Kevin’s Advice to Guitar Students -

Getting the most out of your lessons.

I'm often asked — sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly — how to get the most out of their lessons. What can I do? What shouldn't I do? You are taking lessons so you've taken a good first step, but lessons are of course a major investement and it makes sense to maximize their effect. Here is my advice - some of it.


Yes, it sounds obvious, but it's amazing how many people don't do it, or don't do it enough. Pratice is more important than natural ability, the quality of your instrument, even how good your teacher is (but don't tell anyone I said that.) Practice everyday, even if it's just a little — ten minutes of very focussed practice on a single goal can be very useful.

Practice correctly:

Understand that there is a difference between "practicing" and "musical goofing off." Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with "musical goofing off" — I love sitting around with the guitar, slumped on the couch, watching a little TV, eating some pretzels, and jamming on some tunes. But that is not "practicing." That would be sitting somewhere quiet and working through the materials on which I need to work for a fixed period of time. Make time for both, but don't confuse the two.

Practice every day:

I can't stress this enough — practice every day. There is something about daily practice that really reinforces things. Practicing 30 minutes a every day of the week is much more useful than practicing for 2 hours a day on just two days a week. The constant reinforment, before you have a chance to forget it seems to be critical to the learning process.

Don't stop if you make a mistake:

One of the biggest mistakes that people make is to stop when they make a mistake. It is human nature of course — we've made a mistake so we have to stop, figure out what went wrong, then fix it. That works if you are writing a story, but not in music. Music is an art that takes place in temporal space — it is a time-based art. Once a note has been misplayed, it cannot be "fixed" — it is passed and stopping will only ruin the next note and the ones that follow. The best thing to do is to try to keep playing as if you never made the mistake. This is the important for three reasons: it will save the rest of the song, it will keep the song from dying, and if you do it with enough confindence the audience may not even notice. Really, the band will forgive you for playing a wrong note, but if you kill the song, they will string you up in the alley. It is better to play the wrong note at the right time than to play the right note at the wrong time. And if you practice by stopping everytime something goes wrong, then that is what you will do on the gig.

Don't practice too fast:

Up to 60,000 years ago, our cromagnon ancestors began doing "art": paintings, decorive pottery and weaving. Music, being a more abstract art form, presumably it developed later. At one point, one of these early men or women became quite adept at the bne flute or hitting a hollow log with a stick and one of the younger members of the tribe asked them for a lesson. After teaching his/her student a few basic skills, this prehistoric teacher uttered perhaps the most important piece of advice ever uttered, "Practice it slowly then speed it up gradually — if you're making mistakes, then you're playing it too fast." Unfortunately, this first music student ignored the advice and every music student since has done the same. I know, because my teachers have always told me the same venerable advice and I had the darndedest time following it. Now I tell my students the same thing and act surprised when they don't follow my advice.

But it is essential. By practicing to fast, you are practicing playing sloppy and out of controll. You are probably listening to the speed and how you want it to sound instead of how it does sound — this creates a disconnect between what you are playing and what you are hearing. Plus, you are creating an association of anxiety with the music that you are playing. This is the opposite of what we want. We want to be in complete control of the music, executing it flawlessly, hearing what is really happening, and doing it from a platform of complete relaxation and calm. We do this by practicing slowly and getting it perfect before speeding it up.

Learn to read music:

I insist that all students under the age of 16 learn to read music. Once you're old enough to drive, I figure you can make up your own mind, but I still recommend it. It may not be easy, but it only gets harder.

There is a whole world of music out there from which guitarists cut themselves off by not learning the universal language of music. True, we do have tab, which has been around for five centuries, but that is a language unique to guitar — standard notation is the lingua franca. Additionally, there is something about standard notation helps in the understanding of music. Tab is wonderful at showing where something is to be played on the neck, but standard notation shows us what is happening musically. I'm not saying not to learn/use tab &mdash it is useful and ubiquitous. I'm just saying that you should be bilingual.

Get a metronome:

Other than a guitar, this is the single most useful piece of equipment. Music is a time based art. Tempo (the Italian word for "time") is crucial. You must be able to hold your tempo steady — your audience will thank you. And if you want to ever play with other musicians, it will be a nightmare unless you all know exactly where the beat is. One of the biggest things that makes a band sound "tight" is if they all have a strong sense of time. True, their ability to listen to each other's time is part of this equation, but a metronome also teaches this — it teaches you to listen to an external time source and to uncounsiously adjust to it. A metronome may be too much for beginners, but once you get to an intermediate level, it is a must. (See my advice on how to use a metronome.)

Become obsessed with your "sound":

There is more to music than just playing the right notes — how you play them may be even more important. Always be listening to your tone and your phrasing, even if just practicing a scale. If you do this when you practice, then you will do it uncounciously when it is time for the gig. Believe me, there is enought to worry about without having to suddenly think Oh crap! How do I make these notes sound good? What did he tell me? Just make it part of how you always play music.

Play everything "musically":

Even the simplest exercise should be played musically. Like with "tone", if you do it when you practice, you will automatically do it on the gig. When you practice your scales, imagine that you are giving a concert and the audience is hanging on every note. It may sound silly, but try to get inside every note and have it tell a story. If you can learn to make the scale sound musical, then "real" music won't be a problem.