Steve Vai talked about the essence of guitar practice and the lessons he drew from years of hard work in the guitar field, saying on Guitar Method.
“The way that I practice through the years changed. It really needs to be based on what your goals are. My usual practice routine when I was young was nine hours a day. That’s what I always hoped to get in.
“I tried to start at 3 when I got home from school, and then I go to midnight. The reason why it was nine was because it was divided into three groups of three hours. And there were definite things that I wanted to accomplish in each hour. It’s not necessary to practice that much, unless of course you want to be an olympic athlete. [Laughs] And even then you have to be careful.
“And sometimes some people just don’t need to practice so much, because they’re natural. I remember when I was first giving Dweezil Zappa some lessons. At first I was like, ‘Oh, he can’t play.’ He was picking three strings when he went to pick one note. But the rate that he improved was astonishing. In one week he was playing guitar. And in a few more weeks I was bringing him Yngwie [Malmsteen] tapes and Van Halen tapes and like – ‘He’s just a natural!’
“So you need to decide how much time you need to put in that’s comfortable with you. But it’s always good to round it off. And for me I like to try and get it all in into one day. So if you know you have two hours, allocate a certain amount of time to developing the vessel. Meaning exercises, maybe scales, practicing funny techniques that you come up with, chords, rhythm, strumming, put on the drum machine, lock, a little bit of ear training…
“But the majority of the time – maybe not the majority in the beginning – but a good portion of the time you want to spend on just being present and playing and creating in the moment. Whether you’re just doing some rhythm stuff, you have to exercise your imagination. And that’s different than honing the vessel. There’s the surface level which is the academics.
“If you’re a businessman you have to know the business. You have to study it, you have to know how stock market works if you’re into stocks. But then comes the time where you gotta go deeper than just the mechanical information about things. And that holds true in any field.
“So when you’re practicing and you’re doing all the mechanical stuff, the academic stuff, that’s good. But it’s always good to spend some time not knowing what you’re gonna do and just doing something. Because you have to exercise your spontaneous reaction to musical situations.
“And a couple of other things I would say is – first and foremost, don’t worry. Watch yourself when you start feeling like you should be doing something that other people are doing because they’re saying you should be doing it. You only need to do what pulls you.
“There’s nothing ever to be taken too seriously. Seriousness leads to competition and that leads to cutting off the root of your creativity. Because then you start doing things for the wrong reasons.
“You absolutely have the right and are worthy of doing any music that you want regardless of what’s going on around you that’s big. Because a lot of people feel like they need to follow a particular trend or be approved by certain groups or do what everybody is doing because they’re doing it.
“Another cool thing to do occasionally is write something or play something with zero expectation of any approval from anybody. Meaning nobody’s gonna hear this song, it’s not gonna get on the radio, nobody’s gonna hear it. Because in a lot of cases this can create an opening to your deep creativity. It’s good to experiment with something completely left-of-center in your mind, which takes courage because you have to break away from convention. And it’s really nice to practice spontaneity.
“Like for instance, get a piece of paper, front and back, and in two minutes fill it with lyrics without stopping. Stream of consciousness. Practice your stream of consciousness because it takes courage to let go. See, if you don’t know that if you let go everything starts happening you’ll never let go because you’re afraid everything will stop.
“If you build your moving-forward plans on conventional things that are like, ‘I have to know theory so I’m gonna learn theory. I know this so now I can write this because I know it works. Because theory says it works.’ Or, ‘I need to practice all of these chords because these chords are what everybody knows.’
“That’s all fine, but it’s important to practice complete spontaneity and not knowing what’s gonna happen. Putting yourself in situations where you don’t know, because then you have to act spontaneously. And acting spontaneously is liberating in a sense. It’s fresh, everything is always fresh and new.
“But the thing that hold a lot of people back is the fear that nothing’s gonna happen. If I go on the stage and I don’t know what I’m gonna play, what’s gonna happen? I’m gonna stand up there and nothing’s gonna come out. That can happen if you’re afraid that that’s gonna happen.
“If your mind is on that happening, chances are that it may happen. But more often the case is that if you just go and accept that you don’t know what’s gonna happen. And you loose and you’re listening and just listen.
“See, if you’re listening you can’t be worried about the thoughts in your head, you can’t be thinking about what’s gonna happen. That’s a thought. But if you’re listening you’re in the moment of the musical situation and it will come through you. Spontaneous action will happen if you create an opening in your own mind.”