Great guitarist, never practiced... Why it's not a fantasy

Somewhere here in the world of CTC I saw a comment from Troy, similar to what I’ve heard many other accomplished guitarists say. I have to admit, it drives me nuts every time I hear it:

“If you want to know whether it’s necessary to do highly repetitive exercise-type practice… I can tell you for sure the answer is no. I never did that, and I can do many… techniques at, let’s call it, a ‘professional’ level of competence.”

Like a lot of kids attending a U.S. public school during the ‘70s and ‘80s, I got my first exposure to formal music study through the school orchestra (upright bass) and band (sax). Method books and metronomes were the order of the day. In other subjects like math or science, I was a good soldier; did what I was told, brought home the good grades. So it never occurred to me that music should be approached any differently.

Do these exercises, work up your speed. I did as I was told… except with hardly any progress to show for it.

For a long while I assumed it was just a talent thing. I must not be cut out to be really good at this. That was okay; it was still fun to be in marching band at half-time shows! But sooner or later I would again be challenged by a comment like the one above, with someone claiming to have skipped all that ‘formal’ training, and to have found a different, straighter, surer path to successful playing.

Quite intriguing… but also baffling. The claim made no sense to me, because I couldn’t begin to explain it.

That is, perhaps, until now… What follows is a working theory of how these guys actually did achieve proficiency – and without any help from Mel Bay. I hope some of you will help me refine this theory with your responses.

An image that recurs often in player interviews I’ve read is of the guy in his bedroom, copping licks from a recording. What’s happening there? Sounds like a facet of the ‘chunking’ idea that Troy explores in some of his interviews. ‘Getting notes under your fingers’ is one way to put it. What almost none of these guys talks about is drills – not in that early, formative stage for sure – and I don’t recall once seeing the word “metronome” come up in any of these guitarographical accounts.

These guys seem to know intuitively that acquisition of physical skill begins not on the staff but in the hands. When notes and the techniques we use to produce them start to feel right, that’s the point at which we can begin to think about speeding them up. Then, and not before.

So the thesis, in succinct form, is this: fluency/speed will not produce coordination, but coordination will ultimately make fluency/speed possible.

For whatever the reason, drilling (an exercise) and using the metronome (to track progress) go together like peanut butter and jelly. The tendency this creates, however, is for you to be working at the edge of your ability while that ability is still raw. Yes, it’s true that ‘working at the edge’ is in fact vital for pushing the boundaries of ability, But I think that’s only true once that ability has stabilized if not fully matured. And that’s why I think that exercises were actually short-circuiting my progress rather than promoting it.

The key, I think, is this: all those many exercises I performed failed to produce anywhere near the coordination that I hoped they would. Every exercise you’ve ever seen is, in a certain sense, the same – notes on a staff accompanied by little or no instruction. All the real work of creating those notes, at the muscular and neurological level, is left up to you to figure out on your own. (Ideally, a competent teacher would fill in those blanks. But I never experienced that.)

The fallacy inherent in exercise-based practice is thinking that by playing the notes, all the kinesthetic knowledge that the accomplished player has acquired in his hands will also become your own. But it doesn’t work like that. Music exercises are instead something like a barometer – they indicate that you’re able to do something, but on their own, they don’t train that ability.

I think I’ve had an experience of this in my fingerstyle play. It’s really slow going for me learning a new fingerstyle piece. There’s absolutely no question of me rushing the tempo, since it feels like I’m learning the notes the way a baby learns to talk – one sound at a time. But then, when I’ve finally got them down, the piece will gain tempo fairly rapidly. Something I’m learning at the rate of like a measure-per-day is, after a week or so of having all the notes down, nearing or even exceeding the written tempo.

I think the reason for this is that I’m working on a group of activities that can be almost exclusively bundled under the heading of “coordination,” and not letting any thoughts of tempo get in the way too early.

