What a Stanford Experimental Psychologist Can Teach You About Playing Guitar Solos

How to Learn Any Solo Part 1

“Why don’t you just F**K OFF.”

My computer screen had frozen for half a second, and I thought insulting my poor battered red HP laptop would make it obey my commands quicker.

I wasn’t really mad at the computer-my latest decision to learn a guitar solo note for note was blowing up in my face. I had decided to get the first half of the solo down in three hours – no problem for an experienced player like me, or so I thought. I soon realised this was a 40 bar beast that did not want to be tamed .I decided to take a 15 minute break, which turned into 30 minutes, a day, a week and I soon forgot all about the solo

By forgetting all about my original goal of learning the solo, my ego was doing its best to limit the damage this solo was doing to my self confidence. Sadly, my ego had turned me into a bragging five-year-old on a playground. I could do it; I just didn’t feel like it right now. Not one of my more productive phases of musical learning.

Today (24/04/2013) I am more than 50% of the way through learning my favourite solo of all time-Tornado of Souls by Megadeth

The tactics I use (I’ll get to these later) haven’t changed – but my strategy has changed dramatically. My strategy for learning solos now has two main components: Rigging the game, and baby steps.

Baby steps

“Seriously though, how long should I practice this week?”

David had the look students sometimes get when they are absolutely determined to master an aspect of guitar playing. It’s not too dissimilar to the look someone has when they’re constipated.

“Let’s start with four minutes”

“I can do more than four minutes; shouldn’t I go for an hour every day?”

It was hard for me not to roll my eyes up at this point “Let’s work up to that. For this week, let’s start small. I want you to practice for four minutes every day. You can do more if you want, but the minimum is four minutes.”

Am I attempting to commit guitar teacher suicide by convincing my students to practice less? You would think so, but I’m actually trying to emulate the teachings of BJ Fogg, an experimental psychologist in Stanford specialising in behavioural change.

Long term gains vs Short term gains

BJ has a phrase “believe in baby steps”. After working with hundreds of people in his behavioural change course, he’s seen that the smaller the commitment to a new habit, the higher the permanent adoption rate. Instead of attempting to do 50 push ups a day, do one a day. The psychology behind this is that the sooner you feel like you’ve accomplished something, the higher the chance you’ll continue the habit. Anyone can do one push of a day. In a week, increasing to 2, then three, four and so on. It may not seem like much at first, but long-term, you’ll have developed a habit that is positive for you.

The problem with choosing big goals first is the excuse factor – if you say you’ll practice guitar for an hour a day, you automatically create the excuse that you don’t have the time. That’s why I recommend my students practice initially only four minutes a day. No-one is going to make big progress with four minutes a day, but it’s easy to commit to 4 minutes a day. Long-term, the habit of all good and great players as being instilled: consistent, daily practice.

The question boils down to this: Would you like to actually do one push up every day, or would you rather dream of doing 50 push ups a day?

Or rephrased for guitarists: would you like to actually play guitar for five minutes a day, or dream of doing an hour’s practice every day?

Let’s assume we’re going to commit to playing just a little bit every day. We now have an easy, low pressure way of picking up the guitar and everyday making a little bit of progress. The next thing we need to do is make sure that the few minutes we spend playing the guitar are useful – in this specific case, we want to learn new material and challenge ourselves in a  sustainable way. So we need to rig the game in our favour.


Do I really only learn one bar a day?

If the bar is complex, yes. If there is an easy few bars and I have time, I get those few bars. The goal is to learn the solo by taking baby steps.

Shouldn’t I learn to play by ear?

Playing by ear and learning to transcribe are excellent skills to have, but they are not the goal here. We want to learn a solo. If you want to develop those skills, why not transcribe one bar a day?

Won’t this take forever?

An 80 bar solo will technically take 80 days to learn, and that’s if you don’t miss any days. After two weeks jump to two bars a day and an 80 bar solo will only take 40 days!

I have another response to that question: would you rather learn the solo over 80 days, or dream of learning it in a week? We’re rigging the game in our favour, and over a year you’re now learning four 80 bar solos. Over time, you’ll get faster learning solos, and in two years, who’s better off: the player with 12 new complex solos under his belt, or the player who has a few simple, half learned solos? For me it’s the former.

How does this method work for you? Have you started a new small habit that’s going to work for you long term? Let me know in the comments.


7 thoughts on “What a Stanford Experimental Psychologist Can Teach You About Playing Guitar Solos

  1. Hey Eoghan. This post was great help for me. I never looked at it in this light before. I am assuming that warm up is not included in this time? Or maybe it is. Please let me know.

    • Hey Jason,

      I can only speak for myself, but I haven’t warmed up once while learning this solo, and have experienced no ill effects so far. Since you’ll be playing for such a short amount of time, at a relatively slow pace (though I have been playing at full speed some of the time), I think it’s fine to just play for a bit and then stop.

  2. Pingback: What a Stanford Experimental Psychologist Can Teach You About Playing Guitar Solos Part 2 | The Efficient Guitarist

  3. Thank you! I’m an experienced player but I’m extremely busy and I’m constantly having trouble actually picking up the guitar (tired/not enough time to actually do anything/etc).
    I already know this will help me, as I probably can’t put my instrument down after only 5 minutes.

    • Hey Indrek glad to hear you found it useful, that’s exactly the situation I was in, on busy days I pick it up and put it down, quieter days I end up playing for half an hour or so!

  4. Pingback: What a Stanford Experimental Psychologist Can Teach You About Playing Guitar Solos Part 3 | The Systematic Guitarist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s