Recharging Your Batteries

Harp Strings

For whatever reasons (and there are many), guitarists seem obsessed with speed and volume. Beginning guitarist especially live by this simple equation: fast plus loud equals good.

Believe it or not, we aren’t going to get involved in this debate (at least not today). Instead, let’s talk about another area where our “need for speed” invariably causes us no end of trouble. And that is the area of self-evaluation. Most people tend to be their own worst critics. Not to mention that very few people are truly able to give an honest and fair analysis of their abilities. We’re never as good (smart, wealthy, talented, whatever) as we want to be.

We compound this problem when we examine ourselves as guitarists (or songwriters or musicians, for that matter) by trying to make comparisons, which are, to be frank, insane. “You know, David, I’ve been playing for a little over a year now and I still don’t sound like (Clapton, Vai, Vaughn, Page, Hackett (ours or theirs), Bream, DiMeola). I don’t even sound as good as my (teacher, friend, neighbor, arch rival) who’s only been playing (several) years longer than I have! I’m soooooooooooo frustrated. Should I chuck it all?”

Developing Perspective

Even if you’ve been playing the guitar for less than a month, your brain and body are already working together on a plot that makes any conspiracy (real or imagined) pale in comparison. Try to see if you can remember what it was like to not know anything about the guitar. Holding the thing was tentative enough, let alone trying to play a chord or even a single note.

But the chances are very likely that you cannot recall that you ever felt this way, anymore than you can remember what it was like to not be able to walk or feed yourself. But in your brain, you know that this must be the case. After all, you weren’t born playing a loud resounding E minor chord. So think about this logically – somehow you have in a reasonably short space of time acquired (some of) the skills to play guitar. Skills, which for all you know, did not even exist all that long ago.

Now I don’t know about each and every person’s life, but I’m willing to wager heavily that most of you do not have the “luxury” of being able to just sit around and play your guitar for the better part of the day. Or any given day. This goes without saying, right? Yet you’re more than willing to compare your abilities to those of people who have spent years of their lives doing just that. How on earth can you ever hope to measure up to your personal guitar god or goddess?

Again, logically, you can’t. Think about it. For every hour of practice that you can somehow manage to squeeze into your (already) crazy schedule, Carlos Santana gets to play two or three (or four or five or six) a night. And he (already) is what, thirty to forty years of experience up on you? No wonder it’s so easy to get discouraged. Might as well quit now if you can’t be the best.

And it’s not only beginners who suffer from this lack of perspective. I’ve found that the longer you’ve been playing the guitar the easier it is to feel that you’re getting nowhere fast. This is really not unexpected. As you get better it actually becomes harder to notice how you’re getting better. Once you’ve got the chords and strumming down, a lot of guitar playing is in the subtle things – things that are gained through the experience of playing more often than through any lesson or drill.

One good way for an intermediate or advanced guitarist to take stock of things is to try to learn something fairly different from his or her usual style of playing. The electric guitarist takes a shot finger picking an acoustic (and in open D tuning, if you prefer more of a challenge). The folk guitarist might try to see just how difficult it can be to play something when you’ve got to worry about how the sustain of your distortion affects which chord voicings you decide to use. Or work along with Logan Gabriel’s columns just to see how much tone variation you can get with simply your fingers.

For Better For Worse

Why did you take up the guitar in the first place? And again, be honest with yourself. Chances are likely it was for one of the usual reasons – love of music, wanting to emulate someone, wanting to “become” someone, a way to meet other people, a way to express yourself. Whatever the cause, you make a pact with your guitar. You would try to learn whatever secrets it would teach you and it, in turn, would magically change your life (hopefully) for the better.

Ah, the best laid plans, eh? On whatever terms your relationship with your guitar might have started, somewhere along the way things began to change. It might have been subtle at first, maybe not. You began to put in more time (or less time) and getting less (more) satisfaction.

But why are we surprised? Since we are living beings, we are constantly changing. Some philosophers will even argue that all things (living and non) change from moment to moment. The relationships we have with our friends, family, loved ones, coworkers, acquaintances and strangers are always in flux, whether we will admit to it or not. Why should it not be the same with our musical lives?

