How The Pros Practice

There are a number of differences between professional and amateur musicians. Rob Gravelle gives us the low down on how to play like a pro.

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During the mixdown of Ivory Knight's Unconscience CD, I had the opportunity to work with guitar god Jeff Waters, the founder of the legendary Canadian metal band Annihilator. After one evening talking to him about music, it would be no exaggeration to say that I had learned more about the art of recording than I had in all my 20 years of playing music - and that includes 4 years of University studies! I'll admit that in Ottawa, we are sheltered from the outside world, so we don't get much influence from established industry pros, except through their albums. I had often wondered how top professionals approached their craft, and what made them different from all the hopefuls who can't quite get it together. Well, I finally got my wish and now I'm going to share with you some of the things I learned in the hopes that you can avoid some of the common pitfalls that threaten the careers of aspiring musicians. There are a number of differences between professional and amateur musicians but if I had to single out one above all others, it would be that the pros play with a much higher level of consistency. When you watch live performances, you'll notice that the players seldom make mistakes and they play all their parts very solidly, no matter how technically difficult the part. I used to think that there was such a thing as "good enough", especially when dealing with difficult passages. Not so in the pro world. In the big leagues: NO MATTER HOW EASY OR HARD A PART IS TO PLAY, YOU MUST BE ABLE TO PLAY IT PERFECTLY. It doesn't matter whether it's whole note chords or 32nd note arpeggios. Also keep in mind that any recording project has a fixed budget, which means that you have a set amount of time in which to put down your tracks. If you're struggling with playing your parts, in order to keep the project on budget, a producer will likely bring in a session player. Let me repeat that with more emphasis, in case it didn't quite sink in the first time: IF YOU CANNOT RECORD YOUR PARTS WITHIN A REASONABLE AMOUNT OF TIME, THE PRODUCER WILL LIKELY BRING IN A SESSION PLAYER! In my amateur naivet, I used to joke to my bandmates that I'd like to see them try to find someone who could lay down my rhythm parts in any reasonable amount of time! After talking to Jeff, I am convinced that they could and would replace me if I were to give them a reason to. That's when it really hit me that: AS A PROFESSIONAL MUSICIAN, YOU MUST BE ABLE TO PLAY CONSISTENTLY WELL UNDER PRESSURE Playing music is a lot more fun than working in an office, but let there be no misunderstanding, with potentially large sums of money at stake, you are expected to do a job and do it well. Now I don't mean to imply that you have to be some kind of virtuoso. Far from it. To be successful in the studio, a musician simply requires a strong sense for what a song needs and be able to capture those ideas on tape in a timely fashion. Live, consistency is one of the key components for giving each audience a good show for their hard earned money.

Practice Principles

As you might have guessed, to attain this level of proficiency, it takes a very specific approach to practicing - one that is surprisingly quite foreign to most players! Everyone knows that practice makes perfect, but few people realize how much impact the quality of their practice sessions will have on their career. Most people focus too much on unimportant things and way too little on the really important stuff! For example, one of the biggest mistakes that amateurs make, myself included, is to equate chops with skill. Most amateurs try to hide their lack of solidity by throwing in a lot of licks and embellishments in their playing. Once in the studio, they quickly discover that music industry professionals are not fooled for one second by frivolous flashy parts. To them, sloppily executed licks just look ridiculous and merely detract from the song that they want to capture. Get in the habit of practicing to achieve solidity and consistency in every recording you do and leave the licks for when you can play your parts in your sleep. PROS PRACTICE EXERCISES AND TECHNIQUES AS MUCH AS SONGS I used to spend the vast majority of my time going over songs. Now, most of my practice time is allocated towards playing scales, chord progressions, and a variety of exercises aimed at improving my picking, fingering, fluidity, consistency, and timing. The idea behind this is that the better your technique is, the easier it is to put down songs solidly. At a recent drum clinic, drummer extraordinaire Mike Mangini remarked "Music is not just art, but a skill as well. There are many talented musicians, but only a few skilled ones." He went on to say that one of the key traits that separate him from most musicians is the discipline to practice mundane and basic techniques over and over again until they are perfect. PRACTICE EVERYTHING TO A METRONOME. Some people, including many, many drummers, feel that they can somehow avoid metronomes believing that they instinctively possess pretty good timing already. One of two things tends to happen to these people if their band is lucky enough to get signed. They either get replaced before the deal goes through or, if they are integral to the band because of creative input or image, they are relegated to watching the recording from the sidelines. The producer will know who practices to a click and who doesn't, and he or she will very likely bring in someone else, because it's too late to catch up at that point. This is especially true for drummers, since it's extremely difficult to punch in drums.

