Without a doubt, music gives back what you put into it. There is no substitute for time spent ‘shedding’ on your instrument. There is no shortcut to either technical proficiency or (more importantly), conviction and ‘a voice’ in your playing. It is a humbling and never-ending journey.
Practice is cumulative, and muscle memory is built through repetition over time. For this reason, I often tell beginner musicians that 5 minutes a day will be much more beneficial than two hours once a week. As your playing and understanding grow, your practice sessions may demand more time, or become more conceptual than mechanical. You might also find that the breakthroughs happen after an hour or so of banging your head against the wall. But this is down the track. For now, regular time on the instrument (or program as our modern landscape may have it), and building the habit of practice are what will get you the best results.
Everyone learns differently. One aspect of effectively practicing and internalising pieces of music, musical techniques, and musical vocabulary is developing an understanding of how you learn.
These concepts quickly become quite cerebral, so in the spirit of this piece (as I’ll soon explain), let’s focus on something immediately tangible.
How do you learn a passage of music you find technically difficult?
If I had a one-word answer, it might be ‘microscopically’.
The process explained below for guitar is used in all Melodics lessons. The pieces are deconstructed into steps, so you can gradually rebuild from the foundational elements up to the full parts. Remember, if anything feels too hard at any stage, repeat it, slow it down (use the tools in Practice Mode), and zoom in.
Let’s use Link Wray’s seminal tune ‘Rumble’ as an example (which a fledgling guitar player may find some aspects of challenging):
Among its many accolades, this tune apparently holds the honour of being the only instrumental ever banned from radio!
The first 8 bars of this 12 bar blues are pretty easy. To me (and for simplicity’s sake), the tune is a slow blues shuffle in 4/4. I think the sheet music has it as 12/8. You strum a Dsus2 on beats 3 and 4 before the downbeat, then strum an E ‘on the one’ and let it ring for a bar and a half. Then repeat. Then do the same thing but go to an A. Then the same returning to the E. Provided you know these chords, this will take about ten seconds to learn. If this is confusing at all, have a listen to the link and it will become clear.
In bars 9-12, there’s a B7 chord which is likely less familiar than the first 3, followed by a 2/4 bar (which feels natural enough it won’t catch you off guard), followed by a descending E minor pentatonic scale using the open strings. Again, use the recording for reference.
Most people starting out on guitar don’t find playing chords especially difficult, but changing between them in time is another story. My fairly amateur keys playing can attest to this being a cross-instrumental issue. Even if it seems counterintuitive now, most people will play a song from the start and trainwreck it at the same place over and over. And wonder why that part always goes wrong.
Let’s assume the first 8 bars of this song have become pretty solid after a bit of practice. But when you practice, you are you still playing the song from the beginning every time and falling off the rails in the same place every time. In this case, Bar 9. Surely it would make sense to isolate the challenging aspect, and focus your energy there if that is what is causing you problems? Here’s where we can start zooming in.
First things first, you need to get the B7 chord sounding good on its own. Zooming in further, I would make sure the left-hand fingers are in the correct position, then play the notes of this chord (arpeggiate it) one at a time with my right hand. If any of them are choked or aren’t speaking properly, something in the left-hand needs to adjust. Until they all sound cleanly, things can’t progress. Maybe working on just the B7 is the practice on this tune for today.
Once that chord is under control, the change to it from Dsus is next. I would zoom out slightly and focus on just looping the D to the B7 back and forth. First without time just to get the muscle memory happening, and then in the correct rhythm for the song. You can make these exercises musical. I would set a metronome to a similar tempo as the tune (or initially slower if necessary), and make a 2 bar loop. Part of the reason I chose this song as an example is that it is slow and simple. On something more uptempo or complex, I would always start practicing with a metronome well below the true tempo.
Once this feels good, zoom out again. Now might be a good time to play the tune from the start to bar 10, and put your new part in context.
Finally, we have our minor pentatonic run. Like many parts, this sounds cool so difficulty is assumed. It’s actually very simple. However, it will almost certainly trip you up if it isn’t looked at in isolation first. Zoom back in. Use the same process. Play just the descending E- pentatonic scale a few times. Do it in halves if you need to. Then introduce time. You can either keep the metronome in 4/4 and play them as a triplet feel, or move the metronome over to divisions of 3. Either way, start slow! I can’t emphasize enough that the slower and smaller you make parts, the easier they get, and the more solid your understanding and foundation of that music will be. With that in mind, maybe just getting that run under your fingers so it sounds badass and confident is today’s practice. Maybe you work on it just for 5 minutes.
Assuming this lick is sounding good, zoom out a bit. Using the same process, put the last 4 bars together. Once that feels good, include the Dsus2 chords which lead into bar 9. Once this is all grooving and locked in, I think you’re ready to play the whole tune and rock it.
From personal experience of learning to play things way beyond my skill level, I believe anyone can learn to play anything if they have the patience to break the pieces down into tangible amounts. Even the most intricate music can be attainable by zooming in and working on a few notes or a chord change at a time. It’s the patience to do so, and the focus involved which is the true skill.
Abraham Kunin is a producer, songwriter, session guitarist, and recording engineer. He has toured internationally with a wide spectrum of bands, theatrical productions, and festival stages. abrahamkunin.com