Of course, I invite everyone to respond, but I’d be particularly interested in feedback from those of you who consider yourselves to be proficient players and who, like Troy, never had patience for the whole method-book-and-metronome thing. Thanks for reading😊

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To be fair, I think Troy’s observation here is specific to the mechanics of technique. And, for what he’s worth, I think he’s right - an efficient (mechanically speaking) picking technique is something that either works or it doesn’t, and the act of moving the pick through the strings is something that once you figure it out, you can do awfully quickly and doesn’t require a ton of practice to “master.”

I’m a guy squarely in the other camp, where I did a LOT of slowly-ascending-in-tempo metronome practice in college and never really got my picking technique past “serviceable” levels. There were a few building blocks of what could potentially be a decent double-escaped and two-way escaped technique and as I’ve begun to understand how my picking hand works and why some things are easier than others, I’ve started to make some progress. I think it’s less brute practice, so much as unlearning habits that weren’t helping as well as understanding why things worked and what was going on in my pickinghand.

What, on the other hand, HAS benefitted from slowly-speeding-up, repetitive practice, however, is my fretting hand. My legato technique was always leaps and bounds better than my picking technique, and from an early day I could play legato fairly fast, but the more I practiced (and continue to practice, because you’re never done), the more I began to develop control in my fretting hand. Paradoxically getting better at alternate picking has really jumpstarted that too because it forces your fretting hand to be rhythmically precise, whereas pure legato you can push and pull all you want and it won’t be super obvious.

But, I still do believe metronome practice is extremely helpful for your fretting hand, as well as developing an “in the pocket” sense of timing for your phrasing.

Thanks for that thoughtful response, Drew.

I sort of sense you disagree with something but what you wrote here seems to bolster my theory. So I’m not sure I’ve understood you properly.

I definitely agree that speed-building through repetition is highly effective for refinement of an existing ‘core technique’ - just not as a means of creating technique.

Could you clarify: you’re distinguishing mechanics of technique from what other aspect of technique?..

So, I’m in the other camp as Troy, where I didn’t have a lightbulb moment where suddenly, if at first inconsistently, things got effortless, and I DID do a lot of metronome practice. Sorry if that wasn’t clearer.

I still think what you’re terming “exercise-based practice” is useful, so, in that respect I do disagree with you. I just think it matters in different ways then you’re discussing here.

Technique… Technique gets used in a couple different ways with guitarists, I guess, and one of them at least is pretty all encompassing - “wow, that guy has awesome technique!” is a pretty broad statement, and a very casual use of the term. something like “wow, that guy’s got great picking technique!” sounds more specific but really isn’t. I guess I’m using it in a more - sorry - technical sense, sort of like… oh, not a perfect analogy, but like the breast stroke or forward crawl is a technique for swimmers, or the V-1 or V-2 skating technique is a technique for cross country skiers, or I guess to stretch it even further the bunt is a technique for baseball hitters. A series of mechanical motions that, put together in a certain way, works. Once someone teaches you a forward crawl, yeah it might take a little bit of work to get good at it, but you can get up to speed fairly quickly, whereas if you’re doing a doggy paddle, no amount of practice trying to go incrementally faster and faster is going to make you competitive in a freestyle race. So, I guess by “technique” where I’m using it here, I mean a mechanical solution to a problem. Once you know the solution, you can solve the problem pretty much at will.

So, where I disagree with you, is SOME of guitar works this way, and alternate picking is one of those challenges that when you have a good mechanical solution, works pretty effortlessly. And, I don;t want to put words into Troy’s mouth, and I didn’t see the exact comment you’re citing here, but he’s made similar comments here in the past, and usually he’s talking about a technical challenge when he does, in the sense of a mechanical solution to a problem. In that sense, I absolutely agree with him - once you have the key, that lock isn’t really an impediment any more. Troy’s mentioned Brenden as an example a few times, that he isn’t a guitarist, really, but they were able to teach him a single-escaped mechanic that, inside of maybe 15 minutes, he was trem picking north of 200bpm with. That’s a perfect example here.

