Developing skills on the guitar is difficult, but it’s deceptively straightforward.
We complicate it constantly.
We get ahead of ourselves by watching multiple YouTube videos from different instructors.
We get caught up in thinking that there is a perfect way to practice, that there is a magical practice structure we can discover and follow, that there is a best possible way to spend our time.
We think we need to know things that we don’t.
We confront a single weakness and get utterly derailed by it.
We fixate almost all of our attention on what we can’t do instead of paying attention to what we can do and doubling down on our strengths (and synthesizing them together into a unique combination).
We are told that we’re practicing wrong, or that our technique is flawed, or that we need to know music theory.
It’s mostly hogwash.
The impulse behind many of these motivations (and confusing signals) are understandable, and even respectable:
We want to become better. And we have a sense that becoming better is possible.
That’s a good thing. And it’s true.
But getting better at anything on the guitar comes down to doing the hard thing that we are usually avoiding whenever we get distracted (by everything I just mentioned).
Ask yourself: What is it all for?
And then go do that.
In other words: Why are you learning things on the guitar? Why are you practicing? To what end? What is it that you are looking to achieve?
I’m astounded by the vague answers I’ve received to that question.
“I want to get better.”
“I want to improve.”
Yes. That’s great, but why? What are you looking to do as a result of getting better and improving?
Because if you can’t answer that, then it’s hard to have any grip on what it is you should focus on improving.
(This means that an effective practice structure will always elude you, because you aren’t aiming at anything specific. Without aiming, you wander. With enough wandering, you flounder).
Other times, I’ll ask this question and eyes glaze over. It’s as if they’ve never even considered why they started to play guitar in the first place, let alone where they want to go with it.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to learn, practice, and improve on the guitar for its own sake.
There are those who are content with playing and practicing because doing so is its own reward, and they aren’t attached to where it leads, and don’t necessarily have a goal in mind. They just enjoy the activity and the process. (This is actually what I recommend).
But those who are invested in that pursuit tend not to be those who feel frustrated enough to reach out to me for coaching, lessons, or guidance. They are looking for answers. They are looking to solve a problem. They are looking to excel at their craft.
They are trying to get somewhere, though they haven’t exactly taken the time to define where somewhere is.
Get yourself an aim. Set your sights on something specific. It needn’t be grandiose. It needn’t be comprehensive. It can be, but it can also be childishly simple.
I want to be able to play my favorite song from when I was a teenager.
Sweet. Got it. That’s a clear aim. It’s defined. You know what you’re after. Now you need to go do it.
Meaning: Go play your favorite song from when you were a teenager.
There’s only one way to do that. And that’s to just do it.
I sound like a broken record, but sometimes records are worth breaking.
The next question is… How do you do it?
One note at a time, of course.
How do you play notes?
One motion at a time, of course.
How do you make motions?
By paying proper attention to your physical movements such that you can reliably produce the desired sound.
How do you pay proper attention your movements?
By focusing to the exclusion of everything else.
And then you keep doing that.
And you remain consistent about it.
The same can be said for if you are creating something––be it a riff, a solo, a chord progression, a song, or an album.
You come up with one note at a time.
You play those notes with one motion at a time.
You make those motions by paying full attention to your movements until you can reliably produce the desired sound.
You cultivate your ability to pay full attention by deepening––and over time, lengthening––your focus.
That’s the big secret to getting anywhere you want to go on the guitar.
Does this seem over-simplistic?
Good. It should. Because it is.
That’s what makes it so deceptive.
Because the guitar is a complicated instrument. And music is an infinite domain of endless possibilities.
And there is no ceiling to how far you can go with the guitar, and how skilled you can become… just as there are no limits to what you can create.
And therein lies the problem.
It is the size and scope of this infinite complexity and boundless creative potential that thwarts us from seeing the simple truth that can guide us through such a vast terrain:
The process of developing mastery is maddeningly simple and straightforward.
But because the result––and the fruits––of mastery are staggeringly intricate, we think that the act of getting there must be, too.
To Achieve Mastery––whatever That Might Mean for You––You Must Master One Skill Above All:
The ability to reduce infinity into the finite and infinitesimal.
Let’s define those terms for the sake of this conversation:
Finite means that our aim is meaningfully limited in size or extent. Which is to say, as stated before, we have a clear aim.
We have an end goal in mind (even if it’s just one goal of countless goals, we must begin with one, and see it through from its unsteady start to its intended finish).
And infinitesimal means that what we focus on is extremely small. You don’t eat an elephant by swallowing it whole. You eat an elephant one chunk, one bite, one chew at a time.
So, the next question is:
How does one develop the ability to reduce infinity into the finite and infinitesimal?
We’ve set our aim. And we see that there are countless steps between where we are and where we want to go.
But the only way to get to where we want to go is to focus on one step at a time.
In doing so, you’ll pay full and proper attention to the immediate task that is right in front of you and you’ll bring all your resources to bear on solving whatever problems you encounter.
- Setting your sights properly and in a manner that clarifies and motivates is a skill of its own.
- Drowning out the noise and focusing is a skill of its own.
- Spotting mistakes and cleaning them up by fine-tuning your physical movements is a skill of its own.
Those are the skills you bring to the table when you take things one step at a time and pay full and proper attention to the immediate task that is right in front of you.
I’ve taught and transferred these specific skills elsewhere and you can reference them at any time.
