A Little Background

I’ve been in love with jazz and, specifically, jazz guitar since the very first time that I heard Pat Metheny’s bubbly, inimitable lines pouring out of the speakers of my older brother’s boombox while we listened to the new CD he had just brought home: Joshua Redman’s “Wish”.

I must have been 13 or 14 years old at the time, and like many teenagers in America I’d already been playing guitar casually for a couple years.  I had developed a little bag of blues-box licks that I could noodle around on, and I was taking lessons with a country player at the music store in my small town.  I could play some Eagles tunes, a lot of Dylan, and was just starting to take a stab at learning some Hendrix solos, the guy who represented the absolute pinnacle of virtuosity on the instrument in my eyes.

I even knew some of the 7th chords for the charts that came with my brother’s Jamie Aebersold instructional manuals and could chop along some four-to-the-floor rhythm while he and his wind instrument friends took turns taking solos and doing things that were largely unintelligible and mystical to me.  When we got to the charts that came with the “Easy-to-Play” volume they would even let me goof around with my pentatonic scales for a chorus or two.

I was a young guitar player coming of age in the post-Nirvana age.  I’d never heard Eddie Van Halen play, or the generation of guitar players that he inspired to rip through scales as fast and loud as possible.  I was too clean cut to listen to heavy metal, country made me gag, and I had certainly never heard a guitar player doing the kinds of things that John Coltrane did with his saxophone on my brother’s records.

Then I heard Pat Metheny, and it knocked me on my ass.

I distinctly remember not even really being sure that he was playing a guitar.  It was so different from anything I’d ever heard before.  I didn’t recognize any licks or notes or patterns from the things I’d been playing before.  I loved the fat, dark tone and how it fit in with the rest of the jazz instruments in a way that I never felt like I could do with my little rock licks and my trebly bends.  It was so unique, so out there, so cool.

I still feel this way about Metheny’s playing to a certain extent although the mechanics of what he is doing is no longer a mystery.  At the time it opened up a whole new world for me.  I started inhaling all of the “jazz” guitarists that I could find.  Metheny led me to John Scofield, and then to John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola, and then to Steve Vai and Allan Holdsworth, and in a few years I was making mix-tapes of weird fusion records that none of my friends wanted to listen to and driving to school with “Race With the Devil on a Spanish Highway” blasting out the windows of my parents’ Dodge caravan.  I dreamt about being a guitar god and spent hour upon hour alone in my room desperately trying to get good.

But I never really got past mediocre no matter how much time I put in.  By the time I started college I was playing in jazz bands and shedding licks from “Patterns for Jazz” and trying to understand why I still couldn’t play like Pat Metheny.  I wasn’t terrible – I could play through songs with a good groove and play nice solos – but I didn’t sound like I wanted to, like the guys on the records, and I couldn’t figure out what I needed to do to get there.

I had a lot of roadblocks in my playing, many of them physical.  Like most guitar players that I’ve met throughout the years I couldn’t pick fast enough to hang with the tempos that my saxophonist brother wanted to play at.  My technique was totally unreliable from day to day, and I started to feel bad about not being able to do the simple things that it seemed like everyone else could do, like playing my scales and arpeggios quickly.  My soloing sounded like aimless scales, not like the cool licks I was hearing on records, and I struggled to play through complicated chord changes without a lot of clams.

Worst of all, I didn’t even really know what I needed to be practicing to get better, and the teachers that I was working with didn’t seem to have any advice other than “PRACTICE!”  I started to get embarrassed about how much time I was spending with the guitar and how little I had to show for it.  I had thought that if I put in enough hours I’d be good, and it wasn’t happening.  I started to believe that I just didn’t have the talent to be a musician like I wanted to.

In frustration I gave up trying to be good at jazz for a few years after college, started singing, learned a lot of folk and pop music, and started writing songs and playing the coffee shop circuit.  But I always felt uncomfortable with the simple parts I was playing.  I’d hear concerts where great jazz musicians would take the songs I was playing and turn them into beautiful artistic masterpieces full of cool fills and exotic chords.  I couldn’t stop wanting to be able to do that, but I also couldn’t seem to figure out how.

Even worse, I started to run into the same kinds of roadblocks that I’d faced with my “jazz” and fusion guitar playing.  Where before my struggle had been with playing fast parts on the guitar, now it was with singing high notes.  I didn’t seem to be able to sing the songs I wanted to, and I was getting frustrated at being stuck at a mediocre level again.

Finally, I realized that I must be doing something wrong, and I needed to figure out what that was.  I swallowed my pride and decided to conduct myself like I was a total beginner to everything related to music.  I read everything I could get my hands on that related to the issues I was struggling with.

And then, about a year and a half ago, some things started to click.  I started making discoveries about different aspects of performance, theory, technique, and perhaps most importantly confidence, that pushed my playing up a level.  I went from mediocre to decent, and I started to believe that if I could stay dedicated to exploring the paths that were opening up to me, I’d even get to good someday.

And that’s what this blog is about.  If you’ve made it this far, it’s probably because you have a similar story, and I hope that in sharing some of principles that I’ve learned over the last year I will be able to help others overcome the barriers that hold people back from becoming good musicians.

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