I spend a lot of time thinking these days. In fact, I have been thinking about this article almost a month before putting any words on paper. I believe that becoming a better guitar player is equally about chops, ears and thought. And I now believe that the thought part of getting better might actually be the most important piece. I’d like to take you on a little
journey today—through a bit of my journey in the hopes that it might help you. This isn’t a lesson, but it’s anecdotes from a path that might not be too far from where you are.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
I basically dropped out of the world at 16 when the guitar came into my life. Barring a few sick days, I don’t think that I played less than 6 hours of guitar on any given day for 13 straight years. It was glorious. But it wasn’t reality for most of the people I taught. I began teaching at 18, and really started teaching a lot in my early 20s. I had some of the best
tudents in the whole world, many of whom have become dear friends that I still talk to. I often found it really hard to teach guitar, because I would feel a bit of disappointment when my students were not getting better at the rate I wanted them to. I took it a bit personally, and it was hard at first. What I was lacking was a bit of empathy for them, and it was understandable—I was in my 20s, no kids, and I played guitar for a living. I lived in a really awesome bubble, but it wasn’t the same world that my students lived in. Over time, I started to understand that my job was to help my students get better. It wasn’t to mint rock stars. It was to help them make progress. The pace of the progress was not something I could control, but it was my job to help them have fun. They were paying for an escape from their reality. An hour where they got to do exactly what they wanted to do. That was my job. Teach them how to have fun. But I really wanted them to get better. So, my challenge became to find a way to fulfill both sides. So, I started to think. How can I get someone to play better when they can only play guitar a few hours a week? The answer cannot just be to make the most of the time you have.
One thing that kept coming up as I worked with adult students is that time was the enemy. Jobs, families, relationships and life all compete for your time. I was blessed to teach some absolutely brilliant people. My students were doctors, lawyers, businessmen who were all at the top of their game. These folks clearly had the mental ability to take on something new; they often did it daily in their professional life. But, as time went on, week to week, the progress was often glacial. There was always a legitimate excuse: business travel, working late, family obligations. I will admit that while I said it was fine, and just focused our time on having fun in the lesson, it was hard to hear. I didn’t fully get it. Even 10 minutes a day would be OK, I thought. But I was lacking some critical context and I could not see past my bubble. In 2008, I moved from the right coast to the left coast and started over in a whole bunch of ways, and I purposely stopped playing for a little bit. It was both hard and weird not to play, but it ended up being quite good for me.
When I got back into playing in 2009, something hit me like a ton of bricks: I had become my former students. I no longer had much time to play. I came home from work mentally exhausted. I didn’t want to play some nights, so I didn’t. I needed a new plan to keep myself improving. This new plan had to be really efficient, and, most of all, I needed a way to get better without needing a guitar in my hands all the time. I started to think about ways to get better without playing guitar a lot, and I started to come up with a whole bunch of neat ideas.
How much of music is mental? Turns out, quite a bit, and it’s usually in ways you don’t know or expect. When I thought back to teaching, I would often come back to large pockets of wasted time, especially around music theory. Teaching students to spell scales and triads often soaked up huge swathes of time in the lessons. It was clear that my students didn’t have a great way to learn those skills and they largely never learned it. They didn’t learn it because when they went home to practice, they wanted to get the guitar in their hands and they didn’t want to share any of their precious time thinking about music when they really wanted to play. So, I decided that we can make stronger boundaries in our lives, and playing time could be more or less devoted to playing, and theory and ear training could live elsewhere. But where?
Like most people in the world, I had a commute in the morning and evening. It’s about 30 minutes each way, and other than calling my mom, I had free time to think. So, I started to use that time each day to practice music theory and ear training. Turns out, this was a really amazing way to spend that time. I wasn’t doing anything fancy—mostly visualizing theory, and reminding myself where the notes and intervals were on the neck. Fingerboard knowledge was clearly one of those things that if you aren’t working on for long periods of time, you start to lose it. But my little rituals in the car totally helped. When I got back to the guitar at night, my brain and eyes locked in on the neck and solidified all the things I was working on mentally, and they effortlessly popped out when I played. It’s something I still do to this day. I don’t practice any theory now when I have a guitar in my hands. It’s always something I do away from the instrument.
And it’s not just me. Professional musicians often talk about “visualizing” the performance to help them play better, because at a certain point, there is a huge point of diminishing returns for practicing. You cannot just sit there longer or play more. You have to have something to practice, and people often make this mistake.
The bigger shift came with ear training. Not everyone is as crazy as I am about theory and harmony, but we all have ears, and many of you rely solely on your ears to get you through. In 2011, I decided to seriously study the blues. It was something I was never great at, and I always knew it was a missing piece. So, I tried something crazy: learn to play the blues without ever trying to play it. Do it by only listening. So, for the better part of a year, I listened and absorbed as much music as I could. From SRV to BB, to Albert Collins to Albert King, I listened. I made myself MP3s of slowed down solos so I could really tune into the phrasing while I drove to work. After a year, I was finally starting to hear the blues in my head, and I was finally starting to get it.
When I went back to the guitar to play, I didn’t force anything. I played whatever came out of my hands and ears and accepted it. As the months rolled on, more and more blues started to emerge, and they emerged naturally. Even more fascinating is that I don’t sound like any of the guys I was listening to. I sounded like me, but you could tell that there was a clearer line and homage to those guys. You should really try it!
DEEP THOUGHTS AND NEXT STEPS
Can you really get better as a player away from your instrument? Yes. 100%. I am more sure of this now than ever because in the last few years I have used this with my students and I have seen it work. Focus your time with the guitar to playing and enjoying yourself. That’s why we all love the guitar: because it’s so enjoyable and makes us all feel so good. When you’re away from it, think about the aspects of your playing that you’d like to change and see how many of those aspects need to be worked on with a guitar. I asked each of my students what they’d like to get better at, and the answers were consistent:
They wanted to better understand the neck
They wanted to improve their ears
They wanted to improve their phrasing
They wanted to have better technique/play faster
Other than playing faster, you can make progress on each of those aspects away from the guitar. And it won’t be hard. And you don’t have to spend a lot of time doing it. You just have to think a little. It could be just the change you need.