These days, if you spend any significant time trying to ferret out the best ways to learn a new skill, you’re bound to run across the ideas of Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto.
He’s the gent whose work lead us to the much-talked-about “80/20 rule.” That is, 20 percent of inputs yield 80 percent of the outputs. So:
- 20% of people produce 80% of the value,
- 20% of clients cause 80% of the headaches,
- 20% of musicians get 80% of the gigs, and most importantly:
- 20% of the skills will get the job done 80% of the time.
If you can get these 20% of skills right, you’ll be most of the way there.
But the real knife-twist is that the 80/20 rule applies to the 80/20 rule.
20% of the 20%––that’s 4% of the total––is enough to get the job done 96% of the time.
Trouble is, 96% of the guitarists aren’t working on the 4% of things that will result in clear, meaningful progress for their playing.
Maybe this is you. I know it was me. With no one telling us what to prioritize, it’s tough to know what to work on next.
So without further ado…
The 80/20 Guitar Cheat Sheet
You’ll be 96% of the way there if you can nail these few things.
In order of importance: Time – Communication – Ears.
You also need to know what to call parts of songs (verse, chorus, bridge, etc), common playing instructions (ritard, rubato, fermata, etc), notational directions (da capo, DS, coda, etc) & musician slang, (trash can, button, football, etc).
You should be able to hear & identify most of the common chord progressions, and be able to “cop” melodies & licks. The best way to do this is of course to spend time learning things by ear.
Many people would argue that training your ear is more important than getting the Communication stuff sorted out. I disagree.
Having all the Communication stuff in order gives you a framework to organize your ear chops.
It’s easier to memorize a sentence in your native language than it is to memorize a random string of syllables. Music is no different.
Deciphering what you’re hearing is much easier when you understand the meaning behind it.
What To Do With This
If you want to join the select ranks of players who are getting noticeably better all-the-damned-time, you’re going to need to do some uncomfortable things.
First you’ll need to be brutally honest with yourself.
Chances are overwhelmingly high that your time is not-so-hot. Record yourself playing to a click, then listen back, and you’ll see what I mean.
Then you need to accept that every one of these three vital skills can only be learned by repeatedly failing in humiliating ways. Thankfully you can do this in private, but it’s still humbling.
Almost all of us were raised in a school system that only celebrated getting the right answer, not trying (and failing). So our instinct is to hide from the things that we’re not already good at.
The best way to beat this is to commit to 30 days of action. I know that I am going to suck at this, but I am going to show up every damned day to get whooped by this thing for 20 minutes.
If you’re worried that you won’t follow through, add some stakes to the mix. Write a sizable check to your least favorite politician/party/hate group, give it to your friend, and tell them to mail it if you fail to complete your self-assigned homework.
I have never once been so tired that I wouldn’t work for 20 minutes to avoid giving the Westboro Baptist Church a hundred bucks.
A couple of amazing things are going to happen after those first 30 days. First, you’re going to be a helluva lot better at what you worked on. That’s a given.
More importantly, you will have changed. What once seemed daunting (playing with a click, reading a chart, figuring out a complicated chord) will now be just another thing you know how to do.
I can’t overstate the importance of this change in mental states.
Getting better at anything requires leaning in to the uncomfortable.
Once you’ve done it everyday for a month, it doesn’t seem so scary anymore. Your sense of what’s possible begins to grow.
It’s your world, we’re just waiting for you to take the reigns.