Make More Progress with Less Time and Effort (an OVERLEARNING Primer)

Are You a Slow Learner on the Guitar?

After being out of commission for several months (tendinitis will do that to me sometimes)… I’ve had a solid breakthrough on the guitar.

I’ve continued to test it (to make sure that it wasn’t a fluke), but have been chomping at the bit to share it with you.

If you are ever stuck, this can work wonders for pushing you past a plateau.

But it’s also an excellent way to learn and master damn near anything, fast.

Whether you consider yourself a fast or slow learner, this approach will speed things up for you.

I’m eager to test the limits of this approach by using it to tackle some songs that seem impossible to play for guys like me (I’ve got my eye on “Drifting” by Andy McKee).

Ultralearning by Scott Young

As you might know, I endeavor to keep up on all of the literature when it comes to accelerated learning and skill acquisition. 

In one of my recent reads in a pile of books I devoured this last quarter, I read Ultralearning, by Scott Young.

I recommend it. There are many insights worth applying to your guitar playing.

But I was particularly intrigued by a concept called “Overlearning.”

Overlearning is when you push beyond the requirements of your target performance so that what you learn is more likely to stick. 

You are committing to an even more challenging performance than the one you are training for. This can help to make your goal much more achievable.

For mental skills, this is like taking Music Theory 101 and 102 to prepare for a Music Theory 101 exam.

Overlearning is much more obvious when you apply it to mental skills. But it can be just as effective when applied to physical skills––like shredding the guitar at insane speeds.

I’ve done overlearning here and there, in small ways. It’s more or less part of the Neurohacking method I use to break through barriers in my playing.

But I decided to be deliberate about it, and create a repeatable process out of it.

Through my experimentation, here’s what I’ve found:

Overlearning is one of the fastest ways to learn. 

It’s not something you wait to do only after you have thoroughly learned something. It’s what you start doing the moment you have something memorized.

If you want to Overlearn something, ask, “What’s my goal, and what’s the next level beyond it?” 

Then start exposing yourself to the next level right away.

Over the last week, I have applied this approach to two major challenges:

1. Relearning and mastering my behemoth-of-a-song, Heroes’ Bane 

(I’m creating a tutorial on how to play the song, and since it’s been years, I had to relearn it. There are sections of the song that cram hundreds of notes into mere seconds! I’m stoked to share the tutorial with you.)

2. Relearning how to touch-type using the Colemak layout after typing QWERTY for over 20 years. (This is a story for another day but one that I will definitely share!)

3. Learning and mastering the final, impossibly fast spit at the end of Eminem’s new track, “Godzilla” 😆

Here is me taking a rough stab at it after my first Overlearning session. It shows you how much progress can be made in an hour…


Side note: The power of Overlearning was made all the more evident when I learned this rap. 

Within about 20 minutes, I got to the point where the words were sliding out of my mouth at a rapid fire pace without me having any conscious thought whatsoever. It was almost spooky. 

It was a direct experience of automaticity––or unconscious competence––at work.

With the stage set… let’s dive into the 5-Step Process for applying Overlearning to your guitar playing.

How to Leverage Overlearning to Learn and Improve on the Guitar Faster

Here’s my process for Overlearning, which you can take and apply to your own skill development right away:

Step 1. Memorize it

I memorize the piece by Building the Sequence one note at a time, and Fusing the Transitions. (If you need a refresher or are unfamiliar with these concepts, check out Module 2 of Guitar Acceleration).

In short: play what you currently can plus the next note. 

Do this over and over until the added note is now part of what you can play without thinking (even if it’s super slow or sloppy. Again, we are going for memorization here, not speed).

The memorization is something you want to get out of the way so that you can dedicate all of your cognitive energy into the intense practicing that comes next. 

If you are busy trying to remember the notes, it will slow you down a lot. 

And as you well know, the faster you play, the more any excess friction can drag and sabotage your performance.

Step 2. Kick it into overdrive

Then, I play the piece 10-20 percent faster than my target tempo for about 20 minutes. (For Heroes’ Bane, I played it––very roughly––at 220 BPM instead of 200 BPM).

You read that right. You want to try to play it faster than you actually intend on playing it.

John Petrucci comically called this “killing yourself” back in day in his classic Rock Discipline DVD.

In all likelihood, this will be an overwhelming task. And it probably won’t sound good (as the video above demonstrates 😅)

If you are like me, your attempt will be so sloppy and riddled with errors, if anyone heard you, it would be embarrassing. 

Do it anyway. 

My playing here is usually loaded with mistakes. It’s hard as hell to keep up, but I strive. The key is to push yourself (but don’t injure yourself!). 

There will be more mistakes than you can possibly count, but you are going to push through and do your best, as if you were on stage at Wembley Stadium and the whole wide world was watching. 

If you aren’t sincerely attempting to get it right––as improbable or impossible as that is––this Overlearning approach doesn’t work. 

