Question for Troy on Practice Time

Troy, just curious since you’ve interviewed so many world class players. Have you interviewed anyone who has not put in 8+ hours a day practice at some point in their career? It seems that almost everyone I’ve researched with extraordinary technique has put in these type of hours at some point. Usually in their teen years. Just wondering if you’ve run into anyone who hasn’t. Thanks!

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@Brendan , you can answer this if you want! :grinning: Would like to hear your insight, as well.

I think Marty Friedman claimed somewhere (I think his Melodic Control instructional), that he only practiced 1h or so a day.

If you have a very clear idea of what you wanna practice and your objectives etc., I think a well spent hour per day will get you very far. I’m not one of those efficient people, but trying to be :slight_smile:

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Along the same lines, I think Danny Gatton was pretty notorious for never really spending a tremendous amount of time woodshedding, and in fact guitar being his second biggest hobby, after hotrodding cars.

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Me? Am I good enough to count as an example??

In general, you have to be very careful with the word “practice”. It’s super vague. To a Berklee person, it might mean locking yourself in a small practice room and actually repeating exercises for hours and hours. Or trying to memorize some very long piece.

To someone else, like me when I was a teenager, what I did was so different, I don’t think I ever used the word practice to describe it. I spent a lot of time hanging out in my room playing records, jamming to those records, taping stuff off the radio, writing riffs, sampling songs with the SK1 and transcribing them, and so on. Then in college I did the same thing in the dorm room with the Yngwie VHS tape. At some point I stumbled across “downward pickslanting” and here we are. At no point did I ever do conservatory-style repetition practice.

On piano, I did similar stuff, but I improved a lot faster. There were no weird roadblocks like there were in picking technique. The most “practice”-y thing I did was learn some classical stuff, like the first page of Chopin’s polonaise in A-flat major, after I heard it on a car commercial. That’s the melody part starting around 42s:

I stopped trying to get better on hard-core technique things like Chopin when it became clear that I would be able to do it if I felt like putting in lots of memorization time. Instead, my interests were more in rootsier piano styles like ragtime, blues, or jazz, and of course radio pop music, songwriting / improvising, so I spent more time sitting there just trying to be creative. It was a lot of time. Probably a couple hours on some days. But again, it was not heavy repetition-type practice.

In terms of people we have interviewed, I feel like some of them have said things to this effect. Albert Lee did say he hasn’t “worked on anything in 40 years”, which is funny. In general, most of the players we have interviewed describe learning their techniques quickly, when they were young, across a few years of time, and then just having it permamently with some maintenance.

Many of those do say they “practiced” for some certain large amount of hours per day when they were very young. But again, I would caution you. What were they doing? Were they sitting there playing exercises with heavy repetition all day? Or were they playing songs and generally tinkering, with lots of variety, like I was? Probably a mix, I would think.

Keep in mind also, when older, experienced players say they did something, do they even really remember exactly what they did? And if they do remember certain things that stick out in their mind, how do we know the causality? Like if we were to go back in time in film them, we might see the hand motions in place already, long before they did whatever kind of “disciplined” practice they picked up later in life.

As an example, I’ve linked to this before, we have some really great footage of Andy Wood as a kid. I think he’s like eight or ten here:

His form is roughly the same as it is now - same arm position, same wrist position, same or similar picking motion. He has no recollection of how he got this way. He had no mechanical instruction. His grandfather who is also in that clip, simply told him to “get them notes clean”, and so he did.

Martin Miller is another of the more technically-minded players we have interviewed, and was an actual Cracking the Code subscriber before he became an interview subject. He flat-out cannot remember where his current technique came from. He didn’t even know he was doing it until our first interview, and he was probably 30 or something when we did that.

In summary, when you boil down all this early-age exploration to a number, and imagine that this number equates to what I’m calling “conservatory-style” practice, that’s a lot of assumptions being made there and we really just don’t have good data on what really goes on when virtuosos learn super young.

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brings up an interesting point.

not that there is such thing as a “bad” question…but in this case the question really only matters in an academic sense or if we have kids starting out or if we happen to be young teens ourselves

the actual question for us adults would be quite different. if we are in our 20-60s or whatever, with full time jobs and other commitments, does it really matter what Steve Vai did as a 12 yr old over his summer breaks?

we dont have the luxury of the super plastic kid brain…BUT we have the advantage now of more of a roadmap than what Martin or Andy or Steve had.

so in a way for our answers to get better our questions have to get better. So rather than “how much should I practice”, it might be better to qualify some of it such as: “I want to be shredding 3nps scales this time next year. I have 10 hrs per week to practice, how should I BEST spend that time”

phrased like THAT we might start making some headway

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Thanks for the response, Troy. How about instead of “practice”, I just say, “hours spent with the guitar”? :grinning: Yes, I agree. The word “practice” can mean different things to different people. I would still use the word “practice” to describe what you did. But let’s not get hung up on the word. What I’m talking about is determined, goal-oriented practice.

