The Most Important Lesson I've Learned in 10+ Years

OK, this one's going to be controversial. People are going to be disturbed. And some are even going to get upset. Why? Because today, I'm going to kill a sacred cow: Guitar Exercises. Should you do them? When? And how?

Ultimate Guitar
"Organize your life to have as few distractions as possible and keep your hands moving on the guitar for hours every day. Play things that you like, so that this experience is enjoyable and you want to keep doing it." -Paul Gilbert, World-renowned rock guitarist, composer, guitar instructor, and writer Hey it's Johnny, OK, this one's going to be controversial. People are going to be disturbed. And some are even going to get upset. Why? Because today, I'm going to kill a sacred cow: Guitar exercises. Specifically, should you do them? When? And how? Allow me to offer an answer to all three using a short story... Imagine two friends, Doug and Pete. Both are busy folks with jobs, kids, and bills to pay. Both are getting older, have let themselves go a little, and are getting concerned with their health. One day they both decide it's time to make a change. They commit to regaining their health and feeling good about themselves again. Do they succeed? Doug goes out to the local gym and signs up. He's excited and pumped. He starts working out hard, and doing everything he can to keep himself pumped and motivated to stick with it. But the excitement soon wears off. He's getting tired, burning himself out, and starting to feel unmotivated. And he accidentally misses a few workouts. By the third month, he's pretty much done. He notices that he's only going to the gym once a week and putting in a lazy effort. He calls and cancels. And returns to life as usual. How about Pete? On the other hand, Pete uses a different strategy. He joins a local tennis club and starts making friends. He signs him up for a monthly competition for fun. He finds a coach and mentor, who gives him tips on his serve and recovery strategies at the net. And after only a few weeks, Pete is seeing good progress. His serves are faster, his backhand is more accurate, and he's excited to show up to practice every day to prepare for the competition. By the third month, Pete has placed 3rd at the local tennis tournament. He's got his first taste of success and it's only the beginning. And best of all, he's lost 10 pounds and feels great again. What made the difference? Both Doug and Pete were equally motivated to get in shape. And both took dedicated action. But only one succeeded. What made the difference? It's simple. Pete had one major advantage over Doug: A fun context - a reason - for the exercise. Listen, I think exercises are great. They focus in on one aspect of your playing (let's say using your pinky)... and maximizes the progress in that one area. It's the perfect way to fix weaknesses in your technique. But guess what? The least effective way to practice is to perform them in isolation. You need a FUN CONTEXT to perform them in. A motivating REASON to be doing the exercise in the first place. When Pete had:
  • A friendly competition to prepare for
  • Some friends who shared his enthusiasm
  • AND the motivation and strategies from someone who's experienced It was 1000% more motivating than what Doug had:
  • The desire to be fit again That alone is not enough. You need every advantage you can get when it comes to long-term goals like learning the guitar (or getting in shape). You need to immerse yourself in a CONTEXT that does that. By creating worthwhile "competitions" in your mind, by surrounding yourself with like-minded people... And yes, by absorbing the motivation and proven strategies a coach (or mentor) can offer you. So do I think you should do finger exercises to learn the guitar? Yes. But ONLY if you do them properly. And learn how from an experienced mentor. About the Author: For more online mentoring and other must-have lessons on learning the guitar, visit the best-kept secret of self-taught guitarists from over 117 different countries. Today, it has become one of the premier sources of accurate information, useful knowledge, and uplifting inspiration for scores of self-taught guitarists. Johnny's lessons have appeared on top guitar websites such as Ultimate-Guitar, GuitarNoise, and many others. He has just released a new book titled: "The No B.S. Guitar Advantage: Secret Strategies Most Guitarists Will Never Tell You About To Go From Beginner To Head-turning Guitar Player Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible." Check it out here.
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    42 comments sorted by best / new / date

      What ended up happening to Doug and Pete? Why didn't Pete tell Doug about his tennis thing and how well it was going? Was Pete trying to sabotage Doug? Are either of them married? They both have kids but no mention of wives. Are they potentially lovers? Former lovers trying to be "just friends" but passive-aggressively competing with each other to look physically better so they can go find themselves new people to get involved with to make the other one jealous? I need more backstory to invest in these characters.
      10/10. Heartily chuckled. This was a good read, though. Boosting the importance of enjoying what you play without entirely doing away with the work portion of it.
      This was a very interesting read! I agree with you, scales and fingering exercises are not fun on their own, but if you challenge yourself to play them in exotic time signatures or over a chord progression, it can be a very interesting and exploratory experience, both of yourself as a musician and of your guitar as an instrument.