You are forcing adaptation here, so you can set a new “normal.”

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(Optional: kick it into Overkill)

I like doing this with finger weights (to add even more resistance) and a Stylus Pick just to make it even more difficult.

Sometimes I’ll even throw in some RiffBandz (shout out to Guitar Acceleration graduate Eric Beaty for the suggestion) for good measure.

(This process of adding obstacles is part of the process of Neurohacking. Review Module 5 of Guitar Acceleration for more details). 

It’s already hard enough to do this without the added resistance, so it’s not necessary. I’m just breaking down exactly what I do.

If you want to add more difficulty on the spot, you can just further increase the speed. 

Or (in the case of higher leads), you can play the part you are attempting to play on a the lower, thicker strings (this is wickedly effective).

Or you can play it on an acoustic guitar instead of an electric guitar. 

Step 3. Tame what’s tamable at the target tempo

After doing this, I back the tempo down to the target tempo (and remove any obstacles I was using).

Most of the time, I’m surprised how well I can play it at this point. Though it’s still far from perfect. 

But here’s the key: I almost always find that I can play certain chunks flawlessly.

Even if there are only a couple notes that you can play perfectly at this point, every victory counts.

I ruthlessly zero in on those chunks––however small––and play them over and over again. This gives me momentum, which feels nice, but it also chips away at the full challenge. 

It’s shrinking it smaller and smaller.

After playing each of the parts that I can play perfectly a good 3-5 times in a row, I move onto focusing on the trouble spots.

Step 4. Go slow and deep

Now it’s time to slow down, play it perfectly, and lock in what that feels like.

I drop the tempo down to the point where I can play it flawlessly (or damn near it). 

The bridging of the gap between the fast-but-sloppy speeds you were just attempting, and the slow-and-perfect speeds you are working with now comes down to this:

You must become so familiar with what it feels like in your body to get it right that you can replicate the same feeling at higher speeds. 

This might sound vague and abstract. But here’s how you can tell if you are doing this right: 

Be obsessively mindful of tension.

Relax to the point of there being no discernible tension in your muscles. It’s not possible to play without using your muscles, of course. But you want to barely engage them.

What you are focusing on here is using the least amount of effort possible to achieve the desired sound.

This is where the magic happens. You are now zooming in to minimize your exertion of effort and maximize your economy of motion (another nod to Nanosynthesis).

In a metaphorical sense; your fingers are good and reliable little soldiers (and this is coming from a dude who has struggled with tendonitis over half my life). But you have to train them properly.

To paraphrase the wise Jamie Andreas,

Your fingers will do what you want them to do, but they need to know what that is. If you keep showing them different paths, they won’t know which one you want them to take.

You are now teaching your fingers to follow the right path, and paying careful attention to what if feels like to do so (this second half of this sentence bears rereading, because it’s often overlooked).

You want to lock in every detail of what it feels like to play it right.

This requires a sensitivity to the sensations in your body. Notice everything that allows you to play this thing flawlessly.

Relax completely. Take a nice breath (which feels good after pushing yourself so much). 

And then watch, like a hawk, for any sign of tension as you gradually increase the speed by the smallest increments possible.

Your entire job at this stage is to play flawlessly with minimum tension (zero tension if you can pull it off), while slowly increasing the speed. Try to play it the exact same way, every single time.

If you can get your fingers to do the exact same thing with each repetition, then you will gain the most benefit from this part of the process (this is easier said than done, but that’s the point. You are going for maximum concentration and obsessive attention).

Pro tip: During this phase, you can set a metronome to increase by 1 BPM for every 3-5 repetitions.

This is a great way to adapt to a higher speed without the psychologically disrupting hurdle of knowing that the tempo is increasing. 

The mind has a way of playing tricks on you. 

If you actively set the tempo to something, you can see the higher number, and it might psyche you out or cause you to get nervous. This is especially the case as you inch closer to the goal tempo you have in mind. 

(I am hugely susceptible to this. It’s funny, because most of the time, if I don’t know the tempo – I can play just fine. But because I have set the target tempo as a hard-to-achieve goal to reach, if I know that I’m near it, on it, or even past it, I will suddenly start slipping up in my playing. A lot.).

The moment you notice tension, stop playing and figure out why the tension is there. And then correct it.

Every bit of tension is going to gum up the works further down the road. The faster you play, the more you can’t afford to have any excess tension.

You are not playing slow for the sake of playing slow.

This advice is thrown around all the time. It’s well intentioned, of course. But not specific enough to be useful (except by accident or luck).

The main reason to go slow is to perfect the path that your fingers and hands travel, and to relieve as much tension from the act as you possibly can.

This can take some patience. And it requires a lot of attention to detail. 

I pay attention to: 

  • the sensations in my fingers, 
  • how I am holding the guitar, 
  • my arm and elbows (I attempt to get my picking hand to be as loose as a hanging rag)
  • my posture, 
  • my neck, 
  • my shoulders, 
  • my breathing, 
  • the looseness or tension in my forearms and wrists,
  • the curving or clawing of my pinky
  • everything I can.

