A couple of years ago I traded in long-distance running for weightlifting.
In October of 2013 I ran the Chicago marathon. In November I hung up my running shoes and started a year-long coaching program designed to help scrawny guys put on muscle.
By November 2014, I’d added 20 pounds muscle and lost 5 pounds of fat. My bandmates starting calling me “Captain America” because my body transformation was so dramatic.
Full disclosure: not me.
What’s this got to do with your guitar playing?
I learned a crazy amount in that year, and some of the big-picture things apply directly to guitar. For example:
- Because I sought out expert guidance, my progress raced ahead of people who tried to figure it out on their own.
- Because I paid money1 for that guidance, I was much more motivated to do the work.
- That motivation translated directly into showing up more consistently––if you want to be world class at something, you have to put in the reps.
- I learned that what I thought was me having no natural talent for something was in reality that I’d been using the wrong inputs for the outcome I sought.
- I learned that the most visible examples of successful people frequently couldn’t teach what it is that made them successful, or that they were successful despite what they practiced and taught, not because of.
But there’s one takeaway from this experience that’s most relevant to what we’re talking about today:
Better Execution is a better form of progress than weight, speed, or other visible success.
Particularly here in the US, there’s a constant clamoring for clearly visible progress: pushing through pain and injury to finish that marathon is an admirable feat, adding more weight to your bench press is an improvement, making more money is always better, and playing that lick ten clicks faster than last week means you’re getting better at guitar.
To which I say: BULLSHIT.
Just because the outward signs of accomplishment are present doesn’t automatically mean it’s progress.
Improving your running form so you can run without pain or injury? That’s progress.
Taking weight off the bar so you can refine the mechanics of your bench press? That’s progress.
Taking a new job that pays the same but requires less of your time? That’s progress.
Playing one measure of a tune slower and slower and slower, looking for wasted motion you can then smooth out? That’s progress.
My advice to you is…
Don’t Be In Such A Hurry. Drill Down.
Choose better form over faster tempos.
Choose to improve your sense of time over playing harder music.
Choose perfection in this one measure over getting through the entire song (but making a few mistakes).
Here’s the thing––even if your goal is to play faster, get stronger, or run farther & faster, the optimal way to do that is to get the details right.
Better Execution is a better form of progress than weight, speed, or other visible success precisely BECAUSE it leads to better, sustainable, (and frequently, faster) visible success.
Greasing The Groove
There’s a little-known protocol from the strength training world called Greasing The Groove.
The idea is that your brain is recruiting your muscles via motor neurons. If you train your nueromuscular pathway to fire off a perfect rep––whether that’s a dead-hang pull-up or a fast legato passage––then that’s what it will do when you ask it to. Forever.
Conversely, if you grease the groove with shitty reps––sloppy execution, a few mistakes, mediocre time and feel––then that’s what you’ll play. Forever.
When you’re practicing, practice perfection in the tiniest details.
Don’t chase distant goals (Play Flight Of The Bumblebee at 180bpm by August! Lose 10 pounds by summer!).
Instead, consistently show up to chip away at tiny imperfections, making itty bitty gains that compound over time.
Make a habit of going deep on the fundamentals. You’ll find that the indirect approach achieves your goals faster than chasing them directly.
All Of Which Is To Say
Today you’re going to do the same exercise you did yesterday––Bury The Click.
When you approach it, lean in. Don’t treat it like an unwelcome obligation you have to cross off your to-do list, but like an ice cream cone on a hot day. Savor it. Get lost in it. Go deeper.
All of the best players I know are OBSESSED with the tiniest intricacies of time & feel. Be like them. Put those strums so directly on top of the click that they’re monolithic and indistinguishable from one another.
Still bored? Take the metronome and slow it down. There, now it’s harder.
Mind wandering? Congratulations, you’re a human.
Take that wandering attention and bring it back to the click, over and over and over. Now you’re not only practicing, you’re also meditating! Science says it’ll reduce your stress, slow your aging, lengthen your life, and make you happier. Nice work.
Great job! Next we’ll explore some less-than-obvious uses of the metronome.
1In case you’re curious: That fitness coaching? It cost me a little over $100/month, which is an absolute bargain compared to its usefulness.