How to Practice
Understanding something and being able to do it are different things. The conceptual part is easy; the doing part takes time and repetition. Drill, drill, drill, drill! And then drill some more.
Nothing will happen without the drilling. All kinds of things happen because of it.
I just listened to an interview with Billy Cox. Billy was Jimi Hendrix’ bass player in Band of Gypsies.
They were roommates in Nashville in the early sixties. Cox said Jimi always had a guitar in his hands. He would fall asleep in bed with it, practicing 24/7. He wore it everywhere: just walking down the street he would be noodling around with it. Cox says Jimi put in 25 years on the guitar in 5 years.
Alex Van Halen tells the same kinds of stories about Eddie.
Don't misunderstand what I’m about to say here; both Jimi and Eddie have been strong influences on my own playing, especially Jimi, but the intellectual and musical content of what they played isn’t hard to understand. They weren't deep in the music theory department.
Jimi had an R&B and Blues background, working the Chitlin' Circuit. You can find videos and pictures of him backing Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, and many others. He played in a local band in Nashville that backed up the names that came through; Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Sam and Dave etc.
So...R&B and the Blues. Pentatonic scales, Dominant 7th and 9th chords. And triads; lots of triads. Of course, there's an artistic &/or interpretive element that is not definable, talent if you will, but in my opinion Jimi is what you get when you mix a good R&B guitarist with hallucinogens.
Eddie Van Halen's background is similar but through a different filter. Eddie himself has stated that Cream-era Eric Clapton (1966-68) was his biggest influence. Again, Blues filtered through the cultural milieu of the time, being absorbed by a kid in California in the seventies. There is a 1985 interview where he, off-the-cuff and unaccompanied, plays Clapton's guitar parts note-for-note from the live version of Crossroads. Do you realize how much time and effort a young teen-age Eddie had to put in to cop that? He learned it so well that he played it note-for-note over 15 years later. He was also influenced by classical music and so, guess what? Triads! When you analyze the content of his two-handed tapping technique, it's mostly triads.
What is my point here? Both of these revolutionary guitarists were working with the same stuff; the Blues, and lots of triads, just like countless others. So they weren't extremely advanced or unique in terms of content.
What did they do that was so different? Part of the answer involves technique. And technique is the result of repetition; in other words, drill, drill, drill, drill. The thing they have in common is an obsession - playing the guitar 24/7. As Billy Cox said of Jimi, "25 years on the guitar in 5 years." Alex Van Halen said Eddie would fall asleep at night playing the guitar in bed and wake up with it. Billy Cox said the same thing about Jimi.
Okay...well...you don't have 24/7 to devote to the guitar, do you? Not even close. So what are you supposed to do?
While it's true that I've devoted more time than most to the guitar, I didn't have 24/7 either.
And some of what I did is not an option for most people.
For instance, decide to play in cover bands in bars 6 nights a week for years; I’ve even played in bad cover bands occasionally, playing music I didn't care for.
Why would I do that?
Because it guaranteed me 4 hours of physical exercise a night on the instrument, and I got paid to do it. And that's before I ever put in any practice during the day on my own.
Part of the time I had a day job but much of the time I didn't. And from pretty early on I was married and had children, so there was time and effort that I couldn't devote to the guitar, which was only right. But in the early years, most of the time I had all day to practice, and then I would go to work and play 4 sets at the club.
Teaching guitar lessons during the day has served the same function. I'm dealing with the guitar most days for much of the day, and have for almost 40 years - and getting paid to do it.
I don't expect my students to arrange their whole lives around the guitar like I did. Every once in awhile you get one that does, and it's very gratifying to teach someone like that, but I make it a point not to project my own obsession onto my students. There are many valid reasons to study the guitar, and none but one is, "I want to be a pro."
The important thing I learned about practicing is to be as efficient as possible.
Now I could write a blog about finding the optimum time to practice; what time of day do you have the most energy and focus yadayadayyada... There are plenty of scientific studies on that subject (example) if you care to do the research.
