Hanging out with our columnist at the second annual GuitCon in Markneukirchen, Germany, Phil X talks practice, improvisation, and how to stand out in auditions.

I recently traveled to the Warwick/Framus factory in Markneukirchen, Germany, for the second annual GuitCon event. GuitCon is a meeting of guitarists, bassists, and YouTubers, and the goal was to spend a week producing entertaining and educational content for various social-media platforms. I really enjoy the creative camaraderie the event fosters, and, while there, I sat down for an hour to make a video with my good pal Phil X (Bon Jovi, the Drills). Phil is a high-energy, walking encyclopedia of great licks, and his attitude and work ethic are second to none. It has allowed him to build a great career for himself playing guitar, so I’d like to share a few insights from Phil on how to not just be a good guitarist, but how to really make an impact.

Warming up. Phil says, “For me, doing exercises is boring after playing guitar for 50 years. So, if I’m playing with the Drills, I practice the really hard licks—really slow—so I can nail them at the show.” I concur! While chromatic alternate-picking exercises can be useful to get the blood flowing and the fingers limber, you are better off spending your time playing actual musical phrases. That way, you’re warming up while always practicing music and musicality, rather than just doing something physical that you would never play in an actual musical situation.

Developing your own identity. Phil’s style is a reflection of his personality. He’s a relentlessly funny and positive guy with tons of energy, and it shines through in every note he plays. When he showed me a really unique (and rather difficult) lick that he plays on the Drills song “I Wish My Beer Was As Cold As Your Heart,” I told him he has a sound of his own. He responded that preaching the importance of developing an identity on the guitar is something he does when he speaks at music schools and clinics. “Unless you come up with something new, you won’t stand out. And there are so many great guitar players! It’s not the Olympics, it’s not a race, but you do need to stand out to get a gig,” he said. Phil also paraphrased from a favorite Miles Davis quote: “Only 20 percent is the note. Eighty percent is the motherfucker who played it.” The point is that the guitarists who really make an impact have a style, an approach, and an attitude all their own. It’s that combination of the right notes, musicality, and the attitude and intention behind everything you play that makes all the difference.

That way, you’re warming up while always practicing music and musicality, rather than just doing something physical that you would never play in an actual musical situation.

Confidence and conviction vs. musical ability. Often in auditions—and certainly in gig situations—conviction will win out over raw musical skill. Phil says, “Say you’re up against someone with more technique, but they are more laid back or timid. The artist is definitely going to go towards someone with more conviction. Your confidence and conviction sells it.” It also can’t be overstated that when it comes to auditions, being a friendly, engaging person with good social skills will only help to seal the deal.

Happy accidents. Phil told me that most things in his guitar vocabulary are an accident. “I have a thing about not trying to duplicate everything from night to night when I play, which makes me land in a different place. It’s the old Eddie Van Halen approach of falling down the stairs and landing on your feet. I love applying that to how I play guitar.”

I too have tried to move more towards this philosophy and approach in my guitar playing. I’ve always felt most comfortable learning things note for note, and although totally valid (think of David Gilmour’s incredible note-for-note solos), it is the decidedly safer approach. I still consider myself a student of improvisational technique, but there is something so compelling about the way master improvisational guitarists like Jeff Beck and Michael Landau play and communicate using the guitar. If you are trying to develop your improv technique, consider an approach I learned from studio great Michael Thompson, who likes to come up with a great opening phrase and then see what happens beyond that point. Having a memorized, written opening phrase gets you off to a great start that can set the tone for you to confidently blast off into improv land.

I never stop learning. It’s never lost on me how lucky I am to get to spend some time sharing and learning with great musicians like Phil. It’s what keeps me young at heart, and excited about music and what the future has in store. Until next month, keep on rocking—and I wish you great tone!