“Some of what you practice should sound s**t, because then you know you’re working on something that needs to be worked on”: Guthrie Govan on the art of improvisation – and how to make practice as effective as possible

Guthrie Govan
(Image credit: Steve Thorne/Redferns via Getty Images)

As one of his generation’s finest electric guitar virtuosos, Guthrie Govan has an elite approach to playing the instrument – one characterized by inexplicable speed, incomprehensible technicality and, most importantly, unwavering feel and musicality.

Therefore, when Govan offers his two cents on what players could be doing to improve as guitarists, we listen.

Fortunately for us mere mortals, that is the topic of conversation in the new All-Star Masterclass issue of Total Guitar, which features an in-depth discussion on the art of improvisation with Govan that sees the Charvel signature artist bestow wisdom befitting his wizardly appearance.

Of course, before you can transcend the fretboard and start reaching Guthrie-level heights of sheer technical brilliance, there’s just the small order of practicing – and, as Govan explains, practicing should be painful for the ears.

In other words, if you don't sound “shit” when you’re going over your scales and attempting to learn new licks, you probably aren’t doing it right.

“There is a trap when you get too good at a lick and it becomes a comfort,” he explains. “Whenever you want to make yourself feel better, part of your subconscious will encourage you to play that thing you’ve played a million times before because you know it will sound well-executed. 

“The part about that that’s haunting is you realize deep down that you’re not really choosing to play that,” Govan goes on. “It’s your hand choosing to play that. It’s not your soul. There’s an interesting thing about practicing and how we choose to divide our time.”

With that in mind, Govan says, “If you sound really good when you’re practicing, that means you’re practicing things you can already do, which isn’t really benefiting you fully. 

“Some of what you practice should sound shit, because then you know you are working on something that needs to be worked on. There’s a balance there.”

In his Total Guitar interview, Govan also offers some advice on what you should be focusing on while practicing, but for those struggling specifically with improvisation, the Artisocrats leader imparted some potentially game-changing tips for overcoming such troubles.

“For some people, it’s a psychological barrier that stops them from improvising,” he notes. “It’s the fear of playing something that might not work. Part of feeling good when you are improvising is being comfortable with the process and trusting yourself.

“But there are other more mechanical things you can work on. I’m a big believer in copying everything you hear around you – from ringtones to movie themes and whatever is on the radio.”

To pick up the latest issue of Total Guitar, which features lessons, tips and techniques from the world's greatest players, head over to Magazines Direct.

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.

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