Joe Bonamassa

There’s no getting around it: for any beginning guitarist who aspires toward excellence, practice is the essential component in achieving that goal. But what about players who’ve already reached the pinnacle of their craft? Do they continue to practice, and what exactly does “practice” mean to them? Below, ten six-stringers who’ve climbed the ladder to greatness share their thoughts on the topic.

Joe Satriani (as told to M – Music & Musicians)

I do still practice, but it’s different from how it used to be. I know where all the scales are, and where all the chords are, so all that work is behind me. You never forget those things, once you learn them. But I do play every day. Today, at some point, I’m going to run through my entire set, for the upcoming tour. And I’ll do that every day up until I start rehearsing with the band. And then of course we’ll rehearse several times a day, together. You always want to be at your very best, before anybody buys a ticket to your show.

Eric Johnson

I grew up listening to classical music, to players whose performance level was very high. The desire to play at that level got instilled in me. The question then becomes, how do you achieve that? Do you achieve it by constantly redoing something, with overdubs or multiple takes, or do you achieve it by being so proficient that you’re able to pull off something great at any given moment? Classical musicians are so well rehearsed, and their performance level is so high, they just go in and nail it, and capture a real performance. Practice is key, to be able to do that. A lot of the music I love – folk, blues, rock and pop – is wonderful when it’s rough and off-the-cuff. That’s one polarity, and that’s predominantly my type of music. But then there’s the other polarity, which involves a higher level of performance.

Joe Bonamassa (as told to M – Music & Musicians)

I try to practice things that are somewhat outside my normal sphere. I tend to pick up an acoustic guitar or a mandolin, instead of just hammering something out with an electric. I might practice prog rock as well. In the live shows we sometimes do Yes’s “Heart of the Sunrise.” We used to do Genesis’s “Los Endos,” from their Trick of the Tail album.

Kaki King (as told to Performing Songwriter)

When I’m about to go on tour, or I’m doing a gig, I’ll have rehearsals and I’ll prepare. But I have a bit of paranoia involving the possibility of injury. I’ve known many guitar players who have practiced incessantly, and hunched their backs for ages, and have hurt themselves. There have been times when I’ve given a hug to a guitarist-friend at the end of an evening, and I’ve detected that they’re wearing a back brace. I never want to encounter that problem. My dedication to music takes a bit of a different form. I don’t constantly go over the music I’m making, and the fact that I don’t really comes down to my not wanting to get hurt. That may seem ridiculous to some people, and maybe it makes perfect sense to others. 

Alex Skolnick, Testament (as told to Guitar World)

When Testament was up and coming, that was the first incentive I had to practice hard and get it together. There is nothing like knowing you're going to be in front of an audience. I remember we used to tape some of the gigs on little cassette recorders that sounded terrible, but you got an idea of how you sounded. That was also a wake-up call that I really needed to focus. As for my practice routine, I was studying the basic scales. One thing that hasn't changed is, I always warm up a lot before I have a show. Whatever I need work on, that's what I warm up on. Back then, it was all about memorizing scales and patterns; now it's more transcribing solos by my favorite artists. I'm always working on lines by Joe Henderson, Chick Corea or John Scofield. So I learned all the scales from that. But then I had to forget them and learn licks and learn how to trust myself.

Neal Schon, Journey

I play constantly, but it usually takes the form of jamming. I’ve never really practiced in a conventional sense. I have a looper set up with a couple of small-powered speakers. And I have a Fractal unit at home, going into a looper, with a drum machine … so that I’m able to switch up the drum beats after I’ve laid down a riff or two. I loop constantly and I make up riffs, for what I want to have a blow on. That’s how I practice. I just riff over the top of those things, and play some melody.

Chris Broderick, Megadeth (as told to Guitar World)

The funny thing is, as time goes on, the realization of how much you don’t know only gets worse! I see more and more things that I need to approach on the instrument—more different techniques, more styles, more players. I remember a time about 15 or 20 years ago when I would sit down with the instrument and say, “Well, I’ve already practiced my scales, I already worked on my arpeggios, I’ve worked on this and I’ve worked on that, and I don’t have anything else to practice.” But today, there’s just a minefield of things to work on. I finally came to the conclusion that you’ve just got to go toward whatever it is that interests you the most at any given time. Hopefully, you’ll zigzag your way through the patterns of everything you want to learn. Eventually, you’ll come full circle.

Steve Lukather (as told to M – Music & Musicians)

I try to practice every day. That might consist of learning new music, or learning someone else’s music. There’s always a lesson in doing that. It helps with ear-training, among other things. And then there’s the technical aspect of practice. That might involve something like delving into Ted Greene’s Chord Chemistry book, which you could spend a lifetime studying. Or, if you’re banging your head against a wall, you might dig out Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. A lot of practice, for me, consists of just listening to things. I’ll hear something and think “Wow, that’s interesting. Let me try that.” I also continue to learn things from great players I know personally, as friends.

Tom Morello (as told to M – Music & Musicians)

A friend gave me the best of advice anyone’s ever given me in the music business. He said, “Practice guitar at least one hour a day, every day, no matter what.” I took that to heart, and soon my playing ability improved. From there I went to two hours a day to four hours a day until eventually I was practicing eight hours a day, no matter what. That means if you’re on vacation with the family in Ireland, for example, you stop at a bus station and play for 45 minutes, to get toward your practice time. I did that, in an obsessive-compulsive way that I don’t really recommend, because it precludes a social life.

Clint Lowery, Sevendust (as told to Guitar World)

I don’t practice as much as I did in my earlier days. On the road I do quite a bit; I practice for about an hour and a half before we play. I go over scales and keep my right hand active and my left hand mobile. Every now and then I’ll have a phase where I pick up the guitar, and every time I hold it I’m still excited about playing. Some days I feel like I could play anything, and other days I feel like I’m a beginner again. That’s the beauty of this whole thing. Insecure players sometimes make for better players because you’re always striving to figure stuff out. I’m a big YouTube junkie; I watch people play on there and try to emulate what they do. There are some amazing guys out there. You can sit in your basement and play guitar 24 hours a day and play everything fast as lightning with all this accuracy, but there’s a feel that some people have that just can’t be practiced or rehearsed. Some people just have it.