But I think a lot of guitar doesn’t work this way. Legato, for example, is something I think you can build speed with reasonably fast, in the span of a few weeks maybe, but any semblance of control takes a LOT of work, and this is an area where metronome practice can really help. Bending takes a LONG time to really get world-class pitch control, and vibrato in some ways can be worse. Even picking, picking fast along a single string can be taught pretty quickly, even single-directional escape playing can (mechanically) be taught reasonably quickly to someone with no bad habits to break provided they learn all the constraints, but really getting fluid with pikcing across multiple strings DOES take some work, and you don’t have to do it with a metronome but yuou DO have to do it with something holding you to a meter - jamming along with an album, a backing track, a drummer, or a click or metronome.

So, I guess I’m saying elements of guitar can be learned very quickly without repetitive practice… But also some really do seem to benefit from structured repetition, and really do take a lot of time to get right. No one becomes a great guitarist with NO practice.

I think there is also some inherent abilities some people have, and ones they don’t. Some people have really good ears and can hear when they are doing something they want. Some people have exceptional muscle memory and can quickly learn a technique and immediately put that into their playing. Some people also have exceptional cognitive memory and can memorize lines, sequences and even theory very easily. Most people I think have a combination of these things at varying degrees. Something I noticed about Troy is he is very perceptive, and that’s another skill set some people have and some people may not. So this combination of things can vary greatly and one person may find one method or another easier for them, or even brilliant at one or more aspects. Other things are going to take work to develop, remember these things are also skills, and skills can be developed over time through practice and also those “light bulb” moments where you “get” it. They may also never happen and that’s OK too, you can always develop your strengths while also working on the things you can’t quite do as well.

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You can tell me whatever you want but Troy is a freaking genius. Yes, he has analytical mind, but it doesn’t give you much advantage in motion related activiries. I mean you may learn all the rules of soccer, or all moves and fight strategy of Mike Tyson but you wouldn’t become Pele or Mike.
He’s like, ‘Oh, so Batio had developed this techinque through years with thousands of repetions? How nice. Let me practice it a bit… voila. Now I have it too’… Are you kidding?! ))


I’ll admit I didn’t read all of this, but I just want to be clear right up front about this. There is no question that I’ve played the same or similar licks probably thousands and thousands of times over the years. That’s just going to happen even for people who are primarily unstructured jammers like me. I don’t know what post you grabbed the line about never doing “repetitive practice”, but I apologize for giving the impression that I’ve never had to repeat anything. That’s definitely not the case. Saying that I’ve “never practiced” is super misleading, and not how I’d characterise my own progression at all.

What (I think) I was probably referring to is the thing where you sit there with a metronome for hours repeating an exercise at a specific tempo, then bumping the metronome. I haven’t ever done that. As a teenager I did lots of what people probably call “noodling”. I didn’t get nearly as far a the average Cracking the Code viewer gets now because I didn’t have much to go on. I plateaued after about a year and a half once my fingers and hands became comfortable holding the guitar and I was able to play basic “80s fast” legato type stuff like rudimentary pentatonics and rudimentary 3nps scale shapes.

It’s pretty obvious to me from everything we’ve seen here that the beginnings of comfortable fast motion do not require thousands of hours of “working up to speed”. Your very own “Technique Critique” thread is one of many, many examples on the forum of a person simply picking up a guitar and doing a correct, fast motion because we told them to try it.

There’s a long road after that, the “long tail”, where you learn to apply that motion to a wide variety of picking patterns and fretboard shapes. It doesn’t have to be repetitive in the “exercise” way, it can be more fun and musical than that. But there is no question you’ll have to try the same or similar things many thousands of time to make them smooth and accurate.

It’s clear that the big bottleneck for you was not physical strength or stamina, and having to work those up slowly over a long period of time like exercise at the gym, as we have often been told. Instead the bottleneck appears to have been mainly not knowing what you were supposed to be doing in the first place, so that those 3,000 hours could be put to more effective use right away.


Okay, think I got you. So let me set this up a little better… I’m thinking about any particular skill as not really being one thing. Thinking back to my kids’ early days, for example, a toddler walking isn’t just about ‘walking’ - it’s a bunch of component skills. All those components could be referred to with a word I like more, mechanics.

So what I think I hear you both saying, @Troy and @Drew, is that any specific skill on guitar (fast tremolo on one string, UPX on a fast ascending run, 2BX while crosspicking, etc. etc.) is about first learning a set of effective mechanics that comprise the skill… and secondly, honing/integrating those mechanics through application of the skill to lots of passages which require the skill.