General Tips For Practicing And Working With The Metronome

I asked my band's vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, John Devadasan Perinbam, for his thoughts. Here's what he had to say: 01. I'd advise people to start with the metronome on SLOW! Every book I have read on drums and piano mentions this! That will help work the muscles that need it...and yield much better control. 02. George L. Stone recommends in his acclaimed book "Stick Control" to repeat each pattern 20 times without stopping before moving onto the next pattern. This forces the player to be conscious of counting the pattern, not just ripping through each pattern. 03. In my opinion the purpose of practice is to fine tune the muscle memory so that the muscles obey the brain with a minimum of conscious intervention - whether the practice is for music, sports, whatever... 04. Watch For Tension when you practice. Vocalists should practice in front of a mirror and observe posture, use one hand to feel the muscles under the jaw while practicing. If something feels like it is tensing, you're probably not doing it right. 05. I've heard many people say that they don't want to use a click track because they won't "feel" the music the same way. That's usually because they are not used to working with the click and they are "chasing" it rather than feeling the groove of the beat. 06. By the time you're ready for the studio, you should be able to play the parts in your sleep. There should be nothing that challenges the limits of your playing ability. If there is, then the parts are too difficult. 06b. By the same token, when it comes to recording, a simple part, played solidly and consistently, is infinitely preferable to a challenging part that is "hit-or-miss". 07. A point regarding discipline: always set goals that are attainable. The person that suddenly decides to allocate 3 hours a day for personal practice after 20 years of not practicing at all is likely the same person who is no longer practicing regularly after 3 or 4 months! 08. Learn another instrument, at least at a beginner level. At the very least, you'll get a different perspective of the music, and you'll be more understanding of your bandmate who regularly plays that instrument. Additionally as you become more proficient you'll likely develop your muscles more evenly than if all your attention is focussed on one instrument. 09. Allow time for new techniques to sink in. It takes time for information to filter through the conscious mind and stored in "muscle-memory". Patience. Practicing everything to a metronome is a great habit to get into, and will put you leagues above most players, but there is more that you can do to make the most efficient use of your practice time. Most pros have very busy schedules. What with public appearances, business meetings, traveling, they have a lot less time for practicing than you might think! But that's OK, because: PROS KNOW HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF LIMITED PRACTICE TIME. Each time a professional musician sits down to practice, he/she knows what he/she is going to go over and for how long. Here is a sample practice session:
  • 15 minutes of hand stretches and strengthening exercises.
  • 1/2 hour of picking/timing exercises
  • 15 minutes of scales played at different tempos
  • 1 hour of rehearsing songs for evening's band practice Depending on what needs more work and what kind of guitar player you are (IE: rhythm or lead guitar), your practice agenda could differ substantially from the one above. I strongly recommend that you have a look at John Petrucci's Rock Discipline instructional video for some useful guidelines. Just keep in mind that he represents the extreme far right of the pro player spectrum and is by no means typical in his degree of perfectionism. If you take it as the benchmark for what it takes to play at the highest level of technical proficiency, you can scale it back from there to determine how much is enough for you. For example, if you play rhythm guitar in a rock & roll style band, you would put most of your emphasis on strumming chords along with a click track and a lot less on pentatonic licks. What you would not do is reason that you want a loose feel, so you avoid using a click track! That's what an amateur would say and it won't serve you well in the studio.

    Practicing For Tightness

    Even playing along to a metronome every day is not enough to ensure that you are ready for recording. In case you haven't yet enjoyed the thrill of recording, you'll find that it is a lot different than playing in your living room. And the best way to prepare to do recording is to do some recording! I strongly recommend that you purchase a small portable digital studio for this purpose. You can snag one for a couple of hundred bucks and it could pay huge dividends for your career. Here's how to use it. When ever you make up a part, put it down. Not only will that help you remember it, but it will also provide you with practical rehearsal for the real thing. Once you're satisfied with the performance, go ahead and double it, and then even triple it! I like to record a part ten times and then pan individual parts hard left and right so that I can hear how closely they match up. Ideally, you should be able to do this with any of the ten takes and they should all sound good. In reality, you will probably find that several of the parts that you thought were bang on are in fact less than rock solid! Once you can play the part and double it virtually every time, you're ready for the real recording. I can remember too many occasions going over a part a zillion times to capture that one magic take. Lucky for me, I was recording in a home studio. I could never have gotten away with that in a real one. At the very least, I would have received a strong tongue lashing from the engineer. In a big budget scenario, the producer would have probably banished me from the recording and replaced me until I was ready to get down to business. The lesson here is that: PROS RECORD ALL THEIR PARTS SEVERAL TIMES BEFORE ATTEMPTING THE REAL RECORDING There are exceptions to all the rules I've outlined above, but you will find that the best and most sought after players do follow all these practices. Don't let yourself become one of those artists who refuse to regiment their practicing because that they fear it will homogenize their playing, because, rest assured, these fears are simply unfounded. It can only help your cause to become proficient at your chosen instrument. So give these practices a try, and get yourself on the right path before you're told to! Until next time, happy practicing! Robert Gravelle is the guitar player for the Canadian Classic Metal band Ivory Knight. He received a B.A. Mus from Carleton University. His band's latest album "Unconscience", available through CD Baby, was mixed and mastered by Jeff Waters of Annihilator fame and features artwork by acclaimed Hungarian artist Gyula Havancsak. In his spare time, he teaches the Guitar for Fun course for adults. You can reach Rob at blackjacques@musician.org.
  • 174 comments sorted by best / new / date

