Understanding The Importance of Motor Skills

Are you ready for a challenge? Yes? Great! Please do the following experiment that I devised…

  • Choose a new guitar lick that you would now like to master.
  • Practice the lick diligently everyday for the next two weeks. (Or take even longer if you need it). The aim is to practice the lick until you can play it without thinking.
  • Once you have mastered the guitar lick, then grab your metronome and set it to 80 bpm. This speed is very important. Make sure that the metronome is clicking at 80 bpm
  • Now go to a piano and play the lick to the metronome click.

So how did it go? If you're not a very competent pianist, I'm assuming that it didn't go too well! Why was that? Well, let's take a step backwards…

Many guitarists are unaware that when they are learning to improvise on guitar, they are dealing with two really important things…

  • The musical language of the style of music that they would like to improvise. This language is made up of the melodies, harmonies and rhythms that are commonly used in that particular style of music.
  • The motor skills that are needed to play the musical language of that style on the guitar. If you don't master the needed motor skills then improvising fluently in that style of music on guitar will be impossible.

Obviously both of the above are equally important. But for this article we will be taking a close look at motor skills…

What Are Motor Skills?

Wikipedia.org defines a motor skill as…

A motor skill is a learned sequence of movements that combine to produce a smooth, efficient action in order to master a particular task.

This is a great definition.

What it means is that in order to play something like a guitar lick you are essentially having to do the following two steps…

  1. Work out exactly what individual movements are needed to play each note of the lick.
  2. Learn to join those individual movements together in the right order.

Although the above may seem simple and obvious, it also gives some insight into a very common reason why so many guitarists fail to become fluent improvisers. Let's take a look at each step one at a time…

Work Out The Individual Movements

When you begin learning to improvise guitar solos in a particular style of music, one of the most important things to do is to become aware of and physically master the individual movements often used in that style of music. Until those movements are mastered you'll always struggle with learning the musical ideas of that style.

One of the best ways to learn those movements is to learn new guitar licks and break them down into small chunks at insanely slow speeds. For Example: When I want to learn a new lick I will learn it by playing the lick one note at a time. The reason why I do this is simple—I want to become totally aware of the exact movements needed to play each note in an efficient way.

IMPORTANT: If a note of the lick needs to be played using a movement that I haven't done before, then I will practice that note many times daily until it becomes very easy to do. Is this a waste of time? Absolutely not! (The more movements you have mastered, the more of a versatile improviser you will become). And of course, as long as that one pesky movement remains uncomfortable I will never be able to play the lick in an effortless way.

Quite a few students I've taught over the years have been highly resistant to this idea. They believe that being this analytical when learning a new lick is counter-productive. They would much rather just play the lick to a backing track and not think about what they are doing. [Side Note: It's a total mystery to me why guitarists who can't improvise fluently would be so resistant to ideas given to them by someone who can improvise. Human beings can be strange at times!].

Simply put, they are wrong

Not wrong just a little bit…

They are so wrong that it's not even funny…

Did I mention that they're wrong? :-) 

And this belief that they will automatically (and somewhat magically) do the correct motions is causing their progress to be much slower than it needs to be. [Side Note: Of course, playing along to recordings or backing tracks is an extremely important part of learning to master a lick. But it should be done AFTER the initial motor skill development has been done].

Learn To Sequence The Movements

Once you have experimented and found the most efficient movements needed to play each note of the lick, then the next step is to join those notes together. The way that I do this is very thorough. [Remember: The goal isn't just to be able to play the lick. It is also to become aware of and master the individual movements and groups of movements that the lick is comprised off. Understanding this distinction will help you immensely in the long-run].

Here's an example how I might learn to connect the movements of a four note guitar lick

  1. I'll play the first two notes of the lick very slowly. I'll pay very close attention to what I'm doing and check that I'm using the correct movements.
  2. I'll repeat the previous step numerous times. How many times do I repeat it? It all depends on the complexity of the movements. If playing those two notes uses movements that I have done many thousands of times before, then I might only repeat those notes a few times.
  3. I'll repeat Steps 1 and 2 with the second and third notes of the lick.
  4. I'll repeats Steps 1 and 2 with the third and fourth notes of the lick.

After I have practiced the lick in chunks of two notes, I will then repeat the process on chunks of three notes, and then finally all four notes of the lick.

Once I can play the lick slowly and perfectly without a metronome, I will then practice the lick using a metronome. I'll make sure that I practice the lick at a wide-variety of tempos. (The tempos range from very slow to speeds that are extremely challenging).

[Side Note: Keep in mind that I don't do all this work in a single practice session. I will generally work on a lick for maybe 10 to 15 minutes a day until I have mastered it. How long it takes me to master the lick depends on how hard it is].

Sounds like a lot of work? Tough sh*t. :-) 

All joking aside, this stage of learning the new motor skill (i.e. new lick) is a very time consuming process. And to be honest, it can take a lot of daily practice for that new motor skill to be so ingrained that it requires no thought! (How long did it take you to learn to ride a bike, or learn to write with a pen?).

There is no way around this work. There are no magical tips and tricks that allow you to bypass the necessary work. The “secret” is to do the work. You either do the work that it takes to learn and master the new motor skill…or you don't. If you choose to avoid doing the work with each new lick that you want to learn, then it will be very challenging to develop the variety of motor skills that you need to improvise effortlessly in the style of music that you love. Your lack of motor skills will become a prison cell.

So if you feel like you're struggling to improve your improvisation, then I have one question for you…

What new motors skills have you mastered this month?


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