Fair summation? If so…

…I can picture the first stage of working out effective mechanics; I can’t really picture how the second stage happens without the Hal Leonard nursery-rhyme-as-exercise (e.g. Lightly Row - ughh!) and the metronome (because I’m such a methodical square).

[…and I’m becoming convinced that poindexters like me get stuck because they can’t think outside that square box of theirs;)]

What did it look like when you were in that second honing/application stage…?

Not sure what you’re referring to as the “second stage” but kids learn very complex language without ever doing laborious grammar drills. They just try to construct real-world sentences which begin sloppy and a little incorrect and they gradually correct bits of it over time. Same with guitar playing. You don’t solve your whole motion first until it’s perfect. In the beginning it’s still unfamiliar and a little sloppy. Over the long haul of playing a wide variety of music and correcting bits of it here and there as you see it, it all gets more accurate and smoother over time. Again, like language.

Whatever process you use for this long haul is up to you. I personally don’t like playing guitar unless it’s a little fun so metronomes and exercises are not fun for me. I like a somewhat more unstructured approach of trying to play cool lines and maybe get them clean-ish as I can, then moving on to other stuff. That keeps my attention better.

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I see. Alright, think back to the '80s bedroom, under the watchful eye of David Lee…:wink: Were you cherry-picking licks? (listening to a song… nope, can’t do that one… nope, not that one… ah, this one I could probably manage with some effort). Or did you try to play every bit that caught your ear, even if you could only do a particular thing slowly? Or some other process altogether?

Basically, how were you making decisions about which challenges to accept?..

What are you trying to figure out, what you should do next? I think you should start playing songs and phrases. Whatever excites you. Try not to worry too much about what and how. I think that may be overthinking things a little. I know you got burned by putting lots of time into stuff that didn’t work but that’s not going to happen any more, so you can set that concern aside. Everything will move much faster now so the particulars of exactly what you do and in what methodology may matter less.

Just try and play a wide variety of stuff that works with the motion you’re making. Simple single string repeating patterns are great for developing hand synchronization. Songs with lick ideas inside them that reflect your skill level are great for reinforcing those motions in a very practical, real-world kind of way. Diversity is great.

If there are any problems it will become apparent when you find stuff you can’t actually play, and we’re always happy to address those roadblocks when and if you hit them.

(I used to listen to a lot of Sting… I see I picked up his habit of quoting himself…:wink:

I think I hear you basically agreeing with the above statement, in your own way and words. But I’m glad you used the learning-to-speak analogy, because that will bring out what I’m still stuck on…

Whatever goo-goo or gah-gah sound one of my kids made back in the day wasn’t far off (in terms of cognitive ability, motor control of the mouth, etc.) from the goo-goo’s he was able to make the day before. But so much of what’s attractive in a song is not the next evolutionary step - it’s like ten steps ahead of where you are now.

So I always imagined practice as a way of saying, okay, you’re going to need these various skills to be able to pull that thing off. Let’s work on those skills individually and then, when you’ve got those skills, you’ll finally be able.

That’s the ‘excerciser’ at work - and I see now that that’s not really how it happens.

EVH, SRV, Satch - choose any of the brand name nicknames - hardly anyone did this. I know I must seem dense, but I just can’t conceive of what they actually did! If I was hearing, ‘well, I just stuck with Bob Dylan tunes for a while, then I graduated to Chuck Berry…’ I’d get that. But the Accomplished Player always talks about having cut his teeth on some other Accomplished Players stuff.

I’m not clueless enough to think that they brought home the borrowed Danelectro or whatever and that afternoon started to rip. There’s something going on there in the middle… but no one ever, far as I can tell, clearly articulates what it is.

This I know: they were doing something observable and measurable. It couldn’t have all been ‘mental exercise’ (though that’s also a legitimate pedagogical tool in some musicians’ belts). It’s just so frustrating. I had an interest in fiction writing once upon a time, and so many authors you read on the subject could only talk about their “muse” - it was like they were deliberately trying to mystify the process so that no one else would get it.

