Lessons Learned

There are really three basic principles that have governed my approach to music over the last year and a half that I wish someone had told me years ago.  These were things that I gradually started to understand and appreciate through my reading and practicing, and I’ve more and more come to believe that they are the gospel truth at the heart of learning to be a better musician.  It’s very possible to understand these things but still basically ignore them in practice.  I find that I have to continually remind myself of them to stop falling back into the old habits that created the problems I described in my first post.

The Chain is Only as Strong as its Weakest Link

This first principle is basically saying that performing is an athletic endeavor and that you need good fundamentals.  This should be painfully obvious to anyone who has picked up a guitar, but based on my own experience and my interactions with hundreds of other players over the years, I can confidently say that this is probably the most universally ignored principle in guitar playing.  Almost every other instrument has a pedagogy that systematically addresses this issue, but guitar instructional materials are constructed so shockingly poorly that it’s actually pretty rare for someone to have learned to play the instrument in a coherent, systematic fashion.

The basic idea is this: every thing you do on the guitar can be broken down into the execution of a set of basic skills in different patterns.  If you suck at one of those basic skills, you will suck at every higher level skill that requires that skill.

I know, this seems very obvious, but in practice it’s very hard to make yourself honor it.  Can you honestly say that you’ve ever sat down with a metronome and figured out where your limit is for alternate picking between a pair of open strings in every possible way?  Have you ever analyzed the fretting mechanics of switching between the ring and pinky fingers of your left hand?  If not, you probably – like almost all guitar players – have big holes in your basic skill set that need to be addressed before you can clean up your playing.

Here’s a basic example: I used to struggle mightily with playing basic scale patterns picking every note with strict alternate picking.  My left hand could do whatever I needed it to (I’ve always been naturally good with the left hand), but my right couldn’t keep up.  At some point I realized that I needed to look at what the right hand was really doing and figure out why, not just keep bashing my head against the wall hoping magically things would work themselves out.  I figured out that there were a few skills at play:

  1. Alternate picking on single strings starting from a downstroke
  2. Alternate picking on single strings STARTING FROM AN UPSTROKE (I’d bet a lot of money that very few of the people that will read this have ever tried practicing that)
  3. Alternate picking switching between two strings moving from a downstroke on the lower to an upstroke on the higher, an upstroke on the lower to a downstroke on the higher, a downstroke on the higher to an upstroke on the lower, and an upstroke on the higher to a downstroke on the lower

Then imagine all the left hand skills involved.  The point is, that this stuff is really complicated.  I was surprised to find out how much I sucked at everything but (i).  Why was I surprised that I couldn’t play my scale fast when I couldn’t even do (ii) at half the speed I was hoping to get my scales to?

You have to break things down into their tiny little annoying constituent parts and figure out how to make each part effortless before you can do the complicated stuff (scales, licks) effortlessly.  Some people, I’m convinced, pick up the athletic aspect of the instrument easily and have no trouble because they just grasp the fundamentals more instinctively and naturally, and others, like me, never really learn the first steps right.  You might come up with workarounds – I had some serious slur-based vocabulary at one point – but you’ll always be limited until you fix the weak link.

You Have to Make Choices

I’m working backwards here, because a pre-requisite to fixing your weak links is knowing what you are supposed to do.  Let me say that again, because it is shockingly important and, again, I feel almost universally misunderstood.  You have to know what you are supposed to do on the instrument before you can do it.

One of the more helpful instructional manuals out there is Jamey Andreas’ The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar.

Jamey defines practice as knowing what to do and then making sure your hands do it.  The first principle, the one about identifying your weak links is the second part of that sentence.  Making choices is the first.

At one point I owned two different sized arch tops strung with flat wounds, a flat top acoustic with bronze round wounds, a classical guitar with nylon strings, a solid body electric with skinny little 0.09s, and a fretless guitar that I made out of an old Ibanez RG.  I was learning Steve Vai solos, Bob Dylan tunes, Pat Metheny licks, Tuck Andress chord/melody arrangements, beginner classical pieces…you name it.

Now gathering a lot of influences is not necessarily bad, and one of the great things about the guitar is how many different ways people have devised to approach it.  But I was basically trying to get good at about a half dozen distinct playing approaches simultaneously.  It’s no wonder I sucked at all of them.

Unless you’re a truly gifted freak, the odds are that there’s not enough time in your life to even master one way of playing the guitar, much less all of them.  More importantly, there is no universal approach.  There’s no one way of playing and learning that is going to let you cover George Benson, Jimi Hendrix, Andres Segovia, Paco De Lucia, Tommy Emanuel, Tuck Andress, and Steve Vai.  It just ain’t happening.  The things they do – their basic skills set – are actually very different.

I’m sure this probably offends a good number of guitar teachers out there who will argue that there’s a certain playing position and right hand approach that will prepare you to do anything.  It’s probably some weird classical hybrid involving palm muting open strings that no one actually uses.  But, just look around.  The greats all play differently.  And they play differently because the music they are performing makes unique demands on them.

You have to make a choice about what is most important to you on the instrument and start there.  Then you have to look at the players that you think do what you want to be able to do the absolute best and start to pick apart their approach and figure out what their basic skills are.  And that takes a lot of time and dedication.

You Can Only Play What You’ve Practiced

The other points took a lot of explaining.  This one doesn’t.  We all know it, but we don’t live it.

If you can’t play it in the practice room, you will not play it live.

There are no shortcuts.  If you want to be able to do something, you have to do it.  You have to do it all.  You have to practice every little part of every thing that you want to be able to do.  And you have to practice it in the right way by paying attention to the other two points in this post.

If you want to be able to perform a 5 minute piece in front of an audience, you have to be able to play through that 5 minute piece perfectly ten times in a row at home in your bedroom.  You’re not going to have it magically come together by practicing different sections on different days.

It’s hard, it’s laborious, but it’s inescapable.

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