Michael Angelo Batio, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Rusty Cooley, (and the list goes on) have all put in those kind of hours. I would venture that everyone mentioned so far in this thread has put in those kind of hours. No matter if you call it “practice” or something else.

I’m just wondering if you’ve ever run into anyone that hasn’t put in those hours and is comparable to any of the guitarists listed so far. And if you’ve run into anyone who has done it later in life. I’m sure there are examples. I just thought you may have some from your contacts over the years.

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Actually, I think we do need to get hung up on the word, a little bit! I think this is an important topic so I put together a blog post and linked it it to this thread:

The short story, and one of the many reasons I think this matters, is that some people have such wildly different concepts of what “practice” even entails that one person hears “8 hours a day” and thinks it means something totally different than the next person.

Even when I was a kid, I was never actually playing continuously for huge amounts of time. Like you, I just thought practice was like “guitar hangout time”. It wasn’t until we started putting products out about four years ago that I even learned that people would actually do continuous repetitive practice for hours at a time. It was really an eye opener.

Then of course we interviewed Terry Syrek who is has focal dystonia, and he told us about these 10-13 hour practice marathons he would do at Berklee. I mean, crazy stuff.

Edit: So anyway, what I mean here is that, yes, if these 8-hour practicers you’re referring to really and honestly played continuously for large portions of that time, let’s say, at least 50%, then I personally never, ever did anything like that.

The closest I’ve come is the last four years, because it’s a full-time job now. But even then, I would point out that my biggest breakthroughs have still always been the random half-assed kind, where I’m just trying stuff out like back in “bedroom shredder” days and something accidentally works. It takes time to have those little moments. But it’s generally not super-focused repetitive practice time. It’s more of the, hey let’s try something weird for five minutes kind of thing, and all of a sudden you hit on something.

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NBA players spending HOURS doing nothing but shooting free throws

PGA tour players doing 2 hours on the range AFTER the round

Olympic weightlifters doing 2 sessions/ day…6 days/wk…for years

how good do you want to be?

a lot of the “wow, where did that come from” breakthroughs come after you take a break and let your brain sort thru the backlog of long hours of practice…but without the backlog the brain wouldnt have any problems to solve

I never defined practice as “guitar hangout time”. I just used “hours spent with the guitar” because you were suggesting that the term “practice” was too subjective. I was more joking than anything. And I agree, but that was never my point. I thought my question was pretty straight forward, but apparently not as it still has not been answered. I appreciate your posts and the thought you put into them, so please don’t think I don’t. But the direction this has gone was never my intention.

I scanned through the blog post. Will read it in entirety when I have more time. Looks like you made some good points and I will comment more when completed. Thanks for your time spent on this and your comments and blog post.

Yes, but their careers usually end quite early because their bodies are worn out.

we have to listen to our bodies and be smart. We are capable of more than we give ourselves credit for

seems the main ones who suffer hand injuries are the HARD pickers and those who use heavy strings with lots of hand strength employed in their styles (SRV and Phil Sayce have had issues afaik)

Sorry, Troy! Looks like you answered my question in the first paragraph after my initial post in your blog.

The short answer is that the players we have interviewed almost universally describe a period of intense mechanical learning early in their life. They sometimes make comments about a large amount of time per day they remember working on their technique. But even if they don’t always put a specific number on it, it’s clear that that the dedication and focus is significant.

Thanks Troy and glad I was able to spark a discussion and blog post. I think this is an interesting and important subject regarding “practice”. I’m still working my way through the blog post.

The only thing where I’d get a little leery here is these are all fairly “macro” movements - large movements involving large muscle groups working in close concert with each other and where strength and building muscle mass is usually a direct objective. And repetitive strain is extremely effective at building muscle mass.

Guitar, meanwhile, is a much more “micro” movement - small, fast, accurate movements that depend very little to not at all on strength, but largely on dexterity and flexibility and accuracy and speed and endurance. Really, control more than strength.

I don’t believe guitar ability - outside of things like controlled bending, especially on heavier strings - really requires much muscular strength to do well, though I’ll happily be challenged on this one if someone feels differently. That seems to rob a “doing reps” approach of its main benefit. The main detriment, then, would be repetitive stress injuries, damage to ligaments and joints from doing the same movements over and over and over again. That can largely be addressed through form… But it IS a risk.

I’m not sure what the answer is here, and I’ll often use lessons I’ve learned as a cyclist to inform my thoughts on practice… but at the same time that’s more of a matter of convenience and personal experience than anything where - for the reasons above - there’s much in the way of logical evidence why it SHOULD be so.

