Making Choices, part one

One of the great things about being a musician in 2015 is that you have more access to more music, instructional materials, and teachers than anyone has ever had at any point in history.

One of the worst things about being a musician in 2015 is that you have more access to more music, instructional materials, and teachers than anyone has ever had at any point in history.

You can go on YouTube right now and find concert videos of every major guitar player of the last 70-80 years of every possible genre from Yngwie Malmsteen to Andres Segovia.  It’s a wonderful thing both to be able to enjoy this material, and also to have the ability to observe and study the playing approaches of masters over the years.

And not only do you have access to the music itself, but there are scores of guitarists and musicians out there (like myself) who offer an endless array of instructional materials and guides designed specifically to help you master whichever approach you are most interested in.  It can be a fast track to achieving results and learning what you need to know.

It can also be incredibly distracting.

As I talked about in my last post, the odds are very small that you’ll ever be able to master a form of musical performance in one genre, much less in several.  The fact is that even with a perfect coach and dedication it takes a long time to develop high level performance skills on a musical instrument.

It can be tempting to bounce around from teacher to teacher, book to book, DVD to DVD, after getting inspired by the wealth of incredible performances at your fingertips.  But every time you move to the next thing you’re taking valuable time away from improving at something else.

Sure, there are some guys who seem to be able to play anything, just like in athletics you have players like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders who can cross into several professional sports at once.  But for the vast majority of people, especially for people like myself who do not seem to have the magical spark of talent that allows for rapid mastery, it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever get to a professional level in one field, let alone multiple.

Even Michael Jordan couldn’t make it into MLB.

You have to make a choice about what is most important to you, and pursue it doggedly if you’re ever going to become successful. I sat myself down a couple years ago and wrote down all the different things I was trying to learn on the guitar, and thought through the pros and cons of each option.  My list looked something like this:

  • Straight-ahead jazz guitar ala Joe Pass, George Benson, Wes Montgomery
    • Pros – good fit for my voice, easily handles more sophisticated harmonies, fits in well with acoustic settings and horn players, works well both solo and in groups
    • Cons – often lacks intensity, not currently popular, pedagogy is confusing
  • Rock guitar ala Jimi Hendrix, Steve Vai
    • Pros – powerful dominant presence, strong pedagogy, expressive, popular
    • Cons – doesn’t fit in well in acoustic settings, not a great fit for my bass voice, limited solo guitar performance options, lots of equipment needed
  • Classical guitar ala Andres Segovia, John Williams
    • Pros – rich tradition, strong pedagogy, handles rich solo arrangements and complicated harmonic settings, easy to transport or play in the park
    • Cons – NAILS, hard to have a strong single-line sound in a group
  • Folk guitar ala Bob Dylan, Neil Young
    • Pros – good fit for my voice, fits in the tradition of American songwriting, easy to transport, equally fun to play by yourself or in an acoustic group
    • Cons – hard to get a good sound in louder groups with drummers or horns, strumming style tends to lend itself more to simpler music, hard to expand harmonically when playing that way

Then I sat down on thought about what was important to me: I liked to sing so I wanted something that fit my voice.  I liked to play both by myself and with groups.  I didn’t want to have to lug around tons of equipment, and I really liked to play with my brother who is a saxophonist.  I loved music with more complex harmonies, arrangements, and rhythms, and I frankly I wasn’t willing to deal with having long fingernails for my whole life (I had them at the time while I was learning the basics of classical guitar).

It seemed like straight ahead jazz guitar was the best fit for my needs, so I sat down and went through my record collection and tried to think about what moved me the most, what the one thing was that I couldn’t live without learning how to do.  My DVD of Wes Montgomery Live in ’65 stood out.

I made the decision.  I sold my Stratocaster and my pedals, sold my classical guitar, packed up my old flattop dreadnaught (my first guitar) and sent it back to live with my parents, and started getting rid of all the stuff I had that didn’t apply to the choice I made.

And I didn’t look back.

Continued in part two.

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