An Analysis Of 'Suck'

There are lots of ways to improve the quality of your practice-time-effectiveness and thus your results.

Ultimate Guitar

I received the following e-mail from a young guitar player about 9 or 10 months ago

My friend and I started playing guitar at the same time, the very same day even. We both practice about the same amount of time, but he is already so much better than I am. His playing is getting better and better at a faster rate. Mine is lagging behind. I do make small improvements however I become frequently frustrated cuz I try just as hard as he does. Sometimes I wonder if he is just more talented than I. To reach his rate of growth I would have to practice 10 hours a day as he only needs 1 hour. I cannot dedicate 10 hours per day so what can I do? Bottom line -- I still SUCK after three and one half years of playing six to seven days a week!

I know both of these guitar players and can verify that the friend's progress has been more significant than the author of the email above. And everything written in the email was basically true (at the time it was written). I gave this guy two main pieces of advice:

01. Do NOT compare yourself to your friend. Do not let your friend (or anyone else) set the standard for you to aspire to. One should have fixed in his/her mind the vision of the type of player one wants to become. Generally speaking, you don't want your next door neighbor to be the definition of your ideal long term vision. If I could magically take your friend's skills away what you feel better about yourself simply because he was not as good as you? Keep in mind that your skills would be the same as they are now, the only difference is that your friend's skills were taken away or diminished. Your attitude about your own progress should be centered completely around where you are in the journey to realize your goals.

02. After you have reconciled your thoughts with the first piece of advice, you are ready for the second. In general, the greatest players are not great because they were naturally talented. In every case, truly great players become great (and make a lot of progress in relatively shorter periods of time) because their practice habits are EFFECTIVE. You see, they not only put in the time and effort as you do, but that time and effort is focused and effective. It appears that your practice habits have not been effective. I do not believe you lack the necessary potential to make significant progress. You just aren't being effective. You seem to believe that you CANNOT. I propose that you can, but that you simply HAVE NOT. Certainly you are trying, but the efforts are bearing little fruit

I went on to tell him a story of how I generally approach increased practice effectiveness when working through a specific challenge (which all players at some point will face), read it below. There are many reasons why some players make less than average progress while spending a decent amount of time practicing. In most cases however, the problem is almost always the same.

I had suspected his lack of progress was due to ineffective practice approaches and habits. He thought the equal time he spent should have brought equal results. But that is a fallacy, a myth. Time is like a road. And there lots of different types of roads such as: dirt roads, gravel roads, brick roads, concrete roads, tar roads, and auto racing tracks (roads). His friend was driving (practicing) on a high quality road that can enable the car (his guitar playing) to move at the fastest pace. The email author was on a road made of loose gravel, rocks and littered with pot holes. The poor quality of the road is similar to poor quality practicing habits. Poor practice habits put one on a bad road and therefore the progress will be rough and slow. Effective practicing will put you on a race track where maximum traction and conditions are there to allow the maximum rate of progress.

I once had a new student (named Chris) who came to me because he couldn't play Stairway to Heaven smoothly. In one of our first lessons together I asked Chris to play it (Stairway to Heaven) for me, 3 consecutive times. Each time Chris played the beginning of the song he could not make the chord change between the 3rd and 4th chords in time and cleanly. He practiced the song for months but could not get to the fourth chord (D/F#) correctly. I asked him some questions about how he was practicing and then I asked him to practice the song for 15 minutes right here in front of me and I would just sit back quietly and listen. After 15 minutes of that, I could see the problem was not that Chris lacked the potential to play it. It was clear that he had been struggling with this song because of ineffective use of his practice time. I noticed several minor problems that he was doing over and over again that was creating obstacles for him. But the greatest problem wasn't in the way he attempted to play it, it was in his approach to practicing it. In those 15 minutes he practiced in front of me, he played the entire first section of the song. Which meant he actually only practiced the hard part 21 times (yes I was counting!). So we spent the next 15 minutes ISOLATING THE PROBLEM AREA and just focused on that. That meant he wasn't allowed to practice anything he could already do well (which was the rest of that section of the song). I made him focus on only the difficult chord and position change. In the course of 15 minutes he had practiced this problem spot 536 times! (Yeslike a nerd, I was again counting!). In 15 minutes he could still not play it perfectly yet, but significant progress was made. I told him to practice in this exact same way for 15 minutes a day for the next 7 days. When he came back for his next lesson, I asked him to play the entire section of the song and he played it perfectly every time.

