically, I'd advise you to practice as much as you can and want to.
The more you practice, the better you’re gonna get, generally speaking. Show me a guitarist who has played 20,000 hours and I’ll show you a good player!
In years past, I went through periods where I’d practice all day long, then head off to band practice and play all night. But you don’t have to play 12 hours a day. I’ve also gone for months on end without even so much as touching a guitar. Needless to say, that ain’t the best thing to do for one's technique. But it’s a lot like riding a bike. Sure the edge comes off, but you never really forget how to do it. With the right approaches and a few days of focused practice, I’d be right back up again.
In general, strive for some kind of consistency. Try to play at least a few minutes every day. It's not a requirement, mind you, but an ideal. For beginners, maybe shoot for an hour a day to start, then increase it from there if you can. Or maybe you can only get 30 minutes a day. The point is, do it regularly you will improve.
Studies in motor skill development suggest that the lion's share of improvement occurs in the first 2-4 hours. Beyond that, improvement is incremental at best; it's a case of diminishing returns.
Now some of you will say that you wish you could, but you just cannot arrange enough time to play. That's BS! What you are really saying is that you have other priorities that you value more highly. And that’s okay. Maybe that’s good. Maybe your family or your job comes first and it needs to be that way. OK but don’t gripe about it, because it is you who ultimately has the power to set your priorities. Choose wisely, and set them in the way that is best for you and those around you. Then shut up and be happy!
Bottom Line: Try to be consistent. Try to practice every day. Practice as much as you can and want to. Try to start with at least an hour a day and take it up from there. Basically, the more you practice, the better you’re going to get. But more than 4 hours a day is largely wasted time.
6. Should I Practice Only When I'm Inspired?
I'm big on following our inspiration. That's what gives you the fuel to reach your highest destination. So you might think that you should only be practicing when you are inspired to do so. That would be a big mistake! Yes, it's true that you don't want to burn yourself out, but that's not to say that you should wait for the clouds to part and inspiration to come down from heaven and strike you on the head to start practicing each day.
The thing is, you have to understand how motivation really works...
Most of us think that motivation always precedes action. We feel an urge to do something, then we do it. But the reverse can be true as well. We may feel lukewarm about something, but we decide to do it anyway because we know we really should do it. Then, as we get into it, our motivation level may build. And we become more motivated, the more we get into it. Sure it's nice when motivation prompts us into action, but more often action creates motivation.
So waiting for the mood to strike you isn’t the answer. Sometimes you have to strike the mood. How? Well, suppose you know you should practice, but you don’t really feel like doing it "right now." Here’s what you do: Tell yourself, "I’ll just practice for 15 minutes." That’s easy enough, right? Sure, you could do that. But I can just hear you telling me that 15 minutes won’t make any difference. You need to practice for hours to nail that new technique, right? But let me ask you this: Can you really expect to do more than 15 minutes worth of practicing, in the next 15 minutes? Obviously not. So don’t worry about planning out the rest of your day right now, or working up a major force of will for a "big workout." Just sit down and play for 15 minutes in the next 15 minutes.
Here’s the kicker. After a few minutes, I’ll bet you get into it. By the time you look at the clock, I’ll bet that 15 minutes is long past. And you still don’t feel like quitting just yet. Well then, I suppose you better just do another "15 minutes." Yeah, you’re sort of lying to yourself. But not really. I mean, if after 15 minutes, you’re just not into it, you can always stop.
This works for me sometimes because I'm a perfectionist and I'm often too outcome oriented for my own good. For us, getting started is often the hardest part of doing anything. Nearly everyone procrastinates a bit from time to time. And this is the best way I've found to deal with it, when you just don’t have the energy or enthusiasm to get the ball rolling. Make it easy on yourself, by reducing the task down to something that you DO have the energy to initiate.
Another thing to consider here is your setup. Make it EASY to get started. Don’t pack your guitar in its case and hide it under the bed. Keep it out on its stand, staring at you, reminding you... pleading for your attention. Here I am, all plugged in and ready to roll! Set up a guitar-friendly atmosphere. Do you have a stand for your books and/or music, so you can read them comfortably with your guitar in hand? Or are you crunching over the bed, trying to read in the dark? No wonder it's hard to get though those books! Is your metronome/drum machine within reach? Is your stereo/computer system within reach? Are your pedals and effects ready to go? Arrange your setup so all the tools at the ready. When it's easy, getting started isn’t a big deal. Grab that guitar, hit a few switches, and you’re on! Your guitar will be sitting there, inviting you to pick it up and strum a few chords -- even if you’ve only got, say, "15 minutes" to kill.
One more thing is to pay attention to the language you use to frame these ideas. When you think about practicing, it’s better to say to say to yourself, "I want to practice for 3 hours today," or "I choose to practice for 3 hours today," rather than, "I have to practice for 3 hours today." Can you feel the difference? Also, as a matter of fact, the first two statements are more accurate. Nothing is forced you to play guitar. Seems like a small difference, I know. But words we use have power. Especially to ourselves. We think with words. They shape our attitude, our world and ultimately, our destiny. "Have to" suggests you are not in control: that control is somewhere outside yourself. Over time, not feeling in control tends to make people unhappy, and tends to kill their motivation. So think about what you ‘want’ or ‘choose’ to do and you will be constantly reminding yourself that you are in control of this.
