Guitar Study Newsletter by Darrin Koltow

Hi ho from This is Darrin Koltow, the Male Muse of Max Music, bringing you the Guitar Study newsletter. Thank you for signing up for Guitar Study at

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Welcome back to the guitar basics series. In this issue we’ll cover some basic obstacles that guitarists encounter, and look at possible solutions, or approaches that could yield some solutions.

Feeling overwhelmed

One problem is feeling overwhelmed by too much material. You have scales and chords you want to learn; songs to play; exercises to build your technique; sight-reading exercises, ear training exercises, and then your buddies want to come over and jam with you. Where are you going to find the time to do all this?

Let’s look at the source of this problem, which is not a problem at all, but a Very Good Thing: desire. Your desire to play and play well, to be all the guitarist you can be, is what’s driving your feeling that you need to learn to play and practice all the things mentioned above. Having a great, deep desire for something is like having a 50-cylinder engine from the future that runs on air and emits laughing gas as exhaust, in a 1970’s canary yellow Dodge Dart with a rusted frame. With this kind of thing happening, you know you’re going to feel some kind of frustration.

Recognize you can’t do everything all at once. Another useful metaphor here is the kid in the candy store. The kid — who is a part of you — owns the candy store. And being a kid, you don’t care about expenses, paying the employees and Uncle Sam. All you want to do is plop down on the floor and eat Milk Duds and Pixie Sticks until your head explodes.

Well, you are the owner of the store, so you’re allowed to do that. But you really don’t want to do that. You want to run the store in a way that will keep it going, and you want to eat a small amount of candy every day. You want to savor it.

And for learning guitar? You want to line up — on some written document — exactly what skills you want to learn, and goals you want to achieve by playing guitar. Do not write down the exercises you want to play — at least not in the same place as the goals:

The exercises are the vehicle, the goals are the destination.

“Improvising to Eric Clapton’s” Layla is a goal. “Playing a scale from any note, starting on any finger,” is not a goal, it’s a means to an end. Okay, okay, so linguistically speaking, it is some kind of goal. But it’s not a musical one. You didn’t begin playing the guitar because you heard someone playing nothing but scales, did you? No. Playing scales is a means to an end.

So, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, write down all that you want to achieve and list the most important goal first. Just doing this will give you a sense of control, and may get some ideas flowing about how to manage all your guitar-learning activities.

Unfair comparing

Here’s a letter showing another common problem that guitarists face: comparing yourself to others and feeling crummy about it. This type of comparing is also related to having a deep desire to play well:


Did you ever have the dream of being a famous guitarist? I have this dream, and I’m committed to it. I’m in the ninth grade now. I think I worry too much about the other people in the world at my age who are better than me, and why I can’t be like them. I practice religiously and am devoted 100% to this dream. Do you think you could give me some advice to ease these worries? Thanks. Joe.

— My response —

Hi, Joe. Thanks for your message. When I got your letter, it was like reading a letter I might have written about 20 years ago.

You are suffering from what can be called “super hero syndrome” — and that’s not a bad thing at all; it can very useful when you’re doing something as complex and demanding as playing guitar.

You want to be famous, maybe play as good or better than Steve Vai, have the ability to play anything and do other things at an almost superhuman level with your guitar. And you want fame or some kind of public recognition of this.

I think much good can come from pursuing such a goal. But I also think the goal may be unbalanced: it says nothing about developing a sense of fulfillment from playing or helping others. Such imbalance, combined with no written, measurable milestones to see where you are compared to where you want to get to, can make you want to stop playing. It can turn you off from playing for the rest of your life.

Example: when I was about 15 I wanted to be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. I really thought I could do it and I wanted nothing more than this. It was like my life and the rest of the universe depended on me becoming as big and strong as Arnold.

I lifted weights religiously for years and imagined myself becoming as big as Arnold. So, what happened? I got to college, took one look at the guys I’d have to share the exercise equipment with in the gym, and abandoned my goal forever. I set my standards too high, made myself miserable and denied my body the benefits of some kind of exercise, because I was so focused on comparing myself to others.