What changed? Well actually he practiced the song LESS (in terms of numbers of minutes per day) but he did practice the problem area more than 3,500 times in a total of 1.75 hours total during the week. What has happened was he got off the pot-hole- gravel-road and moved to a race track. Since then he has learned to practice all extraordinarily challenging things in this wayand the results show in a huge way. There are many reasons for Chris's huge long-term success as a musician, but certainly the effectiveness of practicing is close to the top of the list. Chris has become a virtuoso guitarist and professional musician. You can hear the results for yourself here.

There are lots of ways to improve the quality of your practice-time-effectiveness and thus your results. To get started, I recommend the following:

01. Before practicing, have your goals in mind before you begin and make them specific. Don't just say, I'm going to practice Stairway To Heaven, say, I'm going to work specifically on getting to that D/F# ONLY for 15 minutes, or I'm going to practice the 7th and 8th measures of the guitar solo for 12 minutes.

02. When practicing ALWAYS ask yourself if you are using your practice time in the most effective ways.

03. Video record yourself practicing for 30 minutes. 1 week later watch the video recording and ask yourself this question, If was a teacher (watching my student practice for 30 minutes, what might I suggest to him/her to improve the quality of the practicing I am observing). Then implement those suggestions the next time you practice.

For further reading: check out Tom Hess's instructional web site. Tom Hess's world tour dates are posted here.

