What You Can’t Do?

“Practice what you can’t do, not what you can” is advice I’ve received and given over the years so much that it felt very wrong to question it. But when I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Stevie Via a few years ago, he dropped some pearls of wisdom that shook my ‘practice beliefs’ to the core. What I want to share with you here is some food for thought that I wish someone had shared with me when I started to get serious about the instrument.

The conventional wisdom of “practising what you can’t do” makes perfect sense in many circumstances. If your time is no good you need to work on it. Don’t know your scales? Learn them. Never understood harmony and theory? Study it. But there is one area in which I believe it may be better to work on developing your strengths than battling your weaknesses and that is technique.

Your technique can deeply shape your playing style and character and it was this area where Mr Vai said that rather than struggling with techniques that he found difficult that he preferred to further develop those that came easily. Whether you are a fan of his music or not, you can’t deny that he has a very unique and identifiable voice on the instrument – one he created by developing his strengths to their extremes.

Around the same time I been talking with fusion virtuoso Scott Henderson about how he developed his style and he noted that much of it came from his inability to pick fast, finding it difficult and cumbersome but he had greater fluency and get the notes he heard out easier by using a lot of legato – again, his technique preference played a big part in the creation of his style.

I started thinking of other examples of easily identifiable players… Jeff Beck uses fingerstyle for rock. Eddie Van Halen’s characteristic tapping and tremolo picking or Malmsteen’s speed picking and sweeps. It seems that one of my personal favourite players, Eric Johnson’s style also has deep roots in his picking technique choices… and the list goes on. It’s a fascinating thought path to explore on your own.

Most great ‘artists’ focus on what they CAN do and make it part of their unique voice! It’s a completely opposing view of ‘working on what you can’t do’ but it clearly works – if you want to be an artist! And I think that is where the distinction lies. To be a ‘session’ guy you need a diverse range of styles and techniques to draw on, to be an artist you need to define and refine who YOU are.

The guitarists that make it to the top of the tree are usually brilliant at what they do - being themselves! I don’t think we want Mark Knopfler to be a brilliant finger tapper or David Gilmour to be a master sweep picker. We want them to be themselves, and I hope this article might inspire you to further explore who YOU are, develop that and become the best you can be at being yourself.

Safe travels!


* This article originally appeared in Guitar Techniques Magazine [GT258]

Food For Thought