013 Tuesday Blues

Technique from Zero // Elizabeth Cotton

Hey folks, let's get straight to it.

Howdy fellow gunslingers! Today we're breaking down developing guitar technique starting from zero. It revolves around repetition and attention. Master this and you'll be able to clean your six shooter in the dark.

Below I've summarized "How to Learn Skills Faster" by neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman. It discusses the science, practice, and what to focus on during skill learning at each stage to maximize learning speed and depth of physical skills. Dr. Huberman references several studies about learning fine motor skills in a musical context.

Start: Designate a block of time (5-10 minutes) in your practice session to perform the technique in isolation. Your goal is perform the max number of repetitions possible in the practice session's timeframe. Optional (but recommended): use a metronome to set the cadence of your repetitions.

Stage 1: The first stage of developing a new motor skill. In these beginning sessions focus on generating the motor movements and direct your attention to the errors. Making mistakes in this stage is OK.

  • When you make errors it signals to the brain that something needs to change and the window of plasticity opens. It's critical in this stage to not give up and walk away when you're making errors. Fight through it. When you get it right the correct pattern will be rewarded (dopamine release) and consolidated ("the framing effect").
  • Side note: slow motion practice should be performed after some degree of proficiency (about a 25% success rate) is attained (because it's too accurate – you don't make errors).

Stage 2: You are familiar with the general motion of the movement and your performance starts improving from the work done in previous practice sessions.

  • Direct your attention to one specific component of the technique  (ex: motion mechanics like pick grip, pick motion, wrist motion, forearm posture OR sound articulation). Paying attention to the motor execution (the pattern of movement) and the sound are two (2) different things.
  • Pay attention to one specific mechanic for the entire practice session (and rotate what you pay attention to per practice session). Aim to master the core motor movement (which is done session to session) before you switch attention to a different component of the technique.

End: After the practice session, take a 5-10 minute break. Rest and sit with your eyes closed. Meditate. This consolidates the motor memory.

Neat trick, right?

Elizabeth Cotten was self taught, picking up a $3.75 Sears & Roebuck guitar which she played left-handed, upside down. Cotten would play alternating bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb — a style now known as "Cotten picking."

After putting down the guitar for 25 years, she picked up the instrument again and re-learned to play it from scratch. What a badass.

Her tune "Freight Train" is a good intro to the fingerstyle technique, if you're looking to learn a new trick. Tommy Emmanuel has two great lessons here & here.

Good luck.

Catch you on the flip side,
Uncle Mike