Copyright 2006 by Tom Hess. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

113 comments sorted by best / new / date

    i know you said not to compare yourself to your neighbor or friend but im roomin with slash so is it okay?
    i usta think this dude was way 2 full o himself, but hes finally coming out with sum really insightful articles. its tru that most ppl dont practice the rite way,(like me for like 3 years). nicely done.
    very good article, ive got the same thing that at school, ive been playing for 4 years now and he said he has been playing for a year and he is better than me, it just doesnt make sense. But he has guitar tuition and i dont so he must have a reli good tutor then. Im still jealous of him now, the wanker! lol
    I sell tires. It's a noble art... I think this article has a good point. There's my opinion, go rip it all up.
    elgranmapache wrote: This article is really crappy.When you finish reading it it seems like it had said almost nothing at all
    lambchop wrote: dude you just suck you should probably quit right now save yourself the tauntings on stage and wait for my cd to come out so you can see how its really done
    these guys raggin on you are ridiculous ma it was a great article ....and as for those guys pissing about it they need to quit guitar and go do something useful to the world i.e. selling tires
    Amazing article. It gives me something to tell some of my friend's when they jam out with me and start telling me how much better I am than them and how much they 'suck.'
    dude i think you just have to be dedicated to what you do you also have to love playing some people are born with natural talent and some have to develop it keep at it!!!
    In general, the greatest players are not great because they were naturally talented."
    I don't agree with that one bit..
    Very good stuff. My rhythm guitarist in our band will definitely be reading this ASAP.
    Nice article. Although it may of come across as obvious to many people (such as myself), it was still a well-written piece of advice for any aspiring guitarist. Plus, even though some people merely believe this to be an advert for his site, he has the right to after writing an influencial piece like that doesn't he?
    monkey of doom
    Guitaring is not about competition. The point is to make some music. I once went to an audition were the other guitarist was trying to compete with me constantly. I got the gig, but never took it. Its not a good position to be in. The same stuff happens in guitar shops a lot. For me, I try to learn complicated things because I want to better my technical ability so that I can apply it to other aspects of guitar playing like composition. If I want to say,write a fast part in a song I would a least have the ability to pull it off convinvingly. Its not a competition.
    Good article, But I disagree about comparing yourself to others slightly. In the perspective of saying "Yeah they're too good, I cant get as good as them", I agree. But I wouldn't have improved even half as much if I wasnt competing with my brother on "who can get better". Competition can make you work alot harder and it pays off.
    Never had a problem with Stairway to Heaven . . .Classical Gas, on the other hand, was difficult.
    good stuff, actually helped me with several things and helped when I was reading, not even practicing
    ohmerrymayhem wrote: I thought it was common sense to work hard at things you're not good at to improve... Imagine that.. This sounds a lot like a "my teaching skills are fabulous" self-agrandizer to me. Maybe it's just me...
    It's not just you. This is more of an advert for his site than a useful article.
    yeah. im dealing with the same problem today. my friend started later than me by a few months and has already surpassed me by a mile. great column. i am also dealing with that stairway to heaven problem lol. when im playing it for someone i just play the open d string instead of the 4th fret. it works ok. just fyi 4 everyone
    Great article, especially for the beginners that might not even realize how they have been practicing.
    Woah gud article, tht has made me see how im goin practise on my guitar more effectively, nice 1 dude
    this article helps a lot!!!!! it's really essential not compare yourself but you should monitor yourself
    I have a freind who's been playing for two and a half years and I've been playing for 1 and a half, and I can play faster and better than he can. Here is what you accually need to get better, Improve your ear. Learn Any scale you can and learn how to use any scale to find a key, make it so that you don't need a guitar to find the key of the song you are listening to and at least get some idea of what they are doing.
    Good advice, especially the part about not comparing yourself to others. I think you could have made that a bit more clear, though, because it's envy that drives us to be better. So, maybe try, "don't allow yourself to feel defeated by someone else's ability". Also, can no one spell on here? There is no "s" in "practice".
    why does this guy make it sound so complicated? he could've just said ''this guy wanted to learn stairway to heaven but couldn't make that annoying chord change in the intro, so i told him to just practice the bit he was ****ing up for 15 mins or so, he did this for next couple weeks and now he can play it.'' don't get me wrong, tom hess is a hell of a good shredder...but I am yet to hear a decent riff come out of his guitar.
    This dude is a really good teacher. He explains it in a way that makes me wann play the guitar some more right now.
    thegrungyhippie wrote: does this guy realize that people play guitar for fun and dont want to do all this crap?
    yea no doubt, I mean he acts like he is infamous but I have never heard of him, and neither has anyone I know. He is like one of those studio musicians who plays an instrument on an album by a big band, and is talented, but no one knows who the hell he is. Its one thing to be a great musician with international acclaim, but in my opinion Tom Hess is just a shadow coming out of a speaker, like a guest musician on an Eric Clapton tour or something who nobody notices and is only there to reinforce the 'known' musicians.
    This article shows how once you become talented and respected in any given field you get away with stating completely obvious information; things that most people would laugh at if said by an average joe.
    pariah452 wrote: you wanna know something. That WILL really help you learn to play so much better. PRACTISE YOUR FUCKING SCALES.
    the MAJOR scale is important... pentatonic and blues even the minor scale are just modes of it. Chords and progressions are the most important thing to learn... and the best vehicle to learn them... is the major scale and learning all the notes on the fretboard.
    Great read I've been playing guitar for almost 2 years but I'm still not that good. The reason? I dont use my practice time efficiently. I couldnt even handle changing my chords from fret to fret but now it's easy thanks to practicing and using time wisely.
    wow ur a good teacher, i had a teacher say the EXACT same thing to me. like not with stairway to heaven but i was learning this song classical gas to get my fingerpicking skills up. and he said the same thing w/o the road metaphor. and ever since then i can play almost any song without tabs, just by focusing on every little mistake even if it means playing the same song for a week. anyways 10!!! ur a smart guy
    Yeah this article helped me alot with the string-skip alternate picking in As I Lay Dying's confined.
    People are right learn your scales. My one friend has been playing for two years and has been taught. I myself have been playing for one and have been self taught, and I still beat him in improvsation and in soloing just because I practice and know all my major/minor/blues/pentatonic scales.