Just playing songs - developer or time waster?

I’ve really had a sea change in my thinking about practice with the help of this forum recently (viz. metronome, chunking). I may also need to rethink the role of what I’d call “play-throughs” - just playing through a song without stopping to fix or focus any particulars.

Please do NOT read-in that I’m saying it’s a waste of time to play music! Irrespective of whatever conclusions are drawn from this thread, I’m sure most of us justifiably want to be playing tunes (for fun, to develop our own musicality, etc.). Here I’m speaking very narrowly about one thing: how much does song play contribute to technical development.

I’ve read three well-known cyber guitarists who recommend from 25-50% of practice time be “repertoire,” which I take to mean play-throughs. (They also discussed more technical work, but as separate from play-through time; one clarified for me directly that at least in her vernacular, play-throughs = repertoire.) And I was bought in to that. I would have told you as recently as November that I really believed that becoming a solid intermediate player is mostly about playing songs.

I would have said that otherwise, you won’t have the foundation of fundamental dexterity upon which to build more advanced skills. And I probably would have cited the Beatles as some kind of proof (they were not known to be too hot technically in their Hamburg days, but they did have a rep of over 200 songs). “Deliberate practice” (for example, most of what’s discussed on this forum)? Sure, that’s essential to cross over into advanced territory - but not without a ton of just playing songs first.

Okay, so that’s me being very theoretical… What I’d really like to hear is plain talk from people who are way past me on the journey (which usually shocks me into reality!). How important are songs to the developing (~ intermediate) guitarist? Did you feel like playing songs was critical for your development - again, technically (not musically) speaking…? Or, as Mike Philippov says, is learning other peoples’ stuff largely a waste of time (from a chops-building perspective)?

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I’ll be a data point for you (datum?)! I don’t want to self-categorize myself as someone that’s “way past [you] on the journey”; I’ve posted a decent amount of videos here already that you can see and judge for yourself. I’ve been playing for a little over 20 years.

Outside of band practice / performing (when I was in bands, a decade ago), I rarely play songs all the way through (even when I first started). The most I do is when I’m chilling with my wife and play along to what she’s listening to (hardcore / emo / pop punk / metal / math rock / whatever). Mostly I just play it by ear, nothing that is honestly too challenging technique wise.

Most all my playing time is just practicing challenging snippets of songs.

That’s where I was going with this. My brain tells me all the stuff in the OP; my intuition tells me it’s more like what you’re describing,

My concern has been that, as I describe in the OP, there’s something important happening when you play lots of songs over and over. But in truth, that’s also an unproven theory. I can fall in love with an idea like that, and then it’s a long tumultuous relationship before the rocky break-up. Trying to spare myself that heartache again;)

So thanks for that response. I’ll be interested to see who agrees (or perhaps disagrees) with you…

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I think there is a certain skill in playing an entire song start to finish (especially if we’re under pressure), that is probably not learned by just practicing small chunks of it and/or other types of exercises.

I suppose people who play live get good at this sort of thing because… they are exposed to this a lot? :slight_smile:

I recall a Di Meola interview where he mentions that in the legendary Guitar Trio tour his chops were improving with each show, and by the end all the three of them were in incredible “shape”. This can be found in Al Di Meola’s “Musician at Google” interview on YT, forgot the exact timestamp.

And I also recall a quote by one of the Beatles where they said that they all became much better performers after a 2-month tour in the US where they had to perform every night… or something like that :slight_smile:

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Are you talking about songs with singing and riffs/chords, or instrumental compositions with multiple solo sections and a different level of complexity?

A lot of this has to do with how you see your creative process and how your muse drives you.

For me, I was really into fast solos and everything, but I discovered along the way that I was more tuned into songwriting, groove, tone, and feel, and that sometimes the solos would go straight over my head (but I would be locked into the song format and fills/changes, buiilds/arrangements, etc.). That’s what I was talking about in another post where I referred to making a “pivot” or two in development. And if you’re self-identifying at the “intermediate” level, you’re leading with the idea that your foundations are a bit flexible and there is room to rebuild as you explore.

