July 12, 2011

Thank You Sir, May I Have Another?

Kevin Bacon paddle

This post is all about repetitions, or “reps”, for the cool cats.

You need more of ’em. When you think you’ve done enough, do a hundred more.

I’m not kidding.

I get the impression that most folks trying to learn a skill – say, how to play guitar, for example – think a couple repetitions of a new phrase or chord or strum or scale is enough.

Then you move on to something more, you know…fun! Apparently, to some guitarists, getting your reps in is akin to torture…

There’s Fun and Then There’s Fun

Some people will say that just playing anything – at any level of competency – is good enough for them. After all, it’s fun! But honestly, I think that’s just laziness talking. And in my world, the fun only lasts so long when what you’re playing sounds rough.

To keep things fun, you’ve gotta get better and establish some skill. And skill is earned through repetition and repetition alone. So if you get nothing else from this post, please get this:

Playing guitar is first and foremost a physical skill.

You can know all the chord vocabulary. You can recite the Beatles’ catalog by heart. You can even tell me the formula for every scale and mode in existence. But if you can’t physically execute any of it, who cares?

“I Know Stuff, JB!” – a typical scenario…

ME: “Do you know how to play the A minor pentatonic scale in 5th position?:
STUDENT: “Yeah, I know it.”
ME: “Great, let’s hear it!”
STUDENT: sounds of crashing and/or burning…
ME: “I thought you knew how to play it.”
STUDENT: “Well, I know it…I just messed up some of the fingerings. And my picking got weird. And your awesomeness makes me nervous.”

(For the record, my awesomeness is truly something to behold. But I digress… :))

This is usually when I break out the Zen master stuff. Any of my long-time students who read this are going to roll their eyes in three..two…one…

“To know – but not to do – is not to know.”

The Zen master knew something important: the ability to physically execute a skill is to truly know it, and to know it at a deep level. Knowing at a deep level makes you powerful, grasshopper!

Command Central

So you need lots and lots of repetitions. Make that, “correct repetitions”, since crappy ones won’t do anything but make you good at anything but playing crappy.

First, you need to be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish, and you have pay attention with enough focus that you can correct any problems along the way. Then you will (hopefully) have correct repetitions.

Kid Moonwalking

Correct repetitions help you to groove the movement pattern and ingrain it into your nervous system. The end result of ingraining that pattern is what we usually refer to as muscle memory.

Muscle memory is a powerful thing, as you may be aware. All the skill involved in driving your car = muscle memory. Or dribbling a basketball. Or buttoning your shirt. Or moon walking.

Muscle memory is simply your nervous system firing more efficiently, sending out the commands to your fingers/hands and directing them to the correct spots accurately.

When your muscle memory is really cooking, the actual thought process becomes almost secondary. At that point you only need to think “concepts”, not “movements”.

A last point – but a critical one – about muscle memory: If a particular movement is new to you, speed is not your friend.

Playing too fast, too soon, will actually hurt your progress because 1) you will not allow your brain to absorb the correct patterns, make its calculations, and send out the correct commands; 2) you will make more mistakes as a result; and 3) the muscle memory you are trying to develop will suffer due to your inconsistency.

So aim for consistent results at a slow to moderate tempo first. Speed is only appropriate when you have a strong command of the movement; then you can challenge yourself by making the movement faster and faster. Be smart and keep your ego in check.

Takeaway Points

1 – Be perfectly clear about the movement, positioning, etc. that you are trying to accomplish.
2 – Pay strict attention so you can be sure you’re doing it correctly. Make your adjustments as necessary.
3 – Perform many repetitions of the movement, thereby developing muscle memory. Check your ego and adjust your speed as necessary.
4 – Rinse and repeat tomorrow.

When first learning a new chord or lead guitar lick, you will likely have to repeat that skill numerous times in the first week. By numerous, I mean, like, “hundreds”. You can get by with less after that, but just remember, like most things, you use it or lose it.

It’s Mirror Time

Sometimes a guitarist’s lack of repetitions is a matter of laziness or boredom. Sometimes it’s ignorance – they simply don’t realize that they should do more work. And sometimes it’s a matter of ego, where they think they’re plenty good enough and they’ve done enough. Only you can be the judge of your own work ethic.

But remember that you are working toward the noble goal of being a good musician. And you are blessed with the ability to play. Don’t squander your opportunities to be your very best. Don’t settle for just “okay” when “awesome” is within your reach! Humble yourself and realize that there is always room for improvement.

Then give me another hundred reps…

QUESTION: How would you grade your practice habits? Do you tend to settle for just “okay” or are you the type that needs to get your reps in? Leave me a comment below!


  1. […] this concept speaks to you, go back and check out my earlier post, “Thank You Sir, May I Have Another?” It’s all about correct repetitions, building muscle memory, and how speed is not […]

  2. Joe Richards says:

    I definitely have to do more reps. Just by reading your blog made me think about the way I play, and how much I need to know about the rifs. It made me think about playing my guitar and the way you word it gave me hope that I can do it. Thanks, Jim.

    • jim says:

      Fantastic, Joe! Remember that it’s a virtuous cycle: more reps = more skill = more fun = more reps, etc. Pick your most difficult stuff and get some reps in every day – you’ll be amazed at the results. Cheers, jb

  3. Omar says:

    Great points. Just one addition: pay attention to the fingerings while ‘repping’
    You want to muscle memorize the way that will ensure the least mistakes when performing live. Choose an easier path from one note to another over a complicated path. If necessary unlearn the old pattern.

    • jim says:

      Absolutely correct, Omar – quality reps build quality muscle memory that you can rely on, especially when performing live. Next level skills: practice playing those same phrases or chords with OTHER FINGERS just in case your nerves take over and you fumble the original fingerings! I call this “Plan B”. :)

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Jim Bowley is a professional guitarist, teacher and blogger. A native of Baltimore, he has over 30 years of playing experience and an advanced degree in Music Education from Towson University. Jim lives in Bel Air, MD where he maintains a thriving private lesson studio and performs with his band, Remains of Radio.

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