Tales from the Practice Monkey

Let’s talk about “practice” versus “jamming”, and how each is important to your development as a player. After several years of playing drums and then bass guitar, I picked up the six-string, motivated in no small part by lunch-hour excursions home from high school with my friends to crank up the first couple Van Halen albums, and ask “how’d he do that?” over and over again.

That was a great time to get started, to see the ongoing development of rock guitar, from giants such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck (and so many more), to the fertile post-EVH boom of proto-shredders. Once I had mastered most of the Van Halen and Randy Rhoads material, I turned my attention to what at the time was unheard-of speeds of playing.

Players such as Paul Gilbert, Nuno Bettencourt, and Yngwie Malmsteen (and again, literally dozens of others) gave me an appreciation of where impeccable technique could be matched by real musicality. There was room for both, and players were experimenting with all sorts of unusual techniques and scales, and (just as important to me, as a learner trying to take in all these new sounds and styles) sharing tips and tricks with one another.

Tab was still in its infancy at the time, and things we take for granted now — such as, you know, home computing, websites, YouTube, software that enables you to create awesome neck diagrams and tabs with a few mouse clicks — were not even a dream. I still have a huge notebook, spiral-bound binder paper, full of handwritten tabs that I either copied out of magazines or created painstakingly, hunched over the guitar, working out one sweep-picked arpeggio at a time.

Also, we walked to school in the snow, uphill both ways, barefoot.

Anyway, it quickly became apparent that, having average manual dexterity, a systematic approach to learning all these great new tricks would be the best way to go. Many players (also, by definition, being in the middle of the bell curve) figured out the same thing, and started really taking practice seriously, and breaking down mechanical techniques into their most fundamental forms. It was still cool to blast Buck’s Boogie or Cat Scratch Fever with your older cousins when they were around and felt like playing, but it was clear that if you wanted to compete with guys like Paul Gilbert, it would take some time and preparation.

And when it came to breaking everything down to its mechanical basics, and providing some clues as to how much time you should really spend on acquiring a high level of technique, the great Steve Vai came along and threw down the gauntlet, hard, with his infamous 10-Hour Guitar Workout. The title alone tells you he’s not screwing around, right? (In fact, Vai later expanded upon the original for Guitar World magazine, creating an even more comprehensive article called The 30-Hour Path to Virtuoso Enlightenment, comprised of three 10-hour-per-day sessions.)

Such a level of commitment and dedication was nothing short of a challenge, and many players (including yours truly) wanted to see if we were up to it. There were days I would call in sick to work, and spend 10-12 hours with a stack of books and my Ibanez, going over scales and patterns and arpeggios and solos. It was a lot of fun, and a tremendous amount of work.

Even with that sort of lopsided, time-intensive commitment to anything, it’s important to leave at least some time for other things, for some sort of life balance. For probably 3-4 years, I probably never took a full day off, unless I was sick. There was always at least an hour or three, after work, on lunch break, watching football on the weekends, for practice. Where there’s a will there’s a way, as they say. But there was also time for riding motorcycles, for dating, for recreation, for reading, etc. Even so, most weeks were in the 30-40 hours of practice range, so it was basically like having a second full-time job.

After a few years of that, I became accustomed to referring to myself as a “practice monkey” — that is, someone obsessed with the mechanical minutiae of playing things that required very little active intelligence, merely rote memorization and pattern recognition. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, I still routinely use many of the pieces I learned at that time as practice material. But in retrospect, it may not have been the most balanced approach to things.

Don’t get me wrong; if there’s been one consistent theme here since day one, it’s that practice is vital, and it is defined distinctly from jamming (which is also important). Things like goal setting, tracking progress, closely observing fundamental motion in both hands, learning music theory, are all crucial to effective practice that will really accelerate your learning curve.

Or you can learn a few patterns and boxes you’re comfortable with, develop your ear to the point that you can hear where and how they fit, and write songs based around that. Which is a perfectly valid approach to the instrument. But there’s a lot more you can get out of real practice, with time and attention, and that sort of thing is not really “practice” anyway, but jamming. And again, that’s fine.

If you’re one of those players who, once you pick up the guitar and start learning, you know that you’ll never stop learning or playing, then you know what I’m getting at here. The old bit about it being a journey and not a destination holds true. The thing to recognize is that over such a course of many years of playing, your focus will (and should) shift from one to the other, from an emphasis on practicing mechanics and technique, to spending the majority of your playing time on improvising and composing.

Back in the 30-40 hours of practice per week days, probably 80% of that time was spent on mapping various patterns all over the neck — scales, modes, arpeggios, chords, etc. Included in that would be time spent on learning classical pieces like we frequently tab here, and solos from songs I liked. The remaining 20% would be left for more jamming-oriented playing. Included in that would be composing riffs and progressions, writing and arranging songs.

As time has passed, that ratio has shifted, probably to almost the opposite — while my weekly playing time is closer to the 10-12 hour range these days, probably 75-80% is spent jamming and noodling around. The patterns have been long ago internalized, and putting them together, running through them randomly, and finding progressions over which to apply them, is the whole point of learning them in the first place.

So while we spend most of our time here going over scales and patterns and classical pieces and exercises to memorize, please keep in mind that these things are just a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The object is not to hone your mechanical dexterity until you can play a C major scale pattern at a thousand beats per minute, it’s to help you attain a solid level of mechanical ability and musical understanding in a shorter length of time, so that you then have the ability to play whatever you come up with, whether it’s composition or improvisation. It’s a matter of getting your hands, ears, eyes, and brain all on the same page, working together effortlessly.

Think of it as a continuum, starting with a ton of practice and some jamming, to eventually the other way around. And again, jamming is the arena where you apply the patterns you’ve drilled on for so many hours. If you’ve played organized sports, you know the dynamic right away — you work out with weights and cardio (basic motion) to get physically conditioned to execute without too much strain, then you drill on specific movements that you will need in a playing situation. Then comes the game; then you play. That’s the difference between practice and jamming.

Realize that it takes time to learn all the patterns and pieces that we’re going over on this site, and even more time to put them all together in some sort of coherent context (which is music theory). Understand that all that material gets learned a piece at a time, and will take repeated visits to learn and internalize and commit to memory. Keep it all in perspective; no matter who your favorite player is, no matter how brilliant they are, it took them years of patience and dedication — and yes, practice — to get their playing to the level that you’re hearing.

In the meantime, be persistent and consistent in learning the patterns, and take advantage of the tools at your disposal. If you can’t afford recording software, go grab a free copy of Audacity, and record some basic grooves to improvise over. Don’t feel like you need to write songs right away, unless that’s your focus; if you’re a lead guitarist by nature, record some simple progressions that have a clear key, then move on to more complex progressions and songwriting as your ear becomes more attuned.

Above all, if you find yourself in “practice monkey” mode, make sure that the time you put in is matched up to concrete goals, short- and long-term. Take at least some time during the week to apply the things you’ve been working on.

And when you hit the inevitable wall or rut, don’t be afraid to put the guitar down and take a walk, hang out with friends, just get away from it for a while.

Leave a Reply