Good thread SPL.G (what does that stand for, BTW)
I think the best tip for anyone starting out in coffee is patience.
When I bought my VBM Piccolo, I struggled for a while trying to get the right dose, distribute, tamp (DDT). I took a course with Jetblack which made a big difference and I strongly recommend that everyone starting out in espresso prep should try to do one. *I still use the DDT method Charlie showed me, stuck with it and now only get a gusher if my grind is not right.
The first thing that made a difference to me was getting the correct dose: I tended to underdose and occasionally would over-compensate by overdosing. I used to weigh the beans before adding to the hopper. Now, its a 1/4 cups worth but try to ensure that you err on the too-much side so the grounds are a litlle heaped after dosing.
Then the distribution: I was getting wormholes around near the handle. So I concentrated on the correct distribution around it and, with the use of a naked pf, the pours have become more even. The naked let me observe how the extraction started and areas where distribution may not have been good.
The tamp I had no problems with: I started out with kitchen scales and developed a feel for the correct tamp pressure. What I found you need to be careful with is making sure the base of the tamper stays dry and you keep the tamper level before applying pressure. I sit the tamper on top, dont apply any pressure, just get it level. Remove and gently tap the side of the basket then tamp with the right amount of pressure - keeping the tamp level.
Im not sure I agree with the 30/60 "rule" - its a guideline, not a rule and getting that volume correct is no guarantee that your shot will taste right. Ive had very drinkable gushers. I like my shots on the strong side so having a slow pour suits my tastes. But I agree that the measuring cup is a good idea when developing technique.
The beans are critical but one thing you need to do is play around with the grind to try to get the best out of the bean but only buy good fresh beans. Luca made a good suggestion some time ago about only using one bean for a month or so and then learning to get the correct grind and DDT from it. It removes one of the variables.
Finally, many of the CS sponsors calibrate a machine where possible before sale. What made a big difference to me was having the VBM brew temp and pressure adjusted. *But only after youve sorted out your grind and DDT technique.
This is my experience and I dont pretend to be barista quality. Ill finish up the sermon *::) by returning to my first message: be patient; and the final word from Andy: Enjoy! Dont become frustrated about not achieving the success of other CSers - enjoy the ride