      Great article, but if you look from different aspect, let's say if your goal is to get big (muscular), you need to train hard, eat more that you organism need etc etc, and there's no fun way to get hudge muscles. Same principle can be applied to getting killer technique. Sometimes it;'s just not fun, but I don't see way around. Also Pete get to a good amateur level in terms of skill. But top sportsmen went through hell, to get on top. Rigid proffesional training is faaaaar from fun, but it's no other way to suceed. My point: if you want to get to a professional level, practicing SOMETIMES just can't be fun
      Interesting and i can see his point; but maybe overstating things a bit. Sure, learning from songs is definitely way more fun, so you engage with it more, but i think you should always do a few excercises here and there to help get better technique, but also so you can try think outside the box with your own playing, rather than relying on copying others’ techniques more
      Eh, maybe I'm the odd one here but I enjoy the repetitive "boring" exercises because I can feel my fingers getting stronger and more used to what I demand of them. Obviously, I enjoy the "fun" ones as well, but I don't think there's an aspect of playing guitar I don't find to be fun...that's kind of why I play guitar as much as I do. I think it comes down to why you play guitar. Are you obsessed with the instrument or do you like the idea of being a guitarist in a "insert-genre-here" kind of band? Or are you an artist in general. There are lots of approaches to it all, and none of them are wrong, but I think this is the wrong way of thinking about things. That's just my opinion, though, for what that's worth.
      If you're practicing, doing specific exercises, it's to become better at doing the "lick" or the "riff" or wathever you want call it, but your goal is here. I personnally practice and do specific exercises every day during a lot of hours (that's my life yeah lol) and i never get bored because it's my passion (my guitar is my true love in fact). It's like playing video games, some people play hours on it to get their level done, even if it's hard they will continue. If you're not like this nerd on your guitar, your progression will be very slow and you're gone give up really quick. You know, a bunch of UG's articles don't teach things that must be "natural" to you : passion, will, and time. PS : i'm not english, so i'm sorry for that aproximative english answer x)
      I totally agree with this article. My routine, I use practice exercises for warm-ups such as chromatic runs, i go over a few different arppeggio shapes and sweeps and then I get my wrist loose by playing the main riff of A7X's "Beast and the Harlot" Its a fun little alternate picking riff that I enjoy playing. Then I will move to "Laid to Rest" by Lamb Of God to get fullly warmed up and widen my tunnel visioin on the fretboard to really open up my hands and get them in sync. After that it just kinda depends on what Im in the mood for. Ill continue to jam some LOG or A7X, or I'll even switch over to my C guitar and jam some Killswitch or Bullet for my Valentine. I have a separate set list from each band that I enjoy listening to and playing their songs. Each set list goes from easy to hard as far as playing challenge. I put the hardest song at the end and work my way up to it. Each time I try to play better and better til I match the guitars on the cd. And thats how I keep track of my progress, I nail a song perfectly 3 times, Ill put a check by it. Once I get about 5 songs, It's usally been about a months time by then, so I'll replace those with more challenging songs so that my progress is always challenged. Other than this routine for a fun practice session at home, my band and I just play through our own songs in our set list during "band practice" time.
      This is the basis of an idea I've shared for quite a bit, so I'm all for it, and you put it very nicely. Very short and to the point, however, I feel there's a bit to build off of this and I hope you do so! The idea being there is good, but maybe not enough to invoke a change in people. Might I suggest the good ol' stepping stone idea? Picking and learning songs, in sequence, that are at the cusp of your skill level at the time in order to boost it? Of course the part of this that ties into this lesson is that picking the songs yourself out of your own list of songs you like increases the drive and commitment amazingly. Also another thought is that maybe the focus should be shifted from finding a mentor to either finding peers or finding alternatives, if only for UG. A lot of UG users are the type to self-educate and act alone. In most contexts I'd agree wholeheartedly that a great mentor is important, but suiting the needs and style of the audience is always important. But those are just some thoughts to add on, still an excellent column!
      Ok. For me doing exercises is equally as important as playing songs, and playing with others. When you want to start playing songs that require better finger dexterity than you currently have it becomes essential,and it will do wonders for your improvising. I find I have little free time at the moment as i find my physics course quite demanding, and doing exercises focusing on specific things,e.g. skipping strings,is for me faster in the long run. Also as someone who has had relatively poor co-ordination(dyspraxia), forming a strong muscle memory through exercises has improved my general hand and wrist motor control no end, hence my handwriting, speed and legibility, and my ability to type accurately has increased much faster than it otherwise would.
      but it cant ALWAYS be fun. Sometimes you have to pull yourself forward till that fun factor comes back again. And I think thats where some people get stuck. They just wait till they are 'in the mood' and sometimes it dosent come back by itself.