I could also talk about listening to the guys you want to emulate and internalizing their sound, phrasing, solos, chord voicings etc. Listening is an important part of learning. I call it, "by osmosis." It's intuitive.
But it is in the practice time itself where the need to optimize what you're doing is the most critical.
Random and inefficient practice habits are the main reasons for lack of progress.
A methodical, logical approach is crucial. The information should be inputted in the most logical, linear way possible. That takes only a few minutes. If not done linearly and in sequence, it can take decades - or never.
You can't do it by yourself or, if you are to have any chance of doing it by yourself, you have to follow somebody's methodical, proven approach. Example: Jim Hall has talked about the value he obtained by working through Volume 1 of George Van Eps' Harmonic Mechanisms for the Guitar.
Randomly surfing through YouTube videos and guitar podcasts won't cut it; that has the wrong person in charge (you!), which results in random acquisition. You'll never know what you don't know; you'll never know where your gaps are.
So, let's say you've found the right teacher or method who inputs the content in the optimal order. (That's easier said than done!)
With the information understood conceptually, the real work begins. Let's say you're working on a 2-octave major scale. There are 6 possible fingerings. 3 each from a 6th and 5th-string root. We start with two. One 6th-string root and one 5th-string root. With those two positions, you can drill major scales around the Key Circle which means you're drilling in every key.
NOTE: If you don't know what I mean by "Key Circle" you need the 5-Lesson Foundational Series. This series of lessons teaches the Circle of Keys as an organizational mechanism by which you ensure that whatever you learn is drilled in every key in all possible positions. It also gives you a method to find any note, anywhere, without memorizing note names on every string.
You can download the 5-Lesson Foundational Series right here for free with no further obligation or commitment:
So you drill major scales around the Circle every day. For how long? As I said, I don't project my own obsession so I don't dictate quantity. I just tell my students, “For as long as you can, every day, for a week.”
With my personal students, they have to be able to play the lesson of the week with few mistakes, in every key around the Circle in 20 minutes or less, or else they repeat the lesson for the next week. So whatever it takes.
Not only do they have to play the lesson, they have to recite out loud every key they're in while playing.
Because reciting out loud programs the brain quicker - fewer repetitions are required. Reciting out loud helps the focus and concentration levels.
This video demonstrates ascending and descending 2-octave major scales in every key in 1 minute. While reciting names. Notice that there are no edits = no mistakes.
Here's an advanced student drilling bitonal triads. Notice how he recites the names of what he's doing:
Here's a 7-year-old playing and reciting the Key Circle and then a more advanced student doing the same thing with altered 9/13 chords:
The drilling while reciting integrates the left and right hemispheres, which internalizes the data. That means you can play effortlessly or unconsciously - because you've already put in the effort.
The drilling establishes muscle memory, which is really brain programming, i.e. technique.
The repetition trains your ear. Ear training is the result of hearing the same thing, over and over.
Without the daily drilling, none of this will happen! Drilling is the key to everything!
My impression is that Jimi wasn't particularly disciplined or efficient in his practice habits. He just played the guitar ALL THE TIME! So the drilling was there, even though it may not have been as efficient or organized as it could have been. The drilling resulted in Left-Brain/Right-Brain integration, muscle memory, technique and ear training.
If you play the guitar 12 or 15 hours a day you’re gonna get dramatically better, even if you don’t learn anything new or go deep into theory.
Note: There IS massive benefit to getting into theory. It dramatically increases efficiency of learning (see, Theory Doesn’t Matter? Don’t Be An Idiot!).
Without the drilling, there would be no Jimi Hendrix. Same for Van Halen. Same for anybody who's any good. They put in the reps whether formally codified or not.
1) Find a teacher/method that inputs the data sequentially, in order = 2%.
2) Drill, drill, drill, drill! Daily! Then drill some more = 98%.
Is there a shortcut? Yes, there is. This is it!
Any other way will take longer!
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