Bottom Line: When inspiration strikes, it’s a gift: take it. Do whatever you can to nurture it and keep it hangin’ around. But don’t always expect it. Sometimes you gotta do your part, too. Sometimes you need to push a little to get the ball rolling. You have to strike the mood. How? By fist reducing the task at hand to something small enough, easy enough, that you can start right now. Once you’re started, you’ll probably get into it and your motivation will build. Second, keep your guitar out and ready to go, and keep all your ‘tools’ together in one place so it’s always easy to get started. Finally, remember that you ‘choose to’ practice: you don’t ‘have to’ do anything.
7. Speed & Muscle Memory
Practice is akin to a necessary evil for most of us. I mean we don’t really do it because we love it so much. We do it to play music better. Now that's not to say we hate it; in fact, when practice is effective and we notice our technique improve, it is highly rewarding and inspiring! But my point is that practice is not an end in itself. So anything we can do to make our practice time more efficient, and speed up the rate of improvement, is worth its weight in gold. Fortunately there are a number of 'tools' that can help.
The essence of practice boils down to repetition. Repetition is what anchors new skills and patterns into our neural-muscular system, building new synapse "bridges" or pathways, in your brain. Correct use of repetition can anchor these skills more quickly. But repetition can also bore you, burn you out, dry up your creativity, and sap your motivation. So let’s take a closer look on how to use it, and not mis-use it:
First of all, recognize that you want to build the right neural ‘highways.’ Not the ones responsible for mistakes. So when you repeat things, repeat them correctly. Practicing mistakes doesn't help. In fact, it is worse than wasted time: it is likely to be counterproductive. On the other hand, making the correct motions over and over engrains them as a habit. Then it automatically happens that way every time you tell your fingers to do it. And mistakes evaporate! So take it slowly and do the right motions.
The next issue involving repetition comes down to choosing the right part to repeat. Going back to the top of a song, solo, or even a single lick, every time you make a mistake somewhere along the way isn’t a very effective practice strategy. If you have a trouble spot 20 seconds into a song, and every time you get to that spot you screw it up, do you really need to start over and play that first 20 seconds again? The trouble spot may actually takes only one second to play. So if you figured out just what motion is, and did it over and over, by my calculations, your practicing just became 20 times more efficient! That is, in 20 seconds, you just practiced the part in question 20 times, rather than once. The moral of the story is that whenever you have a problem playing something, isolate the trouble and fix it. Then it will trouble you no more.
This is very concentrated attention, and it's powerful stuff. It's so powerful that when you start repeating like this, at first things begin to improve. But after a time, you’ll find you actually begin playing worse! This is because the neural pathways will tire. The best thing to do is rest that pathway. Just play something else for a while. Then come back to it again later and you can improve further. There is this physical limit to how fast you can anchor new skills into your nervous system. Don’t fight it; work with it.
Now for beginners, a riff or lick seems like a lot of separate notes, requiring a lot of separate motions. But eventually our brains learn to file much of the required information into our subconscious mind (or "muscular memory" if you prefer), and we stop having to think about every component motion. That is, it has become so ingrained that the ‘commands’ mostly bypass the conscious level of thinking.
We all develop this to a degree to be able to play guitar at all. Or, for that matter, to perform any skill like walking, chewing food, or talking... anything. I mean, you can’t think about every detail or your mind would be flooded with information. So your brain takes care of the fundamentals automatically, which leaves your conscious mind to think about the important things -- the big decisions like what you will do, not the trivia of carrying out every required task.
Practice, then, really comes down to ‘inputting’ the motions accurately, so you can whip them out reliably. It’s all about building accurate neural/muscular habits. The better you do this, the more you can rely on that direct link. And this is the basis of speed.
When we play faster, we don’t think faster. We simply rely on our unconscious habits, previously anchored. We think about groups of notes, larger patterns. Now, a single thought triggers an entire pattern or sequence of patterns, even. So you can see that ‘inputting’ things correctly is crucial! It’s like you are building this huge skyscraper. The fast licks and patterns are like the penthouse floor. It gets all the attention. But how secure and stable will your building be if the foundation isn’t solid?
I’ve seen so many guitarists working on speed, all the. while just shooting themselves in the foot with their impatience: They’ll play a pattern five times fast, and only actually produce what they intended once! Four out of five times were mistakes! That’s very inefficient practice. The fingers may move fast, but it's anybody's guess whether the notes will sound as intended.
We want speed AND control. So don’t put the motions in your muscle memory half-assed, with confusing garbage. Put it in right, and build your skyscraper on solid ground. Then, when a single thought triggers an entire pattern, you don’t have to worry about whether it’ll come out right. It will ALWAYS comes out right. With reliable muscle memory, mistakes become impossible. Then you are free to make music!
So here’s my basic recipe for speed exercises, taken from Metal Lead Guitar Volume 1. First, pick a relatively short sequence of notes that you want to speed up, and learn both the right and left hand aspects. Then:
Begin slowly and evenly, gradually increasing the speed until it gets to be as fast as you can play accurately and comfortably.
Push your speed up just a little bit more. And as you do, concentrate on smoothing it out by making smaller, more relaxed motions. (The tendency is to tense up. You want to bring down the level of tension, while maintaining your speed.)