This probably reads like a rant at this point, so maybe I should drop it, but I’ll say this one bit more… My 15-year-old has got the bug now. Got himself a cheap acoustic and he’s working on open chords, but he’s struggling with changes. He watched me play and couldn’t figure out how you’d actually learn to do that (apple don’t fall far…:wink:

So I sat down with him and showed him e-x-a-c-t-l-y what I had done. We did ‘push-ups’ (muted-fretted-muted-fretted - to get the feel of the shape); then we did ‘parachutes’ (lift the shape just 1/4" or so off the strings, and come back down); then after we’d done that a bunch of times with two different chords, we started ‘dropping cats’ (lift off from one chord and slowly slowly slowly form the shape of the next, so by the time you’re there, all fingers come down in their new locations at once - like a dropped cat’s perfect four-point landing). [not advocating animal cruelty here; just something I saw once.]

He’s both playing and smiling now - at the same time:)

We’ve got Troy’s genius Magnet-cam; now we need some other recording device built into every beginner guitar sold, to capture what it is that’s actually happening that enables people to learn to play this thing.

Hey @Yaakov, if I understand your question correctly, it’s made of two parts:

  1. What did the greats do to get there?
  2. What can Yaakov do now? :slight_smile:

Point 1 is a fascinating question but very difficult to answer - unless we do the experiment you are proposing and wait 10 years :smiley:

Point 2 is in my (and Troy’s) opinion much clearer: you recently figured out a fast picking motion, and that’s great news! You are past one of the biggest hurdles of picking technique. We also know that your new motion is USX - so for now you can try to work on licks/tunes/etudes whose fast runs are USX - compatible*.

*= if they are not, you can try to make so by exploiting pulloffs, sweeping, and in some cases even swiping (plowing through a muted string)

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If you take the clinical results in books like Motor Control And Learning: A Behavioral Emphasis and books that teach intuitive motor skills like The Inner Game of Tennis, I think you walk away with a few insights.

In terms of motor skill acquisition, the hard assertion is that more learning happens with with more deliberate practice trials; the “Power law of Practice.” I think it’s important to point out that while some great players may not spend a lot of time with formal practice, lets not discount “learning on the job” as a valuable form of time with the instrument.

I think what the metronome accomplishes for a player (outside of rhythm practice) is what researchers term “the gear shift analogy” where we start learning a skill in small disjointed chunks eventually working towards integrating groups of those chunks and then integrating it into a single action. Think of how you might learn a golf swing; I might take you piece by piece through the back swing, the down swing, the follow through. You might practice it slowly until it becomes a smooth integrated movement, and it becomes a powerful, fast swing. Increasing the speed of a metronome starts demanding smoother, more integrated motion from the hands.

I don’t think once you reach X bpm on a metronome all your work needs to be done there. If, say, I’m working on a sweep arpeggio, I may increase the tempo while I work my left hand, but I might notice something with my picking motion and I’ll bring the tempo down to work on that.

I think a teachable breakthrough for a lot of players would be more kinesthetic awareness; identifying, remembering and working towards reproducing what feels good and effortless in the motion of the hands… and some people excel at this sort of learning very intuitively and others don’t until you start coaching it. But it’s a much, much more well covered topic in sports performance than it is in music.


I’m sure you’re right. I’ve actually been meaning to read the Inner Game of Tennis for this reason.

…Okay, @tommo, I’ll let Squier and Epiphone know what they gotta do;)

Thanks to you all. I do appreciate the feedback throughout this thread. Any frustration on my part certainly isn’t aimed at anyone here.

Think now I’ve got a better handle on how to get at what I’m trying to say…

If you’re the never-‘exercised’ type (okay, maybe exercises once in a while - but it wasn’t how you really practiced - seems this might apply to all of you, @tommo, @ScottyB, @Troy, @Drew, @GlassConcert, and @ASTN)…

So you’re listening to an album with guitar in hand, back in the day - did you only play the licks & other bits that you felt you’d be able to nail, at tempo, with not too much work? Or did you take on everything that sounded cool - may the whole solo or whatever - irrespective of whether or not you’d be able to pull it off at the recorded tempo?