This calls for focus and concentration, but it’s remarkably effective. Because as soon as I stop feeling those sensations, I almost invariably start to slip up.

I am exposing that which will prevent me from playing what I want to play at the speeds I aspire. 

The battle is on.

At this phase, you are a hunter for tension. You are increasing the tempo not to bring it up to speed, but to find the point and places in which tension arises, and then fixing it.

Step 5. Give it a go at the target tempo

Finally, I close out the practice session (no longer than an hour if I want to keep my hands intact) by attempting to play the entire piece at the target tempo.

You can work up to this speed if you’d like, but I find it better to just go for it. 

Once again, I am often surprised by how well I can play it, though it’s still not perfect. At some point, it will be, and it doesn’t take long. 

Depending on the length, complexity, and alienness of the piece, I can make stunning amounts of progress within a single session.

And that wraps up the core Overlearning process.

Do these 5 steps every time you practice, and here’s what you’ll notice:

  • On average, during your practice sessions, the 20 percent ”Overdrive” zone will start to feel less intimidating
  • You’ll make fewer mistakes in Overdrive, and it’ll sound better (again, it isn’t likely to sound good yet, and it might never sound good. That’s fine, because the overdrive speed isn’t your goal)
  • On average, during your practice sessions, your slow-but-flawless playing speed will be faster, cleaner, and require less tension.
  • And (most importantly) you will be able to increase the speed you hit before excess tension begins to arise

(Bonus round) Maximize the productivity through Gamification and Incubation

Naturally, it pays to evaluate yourself and rate the Metrics That Matter (review or check out the Gamification method to learn how to measure the true indicators of progress in your playing).

It’s easier for me to do this with the brand-new Gamification app (which I will be rolling out to Guitar Acceleration alumni to test soon! It’s still a bit too buggy to roll out into beta, but if you’re a graduate, you’ll will be the first to know).

But you can use the Gamification interface (which you get access to as part of the Guitar Acceleration experience) or simply take note of what matters to you to track.

For the Evaluation, I like to film myself playing with two cameras. 

One is from a third-person perspective (3POV) (like what you would see when I publish a video fo my playing) and one is a First Person Point-Of-View (1POV) camera. 

The 3POV shot is so I can study my body movements, not my fingers (I pay attention to my picking arm in particular, since that’s where I have the most challenges).

No fancy equipment is needed here. An in-built webcam or halfway decent smartphone will do.

Because it’s so useful I go the extra mile… For the 1POV shot I use my phone, mounted onto this tripod (along with this inexpensive tripod mount) because it allows me to more or less capture what I see when I play.

It looks like this:

I film it in slow motion so I can analyze what I’m doing wrong (usually it comes down to hand synchronization issues).

But just as importantly; what I’m doing right. I want to lock in the movements I make that lead to the sound I want, so that I can repeat those movements again next time.

I can’t overstate the Incubative (method #6 of Guitar Acceleration) value of evaluating yourself and being able to review your playing during your downtime. It only takes a few minutes (seriously, you can do it on the toilet)… but it can make a world of difference.

Repeat this Overlearning process with each practice session until you achieve your goal. 

With Overlearning on your side, the process will prove much more challenging, but it will also take far less time. (Weeks can be trimmed into hours, especially if you are able to practice more than once per day.)

(Side note: If you are able to put in more than one practice session per day, I recommend:

  • Spending an entire session Overlearning––playing 20 percent+ faster than your target tempo. Pace yourself as needed (stand up and stretch and take frequent breaks). 
  • Then, do an entire session slowing things down and Going Nano until you can play it flawlessly.
  • Then, do an entire session working on perfecting what you can with the target tempo).

If you ever feel like it takes you longer to learn that it takes others, I feel you. 

I think the way we were taught to learn is flawed. In fact, I’m not sure we are directly taught how to learn in school and how to think problems and develop skills. 

Instead, we are given a curriculum to follow with facts and figures to recite. There’s more to it, of course, and this can certainly be useful for something. 

But either way, learning how to learn is underemphasized, and it’s something we have to figure out on our own as we grow up. 

Thankfully, it’s never too late. 

Start Overlearning today. 

Set your sights high. Tackle a song or a project that you feel is way out of reach. Run it through this process and watch what happens. 

And be sure to share with me your results! I want to see what you discover and accomplish (just tag @joshuavoiles on Instagram).

Remember: We’re in this guitar game together. 

Keep practicing, progressing, and playing your heart out. Don’t let anyone or anything stop you from making the music only you can make.

One Reply to “Make More Progress with Less Time and Effort (an OVERLEARNING Primer)”

  1. I’ve progressed faster than ever in my life since I’ve used this concept. And others from guitar acceleration. Thank you so much, I am overwhelmed because I thought I was stuck forever. Wow!!!

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