Repeat each pattern a few times: maybe four times: then raise it up a fret and repeat. Continue up and back down the fretboard.
Go on to another pattern, or practice some other things, then come back to the original pattern from time to time, trying to play a notch faster or staying at the top speed for a longer period of time.
After a while, though, you'll notice that you reach a plateau with this approach. As the patterns get burned into your muscle memory, this leaves your conscious mind with little to think about. At a certain point an exercise can become ‘unthinking’ as you are playing it totally by rote. And at that point, it's not doing you any good. The conscious mind must stay engaged. Don’t let it just sit there, bored and empty! If you practice being dumb as a post, don’t be surprised when you can’t think of where to go when you’re trying to create a solo. So how to combat this natural development of repetition?
How about repeating the basic pattern of the speed exercise, but doing it in an improvised way? That is, make the decisions of how many times to repeat, when to shift positions, where to shift to, maybe alter a note within the pattern, maybe change to a different set of strings, etc.: make all those decisions "on the fly" as you are playing at top speed! That should keep your brain plenty busy!
There are a number of other, more advanced ideas like this in Speed Mechanics for Lead Guitar. But enough freeloading! You’ll have to buy the book!
Bottom Line: Efficient practice has everything to do with the correct use of repetition and variety. Don’t practice mistakes. Focus on trouble spots and correct them. When you notice repetition starting to create more mistakes, play something else a while and then come back to it later. Also keep your mind occupied while you are doing repetitive speed exercises. Improvised speed exercises are a way to accomplish this.
Synchronization refers to how closely the left and right hands are timed to work together. As you fret a note, do you pick it at precisely the same time? Good synchronization between the hands is key to playing fast and articulate, especially in runs where every note is picked. How does one go about developing this?
First of all, it takes time! The guitar is an interesting instrument. And sometimes a deceiving one. Sometimes things appear flashy and difficult, when in fact, they are not so hard. Other things may not appear especially difficult, but they may in fact be quite difficult to play. Playing fast runs in smoothly-picked synchronization is one of those things that is harder than it looks.
So first, I’ll deflect the issue and suggest to you that picking every note is not always the best approach. In fact, it can make everything sound all the same if you pick everything all the time. I mean, it’s really the hammers, pulls, slides, and string-bending approaches that give the guitar its nearly unlimited range variations and subtleties, making it--without question--the best instrument of all. My point, of course, is that fast, synchronized picking is a stylistic endeavor and not a necessity.
Still, it’s a nice option to have. And many guitarists want it and want it bad. So I’ll pass on a few insights on this issue.
First and foremost, practice at a range of speeds, not just fast. You see, at higher speeds, you are actually playing in a less synchronized fashion. And the faster you push it, the worse your synchronization becomes. Hold this idea in mind for a moment.
Now if you already read the previous section (7. Speed and Muscle Memory)--and if you didn't, do so now because it bears directly on this issue--you already know that "what you put in is what you get out." In other words, the exact way you play things gets established in your nervous/muscular system as a habit. Hold this idea for a moment, too.
Now put those two thoughts together: What you put in is what you get out. And your synchronization is better at slow and moderate speeds. Therefore, practice more at slow and moderate speeds, where you have the best synchronization, and some of that precise timing will become more and more entrenched as an aspect of your general playing technique. That way, when you do push your speed up, some of that accuracy will "stick."
Sound odd? Play slow to play fast? Well I know this works because I always noticed that my synchronization improved the most when I would sit down and start learning something -- maybe a Paganini Caprice, or Bach fugue, or Beethoven piano sonata -- and because I’m not a great sight reader, I’d learn it very slowly, one section at a time. And because it was so complex, it would take me a long time of playing through it fairly slow tempos before I would have it memorized. Then I’d move to another section. And another. So I’m playing at a turtle’s pace, but I’d get totally lost in the music: the innate power of the notes even more obvious and compelling at the slower tempos. Eventually I'd put the sections together, and I’d try it a little faster. Then add another section and faster. After a few hours, I’d have it up to a pretty good clip. Then suddenly, I’d look up from my ‘practice trance’ and notice, quite by accident, that the notes seemed easier to play, the motions felt a bit smaller and easier so I could play just a little faster, without extra effort, and everything just sounded cleaner. My synchronization had improved!
Based on my observations like this, I develop several other approaches for honing synchronization, which I incorporated into Speed Mechanics for Lead Guitar. These ideas appear throughout the entire first section on "Mechanical Ability," and many are woven into the very structure of the lessons themselves. I could list about a dozen, but enough freeloading! If you’re really into speed and synchronization, pick up a copy of Speed Mechanics.
To hone your synchronization, practice at a variety of speeds, not just fast. For more approaches, plus a horde of hair-raising exercises, get Speed Mechanics for Lead Guitar. It’s all in there.
9. Performance and Stage Fright
What’s the difference between practicing and performing? Well, people are watching you in a performance, obviously. But it goes a little deeper than that.
The purpose of practice is to hone your technique and iron out mistakes. If you’ve read the previous two sections, you already know that the correct use of repetition is the key to effective practice. It concentrates your attention right on the problem areas and trouble spots, allowing you to correct them in the fastest way possible. This makes for faster improvement, but--by definition--it means you will be spending a good deal of your time playing things that you can’t play well.
