Understanding The Overflow Effect

When I first started playing guitar I had an incredible enthusiasm, passion and drive to get good. And this led me to practice my ass off. And this is a good thing. I don't think anyone ever gets good at a musical instrument without this strong desire and commitment to practice.

At the same time, this intense desire to improve caused me to try and rush my learning. My goal was to learn things as fast as possible. And this often caused me to practice things on a shallow level. I would move onto new material before I had mastered the old material. And this is not such a good thing if you want to get good at guitar! It is essential to have enthusiasm…but it needs to be tempered with awareness and intelligence. :-)

I don't think I'm alone in this tendency to try to rush through the learning process. And despite its incredibly negative impact on progressing on the guitar, many guitarists continue to use this flawed approach. And I feel they do it because of two main reasons…

  1. Fear: Many guitarists fear that if they take their time to learn things properly, then they won't become an awesome guitarist in this lifetime. Because they have this fear, they try to progress by learning many things on a very shallow level.
  2. Ego: Some guitar players rush through the learning process because of their ego. They equate learning lots of things with getting good. While this approach caters to their ego, it certainly doesn't help them get good on guitar. They know lots of things but their playing still sucks.


A Turning Point

A major turning point for me was the day that I decided to take my time and learn things properly. This new learning strategy required me to do three things…

  1. Practice fewer things.
  2. Practice things on a MUCH deeper level.
  3. Practice things until I could play them without thinking.

These three changes to the way that I practiced made a profound change to my rate of progress. And it also allowed me to observe something that I call The Overflow Effect…


The Overflow Effect

I noticed a really interesting thing. When I took the time to truly master something, the technique and skill I developed on that one item overflowed to other things. For example, the picking technique I developed by mastering one picking exercise overflowed to the next picking exercise. And this meant that the second exercise took me a LOT less time to internalize than the first one.

This is an example of the overflow effect.

I was recently reading an article by Steve Vai on musical meditation. And it's pretty clear that the reason why he's so good is that he is willing to practice things on a very deep level. In that article he talks about practicing one note for an hour!

Obviously a guitar virtuoso has no trouble playing one note. But Steve Vai understands that by focusing on one thing for an hour it allows him to practice something on a VERY deep level. And practicing things on a very deep level will develop new skill. And that new skill will overflow to other areas of his playing. And that's part of why he is so damn good. :-)

So I guess what I'm trying to say is this…

Trying to rush through the learning process makes it impossible to practice things on a deep level. And if you don't practice things on a deep level, then you will never master them. And if you never master them, you won't be activating the overflow effect. And if you don't activate the overflow effect, it will take an eternity to get good!

A great question to ask yourself at this point is this…

"Is my primary focus to learn lots of things, or is my primary focus to become a good guitarist?"

If your primary focus is to become a good guitarist, then you need to be activating the overflow effect. And you do this by doing the following…

  • Practice fewer things.
  • Practice everything on a very deep level.
  • Practice things until you have mastered them.

 So have patience grasshopper. Take your time, and learn things well.

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