Starting Out

(Originally written for Guitar Nine, June 2009)

playing_yellow_g_by_windowI’d like to share some ideas with beginner guitar players. These ideas are based on my belief that there is an attitude or, perhaps, a spirit that is common to most guitarists who have become successful. I was fortunate enough to reach many of my guitar playing goals at an early age and I feel compelled to share the things I suspect contributed most to my progress. This information centers not around playing technique but, rather, engaging the mind to fully embrace the joy of learning your instrument.

It’s okay to fall in love. Just flow with it. This is different from falling in love with girlfriends and boyfriends; your fears may be warranted there. This is guitar. It can’t really hurt you. You may, at worst, get a case of G.A.S. (newbies may not be familiar with the term “guitar acquisition syndrome”), but even that is not so bad.

You may find yourself at times feeling like you are neglecting your friends and family while you practice, but there is a reward for everyone at the end of the tunnel if you stay focused.

So, get off the shelf. Go after the guitar that has caught your eye and start making love. Please note when I say “making love” I’m not suggesting you use a 16 ft. guitar strap to hang your guitar down around your boys. That seriously hinders your ability to play well. You might think it looks realy cool, but it’s a bad idea.

Establish a productive routine

In my first rock band in college there was a bass player named Ross. One semester we shared a dorm room on campus. I remember being amazed by the sight of him laying on the lower bunk with his eyes closed, not fully conscious as he reached down with one arm and pulled his bass out from under the bed. Then he sort of dragged the big Rick onto his mid section and started playing unplugged without ever opening his eyes. Ross lived to play bass. He had his idols. He had his goals. He had his bass. He had his routine. Well, decades have passed and I`m betting he still has his routine.

That was around ’77. There was no Internet as we now know it. There was no YouTube. There were fewer gadgets to play with. I’m sure you’ve heard all this before from some other geezer, but the point is there were fewer distractions for guitar students. Modern technology now makes it possible for would-be artists to broadcast their limited abilities to the universe long before they are ready and worthy. The temptation is great, but should be resisted for a number of reasons. That’s a topic for a different article.

A good routine means keeping your guitar visible in the room when you are not playing it. It should call out to you. You need to feel like it is lonely without you.

You may be concerned that your expensive instrument will fall victim to your hyperactive nephew who likes to throw stuff in the house. Just threaten to kill the brat and he should get the message. Have something large and sharp in your hand as you explain the situation to him. Do not hide your guitar away in a safe place. Out of site, out of mind. No good will come from that.

When you practice, always start with a progression, song or scale that you have not mastered yet. Perhaps the most common mistake guitar students make is starting out with the familiar. This will cause you to waste precious time on a narcistic indulgence. Don’t do it. Work on something that needs work first. Then, when you see you have ten minutes left to practice, play something you do well and finish on a positive note. Don’t become one of the thousands of guitarists who have been playing the same three songs for years.

This is a discipline I learned in my martial arts studies. While practicing Kung Fu I always felt as though I was failing because as soon as I nearly mastered a skill, I got pushed on to the next technique. This keeps you humble. Without humility, you cannot learn, Grasshopper.

Learn to really listen

When you hear a guitar solo or piece that truly inspires you, try to break it down on your own. Know that you can do it without anyone’s help. It may take you longer, perhaps a lot longer, but nothing builds confidence like attacking problems independently.

There are always fundamental elements that cause the magic. Learn what they are and believe they are not beyond your ability to achieve them. Things are always easier when you break them down into their component parts.

For example, I recently heard a solo by John Mayer that I thought was tremendously cool. Part of the solo consisted of triplets. Anyone can do triplets, right? Well, not like this. By really listening, I noticed the third note of the triplets was noticeably softer in attack than the first two notes. This transformed it from a standard BS riff, to something with great feeling. You need to listen beyond “three notes=triplet.”

Once you have unveiled that fundamental element that caused the magic, drill it to smitherines. Roughly speaking, repetition causes nerve impulses to cross certain synapses in your brain multiple times contributing to “muscle memory.” You eventually reach a point where the brain can perform the function without conscious thought beforehand. Hence, the riff becomes one that you “own” and can deliver in a state of zen. No repetition, no zen.

If you happen to be involved in formal instruction, embrace it for all its worth. However, when you hear this little ghost in your head telling you that you need to start weaning yourself, listen to her. She’s the ghost of artistry. She’s also the ghost of saving some dough. But become independent for the right reasons. Don`t cop out because you get bored with scales. Be disciplined and learn to love the boring stuff by focusing on the vision of the great artist you will become.

Be Nice

In the late ’70s and early ’80s I was involved in a Christian Pentecostal church which subsequently became very controversial because of its association with a high profile evangelist of dubious sincerity. I was young, inexperienced and, for the most part, dumber than a rock. However, in retrospect there were many great lessons to be learned apart from faith and scripture. Also, this experience exposed me to many fascinating characters; some good, some outright disdainful.

One of the good ones was an elderly preacher by the name of Glen Miller. As a musician I will never forget his name for obvious reasons. He was a sweet man who was extremely fond of the adage “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.” In that regard he practiced what he preached. I once witnessed him in a heated debate with another preacher during which he remained kind and respectful throughout. All the heat came from his opposition.

The United States is moving forward with some historic Supreme Court decisions that step on very sensitive areas in our communities. Many people feel their rights and traditions are under attack. Perhaps the latter is true. I think it’s clear some traditions need to be attacked. After all, sacrificing virgins to the Sun God was once an acceptable tradition somewhere. With the way we are able to exchange information in modern times, there is no excuse for failing to evolve and become more enlightened.

The momentum of social progress can rise gradually like the tide, or come crashing like a wave. It’s the wave that concerns me. As we debate the issues of today, we need to understand that the adage is true. Human nature can be extremely defensive. If you start an argument with an insult, your words are completely wasted beyond their contribution to a mob mentality. You will not convert anyone regardless of the strength of your logic. However, if inciting a mob reaction is what you intend, be prepared for the consequences.

Am I guilty of this? Oh, hell yeah. That’s why I decided to do a little blog writing as self penance.

We are truly divided. There will never be a time when everyone becomes liberal or conservative. In fact, there are studies that indicate our political views may be more in our DNA than in our souls. Is it not wrong to attack someone for having tendencies that they were born with? I know this is a fuzzy line. Even I have moved from one end of the political spectrum to the other as the result of arguments put forth with the correct recipe of logic, diplomacy and persistence.

Keeping it real, I know that at my self righteous best I am still dumber than a rock in the greater scheme of things. When you spend enough time looking at Earth from the perspective of the Hubble Space Telescope you are forced to realize there will always be more questions than answers. It’s an exercise in humility. Like that line in the Lee Ann Womack song “I Hope You Dance”: I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean. Humility and diplomacy go hand in hand.

The country is experiencing growing pains. Everyone is cranky. The best advice I can give was better delivered by the Patrick Swayze character in the 1989 film Road House. Be nice.