The purpose of performing, on the other hand, is to entertain, to inspire, to offer one’s music. You don't want to be attempting things you cannot do effectively; you want to play things that you have already mastered. Well, a little adventure never hurt anyone... I'm just talking generally here.
So in this sense, practice and performance are on opposite ends of a spectrum. They have opposite purposes. There is also a third approach, which we could call ‘performance practicing’ where you’d practice doing a performance--a dry run. Of course you get good at whatever you practice. And performing is a skill like any other. So why not practice performing, too? I'll give you one very good example why this is crucial. If you get into a habit of always stopping in the middle of a song to work on the hard parts, when you play that song for Aunt Betsy (or whoever), you’ll probably stop in the middle then, too!
Learning how to gracefully ignore mistakes and recover from them, without giving them undue attention is an important skill. Mistakes are not really a big deal, unless you make them a big deal. Most of your audience won’t notice anyway. And even if they do, they probably won’t care as much as you. Don't let mistakes break your focus.
And don't forget about the best kind of performance practice -- performing itself! If you suffer from stage fright (and a lot of performers do), what is the best cure? Doing it! Psychologists call this "habituation." Also, on the subject of stage fright, a few tips: First of all, fear is rooted in being stiff and immobile physically. Check it out the next time you feel stage fright. Become aware of your body, and you'll notice you are standing rigidly, with tensed muscles. The opposite of this is loose and relaxed flowing motion. So what's he solution? Get into a groove and move with the pulse! Music is rhythm, and rhythm is motion. If your body is fluid and relaxed, you'll find that you cannot be experiencing the same level of stage fright.
Bottom Line: When you practice, you’re working on things you can’t do very well, and repeating them until you can. When you perform, you are pulling out the things you already do best. So they are opposites. Make sure you also practice performing, then, running your music in practice as if it were a performance, and ignoring the mistakes. Stage fright happens were you are tense and rigid. Loosen up and move. Get into the groove and stage fright will diminish.
10. When Is Pushing the Limit OK? When Is It Not OK?
You need to keep your muscles and tendons in good condition or you may seriously shorten your playing career. Having done a lot of the speed playing and unusual stretches that one runs across in playing classical violin and piano music on electric guitar, I’ve had some personal experience dealing with tendon-related problems. With the following advice, you can hopefully avoid these problems entirely and prevent them before they start. But if you already have some problems here, find a qualified doctor to help appraise and correct your particular situation, in addition to taking the following ideas into consideration.
First we need to differentiate between muscle fatigue and actual tendon and/or nerve damage. In general, it’s fine to push yourself physically as you practice. A little "burning" sensation in the muscles of your forearm, for example, is normal. That is just the muscles getting a real workout. However, if you feel sharp discomfort, pain, numbness, or tingling in your wrist or fingers as you are practicing something, stop! Actual pain -- especially in the tendons -- is a different animal entirely. When it comes to tendons, ligaments, and nerves, any pain is bad pain. Pain means damage is being done, and damage should be avoided at all cost.
Pushing yourself in spite of tendon or nerve pain is playing with fire. The more damage you do, the harder it will be to arrest and correct the situation. So don’t wait until it gets bad before you take it seriously. Modify your practice accordingly (see below) and/or seek out medical attention as needed. Also, keep in mind that the older you get, the more careful you must be. This is because things tend to become less flexible with age as well as less likely to heal as readily or completely.
Bottom Line: You can generally push on through simple muscle fatigue, but if you feel pain in any tendons or get any nerve-related "strangeness," stop. Pain is damage, and damage is bad. (The next section covers specific ways to avoid causing damage.)
11. How to Avoid Tendon Problems Before they Start
Most tendon problems arise because of bad practice approaches or habits. With a little foresight, most of these problems can be avoided. Obviously, guitarists striving for "shredder-type" technique will be spending many hours practicing, which translates into a greater chance of injury. So those of us with speed on our mind, therefore, will have to be extra careful about our hands, fingers, tendons, and nerves. And of course, some of us are simply more prone to injury than others, due to health and/or genetic factors. But in any case, here are some basic guidelines for avoiding damage.
First, always warm up very well before attempting to play more demanding fretboard stretches and speed licks. A steady warm-up will help prepare and loosen, making stress injury much less likely. If your hands are really physically cold, hold them in a sink full of hot water for a while.
Second, practice regularly, and don’t overdo it at any one "monster" session. Obviously if you don’t play for a month, then sit down for a 12-hour practice session, you’ll be pushing your physical limits and you’re flirting with danger. It’s a little like weight training, or some other physical exercise. After a hard work out, you aren’t stronger at that moment. You are dead tired. Literally, your muscle cells have been slightly torn apart from one another, and must heal. (That’s the soreness and stiffness.) But done regularly and consistently, your body becomes accustomed to the new demand placed upon it, and over time you get stronger. So remember: Practice as regularly and as consistently as possible, and work it up a little at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Third, recognize that fast and smooth playing is actually accomplished with very little tension, or physical exertion or force. With occasional talk in guitar magazines about "burning up the fretboard" and "intense, aggressive playing," it’s easy to get the idea that this equates with strenuous physical effort in your hands and fingers. But in reality, it is all about coordination and precision. The "hardest" licks are only hard until you develop the necessary skill level. Then they are no longer hard for you. For example, a particular Eddie Van Halen solo may seem to be quite difficult. But is it hard for Eddie? It may require his attention, but it requires no more physical effort than anything else he might play. The moral here is to realize that when you play fast or advanced things, you should do so with no extra muscular tension. If you are playing with a lot of muscular stress, you are doing it wrong, and increasing the likelihood of injury to yourself.