But here’s the key…
When you are doing the hard thing (instead of doing everything else that is in avoidance of the hard thing)…
…When you are engaged in this kind of learning, this kind of practice, this kind of creating, keep this in mind and take it to heart:
You must go it alone.
Yes, mentors matter.
Yes, it can be incredibly useful to consult others, and to learn better ways of approaching what you’re doing.
Yes, it’s good to take time out to reassess your assumptions, get some outside perspective, gather some feedback or guidance about your technique.
All of these things are “shortcuts” when you work with them wisely.
But all of those things are secondary.
Anything and Everything That Can Aid Your Skill Development Spring From, Are Informed by, and Always Lead Back to the Same Thing:
Alone with the guitar.
Focusing in and figuring things out.
For your body. Your fingers. Your learning style. Your brain.
The particulars of your unique situation could fill a book.
And most critically to note; that book does not exist, except for inside of you.
You won’t find “the Book of You” when you flip through YouTube, scroll through Facebook, or search in Google.
You won’t find it when you ask a friend or bandmate or jam partner or collaborator or instructor or mentor.
You won’t find it in an online form, community, subscription, or course.
You won’t find it at Guitar Center or your local guitar shop.
This isn’t at all undermining those things.
I say all of this as an instructor who has online courses and who has peers and mentors.
But it is to say that what will work for you is something only you can figure out.
The only way to figure it out is to do the hard work of learning, practicing, and creating (which is a process of discovery).
The only way to figure it out is to stop avoiding it and go do it.
And that’s the same boat everyone is in.
So whatever an instructor or teacher or mentor or peer has to share is what worked for them. And it might work for you, too.
But you can only find out by doing the hard thing and putting it into practice. By testing it out.
And nothing is guaranteed.
In all likelihood, you will discover that a few––or perhaps countless––subtle and intangible adjustments here and there are what work for you.
And you can’t find out what those adjustments are unless you focus on the task in front of you, one step at a time.
Any time you are reaching out for more information, more instruction, different or more attractive or more elegant or more succinct answers… you are not doing the hard work that actually counts.
You have to go most of it alone.
And at the same time, believe you me… you’re not alone.
I struggle with reducing infinity as much as anyone, so far as I can tell.
In fact, I spend most of my learning, practice, and creation time floating around in the realm of the infinite, instead of with my feet on the ground, digging the ditches that lead to a functioning city.
In other words: I spend most of my time avoiding the real work.
The implications of this statement are sobering.
Thankfully, when I finally get over myself and reclaim my focus and get to work, I manage to make rapid progress in a remarkably short period of time.
But I don’t spend a lot of time doing that hard work, and that’s a shame. It’s a sad squandering of my potential. I own it. But I ain’t proud of it.
It’s hard as hell do tame oneself enough to learn an entire song.
And that’s because when you learn an entire song, that’s not actually what you’re doing. You’re learning one note of the song, one motion at a time.
Over time, the entire song takes shape and gets transferred under your fingertips. But you don’t learn the entire song. You learn each of its component parts and string them together until they are fluid.
It’s even harder to tame oneself enough to create an entire song.
When you’re learning a song, at least you have the added benefit of it being a finite pursuit (as we discussed before). At least you have the advantage of being able to work with something instead of starting with nothing.
The blank canvas (or soundscape, let’s say) can be an overwhelmingly intimidating thing, because it’s simultaneously empty and endless.
I’ve written what seems like years of material, all to be discarded in the irretrievable dustbin of my Cubase projects. And I’ve written even more than that while jamming and improvising on the guitar, without recording the ideas at all.
Because it’s nearly impossible to settle down with a single idea and see it through to its completed state.
And even then, it’s hard to be satisfied with the outcome. Which makes anything I create highly vulnerable to being thrown away and forgotten, no matter how hard I worked on it.
It’s nearly impossible. But it’s still possible.
And for the most part, you have to go it alone.
Only you can do this. Because you’re the only one who lives with yourself 24/7.
You’re the only one who can figure out how to get yourself to do the hard thing.
You’re the only one who knows what that hard thing is, because you’re the only one who has the aims that you have.
Others can give you exercises or guidance or assignments. But you still have to be the one who follows through and does the work.
The Sooner You Can Embrace This, the Faster You Will Improve:
There is no magic bullet.
There is no magic practice structure.
There is no magic instructor.
There is no magic guitar, pick, or stringset.
There is no magic online course.
There is no magic piece of gear.
There is just you.
With your guitar.
Doing the hard thing.
Again and again.
Until you get where you want to go.
P.S. It is worth asking: what is so hard about the work that makes us so hellbent on avoiding it?
Maybe in seeing how and why it’s hard, we can determine ways to not give in to avoiding it.
I don’t believe that you can avoid the hard work of learning, practicing, and creating. There is very little you can do to make it less hard.
There are only things you can do to harden yourself and your own resolve and willingness to tackle it.
If it isn’t hard work, the work isn’t likely to be meaningful or lasting.
Naturally, there are always exceptions to this. But as a rule, I find it to be quite valuable to consider.
It steels my will, reminding me that the hard thing is the thing worth doing because it’s hard. And if it wasn’t hard, it probably wouldn’t be worth doing.
If you are looking for the thing to not be hard, then you will be prone to diversion and distraction and procrastination.
If you are unwilling to do the hard work, you will, without fail, fail to get to where you want to go.
But the opposite might be true, too.
If you embrace that it will be hard, then you will prime yourself to not be distracted, and be ready to focus, instead.
Now go do the hard thing.
That’s what I’m going to do now.