Saturday, July 30, 2011

Improve your guitar playing by measuring

I recall some years ago seeing the phrase 'What you measure you can multiply'.  At first I was confused. After all I can measure my height but I can't multiply it. As I read on I realized the author was referring to self improvement such as a physical skill, fitness, finance etc. Even once I understood I still felt the idea was a little weak in terms of practical advice until I put it to the test.  My first experiment was to measure my practice each day in terms of actual minutes and sure enough week by week my practice began to increase (multiply). I realized I had done the same with my swimming over the years. Whenever I timed myself I would work at improving my time say over a set distance and every time it worked like a charm. I also noticed how the serious gym junkies would measure everything from body fat to the number of reps and so on. I then started to notice coaches in everything from football to piano measuring everything and anything possible.

The 4 hour work week

In the popular books by Tim Ferris called 'The 4 hour work week' and 'The 4 hour body' he makes a strong argument for using your time effectively so you only have to work 4 hours a week. The books are a worthwhile read but his advice for achieving results can be summed up in one word. MEASURE. Tim is all about getting the maximum result for the minimum investment of time. The idea of the 4 hour work week is to only work for 4 hours a week and get the same result you would working 40 hours. He explains that when we measure something we can improve on it and maximize it. For example if you walk for 1000 steps today tomorrow you can do 1100 steps until you reach your goal of say 10,000 steps a day. You could then improve the time efficiency of you walk by walking stairs and therefore getting the same result in half the steps and perhaps half the time.

How much do you really practice?

Occasionally I will have a student who will say "I don't need to write down my practice times because I usually do 30 minutes a day regardless". The interesting fact here is these same students tend to become disillusion when they don't progress as quickly as they hoped. Measuring your practice even if its the same everyday still has a strong psychological effect. Firstly and probably most importantly you quickly come to realise how many days in a month you miss. Over a year this could be 20% or more. Knowing this fact allows you to be more realistic about your expectations. Secondly writing down your practice feels like an honesty test. When we tell ourselves we practice 30 minutes a day its easy to do 25 minutes and call it 30 minutes. When we have to write 30 minutes in the box and we know we only did 25 minutes we tend to feel a little guilty and know we are cheating ourselves. When we write things down we tend to paint a more accurate picture.

Test the theory

It can at first feel like a waste of time and effort to measure your practice but if you are serious about improving your guitar playing you owe it to yourself to do the A/B test. Spend 3 months measuring your practice and at the end of it see how you feel. Then spend 3 months not writing down your practice and see how you feel. Its best to repeat the test a second time just to be sure. If at the end of one year you conclude that writing down your practice makes no difference then at least you know for sure.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Great guitar players almost never miss a practice session

All guitar students have challenges but what makes the difference in the end is their dedication to practice. Some students may have poor rhythm where others might be unable to clearly distinguish pitch or a thousand other factors. No one guitarist is strong in all areas and therefore need to practice to over come their personal weaknesses. In a sense we are all equal players. On your journey to guitar mastery you will likely meet other guitarists who seem naturally gifted in areas where you struggle but on closer inspection what separates great guitar players from the rest is consistency.

The answer is practice

When I come across guitarists who shine in areas I find difficult I see it as a great opportunity to watch and learn. My mission is to understand how they perform so effortlessly what I find challenging.  In some cases the guitarist had a particular interest in a certain skill. One example is sweep picking. I remember years ago the first I saw Frank Gambale sweep picking and it was unbelievable. His hand hardly moved and in a split second he ran through an arpeggio with what seemed like perfect precision. Frank went on to explain that it took him years of practice to perfect sweep picking so I went home, practiced for a few weeks and got annoyed because it wasn't happening. Even though Frank had clearly said it took years I somehow wanted a result within weeks. There are no shortcuts and it was then I realised that only though years of consistent practice would I ever be able to sweep pick like Frank.

