Have you ever practiced something a thousand times and still can’t play it as well as you’d like?
How does this happen?
Something sounds off, or outright awful.
Maybe it’s your timing.
Maybe it’s the clarity of the notes.
Maybe there’s excess string noise.
Whatever it is, something is tripping you up.
And given how much time you’ve put into it, at this point, you’re about ready to throw your guitar out the window.
It can be crazy-making, playing the same damn thing over and over for the umpteenth time, and still not be able to play it the way you want.
Is it you that’s the problem?
Are you simply not cut out for playing guitar on that level?
Should you switch genres or styles?
Should you stay in your own lane instead of trying to push yourself?
Should you change instruments?
Hell… should you throw in the towel and give up on being a musician at all?
I can relate to all these notions.
And I’ve even indulged them.
I have changed styles out of frustration.
I went from primarily playing shred to playing blues and back again.
I went from the bass to the guitar to the drums… to being a (failed) vocalist.
…And I quit being a musician altogether for several years, too.
There’s a theme to all of these impulses.
When you encounter frustrating scenarios like this… where it feels like your are beating your head against the wall and nothing is working… the honest question is:
Should I give up?
Should I stop trying to play this thing?
Should I move on?
This is a fair and valid question.
After all, isn’t it possible that there are, as a matter of fact, things that you’ll never be able to play?
…Things reserved only for the guitar gods, the genetically endowed, or those who were the classically trained since birth?
But as a rule, I beg to differ.
And as someone who has managed to play many so-called impossible songs despite my debilitating tendinitis…
I believe it’s possible for you to play anything.
And the riff or solo or song or whatever it is that’s giving you trouble is something that you can address properly so you can play it perfectly.
So grab your guitar. It’s time practice together.
(The video above is a raw practice session. I cover each of the steps within this post and break it down in Chapters, which you can navigate inside of the video. Follow along as I work out my own trouble spot!)
What it comes down to is identifying what I call the “tenacious trouble spot.”
It’s possible that there are multiple trouble spots, of course.
But if you have practiced something a thousand times already there is usually one trouble spot that is giving you the most trouble.
What’s more: the tenacious trouble spot is often the cause of the rest of the trouble.
Because you may also know the feeling of practicing the same thing a thousand times and somehow, every so often, you get it right.
In other words, by some stroke of unknown luck or providence, you happen to nail it here and there.
And it’s those moments that keep you going. (Indeed, how else could you stand practicing something over and over like that? Bravo if you have that kind of persistence!)
It’s those moments that prove it to yourself that it’s possible.
You get a hint at the reward, a light at the end of the tunnel.
And so you persevere.
The problem is, you can’t make it consistent. You have to cross your fingers every time. Whether you’ll play it perfect or not comes down to a roll of the dice.
And, as you well know, most of the time, with a tenacious trouble spot that’s unaddressed… you blow it.
Or maybe you’ve never played it perfectly.
Maybe it’s only ever an imperfect mess.
That’s okay, too. The solution is the same.
Let’s break it down:
Step #1: Identify the tenacious trouble spot
This is the point in what you’re playing that, if you play it poorly, it has a ripple effect.
There’s a chain reaction.
And everything that precedes and follows the trouble spot gets threatened. It’s all susceptible to sounding like garbage.
You’ll be flailing about, praying for purchase on the strings… failing to stay in sync with your fretting hand.
You probably already know what the tenacious trouble spot is.
If you were to film or record your playing and listen back (which is a highly effective way of maximizing the productivity of your practice)… you would notice a certain spot that predictably sounds off (or awful).
If you don’t already know the spot; filming yourself is a quick way to find it.
But here’s the tricky part:
The tenacious trouble spot might only be giving you trouble because of what happens just before that moment occurs.
Or, counterintuitively, it might be giving you trouble because of what happens immediately after that moment in the tune.
Sometimes you are anticipating what’s next, and this anticipation causes a whole host of suboptimal reactions in your body:
Your breathing constricts, you tense up your muscles––often in the hands, but also the shoulders, back, neck, or arms––you hunch over, or you simply skip notes.
You jump ahead because of your nerves about the next part.
Because of the psychological anticipation.
On the surface, it seems we have already complicated this problem quite a bit.
It’s not just the tenacious trouble spot that you have to work on.
It’s what comes before it and what comes after it.
And most importantly… it’s fusing all of it together to the point where you can play it consistently, unflinchingly, without thinking.
But this is actually a seductively simple process.
And the good news is: it’s way easier and more efficient.
Better to fix the before and after moments that surround a trouble spot than to do ineffective rote repetition on the trouble spot alone.
In fact, I believe that you can iron out this problem once and for all in a single practice session. (Assuming you practice properly for about an hour).
