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.


Wiggly Tail Dreams

As a young boy growing up on the Mississippi River delta, I felt strongly connected to nature. This, of course, was a little before the technology boom that brought us personal computers, Xbox games and the internet.

stoop-275Oh, here we go. Only two sentences into this little article and I already sound like the old farts who preached to me as a child. “When I was your age, we didn’t have all those new fangled….” Well, whatever.

Hopefully, this won’t sound self righteous or condescending. Kids from any generation certainly can’t be blamed for what their era provides for them. But relative to this day and age, the kids I grew up with were more likely to spend their free time out of the house, roaming the neighborhood and bantering with friends. When we wanted to escape to an alternative universe, there were fewer options. The most important of which was our imaginations.

I recall spending many hours sitting on the concrete stoop attached to the rear of my family home where I taught myself to play guitar, or played with my dogs. Next to the stoop was a perpetually dripping water faucet. I would use that faucet to pour water for the dogs, but my hands were not strong enough to close the valve tightly, so it would continue dripping. There was always a little puddle on the ground underneath.

Lizard-275In the south Louisiana heat, a little fresh water will attract all kinds of critters. The area around this particular faucet was constantly visited by super cool green lizards. I loved watching those guys. They looked like miniature dragons or dinosaurs. My imagination would run wild with adventures of what life would be like if those lizards were gigantic, or if I was reduced to their size. It would be a short life, no doubt.

If you were really quick, you could catch one of these lizards with your bare hands. The only problem was that they would probably bite you in the process. They weren’t poisonous. The bite didn’t really hurt at all, but the idea of getting bit by one of these little creatures was still scary enough to give a young boy pause. The best approach was from behind, trying to catch it in a way that would minimize the risk of getting bit. Yep, I wasn’t taking these guys head on.

Now, apparently other animals felt this way about the lizards. Enough, in fact, that evolution provided these lizards with a particular protective adaptation. They possess a tail that will easily break off so they can escape while a predator is left with only a wiggling tail in its mouth, or, in my case, my hand. As long as my nerve remained anemic, I was unable to catch anything more than a tail that would oddly continue to wiggle for several minutes after it broke off in my hand.

Hang in there. I’m going somewhere with this.

Practicing guitar was a big part of my early years. By the time I got to college, I was rather accomplished. It wasn’t long before I began to realize that I would not fail to pass any audition I showed up at. However, in spite of knowing I was one of the most skilled players in the area, I still suffered from self esteem issues. I was mentally unprepared for success.

Like most guitar wielding young men, I had dreams of being on the big concert stage. I also wanted to record albums similar to those that inspired me to learn my craft. But, alas, for whatever reason my confidence was impaired. Word of my abilities spread and opportunities came my way, but I was afraid to act on them–afraid to take those challenges head on. I made excuses. Lame, cowardly excuses.

Now the universe has changed all around me. The music industry in no way resembles what it once was. I reflect on those dreams I once had and realize my music career is now at the wiggly tail stage.