September 30, 2011

Talkin’ ‘Bout Practice

iverson Practice

“I mean, listen, we’re talking about practice. Not a game, not a game, not a game – we talking about practice. Not a game. Not the game, but we’re talking about practice, man. I mean, how silly is that?”

Any basketball fans out there will surely recognize the above quote from one-time Philadelphia 76er icon, Allen Iverson. Tough as nails on the court and gifted with terrific skills, The Answer (as he was known) was a two-time MVP winner, an 11-time All Star, and kind of a knucklehead off-court.

AI had no use for practice, not only for himself, but apparently also where it concerned working with teammates (check out the complete transcription of his famous press conference rant here).

We can learn something from Allen, however. We can learn a few things about the concept of practice and what is “useful” versus what is “useless”.

But wait – is any practice really useless?

Stars Versus Mere Mortals

Stars – those impossibly gifted people in their chosen field – seem to play their sport or instrument effortlessly. Then they make matters worse by coming out with lines like, “Yeah, I don’t really practice. I just play the game/songs and that’s the best practice you can get. Besides, practicing sucks.”

Thanks, Star, for making my job even harder. Ugh.

Let’s be clear: Everybody practices in the early stages of development, including Stars. Practice is the only road to improvement.

However, there comes a point at which some Stars feel like they can get by with just playing the game/song (see Allen Iverson). Interestingly though, there are plenty of other Stars who still practice hard on a daily basis to continually improve and have an edge on the competition (see most other professional athletes and musicians).

So I have the impression that Stars who don’t want to practice are 1) lazy, and/or 2) feel content with their current state of awesomeness. Other “mere mortals” – that is, 99.9% of the population, plus those Stars with ambition – keep practicing if they want to keep improving themselves.


This practice is especially important when you need technical skill. Like guitarists. And golfers. Baseball players. Surgeons. Pilots. You get the point. If you’re on the operating table or flying coach, you are praying that these guys and gals actually practice.

This is also why Stars tend to make bad coaches. Because they’ve been blessed with a lot of God-given ability, they tend to lose sight of how “regular” folks get good at stuff: through lots of repetition and time invested studying their craft.

See, playing the game or song by itself does NOT – repeat, does NOT – give you the repetitions you so desperately need to lock fine mechanical adjustments into your muscle memory.

As an example, if you have a challenging riff that occurs once in the middle of a song, you may not want to just play the song and hope for the best when that riff is staring you in the face. The best move here would be to isolate that section and practice it alone. Then you incorporate the riff back into the song. This is a time-tested way to efficiently improve your skills.

Matt Blackett Should Have Trusted His Instincts

Practice Cartoon - Mark Stivers

I actually cringed a little when I read Matt Blackett’s latest blog for Guitar Player.

In his article, Matt details his thoughts on practicing only what is useful and disregarding the stuff that’s useless. His rationale – bolstered by his former teacher, the renowned guitarist/composer, Lyle Workman – is that there are only so many hours in the day. Just practice what you’ll actually use in songs.


On the surface, this sounds reasonable enough: Why waste time practicing stuff you’ll never use? That’s inefficient, right?

While I do believe that there should be priorities in your practice time, I just can’t abide by this “blanket statement” thinking without throwing in a few caveats.

My first big question is, Is there any practice material that is truly useless? (Note: I’m talking about reasonable stuff here, not practicing tapping notes with your nose. That would be truly useless. Unless you’re auditioning for America’s Got Talent.)

For example, Matt details an exercise that he used to perform regularly, with the purpose of synchronizing his hands and building finger independence.

“You basically pick eighth-notes with your left hand fingering 1-2-1-3-1-4, then 2-3-2-4-2-1, then 3-4-3-1-3-2, then 4-1-4-2-4-3. I would do it across all six strings, up and down the neck.”

Apparently, teacher Lyle told him it was a waste of time if he wasn’t going to actually use that stuff in a song.

Huh? So I suppose pushups are a waste of time because you don’t actually perform them in a sport? Lyle might be a fine musician himself, but this thinking makes me want to gag.

Matt was correct all along! This exercise may not be used verbatim in a song, but it has a wealth of applicable techniques and a truckload of value from a coordination perspective. And, coincidentally, that’s why we call it an “exercise”, not a “song”. Let’s explore, shall we?

    1 – Your left hand fingers need to be able to move in every conceivable combination, forwards and backwards, leading with any finger. This is the main function of the exercise. CHECK.
    2 – You need to be able to execute said moves on any string, and across strings in rhythm. This is a secondary function. CHECK.
    3 – You need to be able to execute said moves at any spot on the neck, from the wider frets near the nut to the narrower frets near the bridge. This is also a secondary function. CHECK.
    4 – Your right hand needs repetition synchronizing with the left. Ideally, we’ll be alternate picking this exercise. Moving across the strings increases the “sync effect”. This is a primary function. CHECK.
    5 – Finally, I believe that working through these types of exercises improves the brain’s ability to organize the complex pathways that occur on the fretboard. CHECK (and MATE).

It seems logical that gaining mastery over one complex set of movements will likely translate to an easier time learning the next complex set of movements. As well, the “random” aspect of the moves diminishes and the “pattern recognition” part is enhanced.

The fact is that a multitude of songs will require a skill that this exercise can help develop. Left hand independence and dexterity, as well as synchronization with the right hand, are fundamental skills that apply across the board.

Finger Combos

My favorite set of exercises, Finger Combinations, is a more fundamental version of Matt Blackett’s exercise discussed above.

I feed the Finger Combos to all my beginner students and encourage them to use them as a warm-up whenever they play. They’re pretty simple and they enhance coordination, dexterity, pattern recognition, string-to-string movement and synchronization of the hands for players of all levels. Enjoy!

QUESTION: How do you feel about “useful” versus “useless” practice? Leave me a comment below!


  1. […] as the critical left hand “seesaw” technique, which I covered in the video lesson on Finger Combinations. In addition, there are two little slides that add to the fun. Good basic riff to add to your […]

  2. […] I’ve embedded the video (originally in my article Talkin’ ‘Bout Practice), as well as a downloadable PDF of the exercises in TAB, at the end of this lesson […]

  3. Jack-D says:

    It helps to understand the goal or objective of the excercise. I have performed the excercises you cover here for years as practice warm ups. But must admit, it felt less than valuable at times (difficult to relate to ‘music’ or a song.
    Your explanation of using these to build fingering and fretboard location skills is helpful.
    Taking a moment to establish a good practice mindset before starting is something I find myself coming back to


    • jim says:

      Great points, Jack. Exercises can often seem disconnected from actual music (kind of like doing pushups seems disconnected from playing basketball, for example), so it’s incumbent on the coach to let you know the exercise’s purpose. Otherwise we’re not motivated to pursue it with much enthusiasm. :)
      Cheers, jb

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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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