Growth, like relationships (and time itself), can be close to impossible to measure from a personal perspective. It’s only when we stop to take a moment for reflection that we give ourselves the chance to marvel at things. As Robbie Robertson wrote, “We grow up so slowly and grow old so fast…”

I’ve mentioned before that growth tends to happen in “spurts.” But given the chance to think about this, I’m not sure that I believe that anymore. I think that it might simple be our self-perspective that makes it look that way. We are not capable of seeing the minute changes that occur day to day and moment to moment, so we instead are surprised when faced with an obvious truth. “My, how tall you’ve grown!” “Yes, an hour ago I was four foot three and now I’m five foot two!” Similarly a guitar run that I have spent days, weeks, months practicing now plays (almost) effortlessly and I marvel at how I seemed to learn it virtually overnight.

This ability to see yourself and your playing in a detached, almost clinical, fashion is not easy to develop. Like anything, it requires practice, but a type of practice with which most of us are unfamiliar.

Breaking Up For The Right Reasons

I enjoy puzzles, particularly British-style crosswords, with all the puns and anagrams and all. This is probably because I almost never finish one. It’s the challenge. Sometimes (but it’s rare, as I said) I will get all the clues and sometimes I will get one or two. On any given day I have no idea how many answers I will be able to nail down.

But one thing almost always helps. When I find myself at an impasse, I set the puzzle down and go and do something, anything, else. I put it completely out of my life for a while and I really have no notion as to how long a while that might turn out to be. And when I come back to that puzzle later (minutes, hours or days later), I inevitably am able to get many more answers. It’s simply allowing my brain to recharge itself.

This works in quite a few aspects of our lives. I suspect that it is why vacations came into being. And it is no different when it comes to playing, practicing or writing. Taking a break from it all is (or should be) an integral part of your plans.

As important as music and guitar playing undoubtedly is to you, don’t forget that there are other areas of life that are worthy of your time and consideration. Just as in my first column (Breaking Out Of The Box?) I urged you to broaden your musical horizons, please don’t forget to experience as much of the world as you can. Whether you mean to or not, you really can’t help but carry your music around with you and because of that your relationship with music will continue to grow in new and interesting ways.

I tell you this for one specific reason: God knows why any of you took up the guitar, but there are only two reasons for you to keep playing. The first is because it is how you make your living (or how you hope to one day). Now, as much as this might be a goal for many of you, most of us are stuck with reason number two: we have found ourselves in this wonderful relationship and we every intention of finding out where it is going to take us next.

No one wants to admit it, but all relationships (again whether they be friends, family, etc.) involve work and commitment. But in return for that effort we derive an incredible, almost obscene, amount of enjoyment. Even on my worst days when I can’t make a simple run on the C major scale without sounding like I’ve lost what little talent I might have ever had, I know how much more pleasure I have in my life with my guitar than without it. Music allows me to share my life with the rest of the world on a level that I hadn’t the slightest suspicion of when I picked up a guitar for the first time. I shudder to think of how empty my life would be without it.

So to those of you who can’t learn things fast enough, take it easy. Take a breath. If you find that playing is not enjoyable, then stop and take a break. If you’re truly not learning anything then you have to stop and assess things. More likely than not, you’re simply holding yourself up to impossibly high goals and will continue to frustrate yourself no end until you set some realistic goals.

I’ve said this before too, but it really bears repeating. Everybody has it within themselves to bring something unique to the table. And, speaking for myself, I would much rather hear John Doe’s version of anyone’s song than to hear a carbon copy. Yes, learn all that you can, but don’t forget to be yourself. And if that means slowing down once in a while to get your bearings, more power to you.

Because if you ever find yourself not enjoying playing anymore, stop. For however long it takes to work it out, even if it means never playing again.

As always, please feel free to write with your questions, comments, concerns and whatever. Either email me directly at [email protected] or leave a note at the newly formatted Guitar Forums. Beginning next month, we’ll be re-examining the basics of chord theory in order to see how it leads us to our scales which in turn lead us to lead lines. It’s going to be in very “easy to digest” pieces and should (hopefully) prove invaluable to you whether your interest lies in playing or writing (or both). One reason for making things a bit smaller is that it will free up some time for me to help Paul with the launch of some great new additions to Guitar Noise. Just in time for the fall semester!

Until next week…