The 80-20 rule and guitar playing

How long would it take you to learn another language to a high standard?

If you worked hard at it, maybe about 5 years.

How long would it take you to speak that same language absolutely perfectly?

Probably another 20 years.

Meet the 80-20 rule

T80 20 rulehis, in a nutshell, is the ’80-20 rule’.

Often you can achieve an 80% outcome in some field with 20% effort. To achieve the remaining 20% though takes a further 80% effort.

The 80-20 rule is more of an observable phenomenon than a rule.

Companies often find that 80% of their profits come from just 20% of their customers, or from 20% of their sales team, or from 20% of their product range.

Conversely, 80% of complaints often come from just 20% of clients. Sometimes the ratio is skewed even more severely: 90-10, 95-5 or even 99-1.

The 80-20 rule and guitar playing

I first read about the 80-20 rule in Tim Ferris’s excellent book The 4-Hour Workweek. But the 80-20 rule is not just about business. Each of us experiences it almost every day:

  • We typically spend 80% of our time wearing the same 20% of our clothes.
  • Most of us spend 80% of our time with the same 20% of our friends.
  • We spend 80% of our time listening to the same 20% of the music we own.

So how might the 80-20 rule apply to guitar playing…? Well, here’s three examples:

Paul Gilbert guitaristTechnique – It would take most people many years of practice to reach Paul Gilbert’s speed of alternate picking – if they got there at all. To get 80% of the way there though, would take considerably less time.

Performance – To be able to perform a certain piece of music absolutely flawlessly may take several hundred hours of work. To perform it just ‘very well’ though would take much less time.

Licks – Many of us probably use 20% of the licks we’ve ever learned, 80% of the time. The 80-20 rule doesn’t simply mean ‘don’t aim high’.

We should aim high but only where it matters.

More than anything, the 80-20 rule highlights the potential for wasting a large amount of time on things that either produce little or no return, or which may be unimportant.

Let’s run through those examples again…


If it’s desperately important to you to play at the speed of Paul Gilbert then, of course, go ahead and invest those years of technique practice.

Most guitarists, however, will never need to play that fast.

Sure it would be nice to be able to pick like Paul, but mightn’t there be other more important areas of guitar playing that we should be working on?


How well does that specific piece of music really need to be performed?

If it really does have to be perfect then, again, go right ahead and put in the time.

But if it’s something you’re only going to play once and there are other areas of music you could be working on, then ask yourself: is it good enough already?

If not, then which specific parts should you spend your time improving? Then would it be good enough?


Is it really worth attempting to memorise that entire book of jazz licks?

Might it be a better use of time to learn just six licks and then work on using them extensively and in a range of situations?

Clothes foldedThe 80-20 rule and everyday life

Spotting the 80-20 rule in daily life too can actually help our guitar practice.

Does that wall you’re painting have to be absolutely perfect or is it mostly going to be obscured by a bookcase?

How perfectly do those clothes have to be folded given that they’re going straight in a drawer anyway?

How perfect does this article I’m writing really have to be? I could easily take four times as long by endlessly nudging words around the page, trying lots of alternative adjectives and searching for the perfect analogy.

Would my extra efforts actually make any significant difference to anyone reading it though…?

Getting efficiency into our lives is very important and the 80-20 can be an important part of that.

See Dave Allen’s wonderful book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity for more ideas on streamlining the ‘stuff’ in your life.


The 80-20 rule has big implications. Keep it in mind when it comes to guitar practice and other time-consuming tasks.

Music is a vast subject that most people would need several lifetimes to fully master. We simply cannot do it all.

Prioritise, rationalise and work efficiently on material that really matters to you. Strike a balance between ideology and the practicalities of real life and the amount of time that’s available to us.

Ironically, learning to limit ourselves may be one of the most productive skills we ever acquire.

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