Finally and most importantly, pay attention to your body’s feedback. That is, simply...if it hurts, don’t do it!
Bottom Line: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. First, warm up to difficult or fast practice. Second, don’t overdo it in any one session. Third, fast or difficult phrases should, ideally, be played without extra effort or tension. And fourth, if it hurts, stop.
12. Healing Tendon Injury and Avoiding Re-Injury
If you’ve injured yourself, don’t practice! Your first priority is to heal. Seek qualified medical attention as necessary. In fact, even if you have tendon problems that bother you only occasionally, still, take them seriously. You won’t be doing yourself any favors if you constantly re-injure yourself. So first and foremost, give yourself a chance to heal.
In that regard, let me tell you one experience I had. Years ago I injured a tendon on my little finger, while overdoing to stretches in preparation for a Conservatory solo performance of Paganini's 24 Caprices. It seemed to go away, but every since that time, if I push hard enough the pain will always return, even years later. So Dale Turner's "Best of Joe Satriani" Sig Licks book came my way, and I needed to lay down all the solos butI hadn't touched a guitar for about 6 months. So I started practicing. Even being hyper-vigilent about using reduced tension, by the second day, I couldn't even open and close my left hand without pain. This sucked! I had heard about the nutritional supplements "Glucosamine" and "Chondroitin" in regard to healing joints in people suffering from arthritis and thought it would be worth a try. What a change! The next day, all the pain was gone, and I resumed practice. After another day, my chops were back and I was tracking Satch's solos, which as you may know, are pretty intense. I still take the supplement from time to time as a preventative. Now, I'm not a doctor and I'm not suggesting any medical advice here for anyone's specific condition. I'm just telling you my story.
Whether you get medical help, try what I used, or just let it heal on it's own, the next step will be how to approach the guitar after you heal. You will need to be hyper-vigilant to avoid re-injury:
Start practicing just a few minutes at a time, maybe even just 10-15 minutes, and slowly build it up. Keep in mind the four rules mentioned in 11. Avoiding tendon problems before they start. That is, always warm up well; practice regularly and avoid marathon sessions; recognize that so-called "difficult" licks shouldn't include extra tension; and if something hurts, stop doing it.
But after injury, you’ll likely have to go even further. Let's consider that third point again. Basically, if you learn to practice with less inherent tension, you should be able to go longer before the negative effects of overstress on your weakened tendons will kick in.
Remember when you first started playing guitar? It seemed like you had to press the strings down really hard against the fretboard to keep them from buzzing, right? But as you played more and more, it seemed that you didn’t have to press as hard, and the buzzing began to go away. It just got easier and easier to play. Why? Are you really getting that much stronger? No. You see, at first the muscles that control your fingers are uncoordinated. So they are fighting one another. Over time, the muscles that are in opposition to one another learn to relax when they aren’t needed. Then you suddenly notice that you don’t need to press so hard to get the desired result. Because your muscles have learned to work together, more efficiently, you can accomplish the same thing less far less effort. Playing guitar doesn’t require a lot of pressure, but it does require a small amount of correctly applied pressure.
Put this knowledge to your advantage. Play some of the lead exercises or licks from Speed Mechanics or the Metal Lead Guitar Method as softly and quietly as possible, using very small motions. Also, try practicing with a lot of distortion so the sound is very compressed and even the softest notes ring out readily. Play slowly, using the minimum required movements: just what is necessary to move the correct finger and no more. You see, when you really get right down to it, moving one finger here or there is quite a simple matter. The difficulty arises in getting all the other fingers to relax, so you don’t have to force them to stay put by clenching them in place with the opposing muscle groups. When you practice like this: quietly, softly, easily, and slowly: for long enough, you’ll find that it will require almost no strength, or muscular effort. Make this into a habit, so you always play this way, and it will greatly diminish the strain on your tendons and allow you to play longer without the negative effects of excess tension, and subsequent re-injury. Of course, this is also a good practice approach for people without tendon injuries, but it is critical for those of you who have had the misfortune of this nasty situation. It forces you to be extra cautious.
Carry this idea of "force reduction" into all other aspects of your playing. For example, don’t increase tension as you push to increase your speed. You’ll just have to be patient and let the speed come to you, rather than going to it. And believe me, in time it will: as long as you don’t damage your hands permanently. It may take you a little longer than others, but you can only do the best that you can with what you have.
Also, practice in a seated position as opposed to standing, as this will be easier on your fretting hand. If you still want to practice in a standing position, make sure your strap is holding the guitar higher than usual. The lower it hangs, the more difficult your left hand stretch will be, and therefore, the more strain it will cause. Put your guitar and strap on, and sit down. Then, tighten the strap up so that when you stand, the guitar does not noticeably move. It might not look as cool, but hey! What’s more important, here!?! Anything you can do to play in a more relaxed state, without any unnecessary strain, will help.
