Why practice should NOT make perfect

Does practice make perfect?

It’s undoubtedly true that the more you focus on doing something, the better you become at its accomplishment. However, as this Guardian news story from 2019 highlights, the modern convention of ‘the 10,000 hour practice rule’ may not be quite the guarantee some people have sold it as. Personal improvement, in any sphere of one’s life is never so cut-and-dry, nor can the same methods work for every individual.

The key question is why do you practice, or rather, what are you practicing for?

For instance, is it to sound like a particular musician? And if so, why?

Take this example: I love BB King, and have listened to his music for over two decades to date; I’ve learned some of his key phrases, his recognisable musical characteristics such as his blues box, vibrato technique and the space he’s leave between notes, etc. And despite learning & digesting all of this information – heck, I used to teach these techniques at specialist masterclasses focusing on the blues master – I still sound nothing like him when I play guitar.

That’s not a bad thing, either. It doesn’t represent a failure on my part. If anything, bring able to incorporate so many elements of a player who got so much right, while still retaining my own musical voice, has to be an achievement worth celebrating in some small way. Of course, a large part of a guitar player’s sound comes from their fingers, so I’d never have been able to completely obscure who I was, even if I wanted to.

Perhaps you simply wish you could execute certain techniques as well as the great masters of your chosen instrument? Read that Guardian article again, then learn to measure success by your own improvement, in comparison to your past self only.

It almost sounds trite, but you can’t stop being you, so be the best you possible

So how should you practice? This interesting article from Bulletproof Musician offers some insights into what you should be looking for, and offering the term deliberate practice instead.

For further reading, feel free to peruse my older blogs & reblogs on the subject of practice, such as my warm-up and practice recommendations, and this reblogged article from Nicole Rogers on how to practice effectively.

…Just remember, perfection is an illusion, and no amount of practice will stop you from being you. Perhaps we should all embrace that.

Ukulele playing: pick or fingers?

One question I was asked fairly regularly by ukulele students in the past was:

Which is better for playing ukulele – fingers or pick*?

This blog post will hopefully go some way to explain why both are equally viable options. There – if you came to this article solely for reassurance on your preferred method of playing, I’ve saved you the hassle of reading any further!

[*NB – when I say ‘pick’, I of course mean a plectrum, like those used for guitar playing. If you’re here to learn about the kind if pick you dig holes with, you’re very much in the wrong place!]

If you’re looking for more information on picks, this rather informative article here from liveukulele.com may prove to be of use. But for now, let’s dive into our two options…

Pick (plectrum)

A pick is an easy option to start with, as even the nylon strings if a ukulele (as opposed to the steel strings used on a typical acoustic guitar) can have an effect on your fingers; this is particularly true of your nails and cuticles (the skin directly under your finger nails). You also get a louder, more direct sound when using a regular guitar plectrum, which are generally made of plastic or synthetic materials such as nylon & tortex (fake tortoise shell).

If you’re used to picking & strumming a guitar, you don’t have to make any changes to your right hand style at all. Although the same could be said if you’re primarily a fingerstyle player…

Fingerpicking

If you’re adept at fingerpicking guitar, you’ll be completely at home on the ukulele. In fact, it has two strings less, which should make it easier! I often find myself using my thumb for the G & C strings (the two closest to your face) and only making use of my index and middle finger for the E & A strings respectively.

I’ve also noticed that I perform finger rakes with any finger, and use my thumb in a greater variety of ways. Also, any guitar picking technique, from muting to string slapping & body tapping, all work equally well on a uke. If anything, my ukulele picking technique is more akin to how I play flamenco guitar!

Finally, you may notice that the tone of a fingerpicked uke is less harsh than when plucked with a pick. It’s certainly possible to obtain a greater range of sounds by adjusting which part of your fingers and nails pluck or strike the strings than could be managed with a plectrum.

Is there a middle way?

Well, yes. There are a few alternatives. Firstly, there’s felt plectrums. These are fairly common in ukulele playing and provide three ease of using a pick without the harsher tone. However, they’re less useful for more intricate playing, such as plucking individual strings.

There’s also a type of pick which sits on your fingers, popular in bluegrass styles.

Thumb & finger picks, popular in bluegrass banjo & guitar playing

These thumb & finger picks originated banjo playing, and offer the attack of a plectrum while still using fingerstyle hand & finger movement. Having said that, they do take a bit of getting used to! Many players use only the thumb pick in combination with their fingers. I’d recommend experimenting to see what works best for you.

But which is better?

As always in articles of this nature, I can’t give you a definitive answer, other than telling you my personal preference. For me, I don’t use picks at all in ukulele playing. I prefer the tone & versatility of using my fingers. But that’s just me – I encourage you to try both and see which one feels right for you.

Finally, don’t worry about sounding amazing if you’re new to trying a new playing style. Consider what feels most comfortable, and what has the best potential for you to continue improving in your playing. Let me know how you get on!

R.I.P. Neil Peart (1952-2020), legendary drummer for Rush

We learn today that Canadian rock legend Neil Peart has passed away after a three-year battle with brain cancer.

Joining fellow Canadians, the rock band Rush, in time for their second album, 1974’s Fly By Night. Neil’s drumming was a game changer for the band,as evidenced by opening track ‘Anthem’ (below).