If they really are talking “repertoire,” and you want to take them at their word, I would think that would have more to do with building repertoire, i.e.: actual number of songs that you can play through to a performance level in whatever format (jam with rhythm section, solo acoustic, singing/not singing). If I was trying to learn a solo, I would never feel obliged to play intro/verse 1/chorus/reintro/verse 2/chrous 2 just to get to the solo.

But hey, if you want to play “Back In Black” 5 times through to feel the groove, I’m all for it. There is a point of diminishing returns in your practice though – if all you play is stuff in your “comfort zone,” you will definitely end up in a rut. If excess playthroughs do develop something, I would say “endurance” and “focus” is more like it. Those are important. I guess you have to be used to making it through a whole song. I’m a product of school orchestra programs, so I can’t really theorize about that. We didn’t have a choice about making it through a whole piece.

If you do want to focus on something with that, recording yourself with the track and listening critically to the playback can reveal a lot about how your playing is translating to the outside world. It doesn’t have to be complicated – even just hearing back on the iPhone or something will tell you a lot.

As far as learning songs, it really becomes a lot easier after you hit 100 or 200 or so. And that’s not that huge of a number, by the way – you might be able to play back thousands in your head right now, if you’re an avid listener. So what happens is, you start to recognize the chord movements and how the different intervals “sit” against a given chord movement – so, “here comes the V chord…aaaaaand, we’re back at I” – you know, that’s the most simple format of that concept, I guess. As you refine it, it might start to click, and then learning a song that’s not overly complex gets to be a VERY straightforward process. I’m kind of used to the session thing, so charting out a song on the spot is really natural to me. This is where something like the Nashville numbering system can really accelerate your development, in terms of instinctively seeing the inner workings of a song and how the chords relate to each other, and building your own inner “feel” for why a given chord change “works.” And you start to notice things that are vital in the writing/arranging world that don’t show up in the basic “guitar learning” thing – like, when the next change hits, do we “push” it (hit it on the “and” of 4 right BEFORE the bar) or hit it on the bar? No one’s going to teach you what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” there, but I can assure you that whether to push a change or play it straight is one of the biggest production choices that a given moment in a song can have. And, in my opinion, the first step to developing an instinct for that is by developing an awareness for it at such a level that, you know, you’re passively listening (maybe hearing a song in the grocery store), and you pick up on it. Yes, I get distracted by snare drum sounds while I’m picking out fruit in the Produce aisle. Why do you think they call it the “ProDUCE” aisle? :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:

This sort of thing could be absolutely uninteresting to you, or you could see writing/arranging as “where it’s at” or whatever. That’s what I’m saying – we don’t know, and “it takes all kinds,” or however you want to look at it.

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Di Meola might be talking about group-time (the “pocket”), and the Beatles thing might be about confidence/stage presence. Yeah, for sure these are important (for performers), and lots of live simulation (i.e. start-to-finish play-throughs) is a way to go.

Not detracting from that, but looking narrowly at one aspect - improving your dexterity, ‘getting better’ at playing notes - what are play-throughs worth?

Asking better now: at the steep point of your growth curve (I’m wild-guessing years 1, 2, maybe 3) what percentage of your practice time was play-throughs? If you had it to do over, would you do more or less?

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Right, the question is balance. How much of this, how much of that. And it’s important to question (I think), because if you don’t, you’re likely in that ‘comfort zone’ you mention, which is fun but there’s not a lot of improvement going on there.

(I’m also a product of the US public school band/orchestra programs. That’s why I’m still learning the basic-basics;) In fairness, they had dozens of us rowdy kids to deal with, so can’t expect much.)

@gotmixes got me thinking (no pun intended lol), my answer still holds true for GUITAR, but BASS…

I love playing along with heavy groove / feel tracks. Jamiroquai and Stone Temple Pilots come to mind. I’m all about tone chasing (guitar and bass), but I find bass tone so “rewarding”, I dunno why. Anyways, that’s more of a recent development in my playing (last 5-6 years or so).