Finally, keep in mind that you don’t have to play like Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai. You know, many players are very successful with only basic lead skills. If your injuries prevent you from putting in the time to necessary to develop virtuoso technique, maybe you can turn your attention elsewhere. How about songwriting, production, or singing? There’s a lot more to music than playing blazing solos!
Bottom Line: First of all, heal. Glucosamine/Chondroitin helped me, it may help you. When you do begin practicing again, start with only a few minutes at a time. Play softly and quietly, focusing on control and not speed. Make it feel relaxed and effortless. Don’t push for speed. Play sitting down or with the guitar raised quite high with the strap. Increase your practice times gradually, being cautious of any irritation in the problem areas. If discomfort returns, stop playing, or reduce the amount. Practicing in spite of trouble will only do more damage and set you back.
13. I've Reached a Plateau and Don't See Improvement. What Can I Do?
This is common. It happens to everyone sooner or later. At certain times we may notice fast improvement and at other times it seems to stall, and we plateau. Just keep playing, keep practicing efficiently on the material that is your "next step," and you’ll eventually get beyond it.
If you get seriously stuck, however, and it feels like you are running into a brick wall and just can't move forward, it may be time to change up your approach. But the prescription depends on what you have been doing to get to this point. Basically, a plateau is telling you that you've gotten all you can out of the approaches you have been using, at least for now, and you need to try something different. Change it up.
So if you have been learning a lot of songs and haven’t spent enough time honing your skillset in other, more directed ways, dig into an exercise heavy routine like Speed Mechanics or concentrate on the speed and synchronization exercises of Metal Lead Guitar. Alternatively you can also try a completely new technique, or even turn toward a new style. Maybe learn hybrid picking for example.
On the other hand, if you have been hitting it hard with "exercise-intensive" practice and you have plateaued, to you I say, lighten up! Remember the point of it all? Something called music!? Distract yourself from your routine for a while and just learn some songs. Give those skills a little time to set and solidify. Let your inspiration return. Jam with friends, form a new band, play out, create songs, record your songs, etc. Always consciously dissecting your skillset and playing exercises is a good part of practice, but too much will burn you out long before you’ve mastered the instrument. You are getting out of balance! (See 2. Balance vs. burn-out). Forget about trying to improve and just play for a while.
When you play music, you’re not thinking about improving this or that skill. You are taken over by the music and become completely absorbed int he task at hand. That’s the state of mind psychologists call "flow." It's also known as the Zen state of Mushin, or no-mindedness, which is described as a state free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego. There is an absence of judgment, so one is free to act and react without hesitation or disturbance from thought. You rely not on what you think you should do, but on trained natural reaction (or "instinct"), on what is felt intuitively. This, however, is not a state characterized by relaxation of sleepiness, but rather the mind is working at high speed, albeit without intention or conscious plan. And this is also an apt description of what happens to some degree when one becomes lost in the playing of music; particularly in the performance of improvised soloing.
According to Zen master Takuan Sōhō, "The mind must always be in the state of 'flowing,' for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death. When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy's sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man's subconscious that strikes."
In the same way, we might wield our "axes" with the same intuitive sense. In this way, we lose sight of questions such as "is this right?" or "will I get that part?" or "why can’t I play this better?". We just get out of the way and let it happen! We need to get into this state of mind more often, and issues like "plateau" to fall away and we experience a deep, present satisfaction. Sure there is a time and place for training of muscle memory, but there is also a time to be present to the instrument without conscious direction.
Finally, let me say that a little faith is in order here. Watching your own skill improvement is a bit like watching the hour hand on an analog clock. You can’t see it hand move if you just sit there and stare at it. But get busy with something you enjoy, then look back at it and you’ll see that indeed it has moved, and quite significantly. Playing exercises with a constant eye toward technique improvement can be like staring the hour hand of a clock. Maybe at certain times you were fortunate enough to see huge leaps in your technique--you actually could see that hour hand move. That's great but it's not generally how things go. For the most part, the path is too slow to see progress directly in the moment. We only see it when we stand back and look over days or weeks or months. So keep perservering; you'll eventually get there!
If, however, you are really burned out and discouraged the best antidote may be to just take some time off. Don’t play anything for a while. Go an watch an accomplished guitarist in concert and let that original inspiration return to you. Then start learning some new music. That should bring it all back.
Bottom Line: A plateau means that you've gotten all you can out of the approach you are currently using. You need a change. If you make efforts to keep a balance in your playing between consciously directed technique improvement on the one hand, and Zen no-mindedness on the other hand, you will maintain your inspiration and keep moving forward.
14. I got Speed Mechanics and it seems way beyond what I’ll ever be capable of
Yeah, it's pretty advanced material. But just take it just a little at a time, and I bet you’ll surprise yourself. You know, it’s not like there’s some sort of time limit placed on you here. I mean, this isn’t a race. And if the examples really are too far above your current technique, just pick up an easier level book, so you have more material to work on, and pace yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. They don’t have to be big bites, either. You just have to keep at it; moving in the right direction.
