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Step By Step

A guide on how to work on difficult musical passages more effectively


OK, this article deals with some advice on how to learn and practice complex and long passages and licks. Although I used a solo-passage by Steve Morse as an example, it pretty much applies to everything you might want to learn on the guitar, rhythm and lead guitar or whatever...

A few years ago, when I was still studying at the GIT in North Hollywood, I was preparing a performance there with some friends of mine (students of the other departments of the MI). We planned on performing all original songs (fusion-stuff), but also decided to include two songs by Steve Morse/The Dixie Dregs. The first one we chose was "Cruise Control" which is a classic and allowed us to improvise a lot. We played the original intro and melodies and then went off to jam-land.

The other song we chose was of the (back then) last Dixie Dregs-album, "Full Circle", a song called "Pompous Circumstances". This song features a pretty long and quite complex guitar run by Steve. It lasts for 8 bars and consists of precisely picked 16th-notes. Did I mention the time-signature of 12/8?

How to approach something like this?

Well, let me start by saying something I always tell my students: don´t exaggerate in setting your goals. Keep them ambitious but not TOO ambitious!

An example: Imagine you go out to see someone like Paul Gilbert play live. You´re really impressed by his playing, the speed and accuracy and everything, so you go home and think something like "Alrighty, cool, I´m gonna learn how to play all of Paul´s leads on that first Racer X-album". So you go home, put a CD into the player and pick up your guitar. Soon you´ll realize that this task is more difficult than you expected it to be, that it will take you quite a bunch of time to do this, and your main goal (to learn all the leads & riffs on that record) suddenly seems to be unreachable...

So you skip the first song and attempt to learn the second one. Again: that one´s difficult, so you skip that one, too. To sum this up: the whole effort becomes frustrating and therefore is a negative experience.

To keep our motivation (always pay attention to it!) high we should set our goals realistically and go step by step. Small steps are easier to accomplish, and every time you do accomplish one, it´s motivating, and that is very important!

We should keep that in mind when we attempt to learn something like the lick in this article.

It makes no sense to play the whole thing all the way through over and over again until it works. The lick features several different problem points, and the best way to learn the whole thing is to isolate each one of those segments and problems and work on them separately.

The whole lick can easily be separated into small segments for you to work on. After you worked your way through each one of them, you can attempt to piece them together again and play the whole thing.

So our first rule would be: If you try to play a long passage or lick and a problem occurs somewhere on your way through it, find that problem, isolate it, work on it and eliminate it.

The Run >>