Consistent practice

As a teacher I became passionate about what made great guitar players great and the conclusion was not just practice but consistent practice. In almost every case I found that the more consistent a student was with practice the more quickly they advanced. Some students would have a good week followed by a bad week or two followed by another good week but the result was almost always the same. These students would eventually give up or simply not progress. It was the students who were consistent about their practice that ultimately progressed. Consistent practice allows you to get a feel for your practice. If you do say 30 mins a day you learn how to use that time. If you practice 90 mins one day and then miss the next two days you will not get the same result. The inconsistency does not allow you to form the habit.

Our strengths are our habits

Almost anything you are good at is a habit. E.g. speaking, reading, walking, using a computer, brushing your teeth etc. These are all habits. I know I am pointing out the obvious but I say this because time and time again I see students learning guitar who are frustrated because they are not progressing quick enough yet their practice is inconsistent. The answer to their frustration is clear yet they fail to recognise their lack of consistency. Some students see the guitar like riding a bike. After a few attempts they expect to be sounding like Santana. Unfortunately it takes time to get your guitar to sound like it should. Your main aim should be to establish a consistent practice routine.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What is your goal as a guitarist?

Learning guitar could be compared to taking a long difficult yet rewarding journey. Knowing exactly where you are going and then having a plan will help you to reduce time going around in circles or ending up lost and frustrated. As with any difficult journey there are constant challenges both physically and mentally. The drop out rate on guitar is extremely high because students become frustrated due to their perceived lack of progress. I prefer to see this problem as a lack of CLARITY. When you are clear about where you are heading and have a plan and a timetable of how long it will take you will naturally become more patient. Impatience for the most part is just a lack of knowledge. The 'Are we there yet?' scenario. Think about when you wait for a train. If it you know you have 20 minutes to wait you accept it and perhaps read a book or catch up on phone messages. On the other hand if the train is running late with no idea of when it will actually arrive every minute feels like an hour.

Your Ultimate Song List

Some guitar students will often procrastinate about what kind of guitarist they want to be while at the same time being frustrated because they feel they are going nowhere. If this is you my suggestion is to just pick something. Anything. Pick a goal and starting moving in that direction  Choose a style of guitar or a particular guitarist, band or even particular songs. Any goal is better than no goal at all. When students enroll we give them a blank sheet with 25 lines called the Ultimate Song List. (You can get a free copy from our Student Website) We then ask students to write out 25 songs they would ultimately like to play. The idea is to create a real sense of purpose to their practice. The list is not set in stone and can be updated at anytime. I know when a student has trouble filling in this list that we have a problem that must be addressed before we go any further. In some cases I will even suggest to students to take a break and come back to me when they have 25 songs on their list. In most cases they are back the next week with list in hand.

Getting help

The role of any good teacher or method is to help you firstly to set clear goals and then to map out a plan. The G4 GUITAR METHOD gives students a clear direction that takes into consideration that students will eventually find their own direction. For this reason we focus heavily on the essential skills because these skills will prepare you for almost any style. Rarely are you going to regret learning essential picking techniques, chords, arpeggios, scales, rhythm, reading and aural (ear training).


It was once said that 50% of learning music is listening as this provides the inspiration you need.  If you want some ideas search the internet for all time great guitar players or start by asking family and friends who they like. In no time at all you will discover something new and inspiring and your list will quickly grow. There has never been a better time in history to find inspiration because the Internet has more inspiration than anyone person could ever need.

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Is your biggest challenge TIME?

The number one challenge for many guitar students seems to be finding enough time to practice. Actually time today is perhaps everyone's biggest challenge. Where did all the time go? The typical  reply when asked about practice might be "I had a super busy week last week with a million things to do but hoping for a better week this week".  Interestingly though it seems to be the same people with the same story each week.  My guess is the real issue not so much a lack of time but a lack of time management. Time management like any skill requires practice which in itself requires more time. We are a peculiar species because we have the most advanced brain in the known universe yet we fail to use it to work on our biggest problems. Time is the biggest issue for most so let me get straight to the point and give you my top 3 pieces of time management advice which I am confident will solve your time problem.