Let me tell you something about my experience that may help. There was a time I thought I’d never be able to play lead guitar. It was way over my head. I had my hands full just learning the chords to this or that Kiss song. Then someone showed me barre chords. Man, those were tough: trying to fret all six strings without buzzing all over the place. It took me a few months. Then, songs started to open up to me. Eventually I progressed to simple leads. Someone showed me a pentatonic scale. Then, I got Van Halen’s first album. Wow! I started learning those songs and solos--the one’s I could anyway. I formed a band, and learned lots of other songs. And I started to write some, too. One day I heard a live Ozzy performance with Randy Rhoads. His guitar playing was intense! I learned every note on there. I also learned a Bach etude, and I started teaching on the side.
Then one day I stumbled upon an opportunity to write my first guitar book for a major music publisher. I thought I could handle writing a rhythm guitar method. I even had a good instrumental tune to throw in at the end. But a lead method? Man, there’s so much to lead guitar... the different styles of different players, all the techniques, the different scales, etc. I remember thinking, "How could I even begin to organize all that into some kind of a method? It's impossible!" But a funny thing happened. After I wrote the first book, I started to realize that maybe I could write that lead guitar method after all. What once seemed beyond me had become attainable, at least in theory. And I wrote that lead method. And I kept going.
The moral of the story is that what may now seem beyond your reach will become attainable sooner than you think if you just keep taking daily action that moves you in the right direction. You have no idea right now what you are ultimately capable of!
There’s another interesting footnote to this story, too. One day I came across an old cassette tape, on which I had recorded my earliest songs and solos--a little before I had formed my first garage band. I listened to it and I was amazed. It was so bad! If someone came up to me with a tape like that and said, "Hey, I’ve been playing guitar for a few years now, tell me honestly, do you think I should opt out of going to college and play in a rock band?" I’d have said, ah... you better go to school.
Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying that going to school is a bad idea for anyone. I'm saying that following my heart turned out to be the right choice for me, and I eventually accomplished more than I ever thought I could as a musician. The fact is, life is a process, and we are all constantly evolving. Don't sell yourself short.
Bottom Line: Don’t look at the size of the mountain in front of you. Just take it one step at a time. It’s really not so important whether you think you can or can’t right now. The important thing is to take daily steps to move you in a direction. After a while, you'll suddenly discover that what you thought was impossible has become possible.
15. Seeing the gap between where I am now and where I want to be is discouraging
I’ve received this question in many different forms over the years. I guess it’s natural enough for anyone who really wants that high degree of technical facility on the guitar, yet doesn’t see it happening fast enough. Well, here are a few ideas that may get you seeing things from a more enjoyable and productive angle. It may take a little thought and introspection, but it’s fairly painless. It’s just a matter of reframing.
First of all, you are where you are. No more, no less. You have the skills, abilities, and insights that you have developed through all your past efforts. And you must accept this for the present moment. It is your current reality and it is the perfect and precise culmination of everything that has gone before. You have exactly what you have put into it.
But you also have the power to shape your future. Your goal is attainable. Others have achieved it. And given the right approaches and the right application of time and effort, nothing can stop you from achieving it, too.
OK, so you can do it if you set your mind to it and apply yourself on a regular basis. But your improvement seems so slow! Well, that’s a different problem. Maybe you need to keep searching for new practice approaches to find what really works best for you. I’ve literally seen players accomplish with 5 minutes of effective practice things that they worked on all week long but never mastered. (Back when I was teaching at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, this was a common experience.) So slow improvement is a different problem. It’s a solvable problem.
Maybe you’re just overly focused on looking for improvement. Re-read the previous point: 13. I’ve reached a plateau and don’t see any improvement. Try the suggestions there. Maybe you need to discover some new musical inspirations, too. Re-read 1. The key to success and 2. Balance vs burn-out. That’s another angle to dig into.
That will probably solve this dilemma for most of you. But if you’re still discouraged, what you are really saying is you want the accomplishment without the effort. You want the reward without the investment. Well, I’ll be damned! Welcome to the club! Wouldn’t that be nice? But it isn't going to happen, is it? The only way to develop a skill like guitar playing is by feeding your inspiration and taking the right efforts.
In any case, with the right inspiration and effort, you will arrive at the desired destination in regard to skill development, eventually. You just don’t know exactly when you’ll get there.
Feeling better yet? If not, I have another question for you: Is the glass half empty, or half full?
Sit back for just a minute and appreciate everything that you have accomplished on the instrument. Too often, we take for granted what we have, constantly looking ahead to what we have not. But not everyone can play guitar, you know.
To take this to its extreme (still thoroughly valid, though), how about considering the fact that you aren’t paralyzed and have any ability to play your guitar at all? How about the fact that you are alive in a time when the electric guitar exists? Or that you live in a society that is prosperous enough that we might do things like play music, instead of rummage for basic survival needs? Or that you’re not sold into slavery? It could be worse. A lot worse.
So what was that trifle you were wondering about? Oh, yeah. You were feeling down because you wanted to achieve something significant, and it seemed hard. Isn’t it great that you have an opportunity to attempt to reach that goal you've set for yourself? I mean, life would be pretty boring if there were no challenges.