@Yaakov with your latest question: I think I answered it in my original post, my “grind” time was all little fragments, never full songs. The only time I played full songs was in a band setting. At the peak of that, I’m gonna guess 4 hours of band practice a week, 2 hours of performance a week, and my free time was playing little snippets (anywhere from 1 to 15 hours a week maybe). That being said, depending on the band, the very hard technical sections were varied. Covers of radio alternative, funk metal originals, proggy-hardcore originals, metalcore originals, random Dream Theater covers lol. Honestly ran the gamut from “slow chill chords” to hard.

But anywho, my personal practice time, all snippets. Wouldn’t change that, still do it.

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If I could change one thing, I think I would have taken singing WAY more seriously WAY earlier. The learning curve is so different from the one in instrumental music, and the “self-discovery” thing is literal, so it becomes a battle of…which boundaries are temporary and which are actual limitations? And you definitely make weird noises when you’re learning (or always), and the “instrument” is temperamental, and, if you’re into loud music, then, you know, you make weird LOUD noises at times. But pursuing over-the-top guitar can lead down a path of musical self-indulgence or take you to a cozy “mutual admiration club” – hey, “it takes all kinds,” right? But, for me, it just seems that great songs produced/performed well with solid, expressive vocals is where it’s at, as far as what’s the most musically compelling and what has real potential to find a mixed audience. It’s whatever drives you (or me, or anyone else), or whatever makes you happy. Pro singers are not physically, biomechanically “built” any different from you or me, any more than, well, you know, the fast guitar players. Some people have the potential to hit a note that’s a whole step higher than the other guy/girl, and some people have the potential to go 10 BPM faster at the top end (I mean, already into the “shred zone”). Big deal. If you say, OK, you can do your “dream bar band” and be either the pro-level singer playing solid rhythm and competent melodic pentatonic/blues-based leads, or be either the basic, competent singer playing hot leads, jeez, I’ll take the former for sure, or maybe Door #3, which is “be the pro-level singer/rhythm player playing the occasional lead and getting someone else to take the hot solo.” ALL day! And if I could be blessed to write a song that would touch people’s lives, I would DEFINITELY take that over anything else, musically. There’s a reason why you can literally buy production – for maybe a few hundred dollars, you can get some of the best guitar players IN THE WORLD to play on a recording – but song rights aren’t for sale unless and until you say they are. Granted, it takes production to bring that to life. So producing is like being a movie director – “here’s the script (song), let’s get some cool actors (players) and a great cinematographer (engineer) – are you ready to make a movie?” Sounds like fun…

So for me, learning music at a micro-level provides a window to how elements work at a macro-level. Someone could have an analogous path strictly being a player, too. I’m not locking it into the “production” discipline. Pro session players have the ability to think like arrangers on the spot without letting you know that they’re doing it – they “see things before they happen” when building tracks with the producer, so they’ll do things like leaving holes for themselves or others. A player might know what to do, but it takes a well-rounded player to know when to do it.

This is exactly what I do.

If I hear a metal riff, I might learn it and then write my own version. All technique practice (for scale stuff) is just fragments that I practice stitch together all over the fretboard and do a million fretting variations on it.

The last time I learned an entire metal album note-for-note was Summer 2018 and I burned myself out so badly I can barely even listen to the album anymore lol.

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The more into guitar I get, the more this intrigues me. You can’t watch Beato without getting an itch to write.

Would you say likewise for your first 1-3 yrs (or whenever your most explosive growth was)?

Yep, just scale fragments and small technical exercises over and over. Mostly sextuplet based stuff but some 16ths and quintuplets. No sweeping, no economy, no legato. Pure alternate picking. The variations eventually got more advanced and exotic in scale choice out of sheer boredom.

I spent a year straight doing 3NPS six-string runs as the basis of my technical routine and then proceeded to hit a wall due to a faulty aspect of technique which I’ve since fixed.