I’m kind of hesitant to embrace “brute force” practice regimes for those reasons. Sure, ballplayers will spend hours in the batting cage, NBA players will stand there and shoot free throws over and over and over again, and I’ll go out and do hill repeats on my bike to climb faster… But we don’t have vascular surgeons doing 12-hour sets six days a week in med school, we have them studying and doing much shorter practical drills. We do some drilling to teach handwriting in schools, but you’d never expect a student to do more than an hour or two of cursive work at a time. In art school there’s extremely little repetitive drilling, and the focus is almost entirely on doing. Idunno. It seems like fast and delicate movements don’t benefit from mass quantities of repetition for long periods of times in the same way bench pressing for you or hill climbing for me does.

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Sorry for getting carried away here! I think the hard part about your question, and the reason it’s worth a blog post, is that we really can’t know how much actual practice these players did, because what they call “practice” could be so different. There’s a huge difference between what Terry Syrek did and what I did, for example. They are not the same activities, and they don’t produce the same results.

To put it as succinctly as I can, if you want to know whether it’s necessary to do highly repetitive exercise-type practice for at least several hours a day to learn the picking techniques we have studied, I can tell you for sure the answer is no. I never did that, and I can do many of these techniques at, let’s call it, a “professional” level of competence.

That’s probably not going to stop future all-time-greats from being near a guitar for many hours a day when they’re young. As we learned from our interview with Ellen Winner, genius types are internally motivated to the point of obsession. But just because they’re around a guitar for that long still doesn’t even mean they’re actually “practicing” in the sense of hard-core drilling that lots of people mean. It probably encompasses a range of activities that contribute to other aspetcs of their skills beyond simply technique, including harmony, ear-training, and general musical knowledge.

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Agreed. I don’t see how anyone can put in those kind of hours on only scales, exercises, etc. You have to give your hands a break and those aspects you listed can still be considered “practice” to many. I believe both Joe Satriani and Steve Vai have stated that their “practice” included these elements.

Great subject! And thanks for all your time, effort, and wisdom, Troy!

Hey gman0101,

We had a big discussion on this in a fairly similar thread to this which you can find here:

The thread is titled: Is There An Optimum Number Of Practice Hours A Day

I started the thread, so just so you know, I’m not using the word “practice” in the sense of only practicing exercises. In fact, Yngwie Malmsteen said he never “practiced” in that he never did exercises. He played 8 to 12 hours a day and that’s what I’m referring to as “practice” in the thread I linked. I use practice in the sense of time spent playing guitar while they were pursuing becoming great at the guitar. Despite over 100 replies to the thread, nobody was able to cite an example of a legendary virtuoso level guitarist who didn’t practice at least 4 hours a day and that’s a very conservative estimate, since most on the list in the OP claimed to have spent more like 8 to 12 hours a day playing guitar in the process of becoming great.

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Sorry to give a crappy simplistic view, but in my mind the answer is:

  • Enough quality practice to see improvement with some regularity

The emphasis is on the ‘quality’. I have been playing guitar for 20 years and my picking has improved greatly in the last few years during which I have had 2 children, bought a house and new job etc - all of which means I have severly limited guitar time. CtC has been instrumental in that it has allowed me to practice with higher quality and awareness, so that an hour practice now is worth 3 of what I was doing before.

So I suppose it is one’s ability to accurate gauge the efficacy of their practice which would be a key insight. Its very easy to get into the mindset of “I have put my hours in today and hopefully that will put me in good stead to see some inprovement tomorrow”, only to realise you have been doing it for 6 years without great success.

I am a firm believer that a lot of hours are needed to reach the skills of some of the above guitarists and you cannot do it quickly on less than a few hours a day, but the higher quality focussed practice on stuff that is proving to work is what is important.

In one of the Andy Wood interviews, he wouldn’t hang around doing the same thing if it wasn’t working, he gave it a good enough go to find out and then tried to augment what he did until he hit upon the result he wanted. @Troy has also echoed the importance of this ‘trial and error’ method (if I recall correctly).

And finally to quote Yngwie, “If its good… its good”

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To me, this comment on the “young Andy Wood” clip in the blog post is a mic drop moment:

Going to need to some clarification here Troy.

From this thread, you said:

“I had some mild forearm strain maybe fifteen years ago when I was trying to figure out how two-way pickslanting worked and came home from work every day and did that every night for hours. What is “that” you ask? Good question, I didn’t really know. I probably just repeated scales forever. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, or what I was doing to get there. I stopped playing for a week or so, and the strain went away. That’s about it from guitar playing. More recently, video editing has been a real killer - thousands of mouse clicks and drags on a trackpad will destroy forearms. I got an ergonomic mouse and that’s much better now.”

Not trying to call you out, but I distinctly remember this post because it stuck out in light of you being consistent in advising against that sort of practice. I mean, you said you never did that, but then above you said literally the exact opposite.

Source: Injuries from working to change technique?

For what it’s worth I’m from the school of thought that Claus comes from. 8 hours a day is absurd but let’s not pretend you’re getting anywhere with 15-30 minutes unless you’re already an advanced guitar player with the ability to make every single second count.