Tracking your time

If you ever hear yourself saying you have no time than it's the same as saying you have no money. People who claim to have no time or no money most of the time are really saying they are not managing their time or money. Tracking how you spend your time will reveal where your time is actually going and you may even be surprised at how much time (like money) you waste. Our brains have the ability to automate repetitive daily tasks to the point where we may not even notice them after a while. For instance you might check your phone messages each morning followed by emails followed by a little net surfing and before you know your morning has disappeared. On closer scrutiny you can turn a 2 hour phone/Internet session into 30 minutes simply by setting a time limit. There are even programs now that will do it for you. When we answer every call and every email 5 times a day we end up with 5 times as many replies and therefore 5 times the time is required. If your situation (E.g. You run a business) requires you to answer so many calls and emails you need to hire an assistant. If you can't afford an assistant than you need a new business plan.

First things first

Do your most important tasks first. Write a list of all your tasks then prioritise your list. Next create a schedule and begin with your most important tasks. As mentioned above allocate a set amount of time for each general task. E.g. 60 mins for exercise, 30 mins emails twice a day, 60 mins for guitar and so on. Now write them on to a weekly planner. What most people find is there is not enough time to do everything. While initially it may be disheartening to realize you don't have enough time to master guitar, cooking, a foreign language, get a degree in medicine, become a triathlete, coach your nephew's football team and do a photography course all while trying to keep up a social life and be the most popular person you know on Facebook it is a reality check. Many people never do the above exercise and end up living life as a crisis. Interruptions come from every direction. Phone ringing, emails appearing etc. It is easy to just react to everything as if it were a crisis but the worst part is they never realise that they are simply trying to achieve too much and there is no order to their madness. They just do whatever seems most immediate.

Practice log
- (Download from G4 GUITAR Student Site)

Its important to log your practice even if it is zero. This will give you a measurement to work with. Knowing how much practice you are doing will help you to be honest with yourself but will also inspire you. Students who use the practice log almost always do better. In fact my own student statistics showed that students who use the practice log daily are far more likely to still be learning guitar in 6 months. In fact I could predict with 95% accuracy which students would be still learning after a year based on their practice log. The more they filled in their log the more likely they were to be learning guitar a year later. The reason the practice log is so powerful predictor of future success is because students can see the investment of time they are making and get a real sense of how practice equates to progress. Even when your progress is slow you will feel good about your effort. Progress can at times appear to come in bursts. It's as though our brain requires you to play a particular song or practice a certain skill x number of times before it sinks in. Suddenly one day you realize you can play something effortlessly often after months or even years of practice. The practice log keeps you aware that this is not really the case. Your progress is a direct result of the time invested into practice.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Is success on guitar random?

In recent years there have been quite a few books written on the subject of how random events control our destiny. Books like 'Outliers' and  'Blink' by Malcolm Gladwell can leave one feeling like a victim if taken too seriously. Gladwell describes how your birthday may have played a big role in whether you went on to succeed in life. The year, the place, your nationality, your parents etc all play a role in determining your possible outcomes in life. Add to this the pure randomness of life and becoming successful on guitar for example will look like a long shot. After all how many people ever really achieve their teenage dreams (and don't say your teenage dream was to own a house with a pool)?

The Drunkard's walk

The Drunkard's walk is a mathematical term that refers to a succession of  random events. An example might be the stock market or a weather pattern or a person's life. Basically anything where the next step cannot be 100% predicted in which every new step is random to some degree.This usually occurs where there is a number of variables that can determine the outcome. The term comes from that of a drunk person walking. You never know which way they will sway or if indeed they will be standing when they take their next step. If you drew a line after their walk it would appear random in comparison to the person walking in smooth consistent strides. The Drunkard's walk can also be applied to the life of every living person whether they be a sports champion, a politician, a billionaire, an artist or a homeless person. No one can avoid the random events that occur on their life journey due to the infinite number of variables.