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      CodySG
      Pretty good advice, kinda made me think twice about my practicing.
      miguelito2729
      It's in times like this that I realize I still have a longgggg way to make it. Although I do practice a lot (2-4 hours/weekdays; 3-5 hours/weekend), I mostly practice songs and say 15 minutes of scales but I sorta lost my habit of working with the metronome cuz now I only use my foot to tap . What hand stretching exercices could I do?
      guitarsolo_17
      dude i know this article is totally true, but these articles suck, in that they make you almost want to quit because you cant focus on the needed stuff like the scales and arpeggios and finger exercises and that what-not. It really gets annoying not being able to focus on stuff that you know will help you long term. Honestly i have tried like crap to practice it but before i know it im playin Hendrix stuff again. Dude , these articles suck becuase they really just hurt your soul. NO MORE , AS RIGHT AS THEY ARE QUIT POSTING THEM!!!!!
      McTrigger
      crap article. guitar playing is supposed to be fun not a daily regiment you must follow to be "good". unless you just wanna shred playing arpegios up and down all day which sucks, youll learn more improvising with scales over backing music than just playing them up and down. pros are good and make few mistakes cos they been playing for 10 plus years dick head
      Crimson_Tearz
      notice he wrote the article to help those who werent worried about having fun, but improving their skills. take the article as it is. if it provides nothing, move on. anyway, ill repeat the finger stretches/excercises question. also, what happend to adrian?
      Missino
      Bumzor wrote: I'm a failure
      Listen, mate...We're musiciens here aren't we? And even those who don't make music like it...As long as you play and do your best, one can only call you a failure if you stop liking and making music! Keep at it, I don't play like it is said to in the article above, but I like the sound of what I play. I don't play to be the best, I play to make a sound, a sound that is good to listen to! Great article by the way!
      Missino
      McTrigger wrote: crap article. guitar playing is supposed to be fun not a daily regiment you must follow to be "good". unless you just wanna shred playing arpegios up and down all day which sucks, youll learn more improvising with scales over backing music than just playing them up and down. pros are good and make few mistakes cos they been playing for 10 plus years dick head
      Sod off if you don't have anything to say, why do you think there are so many musiciens who don't make it as pros? Eh? I've seen amateurs as fast as Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, but they don't make it as professional musiciens because they don't have to spark and the stomach to become pros... I'm not saying that just because you're not a pro doesn't mean you're a bad musicien, just that these guys have something that you MAY not have! Then that's a matter of oppinion, unfortunately there are still a fair amount of guitarists that work and record as proffessionals but don't deserve to... Just because you've been playing like hell for 10 years doesn't make you one of the best...
      Guitar_sniper
      Here is the long and the short of it. It all depends on what you want out of the instrument. If you are happy playing Greed day "ish" power chords and punk rockin' your way to a good time, great. If you really want to be a "guitarist", not just a guitar player, and really get a grasp of proper technique, then this is the way to go. I have been playing for almost 20 years and I only started incorporating this style of practice about 2 years ago. Man what a difference. I wish I could go back in time. This sort of practice I equate to working out at the gym, if you walk in there not having a game plan, you'll have a crap workout. On the other hand, if you have routine, you'll make the most of your time. Additionally, I include a stop watch with my practice. I'll take a riff, arpeggio, scale, or part of a solo that is troubling me and break it down to small pieces. I play the piece for about 2 minutes straight. I use the watch to make certain that I don't cut myself short. The take 30 second breaks until the part is perfect. I, for one, am very happy knowing that I can play complicated guitar parts now....(when I could only dream of playing them 2 years ago.) Bottom line: Plan your practice and make you goals reachable.....GOOD article.
      Guitar_sniper
      There are so many you can do but some hand AND arm stretching may include but are not limited to: Start with arms, rotate in both directions, clockwise, counter clock wise to get blood flowing. You should always warm up before you stretch. Place each are behind head to stretch tricep. For the forearms: Place arm straight out, bend hand at wrist toward floor to stretch. For finger you can put pressure on all fingers except thumbs and hold. Reminder hold all these stretchs for 10-15 seconds and dont' overdue it!! You can also place your hands under warm water to ease the stretching process. I wouldn't do anything fast though. Keep everything at a slow pace. Another very important thing about practice is the environment. Always pick a nice quiet spot with no distractions, no phone, no wife, kids, whatever it takes. (I practice in the garage) Another thing....scientifically proven is that caffine aids the learning process....have a COKE and a smile. Later. Kev
