The Setlist

No Secrets, Just Practice

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Mar 22nd, 2010
This post was originally written on the blog.

Suggested Reading:

The four articles linked above share a common thread. To get better at guitar (or anything else) requires the simple, yet difficult practice of doing it over and over again. No amount of information in your head is going to train your muscles, only repetition does that.

No Secrets

In The Secret To Becoming A Better Guitarist, Josh Evitt at writes:

"For most of my guitar-playing life, I’ve been trying to find the secret to becoming a better guitarist" (edit) "There is no secret." My thoughts on this are similar with one exception. There are shortcuts. I spent hours, upon hours learning the things I teach here. I can tell you more in a one hour lesson than I learned in 6 months. But here's the catch. During that 6 months, I was playing. A lot. So while I might not have had as much information as someone with my lessons will have, that forced me to play all the time just to make something sound good.

Why is that important? Because I developed muscle memory from doing stuff over, and over, and over. If there really is a secret to becoming a better guitarist, it's repetition. Although it's not a very satisfying secret. But it works. Doing the same thing, over and over, for years and years, embeds it into the part of your brain that controls your muscles, so that you can eventually do it without consciously thinking about it.

I Must Learn This

In When I Started Playing Slide Guitar, John Tuggle of writes:

"I vowed I would learn this style so I spent a lot of time with a cassette tape and the guitar. Rewinding, rewinding, rewinding. Then I realized you didn’t have to press stop on the cassette deck, you could just tap the rewind button and let go to get back to the part. Very time consuming!"

I love this because it's very similar to how I learned, except that I had the benefit of a CD player. I love this line:

"I vowed I would learn this style."

That's where it started for me as well. I could barely tolerate not being able to play what I was hearing SRV play. So I dragged myself through the trenches of "Say What", "Texas Flood", "The Sky Is Crying", note by note, lick by lick.

My CD player had a rewind button that would rewind about one second when you'd tap it once. When I encountered a really fast lick, I'd let it play the first few notes of the lick, tap the rewind button, listen to that segment again, and do this over and over and over.

Those few notes would become engrained in my head, and I'd pick them out on the fretboard. Then I'd let it play a little longer, and repeat the process. As John says:

"Very time consuming!"


Distractions Are Easier

In his post Practicing Guitar vs Buying Guitar Gear, Robert Renman of writes:

"Are you someone who feels you are not spending enough time practicing guitar, yet you look on eBay and guitar forums everyday to see if you can score some new guitar gear?"


These days, I spend more time on the computer than playing guitar. Theoretically, doing work for StevieSnacks. But the funny thing is, no matter what the real task is, there's always a ton of distractions that are somewhat related to that task, that put me no closer to finishing what I'm really trying to finish.

All the time you spend researching, and buying a new piece of gear, doesn't put you one step closer to having faster fingers. 10 minutes of Spider Exercises twice a day will do more to improve the sound of your licks than a new set of pickups.

Distractions aren't practice, but they're easier. Easier for you, and easier for me. Easier than creating tabs for 150+ blues licks, or creating 120+ pages of diagrams, or linking DVD chapter buttons for 76 different segments of a slow blues song lesson.

Tips Aren't Practice

In his post Real Advice Hurts, Merlin Mann of writes:

"At their best, “tips” are a one way to incrementally improve a process that you’re already dedicated to practicing on a regular basis. And, in that context, tips work."

He's not specifically talking about guitar, and it's not a site for guitar players, but the advice rings true. You can learn the notes of a really fast lick from one of my free lessons, but as Merlin writes, that 'tip' is only really useful, if what I teach you becomes integrated into a much larger practice routine.

What does that mean?

Learning a lick does not mean you've improved your guitar playing. It means you've learned an isolated series of notes that sounds cool, but is ultimately useless unless you learn how to integrate it into a song. 

So take that same free lesson, teaching that same lick, and make it your goal to fit it into a song, rather than simply learn the notes. Learn how to use it, not just play it. Find a song that matches the style of the lick, pick a spot in the song you think it will fit and play it. Over, and over, and over, and over.

Playing the guitar should be fun, but it's also work. Even when you've reached a level that other people aim for, you still have to use it, or you lose it. You can watch all the lessons I put out, absorb as much information as your brain can hold, but until that information is expressed through your muscles repetitively, it's just information, not skill.

Here's to sore fingers :-)

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