Hey @Yaakov, unfortunately I don’t qualify because I spent waay too many hours on silly metronome exercises at a snail’s pace, I was not that good at questioning authority as a kid.

But I do remember that when I could not take it anymore I would start doing “guitar procrastination” in between the boring metronome reps: i.e. kind of mindless noodling on scale shapes, with no specific tempo and some (attempts at) fast stuff thrown in at random.

Ironically, maybe those were more useful than the metronome stuff.

Also, infuriatingly, I remember having friends who instead didn’t bother with exercises and just played songs, and they were progressing much better than me!

So, after discovering Troy’s material 5ish years ago, I decided to work directly on songs and licks.

Why this focus on what others did as teenagers? As I mentioned, I made relatively little progress then.

The big boost was in college when I figured out the downward pickslanting stuff. Within a year my USX technique sounded more or less like it does now. What I’ve suggested you do is exactly what I did. Cement the USX motion by working on phrases that you think sound cool. Integrating those licks into songs will give you real-world experience switching between rhythm and lead, which helps the learning process by forcing you to access the motions in different ways.

I would resist the urge to overthink this stuff and really just get straight to the playing.

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Myself I always worked on music, technique was not something on my mind until later when I started to take lessons. I sat with my tape deck and my turntable and I played the records I liked. I started figuring out the songs I liked early on, Judas Priest, Ozzy, Black Sabbath, Metallica, Anthrax etc. I was and still am more interesting in music than sitting around with a metronome and plunking out exercises. I do a little bit of it when I need to tighten up my timing, but I try to keep good time in my head. I don’t accent pick strokes like other people seem to do as it’s awkward for me and it messes me up thinking about things like that where I’d rather just play the ideas I have. I’ve always been a huge fan of Randy Rhoads (doesn’t seem to be popular around here) and I tend to gravitate to players that have their own style like that. Jeff Beck, Scott Gorham, Steve Morse, Eric Johnson, etc etc. I learned licks and stuff and through that I picked up techniques and I still do that from time to time, but I’d much rather develop my own style and ideas than copy other people or do mechanical exercising. It is very important to learn some theory and scales and triads and whatever else interests you as a song writer as long as that is also a tool that enables you to expand your ideas rather than become the focus. In my case, I’m here because I hit a brick wall and couldn’t play the things I wanted to play because I was missing that perception that Troy has. Thankfully there is this site and his and the teams work which opened my eyes to all these techniques and I’ve spent a little time getting familiar with them, and they’ve already been naturally becoming a part of my playing after learning some of the basics of them. To me it’s like Marty said in his interview, a tool in the toolbox to use to express what you want to do. I also found when you become excited about your ideas and just play/improvise and let things happen naturally and just “got for it”, you’ll surprise yourself and play some stuff you never thought you could do. The body is pretty amazing that way, keep the tape deck running.

Why? Because…

Finally, a kindred spirit!

And it’s only about age incidentally… Like Tommo, I care enough to work hard at this (viz. in a scholastic, exercisey way) but have intuited by now that those dudes with the leather jackets in the smoker’s lounge are actually making way more progress. Okay, if we’re going back to high school, I was still playing my sax back then; but some of those guys were six-stringers, so you take my point Those are the teenagers I’m interested in.

More to the point - I’m interested in what exactly they’re doing. (Or for that matter, you, Troy, back in college.)

I think you’re taking a bit for granted the ease of evolution from the kind of insight you had about pickslanting to actually integrating it into your playing. Not everyone’s as good a scientist as you are. (Though we definitely appreciate that you’re leading the way - in a big way!)

I found two Technique Critique threads with excellent, nuts-&bolts advice from @Frylock (to @JustDave70 and @jpsychc) which is too specific for anyone to screw up, including me. I think they constitute the clearest word-picture I’ve yet seen about what you, Troy, were up to in that dorm room.

Hope I don’t come off as critical; I’m just trying to explain that “cement the… motion by working on phrases that you think sound cool” is far too vague for my Meyers-Briggs type.