      ziplocman
      very very good advice, realy makes me wonder if my guitar teacher taught me a good way to practice.he hardly even said nething about a metranome, but lukey for i was takin piano lessens at the time and she told me ta use a metranome soo ya i sound like a idiot so im just gonna stop here peace yalls!!
      mistaman
      i hate the metronome...but when i record stuff, i can see that im pretty much off all the time cause I cant count as well as the metro can. blah.
      Abnormal_Omish
      it was a good article that made me feel really crappy about my playing lol. It kinda made playing guitar seem as a chore more than fun.
      Jondy
      Very informative, well written, easy to understand. It's blunt and to the point without being elitist; just simply tells the truth, and quite frankly convinced me to change up my practicing habits, use a "click", and heck I'm printing this out for reference. I give it a 10.
      Mikeoman
      Good points in here. My practices can vary. Usually I do a couple of exercises before practicing stuff, and usually its songs I want to learn or going over songs. Some days I really go over the scales for a while( Play them through and name each note), and some days I like to learn songs. Example: Right now I'm trying to learn the song YYZ. Anyways, good, informative article. I don't use a metronome as often as I should.
      djchuck
      Very good advice, but 1 warning... If you do finger stretches and exercises make SURE that you do them correctly. Remember what happened to Adrian Vandenberg.
      zarbog8
      Interesting...though I can be fairly safe in saying Jimi probably never practiced a day with a metronome. Countless other greats made it without the 'nome as well. As far as studio time goes, it really does depend on the situation. If you're a hired gun for sessions or a "tight assed" record company is footing the bill, then you'd best be quick and good! Otherwise, the studio is the best place in the world to experiment. So many great recordings have come from artists throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. Now with that being said, the 'nome will damn sure force you to master the timing equation, or stomp it to death in disgust! Timing is everything in music. It is the "groove." Good timing is what allows me to play ever so slightly behind the beat. That's one of the essential spices of da blues guitar. Just ask the Reverend Willie G. Just my 2 cents worth...
      acoginthesystem
      Odd that I've seen the first few paragraphs of this before. Or is it? Good thing I hadn't seen the rest, though.
      flesh fries
      dimebag7 wrote: 6/6/6 this was posted, national slayer day.
      shutup anyway....great article! im gonna get practicing as soon as i get home from school
      jacoinmalawi
      great article worth reading. practice is serious. perfection is the key. search "weird metronome" its a free metronome and Really awesome>
      RR=bestevrplaya
      i'm totally a total failure, but i'm only 15 so i hav time, and i guess if i'm that bad, i could always try playing punk
      djchuck
      Belgian Bastard wrote: What happened to Adrian Vandenberg?
      Back in the stone age when Vandenberg played with Whitesnake, he started a regimen of finger stretches and exercises between albums. He over-did them and injured his hands. When it came time to record again he wasn't able to play so they brought in Steve Vai for the album. I remember reading how heart-broken he was to write all the songs and not play a lick on the album.
      mAFIa1039
      pretty good. but can you do some of us a favor and do a lesson on chord progression, triads, and scales? I figure you have like 20 years on me so you no more scales and stuff then i do. this would be appriciated.
      CrimsonRoc
      This article= Truth. The view seemed completely unbaised, unlike some stuff i've read, and definitely puts good solid points across
      JadeFalcon5
      I liked the ratios of how long to practice scales, techniques, and just songs... i really put those to work today (80 minutes of scales @_@)
      Icebolt
      great article, i suck even tho i ben playing for ages, maybe its cuz i dnt practise very well
      Muusik
      Awesome article dude. I learned a lot without even reading the scales bit. Reason being my main instrument is drums.
      Muusik
      Scales? What am I talking about. I've just read a different article and it's getting mixed in my head =P Great article =]
      Kreuger
      How come some people like the late Chuck Schuldiner can get away with not knowing any music theory and still be an amazing guitar player? Did he just practice other people's songs until he could write his own?