I wish someone had showed me that it was okay to not be the best. Actually, to have someone show me that it was okay to have the goal of being the top in your field, but to put that goal in the back of your mind, not at the center of your attention, where it can drive you crazy. A person who could have showed me how to make realistic goals, both short term and long term, would have been a big help to me.

You are doing something wonderful in writing to me, asking for advice — not because I know everything and have solved every problem a guitarist can face. But because you’ve asked for help. That’s where you and the person I was 20 years ago are fundamentally different: I was too stubborn and scared to ask someone for help with achieving my goals. You have the courage to reach out and get help. And there are lots of good people with serious guitar knowledge who will give you help. This help will come in the form of inspiration, technique know-how, music theory, and anything else related to playing the guitar.

Let’s name some of these people: David Hodge of Jamie Andreas of Troy Stetina of Many of the guitarists who participate in the forums at these sites will also help you set realistic goals. I’m not saying that you’ll always get an answer to all your questions, at least not a direct, person-to-person answer. But you will find a huge dose of the inspiration and advice you need from these fellas I’ve mentioned.

And maybe I should have begun this long-winded reply to your message with some more specific advice, but here it is now in any case: it’s okay to keep your super guitar hero goal. But, put that on the back burner and make for yourself a set of written, realistic goals. As important as this, is finding out exactly what you dig most about playing and doing much more of that, to build your enjoyment of playing to a pitch so high, you won’t even care about “goals” anymore, because you’ll be enjoying your playing so much.

And devoting your attention to realistic goals and enjoying your playing will help you deal with the discouragement you feel from comparing yourself to others.

Another point on that comparison thing: let’s compare two guitarists: Paul McCartney and Steve Vai. Yes, Paul plays guitar, not just bass, piano and other instruments. The question is, who do you think is the better guitarist? I think most people would say Steve Vai. Now, what if I started asking you questions like, “Who do you think is the better musician? Who’s the better songwriter? Whose songs would more people prefer to listen to? Who enjoys playing more?”

And do you think Paul ever spent a lot of time feeling bad because he couldn’t play as well as Steve Vai or someone like him? No way. Paul was way too busy writing excellent songs, and learning how to play his guitar and other instruments well enough to play those songs.

Joe, in short, hang onto your dream if you feel the need. AND get yourself some realistic, short-term goals — written down — and find out what you enjoy most about your playing and do more of it.

Take care.


Stay tuned for easy blues

That’s the end of this lesson in Guitar Basics. Next week we may explore more obstacles common to beginning players, and we may also do some basic blues from an upcoming guide to be published soon.

Where the best guitar info is

Author Nick Torres writes that the Guitar Lessons on the Net guide is “chock full of information on where to find just about anything related to guitar playing on the Internet.” There’s a full review of Guitar Lessons you can read here.

Guitar Lessons gets you back to where you want to be: playing guitar, instead of surfing the Net for guitar info. This guide has the scoop on where to go for free lessons, software and other guitar info, so you don’t have to waste precious practice time looking. Read more about Guitar Lessons at

To get your free chapters of Guitar Lessons — which are available only when you subscribe to Guitar Study — do the following:

Enter this URL in your browser:

You’ll be asked for a username and password. Here they are:



After you gain access, you’ll see a Web page that has this link:

Click on the link to download the sample chapters.


Wouldn’t it be the coolest to be able to crawl into the mind of a skilled songwriter to see how he or she takes a tune from paper to performance? Lots of articles can give you “tips” on certain aspects of songwriting, which is definitely helpful. But if you want some deep learning in songwriting that makes the whole enchilada digestible and inspiring, you want to know the thoughts of a songwriter from the conception of a tune to its ultimate performance. David Hodge has been writing tunes for some time, besides being a skilled, performing musician for several years, and he gives you this vital tour of the songwriting mind. Dig his article Waiting for Nancy, which is accessible from the home page.

++ Thank you, Mr. Rogers ++

I don’t know how relevant the passing of a wonderful human, Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, is to playing guitar. Since he was a piano player, there is a tie-in to making music here. But maybe there’s a deeper relevance. Mr. Rogers played the piano as a part of his mission help kids become more complete human beings. I just want to emphasize this notion: using music to enhance a person’s life. Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for doing that.

Have a great week.

Darrin Koltow

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