I have an entire log of this stuff, what I was doing and when. It’s fun to look back on. Maybe slightly miserable, too. lol

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@Yaakov if you were to rephrase this post to a more meta “how do you spend your time practicing” question, I think @guitarenthusiast brings up a good point which people seem to glaze over: specificity. He actually specified the technique he was using (down to the “strictness” of alternate picking), as well as the subdivisions and notes per string. I really resonate with this, because in my opinion, not all alternate picking practice is the same, nor are all subdivisions or notes per string. This affects their effectiveness with transferability to other phrases. I think I’ve seen @Troy and others echo something similar in that you’re developing a motor pattern for a specific pattern of notes.

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I’m glad you pointed that out, because it would have gone by me. If 16ths at 160 aren’t the same as 16ths at 164, mechanically speaking, then I think I take your meaning that the other distinctions @guitarenthusiast is making are also… well, distinct.

As I’m putting together a better practice plan, that’s helpful to know. I’ll try to incorporate it.


This helps to hear, too. So many things we learn to do these days (outside guitar) take a minute, an hour - maybe, whoa, even a few days! It sets you up for a fall when suddenly you encounter something (e.g. high speed guitar picking) that won’t yield that fast. So thanks for the specificity here, too. I actually find it encouraging to hear that this is gonna take time.

I think tempo differences are not the biggest cllincher; IMO if you can play something clean at 200 BPM or whatever, going down in speed should be easy.

I’ve said it I think a few times so far on the forum, but you should expect improvements to come at a glacial pace. To break down my timeline:

  • Start playing, learn old Metallica rhythms and trem pick everything like mad. Downpick to death, I still try to downpick like crazy when I’m not doing “shred” stuff.

  • Get into Dream Theater maybe 2 years in, try hard to “shred”. Familiarize myself with the 3NPS sextuplets that JP does and the Rock Discipline chromatic exercise, and practice those to death for about 3 years before I feel decent at them. By the time I “get there”, I am pretty over the sextuplets, and start to just work up 16th notes 3NPS. I honestly felt that the 4NPS chromatic 16ths exercise didn’t transfer to 3NPS 16th notes that much.

  • For the last 15 years or so, practice is 90% of the time 16th notes on 3NPS. Been trying lately to break into 2NPS with the occasional one (that Shawn Lane thread I started was me trying to break away from 3NPS).

I make the distinction on 16ths vs sextuplets because for me, being able to feel the downpick on the beat is huge. This is why I already feel not so proficient at hard sextuplet patterns, and never “start on an up pick” or break away from strict alternate picking.

Yes, a timeline with specifics! I love specific (that’s where the secrets are…)

And a metronome had nothing to do with this, right? Would you say it was chunking the way it’s described in other threads here - comfortable speed, drill it a zillion times, watch it speed up on its own…?

The most I pulled out the metronome was after I got into the Rock Discipline chromatic exercise (I actually had the VHS lol). I definitely approached it “top down”… Put the metronome at like 200 bpm, play it hilariously sloppy but trying to accent the downbeats noticeably, and play with the tempo from there. Honestly I don’t think I ever tried it slower than that… If anything I would put it at something ridiculous like 260 to see if I could even remotely catch it. By the time I got into Dream Theater, I had already built up a good amount of speed / endurance from playing lots of trem parts from Metallica (Fight Fire with Fire comes to mind, probably the first thing I learned). Because of that, I assumed (perhaps incorrectly) that my right hand was able to play similarly fast picking parts, it was just a matter of syncing the hands.

For the sextuplets, I think I definitely “chunked” it more to get the feel of switching strings on an upstroke. However, I’m pretty sure I didn’t use a metronome at all for that. Maybe for benchmarking / pushing some high speed just to see if I could hit it?

This is gold. If we could just get all the interview subjects on this site to talk as specific as you, CTC could put together a book and sell fit or a hefty fee.

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They could even have a website where people pay a monthly subscription to access content.