And if not… you’ll make measurable and meaningful progress, either way. You’ll finally start to see that this thing you’ve been working on for ages does have a happy ending after all.
And that gives you renewed motivation and hope.
The sort of hope that will keep you going and prevent you from giving up.
So, let’s tackle this thing one step at a time.
Step #2: Perfect the tenacious trouble spot itself, in isolation
Sometimes this can be surprisingly easy.
You may find out that you’re able to play this part fairly well, consistently, so long as it’s the only thing you are playing.
This is a sure sign that something that is happening before or after this moment is really what’s causing the trouble.
You might lose your grip on the pick.
Or the pick might shift into a funny angle.
Or your wrist might be overextending past the strings.
Or your pinky might bounce “up, up and away!” from the fretboard.
Whatever the case is… if you can play the trouble spot well in isolation, it’s a sign that the problem is actually happening somewhere else.
If you are able to play the tenacious trouble spot in isolation just fine, move onto Step 3 (below).
Other times, the trouble spot itself is something that you clearly struggle with.
This is often the case.
It might be sobering to find out that you can play everything up to speed except for this tiny little section (which might even span the space of a single bar or less).
But I consider this good news. Though it will require some depth and dedication, it actually makes the problem much smaller and easier to solve.
Here’s what I do to tackle it:
First, slow the tempo down to the point of being able to play it perfectly.
Bear in mind that, given certain techniques and personal playing styles, this is sometimes more on the fast side than on the slow side.
Meaning, you might be able to play it perfectly at 80 BPM, but not at 50 BPM.
This is not uncommon.
It can be extremely challenging to play certain things more slowly.
And though this practice can be useful, if the thing you are working on is fast; spend less time in this glacially slow zone and spend more time playing closer to the target tempo.
The key is: You need to be able to play it flawlessly. And not just once, but a good 3-5 times in a row, without struggle.
What does it mean to play it flawlessly 3-5 times in a row?
Here’s a transcription from the video above that explains it:
An important distinction that I think is worth mentioning here is when I say play it flawlessly about three to five times in a row…
…what I mean is you’re able to play it without mistakes,
you’re consistent with it,
and you don’t feel like you’re relying on luck to make it happen.
You’re just comfortable enough.
It doesn’t mean that it’s comfortable.
It doesn’t mean that it’s like a walk in the park necessarily.
I think people will get stuck there. I’ve seen players who won’t move on and won’t push themselves a little bit further simply because it doesn’t feel completely comfortable to play something.
We’ll never be able to play everything completely comfortably. You’re going to have to push yourself. Even if you’ve done it a thousand times.
Performers playing live on stage for 20 years still don’t nail their parts. Still have to struggle and strain and pay attention and put a lot of focus into it, you know?
So it’s not the myth of being able to play it completely effortlessly.
That isn’t what you’re going for. But you do want to get it to the point where it feels like you can do it consistently and you didn’t just get lucky.
There’s a difference there. It’s a really subtle distinction.
So you could play it three to five times consistently flawlessly and be like,
“Okay, cool. I’m ready to move on.” But if you have that sense of “man, I really squeaked my way through that and lucked out…” I would urge you to continue going with it.
Here’s why you want to be able to play it flawlessly (free of mistakes without much struggle):
Whatever you are doing at this speed, where you are able to pull it off properly, is what you want to replicate—with your fingers, hands, and body—at the higher speeds.
So you want to play close attention to what it is that you are doing here that is supporting you in playing it right.
Because it’s not just the tempo.
That helps, of course. But it has more to do with how you are playing without tension as a result of the tempo.
You can play without (or with minimal) tension at higher speeds, too; you just have to deeply notice what it feels like to play this way in the first place.
But, in a nutshell:
You want to play it perfectly 3 times in a row at this speed, and increase the tempo by whatever increments you are able to adapt to (I like to do 5 to 10 percent using Guitar Pro; or 10 BPM increments using a metronome).
As soon as you reach a speed where you can’t play it flawlessly; hang out in that zone and clean it up. Find what’s causing you to make mistakes and address it.
If you are overwhelmed by the volume of mistakes, then you are biting off more than you can chew and need to back the tempo down again to find the “sweet spot.”
The sweet spot is where there are noticeable mistakes, but they are manageable. You can address and correct them one-by-one and get to the point where you can bump up the tempo again.
You keep doing this with the isolated trouble spot until you can nail it at your target tempo, consistently.
This might take some time. It might take several practice sessions. But that’s what it takes. There’s no getting around it.
But you can speed up the process by using Neurohacks. These are especially helpful if you find yourself getting stuck somewhere; unable to bump the BPM up even a single number after two consecutive practice sessions.
