What you can’t do...
“Practice what you can’t do, not what you can” is advice I’ve received and given over the years, so much so that it felt very wrong to question it. But when I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Stevie Vai a few years ago, he dropped some pearls of wisdom that shook my practice beliefs to the core. What I want to share with you here is some food for thought that I wish someone had shared with me when I started to get serious about guitar.
The conventional wisdom of ‘practicing what you can’t do”’ makes perfect sense in many circumstances. If your timing is no good you need to work on it. Don’t know your scales? Learn them. Never understood harmony and theory? Study it. But there is one area in which I believe it may be better to work on developing your strengths than battling your weaknesses, and that is technique.
Your technique can deeply shape your playing style and character and it was this area where Mr Vai said that, rather than struggling with techniques that he found difficult, he preferred to further develop those that came easily. Whether you are a fan of his music or not, you can’t deny that he has a unique and identifiable voice on the guitar – one he created by developing his strengths to their extremes.
Around the same time I’d been talking with fusion virtuoso Scott Henderson about how he developed his style. He noted that much of it came from his inability to pick fast, finding it difficult and cumbersome but he had greater fluency and got the notes he heard out easier by using a lot of legato – again, his technique preference played a big part in the creation of his style.
I started thinking of other examples of easily identifiable players… Jeff Beck uses fingerstyle for rock. Eddie Van Halen’s characteristic tapping and tremolo picking, or Yngwie Malmsteen’s speed picking and sweeps. It seems that one of my personal favourite players, Eric Johnson’s style also has deep roots in his picking technique choices – and the list goes on. It’s a fascinating thought path to explore on your own.
Most great artists focus on what they can do and make it part of their unique voice. It’s a completely opposing view to ‘working on what you can’t do’ but it clearly works – if, that is, you want to be an ‘artist’. And I think that’s where the distinction lies. To be a ‘session’ guy you need a diverse range of styles and techniques to draw on; to be an artist you need to define and refine exactly who you are.
The guitarists that make it to the top of the tree are usually brilliant at what they do: being themselves. I’m pretty sure we don’t want Mark Knopfler be a brilliant two-handed tapper, or David Gilmour to be a master sweep picker. We want them to be themselves and I hope this article might inspire you to further explore who you are, to develop that and become the best you can be at being yourself.
Safe travels! Check out www.justinguitar.com/ gtmag for some example routines and links to exercises you might like to try out for each section!