The 7 Habits of Excellence

For better or for worse, your habits in the practice room will show up in your playing on stage.

The seven "Habits of Excellence" below are taken from Gerald Klickstein's book The Musician's Way. Check out for more info on this book and the author.

Habit 1 - Ease

I recently saw Tommy Emmanuel in concert. It was one of the most inspiring evenings of my life. Just a man and his guitar, playing some of the most beautiful and frighteningly complex solo guitar tunes the world has ever known.

...And he made it look easy.

Expert musicians make everything they play look easy. The reason? It is easy for them. Tommy Emmanuel didn't come out of the womb playing the guitar like a master. He became a master after thousands of hours of dedicated practice - smart practice.

If you struggle in the practice room, you will struggle on stage. It really is that simple. Choose practice material that challenges you but is not too far out of reach. If you are just getting into jazz, I wouldn't recommend trying to learn any Allan Holdsworth solos. Be smart.

If you need help deciding what kinds of tunes or exercises are appropriate for your current skill level, ask your teacher or a trusted friend who is further along than you are.

Ironically, the the slower you go, the faster you'll get there.

Habit 2 - Expressiveness

Nothing will bore your audience faster than playing every note the same. Everything you play should be shaped dynamically, even if you are just warming up. Make strong beats strong and weak beats weak. Respond dynamically to harmonic progressions. Music is all about tension and release, so reflect that with expressive playing. Make this a habit in practice and it will happen naturally in performance.

What are you (or the composer) trying to say with this music? How does each phrase fit into the overall framework of the composition? What are you doing about it?

Music is a means of expression. And a powerful one at that. Keep that in mind as you practice. Learning the notes is just the first step in learning a piece of music. Now you have to say something with the notes.

Habit 3 - Accuracy

When learning new material, it's easy to rush through sloppily several times until you get a grasp of the music. But then you have to spend time replacing the sloppy habits you've just developed with good ones. It's much more efficient to play accurately every time you play new material. This can be accomplished by slowing down and by breaking the material up into small, easy to learn sections.

Let's apply some good ol' fashioned logic to the average guitarist's practice habits. A common scenario:

  • A guitarist is learning a new lick
  • They attempt to play the lick at tempo from the outset
  • They play with about 20% accuracy the first time
  • That's obviously not good enough, so they keep trying, improving their accuracy by 5% with each repetition
  • At that rate, they'll play the lick incorrectly 16 times before they ever play it with 100% accuracy
  • A "good student" would then repeat the lick 3 more times at 100% accuracy

    The result? Sixteen repetitions of incorrect practice (building bad muscle memory) and 3 repetitions of correct practice. Think about it.

    Habit 4 - Rhythmic Vitality

    Music exists in time, therefore rhythm must be mastered by musicians. Not only should rhythmic subdivisions be precise, but phrases should be driven rhythmically by musicians. Upbeats should propel towards downbeats; weak beats should drive forward towards strong beats.

    Rhythmic Vitality goes beyond mere divisions of a beat. A computer can do that (much to the chagrin of our drummer friends). But here's what a computer can't can't respond to the music happening around it. It can't make the subtle adjustments that make music a living art form. In short, it can't play with soul.

    Listen to some old Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson recordings, then follow that up with Britney Spears. I rest my case.

    Habit 5 - Beautiful Tone

    Tone. Every guitarist's favorite topic, right? Before you get too excited, let me define tone as it relates to this habit of excellence.

    Beautiful Tone is all about having a strong physical connection with your instrument. Play it like you mean it.

    Don't misunderstand. This is not to say that you always have to play hard or with a strong attack, but that every note you play should ring clearly and with a focused sound.

    Obviously your guitar, amp, effects, strings, pick, hair product, etc. impact your tone in huge ways. But at the end of the day, tone is in the hands. Cliche, yes. True, also yes.

    Some of the best tone I've ever heard was in a club on Broadway in Nashville. The guitarist was playing a standard Tele through a Fender Twin with a handful of Boss pedals (not Keeley modded...I checked) in front of the amp. On the flip side of the coin, I've heard some terrible sounds coming out of $5,000 rigs. Not once, but many times.

    Develop a strong connection with your instrument. Play with authority. Get out of the gear forums and into the practice room. Your sound will improve and it won't cost you a dime.

    You're welcome.

    Habit 6 - Focused Attention

    If you let your mind wander in practice, your mind will wander on stage. Are you picking up on the pattern yet? Effective practice is not so much about how many hours you put in, but how much focused attention you put into your practice.

    Mindless repetition creates a mindless guitarist.

    Before every practice session, have a specific goal in mind. As other issues come to mind, write them down and practice them later. Stay focused on your goal.

    I work best in short bursts of focused practice. This Online Timer has been a huge productivity booster for me. Start with 3 minutes. Anyone can stay focused for 3 minutes. As with anything else, practice will improve your ability to focus. This improved focus will bleed over into other areas of life too. You'll be a more productive person all-around!

    Habit 7 - Positive Attitude

    Becoming a great guitar player is hard. Very hard, in fact. Any person/website/product that tells you otherwise is lying. Don't give them your money or your time.

    Try this: Flip your guitar over and try playing something left handed. That's where you started. You've come a long way.

    There will be times when you feel great about your playing, but there will also be times when you feel like the worst player in town. I've been there. We've all been there.

    When you feel like you've hit a wall with your guitar playing, stay positive. It's important that you never view the musical problem as a personal failure, but as an opportunity to learn.

    Successful people are successful because they face their problems head on. You'll never get better at playing through changes if you don't practice playing through changes. Your sloppy technique won't fix itself while you're watching TV. There are no "secrets" or "shortcuts" to becoming a great guitarist.

    It's been said that it takes around 10,000 hours of practice before any skill set can be mastered. Enjoy the journey. This is music for crying out loud! You're a music-maker, and that's a beautiful thing.

    Final Thoughts

    Write these seven "Habits of Excellence" down.

    Post them in your practice space.

    Print a copy and put it in your guitar case.

    Tattoo them on your forearm.

    Shave them into your dog's back.

    Whatever it takes, get them in your head! Your habits in the practice room will determine the player you become.

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