Steve Vai vs Carl Verheyen: Which Virtuoso’s Method Is Better?
Back in 1990, Steve Vai sat down with Guitar World magazine and outlined his “30 Hour Path To Virtuoso Enlightenment.”
It was a landmark super-lesson, the kind of thing that became a rite of passage for serious players, like learning to play Eruption or the solo from Kid Charlemagne.
In it, Vai prescribes hour-long blocks of exercises on alternate picking, legato, tapping, sweep picking, scales, chords, bends, vibrato, ear training, sight reading… it’s a long and inclusive list.
The idea is to perfect tiny musical building blocks in anticipation of needing them.
On The Other Extreme
Carl Verheyen, on the other hand, is notorious for saying that he “doesn’t believe in exercises,” and that the music itself will teach you everything you need to know.
How should you learn technique? With songs.
What’s the best way to understand the melodic minor scale? By dissecting someone else’s lines.
When should you develop some more cool shit to play over F#m7? The day after your gig where you ran out of cool things to play over that F#m7 vamp.
You’re learning the exact chunks of music you need in order to solve your immediate musical demands.
Who’s Better—Vai or Verheyen?
This, of course, is a ridiculous and meaningless question.
Which one is a better guitarist? Whichever one’s music appeals to you more. They’re both insanely good.
Push Systems vs Pull Systems
In the world of manufacturing, there are push systems and there are pull systems.
In a push system, production pushes products up to the retailer based on an educated guess as to what & how much are needed.
Big guitar manufacturers like Fender build them like this. They guess what’ll be popular (more sunburst guitars than pink ones, more Strats than Jazzmasters), then build those and ship them out.
In a pull system, procurement & production are demand-based.
This encompasses anything made-to-order (like that custom-built Suhr guitar you’re spec’ing out in your daydreams), but also things where the supply chain is nimble enough to adjust production to meet demand.
If the Salmon special sells out on Friday night, the chef will likely call the fishmonger and have him deliver more on Saturday morning.
It’s A False Choice—You’ll Do Both
The reason I mention Vai & Verheyen here is because they occupy the extreme poles of push & pull.
Which one’s methodology is better?
That’s a bit like nature vs nurture.
The Vai method is a perfect push system. It says hey, let’s preemptively work up every conceivable finger combination, picking motion, and harmonic & rhythmic possibility in anticipation of needing them at some unspecified point in the future.
The Verheyen method is a perfect pull system. It says hey, the best way to know what you need is to wait until you need it, then develop the capacity to deliver it.
But both badass players freely admit to borrowing from the other camp.
Verheyen will tell you he doesn’t like exercises, but in the next breath he’ll tell you you ought to practice playing a scale while switching between eighths, triplets, sixteenths and sixteenth note triplets in order to develop rock-slid time.
And one of the more interesting things about Vai’s prescription is that he’s using it to identify the weakest areas, so that he can refine them. He’s even gone so far as say that he’s not naturally talented at all, he’s just dedicated. He pushes in order to know what to pull.
So if push vs pull a false choice, why talk about it at all?
Each Strategy Has Its Time
What we’ve done so far with the Playing The Changes course is a push system.
You learned every note on your fretboard. You mapped out triads horizontally & vertically, then blended them together into arpeggios. Then you overlaid the C major scale on top of those frameworks. Then you looked at the common progressions in C, as well as the common chord extensions.
Push system stuff, every bit of it.
We used the push method because it was the right tool for the job.
But now is the time to switch tools. The rest of your journey will use the pull method.
What People Get Wrong
If you’re dogmatically tied to just one approach, you can really screw yourself.
Using the push method in the beginning gives you the framework you’ll use to understand the rest.
If you insist on using the pull method in the beginning, you’ll learn how to play lots of music, but you won’t understand any of it.
On the other hand, it’s easy to let our engineering brains get excited by the neat, orderly system of learning prescriptively inside a push system.
When this happens, you spend inordinate amounts of time learning things that you never actually use.
Or even worse, you play all the things that are theoretically-correct-but-uninspiring, missing out on the messy process of copying others’ playing.
The Right Blend Of Push & Pull
We already used a push system to understand the basics of playing the changes.
From here, you’re better off using a predominantly pull system.
That means keeping a running list of things you want to learn, learning them, and analyzing them so you can apply their lessons to your future playing.
You’ll still use push systems though.
When your pull system puts some fresh new lick under your fingers, you’ll want to use the push system prescription of learning to play it in all 12 keys.
Or modifying it to work over a different flavor of chord.
When the bandleader of the wedding band you just joined sends you the list of songs they perform, you’d do well to follow that pushed prescription—learn all of them, even if they don’t all get played at this weekend’s gig.
But when you’re trying to decide what songs to add to your solo show, pull from the list of things that get requested most—your tip jar will thank you.
The prescriptionist crowd will tell you you really ought to learn the lydian mode so you can solo over maj7#11 chords.
But for things like that, you’re better off waiting for the pull—if you keep finding yourself in situations where you need that, then you can start working on it.
With the time you save, you can learn more cool stuff to play over the progressions & chords you actually see in your day-to-day.
Learning to play those more-practical things in all 12 keys is a much better application of push methodology than preemptively chasing down esoteric edge cases.
And from there? Well, it’s time to work on your speed of musical thought.
Which is exactly what we’ll look at next.