Get Smart: Learn Everything!

I love to practice.
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I love to practice. Always have. As an 11-year-old kid, I’d be outside playing basketball in the driveway with my buddies with the radio blaring from my bedroom window. If a song I wanted to learn came on the air, I would stop the game, run inside, and try to figure out the last two minutes of tunes such as “Turn! Turn! Turn!” “I Feel Fine,” and “Purple Haze.” When I misbehaved as a teenager, my mom would punish me by taking my guitar away from me for a day.

But in my late teens, I began to realize there was a whole other level of virtuosity the guitar was capable of, besides just accompanying the voice in a song. My five-night-a-week solo gig at a restaurant in Pasadena, California, led me to jazz guitar, because I need to rest my voice occasionally. Soon, I was checking out Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery— which eventually led me into a period of “Full Jazz Immersion.”

That’s when the real practicing began. Looking back, I realize I was one of those guys who put in quite a few eight-hour days throughout my 20s. It was a carefree existence that I look back on with envy, because the business of being a professional musician takes up an enormous amount of time. The luxury of working on your music all day is something I don’t take for granted.

I worked on jazz standards and playing over changes for quite a few years until one day in 1980, I had a life-changing experience. Driving my car near the corner of Riverside Drive and Laurel Canyon, I was listening to the radio when a guitar solo in an Eagles song came on. The song was “Those Shoes,” and the solo by Joe Walsh hit me so hard I actually had to pull the car over. Joe’s playing was so soulful and gut wrenching that I had a stunning revelation: “Why am I limiting myself to jazz?”

I was instantly compelled to re-evaluate my course as a musician. After all, I enjoy everyone from Hubert Sumlin to Jeff Beck to Chet Atkins to Pat Martino to Angel Romero. I like all kinds of music. So, that day, the clouds parted, and a voice from the heavens said, “Learn everything you dig.”

As a result, my practicing changed forever. But with so many musical interests to manage, I made a decision never to compartmentalize my practice time. I don’t spend 15 minutes on jazz, 15 minutes on sight-reading, 15 minutes on country music, etc. Instead, I’ll work on an Albert King solo for a day or two, until I can phrase it exactly like Albert. Then, when I’ve got that down, I’ll choose a completely different style or player, and study that for a few days.

The goal is always to stay interested, enthusiastic, and moving forward—and never to go over stuff I already know. Staying focused and learning what you need to know is the true art of practicing. I like Larry Carlton’s phrase: “Practice what you must, then play what you love.”

Carl Verheyen is a crtically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, arranger, producer, clinician, educator, and tone master with 12 CDs, two live DVDs, and two books released worldwide.