      You understand the difference between a paragraph and a sentance right? Did you just upload the notes for the article instead of the real thing? This is a fragmented mess of bullet points, I can't read this.
      It does not have to be fun. I play a 12 bar blues thousands of times just to get it right and improve my hand independence. That is the only way to get good. If it's fun, it's not very effective, because you are most likely in your comfort zone. You want to always be out of your comfort zone for the practice to be as effective as possible.
      Bull. 1) Something being fun doesn't mean it's not effective. I have fun every time I play guitar. Even just noodling around I can tell I get better. Maybe I play a little cleaner, a little faster, or play more creatively. 2) Being fun does not mean being in your comfort zone. I used to not be able to play We are the Champions by Queen. It was out of my comfort zone. I learned it, and I had fun learning it. Learning and challenging yourself can be fun. 3) Being outside of your comfort zone does not mean being so far out of it that you can't see your comfort zone. If the first thing you did when you started playing guitar was try to master sweeping you would be pretty far out of your comfort zone, and you would get no where until you went back to basics and got a solid foundation.
      My Last Words
      You have fun every single time? I envy you, haha, I still have those days where I want to throw my amp out of the window.
      Well, hmm. For me the fun comes from improving. The fun for me is seeing how much I've learned from doing all those boring exercises. Seeing how much easier something is to play after all the practicing. I guess the better you are, the more fun and less of a struggle it becomes in general.
      Objection. This is subjective.. this applies to your kind of fun... For me, I'm mostly unmotivated because I'm struggling to play something thats real, and is music everytime I play the guitar.. But in a band setting I just love how to build emotions and dynamics to a perfectionist degree, to make the crowd go wild. Still my instrument of choice is guitar and because I have this particular personality, I would actually benefit from practicing a 12 bar blues a thousand times to get it right because I have the tendency to break routines to find new things (which gets in the way of making... anything, actually)
      Dude, 12 bar blues is like the funnest thing you can play.
      Yeah, I agree. But that is AFTER you can comfortably play the rhythm and improvise at the same time without ****ing up all the time. I'm talking about piano here
      Pablo Mortis
      Why is it I read this comment in my head in the voice of the robot off "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?
      I totally agree with this article, I think to put yourself through the drudgery of exercises kills the passion, just let it come naturally and don't try to force it.
      You can do that, but the drawback is that you will develop slower as a guitarist/musician.
      This actually the way I learned to play. I was a drummer since I was 13, then around 18 GH Metallica came out and made me wanna play guitar. So all I did was play Metallica tabs for the first two years. Never learned any theory, but I was having fun doing it and I could play some notable riffs just one month in.
      "another one bites the dust" i actually went for it and subscribe to the newsletter... what a mistake. I got tons of guitar books from and other author online. practicing the scales starts from the song you want to learn its that simple and not from somebody.
      "another one bites the dust" i actually went for it and subscribe to the newsletter... what a mistake. I got tons of guitar books from and other author online. practicing the scales starts from the song you want to learn its that simple and not from somebody.
      Soldier Poet
      I also think it's about whether you want to be a musician or just someone who can play guitar well. Being able to play scales up and down really fast is cool and all, but what use are those exercises when you don't apply them in composing songs?
      It is true. I was never one to sit down with a scale book and learn into my fingers fell off. I learned guitar by learning the chords, the fret board and the major scale. Then I just learned songs by bands that I liked. My motivation was to play along, and nail it!
      Even a simple way of saying it is,the most successful bands on the planet are not always the most dedicated and most talented musos
      Moral of the story is as long as you are happy what you are playing it's all that matters,music is a wonderful thing
      If you can't be bothered practicing, you obviously don't want to play guitar and should drop it. Coaxing yourself in any way doesn't really improve anything.
      Just found out this exact thing during the fall. I've been playing at home for 7 years, and every now and then I've had a months break because I've kinda lost interest. It's always been fun picking up the instrument after the break, but it's been fun a while and then I've just played when I got bored. However, this fall I've gotten more involved in band projects etc. and they have motivated me in a completely different way. Suddenly I've been playing 3 times more than earlier, and had a whole lot of more fun, even doing the exact same thing I was bored with earlier.
      I prefer taking parts of actual songs and making exercises out of them and the fact that I enjoy them it makes them fun to do while still getting practice