Finally, I’ve got one more little trick up my sleeve for you. Let’s try reframing the situation in terms of an analogy. Let’s imagine that you begin in New York City (a beginner) and you imagine your ultimate goal is getting across the country to Los Angeles (which is mastery). But you’ve never been there before. So you know what your destination is, more or less, but you don’t know exactly how far it is, when you will arrive, or what it will actually look like when you get there, or anywhere along the way for that matter. Nevertheless, you hit the road. You learn a few chords, then a few songs. Now you’re in Philadelphia. You get into your first band; Columbus, Ohio. You start writing your own songs, and you’ve make it to Indianapolis (my old stomping grounds by the way). You master speed picking and you’re in Denver, Colorado! Each goal attained brings you closer to your ultimate destination. But when you get to Colorado, you might decide that you’re really happy there have see no need to continue further. Or you want to take a detour through Montana, or better yet New Mexico (my favorite state). Or, in fact you do get all the way to LA but then see Hawaii on the horizon! There really is no ultimate goal; no point where you can definitively say, "I have arrived." Goals come and go. When you reach one, you set another. It is the direction in which you move that’s important. And we need to be moving toward something. Because we are either growing or dying. There is no coasting in life. Success is an arbitrary point that we pick. So it's an illusion. Life is a process, and real success is learning how to enjoy that process.
So stop judging in such stark, black and white terms: "I’ve not yet reached what I want, therefore I’m not successful." Remind yourself that success is a daily habit. A successful day is one in which you have taken some action or learned something that moves you in a chosen direction and a little closer to that next goal. Instead of "all or nothing," think "all or something."
This approach will not only make you happier and more productive, but it's also more reflective of reality. It is certainly more useful. Because it produces enthusiasm. It maintains inspiration, which is the fuel we need to stay on the journey. And ultimately, then, we get to become the architects of our own happiness and success.
Bottom Line: Accept the present moment. It is what it is and you are where you are. But you have the power to create future capabilities. Others have done it and so can you with the right approaches. Slow improvement is a problem you can solve using the principles I've outlined on this page. Lack of inspiration is likewise a problem you can solve. Give youself credit for what your accomplished already. Guitar playing, like life itself, is a process. And success is a process. A successful day is one in which you take some action or learn something that moves you in a desired direction. Take even half of all this to heart, and this problem evaporates!
16. On the Issue of Talent
Skills are learned. Some may have slightly faster response times, or be a little quicker at motor skill retention than others. But the differences between people physically are generally very subtle, small differences. The factors that are far more determinative of skill development are motivation, enthusiasm and a willingness to put in the time. We tend to greatly overrate that elusive quality we called talent. It’s effective practice that creates good technique.
I’ve already dealt with the paramount issues of motivation, inspiration, and enthusiasm above at length. So let’s take a look now at what we might call temperament--another big factor as I see it. Obviously, someone into perfection and detail will likely wind up with a more highly-honed and precisely-controlled technique than someone without that trait. But is that necessarily better? I mean, it’s a big world and there are a lot of different tastes in music. Simplicity is an art, too. And maybe another guitarist who may lack a focus on detail may have a unique creativity, or presence, or feel, etc. Music isn’t just about skill. If it were, it would be just like juggling or typing. But it's more than just a skill. It's a skillset with a purpose; music is about creative, artistic expression.
I think temperament also has a lot to do with things like so-called "star quality," or "fire" in one’s presence or playing. These are the aspects that are hard to pin down. Now we can’t really do a lot about our basic temperament; it's part of our makeup as an individual. But it’s a big world out there, and there is room for every expression of style, from intense, dramatic, and explosive, to relaxed, lazy, silly, etc. So wherever you fall on the spectrum of temperment, there is a way to make it work for you. That is to say, "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."
I would say that it goes like this: Your motivation level, interest, and enthusiasm, operating through your particular temperament, result in what is commonly called your "innate talent."
It is quite well established at this point that our brains actually change in response to what we learn and do and learn. Playing guitar, then, is actually a matter of "re-wiring" and changing the structure of your brain. You are building new connections, and new abilities. So what exactly is innate, anyway? We are highly plastic, or changeable. As the Buddha rightly pointed out, everything in this world--including our own minds--is conditioned and conditional. So after you have played guitar for three years, hasn’t that skillset become "innate" in you? In a very real sense it is enabled by the conditioning, reflected in the very structure of your brain itself. That sounds "innate" to me, by definition. Practice enough and you literally create your own talent.
Creativity is also misunderstood. It is not something that one either "has" or "doesn’t have." Everyone is creative in their own way. Yes some people may allow it out and develop it more than others, and some show it in different forms. But none of us really knows just how creative we might be, given the right circumstances and the right vehicle.
There are things we can do to bring out and nurture the creativity within. The first step is to realize that there really are no rules and begin trusting our own ideas enough to stop judging them right at the outset. And for heaven's sake, stop worrying about whether we are "creative enough!" Creative processes foster greater creativity. So start looking for new ways to do things, whether it's driving to work a different way, trying something new on the menu or in the kitchen, or playing a phrase differently than you've done it before. Maybe it's s simple as spending 5 minutes every day with a pen and paper and just free associating; write down every thought that comes as fast as they come. And if you're really serious about expanding your creativity, check out the books The Artist's Way and Art & Fear.
Bottom Line: Don’t worry about whether you’re one of those chosen, special people with unique "talent." Just follow your heart, which is really your motivation, enthusiasm, and inspirations. Do that and inn time, people will be talking about what an incredible "talent" you are!