Anthem (Fly By Night, 1974)

Full reports on Peart’s sad passing can be found here…

Rush drumming legend Neil Peart dead at 67

Rest in peace, Neil Ellwood Peart (1952-2020), and thanks for the music.

Welcome to the Twenties

Happy New Year, everybody & welcome to the Twenties!

The St Louis Cotton Club Band, in a truly epic photoshoot, crica 1925

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog. Life conspired to get in the way!

So here’s the main updates from me…

I’m fast approaching my third year as a music therapist, and for the better part of a year, I’ve been working five days a week, across Northumberland & Cumbria. For those of you from outside the UK, these two counties are not only the northernmost in England (bordering Scotland above), but also the most rural. This means as well as a full working week, I’ve got a longer commute than average, which eats into my free time somewhat.

To counter this, and because it’s less of an economic necessity nowadays, I’m stepping back a little from corporate live work. For the last decade, 80% of my gigs were weddings & events. While it’s been amazing, the time has come to be a little more selective with the performing work I take on.

I’ll still be gigging, but it’ll be music I fully believe in…

…such as my own projects, which are finally scheduled to get off the ground this year! Thanks to what I’ve started calling the Commune Method (using the same players on everyone’s projects, producing one person’s creative work at a time), I have a small team of talented musicians and producers to help me get my newer compositions down on a format I can share with you soon – updates to follow!

Finally, I’ll be refreshing my gear list in a new post soon, the crowing glory of which will be the custom-made classical guitar that has been built for me! Very excited to share more details with you soon in a post all of it’s own.

Naturally, since we’re in the ’20s now, it’s easy to draw parallels between the times we live in and those from a century ago. Far-right thinking is entering the mainstream, and it feels to many as if many G20 countries are bogged down in nationalism, isolationism and teetering on yet more war. Yet such times produce good art. Except this time around, more than ever, the art is all of us, and I hold out the hope that it’s not too late to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Finally, thinking about the ‘prohibition’ age in ’20s America, I’m struck by the creative lengths people went to in order to continue drinking. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, true creativity comes from working in and around the rules, when necessary.

Until next time…

A ‘Harp Guitar’ – where can I get one?

R.I.P. Dr John (1941-2019)

Terribly sad news that another musical legend has passed away – another musician who has been a huge inspiration to me over the years…

When trying to describe my new still-in-progress project to people, I mention that it could sound a little like Dr John. While this may be true, in terms of a focus on the gritty, lo-fi blues, jazz & soul from New Orleans, admitting the influence feels like stealing a sacred cow. No one can, or ever will, sound like Dr John…

But if you listen closely, he could surprise you by jumping out of any preconceived notions you may have of him. To me, that’s what his music was all about – taking one thing, and throwing it into a mix (and a groove) with several other elements, leaving us with something which never quite sounded exactly the same twice, and was all the better for it.

He will be missed & I’ll be giving his back catalogue a spin today (especially ‘Gumbo’ and my personal favourite, ‘In The Right Place’).

R.I.P. Malcom ‘Dr John’ Rebbenack (1941-2019).

You can read one of many effuse obituaries online, such as this one from Pitchfork. Enjoy x

Tonerider pickups Vs Squier Classic Vibe Pickups

I’m in the process of upgrading the pickups in one of my Squier Strats (more details to follow soon). The information in various guitar forums, and via blogs such as this has been VERY useful in helping me decide which set to use, or at least which brand to opt for.

Read and enjoy…
Tim

TidyWords

Quite rightly, the Squier Classic Vibe range of guitars and basses have received universal praise since their release, the build quality, look and tonal qualities far exceed expectations for their modest price and are regularly compared favourably to higher priced Fender models.

For some time there has been rumours that the Classic Vibe series use pickups made by a company called Tonerider.  Tonerider produce high quality pickups retailing at around £80 per set, a price that is half that of many of their competitors. Just like the Classic Vibe guitars themselves, Tonerider pickups have also received almost universal praise and compare favourably to much higher priced ’boutique’ pickups.

It’s hard to get a straight answer on this but rumours vary from them just being made in the same factory to them actually being exactly the same pickups. If Squier Classic Vibe’s do use Tonerider pickups it would go a long…

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Guitar News: Fender announce new Player Series to replace MIM models

Recent news from Fender. It looks like the ‘Made In Mexico’ tag is being either rechristened or replaced…


There’s more on the story via this link to Reverb.com:

https://reverb.com/uk/news/fender-discontinues-mim-standard-series-replaces-with-the-player-series

The general consensus amongst guitar gear fans is that the MIM range improved greatly from 2006. I briefly owned one from 2012 (a lovely HSH model I sold as I wasn’t using anywhere near enough) and can testify to the improvement. My first ‘proper’ electric guitar was a Fender MIM Strat from 2000, which I still own. Hopefully I’ll never part with it. The original pickups were a little flat but otherwise I can’t fault it – but that’s just my humble opinion.

(I upgraded the pickups on this old Strat around ten years ago – more in that in a new post coming soon).
Still, having given up the more recent MIM guitar, I might have to give these new ‘Player Series’ models a look-over in the very near future. Do let me know your thoughts…