Discover How to Always Know the Best Next Thing to Practice to Make Rapid Progress in Minimum Time
Discover How to Always Know the Best Next Thing to Practice to Make Rapid Progress in Minimum Time
Discover How to Always Know the Best Next Thing to Practice to Make Rapid Progress in Minimum Time
Step #3: Perfect what happens just before the trouble spot, in isolation
You might have already done this. But if you haven’t; do so now. You can follow the same process outlined above.
If you haven’t already cleaned up the surrounding areas of the trouble spot, then you aren’t in a position to address the trouble spot properly. This is often overlooked.
Use your keen judgment and musical sense to determine what constitutes “just before.”
I like to do this in increments of bars. I play the bar before the tenacious trouble spot.
Sometimes the trouble spot is right in the middle of a bar. That’s okay.
The key is, you are playing the nearest notes that come before the trouble spot, and making sure that you can play them perfectly.
Step #4: Perfect what happens just after the trouble spot, in isolation
Step #5: Fuse the just before and the trouble spot together
Now we’re getting to the place where the magic happens.
What you already know is that you can play what comes before the trouble spot and the trouble spot itself perfectly in isolation, right?
So now it’s just a matter of gluing those parts together.
And this is often where the shit hits the fan, and you never knew how or why it was happening.
You want to take the last few notes of what happens just before the trouble spot, and play those plus the trouble spot on a loop (manual or otherwise).
I call this Fusing the Transitions.
If needed, start with just a single note plus the trouble spot.
Then add the next prior note plus the trouble spot.
And the next.
And so on.
Start at the target tempo.
If you can’t do it at the target tempo, pay close attention to what is happening.
What is blocking you from being able to play these two parts together?
If you are unable to spot the problem at the target tempo; then bump the metronome down until you can.
But bear in mind: sometimes the problem won’t arise unless you are playing at the target tempo. This is where things get a little more difficult to diagnose; but diagnose we must.
I like to film myself in slow motion.
Or film yourself, upload the video to YouTube, and watch it back in slow motion.
Even better; film yourself and watch it back frame-by-frame.
This is easy to do without any fancy equipment (odds are, if you are reading this, you have all the equipment you need).
If your phone has a video camera; you are good to go.
If your computer has a webcam, you are good to go.
You can usually scrub the video and view each frame on the computer by opening the file in a video player and pressing the left or right arrow keys.
If you filmed the video on your phone and don’t know how to get your video onto the computer… you can do something similar with your phone’s video player.
You can even press play and pause rapidly to create a similar frame-by-frame effect.
The key with analyzing your playing on video is to first focus only on the fretting hand.
Take note (or mental note) of anything that you notice that might be causing you to misfire.
Then watch it again and focus only on the picking hand. Take note of what you notice.
Then, watch it yet again, and this time pay attention to both the picking hand and the fretting hand. Sometimes this is where you will be able to spot synchronization issues.
This level of analysis can be illuminating.
You might notice things you never would have guessed were happening that are holding your playing back.
I, for one, was shocked to see just how damn far my hand would move away from the strings when alternate picking the first string in a downward direction.
(You can see this in the video of my practice session above)
That is a considerable amount of ground that I have to recover… in a manner that requires me to change directions and defy gravity all at the same time.
Plus I have to do it extremely quickly in order for me to be able to play the next note on time.
It’s no wonder my playing was sounding like a sloppy mess.
At higher speeds, every one of these details will drag you down.
Whether you film yourself or not, let’s take about the sort of things to watch out for.
Use this list to help you find out what it is that’s causing you to drop the ball during the tenacious trouble spot.
Narrow all your attention on each one of this things (listed below), one at a time.
See if you can spot the error.
(Note: Keep in mind that there may be multiple errors.
But if you are trying to pay attention to all the errors at once, you will more likely blind or overwhelm yourself.
Better to watch for one thing at a time and see what you can see):
- Check your grip on the pick (are you suddenly holding it too high or low? The tiniest tweak here can slow you down… or speed you up!)
- Check the angle of the pick (is it shifted in a way that will prevent you from picking properly?)
- Check to see where the pick is landing (is it near or far from where you need it to go next?)
- Check your wrist position (is it positioned in a way that will allow you to play what comes next?)
- Check your fretting fingers. (Does your pinky bounce up and away from the fretboard like mine? This will slow you down and throw off the synchronization between your hands).
(FYI, I plan to do a separate piece on how to tame the pinky here soon and I’ll link it here).
- Is your fretting hand “glued” to a position that it needs to shift from sooner? (Sometimes you can “plant” your hand somewhere when playing something, when it needs to be held loosely. It needs to be already setting up for where you need to move it next. This can often happen with tricky chords and chord changes, or arpeggio positions when sweeping).
- Check your posture. (Do you lean forward or back during this part in a way that’s preventing you from playing with proper technique?
A personal example of poor posture in action: I do this a lot during high-speed alternate picking passages.
