Matt Blackett on Practicing


I recently had the good fortune to attend the Whistler Jazz Fest in British Columbia. I sat in on all the master classes there, which were packed with great information that was dispensed by incredible guitarists. One recurring motif was the importance of practice. Practice your brains out. Hit it every day. "If you're in a rut, sit on your butt" (which presumably means practice your way out of that rut by sitting in the woodshed). I found it very inspiring because, even though I play all the time, I haven't really practiced in a while. I returned home invigorated and looking forward to woodshedding again, which I've been doing as often as I can and it feels great.

Here's the thing, though. As much as I don't want to contradict any of the instructors in Whistler, I did hear a few of them recommend something that I must take issue with. In a few of the classes I heard variations on the following themes: "This is just a warm-up exercise." "You'll never actually use this." "You can just play through these patterns mindlessly while you're watching TV."

I do not agree.

There was a time, however, when I was really into warm-up exercises, picking exercises, stretching exercises, and other things that didn't necessarily sound good, but were great (or so I thought) at syncing up my hands, strengthening my fingers, improving my speed, etc. I was at a lesson one day, playing an exercise that I had learned from an old issue of GP. It was intended to improve left-hand independence as well as alternate picking. 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. How valuable is that, right?

My instructor at the time, the great Lyle Workman, came in while I was playing it. He said, "What are you doing?"

"This is a warm-up exercise I like to do."

"When are you ever going to use that?"

"Well, I'm not. It's just to sync my hands up."

What Lyle said next made a huge impression on me and, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, changed my life:

"I don't know how many hours you have in your day, but I don't have time to practice stuff I'm never going to use in a song."

From that moment forward, I've tried to only practice things that I can use. No more chromatic scales up and down the neck. In fact, no more scales of any kind up and down the neck for the most parts. I'd rather take bits and pieces of scales, fashion them into hopefully musical sounding phrases, and practice those in different keys and different rhythms.

I'll practice nailing bends perfectly in tune: half-step, whole-step, and minor third bends on all strings. Bending in tune is something I can use in any song.

I'll drill chord scales, particularly voicings that go beyond the typical 1-3-5, because that not only helps me navigate any changes more accurately but it can also be a cool songwriting tool (harmonize a scale with 1-3-4 voicings or 1-4-5 and you'll see what I mean).

Lastly, I will practice songs—my own and those of others—because a song is something you can pretty much always use in a song. Know what I mean?

So practice, practice, practice, but only things you will actually use. There are not enough hours in the day to practice anything else.