Hendrix and the random events that led him to success

If you read the Jimi Hendrix biography you will quickly see how it was a combination of both planned and random events that took him to the top. When Hendrix was just a young child he would pretend to play guitar on a broom stick. He obviously had a passion for guitar at this early age and despite the fact that he had no guitar was already preparing for his future. Hendrix had many setbacks along the way but a series of random events took him to the UK where he found fame and then returned to the US and went on to become perhaps the most famous guitarist of all time. It would be easy to assume that Hendrix was extremely talented and was therefore destined to be a superstar but without many of the random events that occurred he may have just become another musician playing the clubs across the America or worse.

If randomness rules why bother trying?

Now if randomness plays such a big role in success is there any point in even trying? The answer is yes of course.  The point is Hendrix would likely still have played and practiced just as hard. Even if he didn't become famous he would have been doing what he loved. Random events do play a role in our lives and do influence our outcomes but only a conscious effort to practice will ever make you a great guitar player. Hendrix made a conscious decision to practice for hours everyday and to see as many guitarists as possible and learn at every opportunity. The random events did play a very important role and in this respect you can say Hendrix got lucky but his guitar skills were not the result of luck.

Snakes and ladders

Randomness to me is like the game 'Snakes and ladders'. The aim is to get to the top and reach your goal. The snakes are random events that set you back and the ladders are those fortunate events that push you closer to your goal. If you keep moving toward your goal the odds are you will get there. Some people will be lucky and avoid most of the snakes and stumble across lots of ladders where as others will keep landing on snakes but as anyone who has played the game will testify, with perseverance you will eventually get to the top. The great thing about real life is we are all at the mercy of random events. I believe its what we do when faced with a set back that makes the difference.

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Friday, July 8, 2011

Do you have the X Factor?

The X-Factor is sometimes misunderstood as inborn natural talent. You either have it or you don't. We have no doubt all heard someone at sometime say that such and such has the X-Factor as if they always had it. The X-factor in actual fact is usually the result of years of study and practice and even then often goes unrecognised for years. In the case of actors and musicians they will likely experience hundreds of failed auditions before finally becoming recognized. The classic scene from the show X-Factor where the undiscovered talent seems to just come out of nowhere is far from reality. The show portrays this idea to excite people sitting in their lounge rooms that they too might have the X- Factor.

The truth behind undiscovered talent

Undiscovered talent is likely just talent that took years to reach maturity and shows like X-Factor provide a quick and easy way to reach the public but even so there is usually still much work to be done in terms of a polished performance. Its unlikely that Susan Boyle will be strutting the stage like Madonna or Steven Tyler anytime soon. Pick any successful act today and I can almost guarantee they worked very hard and had more than a few set backs along the way. It's just par for the course.

So why do people fall for the X-factor myth?

When we pay closer attention to the media, Hollywood and Cinderella type stories we can better understand how we get seduced by the myth. In fact I would say we want to be seduced. We want to believe that suddenly with no effort we will possess some amazing talent that will solve all our problems. When I was a kid growing up in the 70's the most popular TV shows were 'Bewitched' and  'I dream of Jeannie'  which had characters who possessed magical powers. These shows while obviously complete fantasy were popular because we wanted to believe them. Who wouldn't want such powers or a relative who could zap the school bully or instantly turn you into a guitar hero? The fact is these shows were just the obvious examples. The more subtle shows were the ones where the character just happens to be a naturally talented singer or dancer or athlete etc. To answer the question, we fall for the X-factor myth because it gives us hope but I am sorry to say it's a false hope. The good news is the truth is in fact a much better deal because for most of us its achievable.

Forget the X-factor and focus on the Why-factor

When someone possesses extraordinary talent rather than assuming they were born with the X-factor simply ask the following question."Why is this person so talented or successful?" This question will lead you to the truth which is almost always about hard work and persistence. Sure some people get lucky breaks and some are born with certain advantages or into favorable conditions but there really is no evidence to support the idea that without such advantages you have no chance. In fact talent is nearly always learned and the result of practice and is often the result of hardships. Once you accept this fact the only thing between you and your talent goal is practice. Forget the X-Factor and focus on the Why and for guitar that means practicing.

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