"Practice is what ruins people," says the good-natured but droll 65-year-old guitar god, Leo Kottke. "It’s dangerous. If you want to develop as a musician, play what you like, and stick to it. Don’t fall into bad habits."

So how does one learn to play guitar like Leo Kottke?


Well, for starters, don’t practice. But play, play and play some more.


"Practice is what ruins people," says the good-natured but droll 65-year-old guitar god. "It’s dangerous. If you want to develop as a musician, play what you like, and stick to it. Don’t fall into bad habits."


After all, practicing is what Kottke did with the trombone as a boy in Oklahoma, the student of, as he recalls on his website, "industrious, frugal, starving men." He could read notes and play respectably — or so at least he was told — but never quite felt as one with that horn in his hands.


Somewhere, the guitar was calling, the six- and 12-string that would become putty in Kottke’s hands. Didn’t even need sheet music. And if he did practice, it felt like playing — something he would do for stretches of 12 hours, if only to get a few bars played to his lofty standards.


Seek some trouble


Those standards notwithstanding, Leo Kottke advises to get yourself in a little trouble on stage, which isn’t hard to do when it’s just you and your ax holding court in a crowded concert hall. Got to find a way to challenge yourself. Paint yourself in a musical corner.


"I’ll deliberately get into trouble on a bad or good night. If it’s a middle-of-the-road night, I won’t get into trouble, and it won’t feel right. Because when you’re in trouble, you have to find a way out."


Kottke’s syncopated fingerpicking — flavored by everything from classical to jazz to blues to folk to rock — never fails to find that great escape. And while he likens his voice to "geese farts on a muggy day," his baritone never sounds like its courting trouble on songs like "Rings" and a stellar cover of Tom T. Hall’s "Pamela Brown."


Stay focused


One more thing Leo Kottke offers to anyone contemplating the musical life: Don’t get too preoccupied with the details of the distant world outside of music. Just have a good manager keep track of the more mundane aspects of you being on the road 80 percent of the time.


"Don’t write everything down. Just know where you’re going. I just know I’m playing somewhere east later this week. I don’t have Alzheimer’s, but I can forget where I am. It’s embarrassing at times, but I just have to know that I’m playing for my huge, adoring fan base."


And that’s a fan base Kottke nurtures worldwide. A somewhat popular voice on commercial radio several decades ago, more recent times have found Kottke’s music more likely at the far end of the FM dial. But he’s earned a cult-like following that includes many professional and amateur musicians. They may even hear Kottke’s music better than the man on stage.


Adapt when necessary


Leo Kottke’s ears have just limited hearing, the results of a boyhood firecracker accident and too much time spent on the rifle range as a young Navy reservist. Facing another malady, Kottke endured painful tendonitis during the 1980s, largely the result of his percussive style.


So he scrapped the plastic fingerpicks he had long used, altered his playing style to implement a more classical manner, grew his fingernails and, eventually, he was able to play just as loud and maybe even better than before — and that’s saying a lot.


"It was like throwing away the stilts," said Kottke from his Minnesota home. "But it’s kind of an unfortunate way to publicize yourself as a musician and guitarist."


Actually, it’s humbling to anyone blessed with good ears and wrists, who will never approach Leo Kottke’s craftsmanship no matter how many hours of practice.


But as the master from Minnesota will remind us, that’s your first mistake. Don’t practice, just play. After all, you’re supposed to enjoy it. And who enjoys practice?


Reach Neil Cote at newburyport@wickedlocal.com.