I hunch forward to get through it, and this puts my shoulders in a position that makes it so I can no longer ergonomically economy pick or sweep pick.
In effect, my picking hand thinks that it is in a certain position near the strings when it is, in fact, overextended.
So I start picking invisible strings in the open and empty air (🤭)!
It’s a doozy of a thing to have to try and correct for in real-time. So I overcompensate in a fitful panic. And even if I recover my ground, I end up making a bunch of noise along the way.
And because I am frazzled… I’m more likely to mess up what comes next. (Even if I know I am capable of playing it perfectly under different circumstances).
Anything that will cause you to lose your cool––when you are attempting to play a difficult passage––is something that can derail the whole thing.
There are always other things you can check, of course.
The key is to pay attention to the error.
Pay attention to what you are doing that’s making the trouble spot what it is.
Step #6: Fuse the “immediately after” and the trouble spot together
Now you are moving in the other direction.
If you have already cleaned up the before and successfully fused it with the trouble spot and you are still having trouble… Chances are, it’s what is happening after the trouble spot that is tripping you up.
Once again, you are now going to play the trouble spot plus the notes that come afterward, in a loop.
Start at the target tempo to determine whether or not you can play it well consistently.
If you can, then move onto Step 7.
Otherwise, drill it like we did with the previous steps.
Drop it to the first tempo where you can play it perfectly. And work your way up.
This isn’t a random walk.
This is a concerted effort to expose the places where you are tensing up unnecessarily… or moving in a way that will prevent you from playing at high speeds.
Step #7: Fuse all of it together: the before, the trouble spot, and the after
As you may have guessed, now you are going to play all three parts together, in a loop, as perfectly as you can, until you can do it consistently.
If you can’t play it at the target speed, diagnose the error.
If you can notice what you are doing wrong at the target tempo; then attempt to correct the error at the target tempo.
If you can’t correct the error at the target tempo, then slow it down to the point where you can.
Of course, if you can’t diagnose what the error is in the first place at the target speed… then slow down the tempo to the point where you can.
Or (another valid approach that takes a bit more time), slow it down until you can play it perfectly. And then push the tempo further until you start to spot the error that’s occurring.
This is something that is missing from the advice “slow it down.”
You don’t slow it down for its own sake.
You slow it down so that you can spot what you are doing wrong, and so you can notice what it feels like to play it right. (Both sides of the coin are crucial).
If the tempo is preventing you from doing either one of those things, then you need to slow it down.
(Otherwise, the lazy “slow it down” advice often admonishes players to not push themselves and to remain comfortable instead).
It’s a recipe for stagnation and slow growth; a way to encourage endless noodling. You have to try to do things you can’t currently do in order to go places you’ve never gone.
There is no way around that.
And that often requires increasing the speed, even––and especially––if it causes you to make mistakes.
That’s an intense practice session!
If you have done all of that… Now you’re really making progress.
But chances are, depending on the perniciousness of the trouble spot; you still aren’t done.
Let’s end this practice session with a bang.
Step #8: What you need to do at this point is attempt to play the whole thing.
You might be too fatigued at this point for it to sound any good.
It’s still worth giving it a go a few times around. Because you are still communicating to your body and brain what you want to see happen.
If this last burst sounds or feels wretched and demotivates you; hear me out:
Rest assured that the session was still tremendously productive.
But your body and brain needs a break.
Your next session (after sleeping it off so that your memory can consolidate) will prove fruitful.
What you might find is that you need to continue to gradually expand what you fuse together with the tenacious trouble spot.
Get to the point where everything that surrounds that moment is clean as Colgated teeth.
But know that it’s likely best to emphasize what comes before the trouble spot at this point.
Ruthlessly sniff out what you are doing beforehand that’s causing you to not be properly set up to pull off the section that’s giving you the most trouble.
By now, you know what it feels like to play that section right.
Now you just need to master getting yourself into that same position and same mindset at the precisely correct moment to play it right.
Anything that is throwing off that optimal position or mindset is what you are now addressing and correcting.
It might be before or after the trouble spot… but it tends to be before (assuming you have followed the process above).
This takes patience and persistence.
You are basically repeating the process that you just went through.
But you are adding in more and more to it so you can identify the moment where something you are doing (or not doing) is causing the trouble spot itself to go awry.
You are Expanding the Phrase.
But that’s it!
Anytime you hit a trouble spot that just won’t go away… or any time you find yourself practicing something a hundred times but you still can’t nail consistently… go through this process.
Read and watch this lesson again. It’s hard work. But it’s efficient and effective. It works like a charm.
I’ll always be here, ready to practice with you.
Remember that we’re in this together; playfully practicing and always improving.
Don’t let the trouble spots––or anything else––get you down for long, because you have music to make that no has ever heard.
And I’m standing by to hear it 🙂