WTF! (How to Turn Comparison into Inspiration)

I remember once posting a clip of me playing a monstrous riff that I learned from the illustrious Rick Graham.

My take on the riff wasn’t polished or perfected enough to publish on my main feed, but I uploaded it as an IG Story. (The ending of my version, in particular, is some high-speed improvisation that I thought was pretty cool).

I dug it up for you––fast and slow––if you’re curious to check it out:



It’s called the “WTF Lick” (hence the title of the post).

The ‘WTF?!’ Lick by Rick Graham


Watch that about a hundred times and you’ll still only scratch the surface of appreciating the skill involved here.

I plan on making an instructional video on how to play this thing… as there are a few things you can pay attention to that can fine-tune your craft (and speed up your progress with Economy Picking).

A few things to note:

  1. You can alternate pick this, but it requires half the effort if you Economy Pick
  2. This riff is great as a way to stretch your fingers and expand their reach capacity
  3. Tame the pinky if you expect to play this cleanly

I had been working on it on and off for a few weeks. It was the riff I’d play in between working on my main practice Scenarios.

Side note: Sometimes it’s helpful to have a way to break things up in between your main reps, to let of some steam, to back away from the intensity of Deep Practice. What I tend to do in these moments is mindlessly noodle for a few minutes.

But I noticed that this mindless noodling approach caused me to accumulate nearly 10 minutes of “wasted” practice time. So I decided I would use those short breaks to work on the WTF Lick, which centers around a different skill than the one I’m targeting.

This approach might prove useful to you, too.

Anyway… I posted the riff, because I felt stoked about my progress with it. I had gone further with it than I had expected to go up to this point. It was sounding cleaner, and I was getting faster.

And then I made the mistake of watching Rick Graham play it again.

He made my attempt at it––again, an attempt that I felt pleased about, an attempt that I even felt a tad proud of––look utterly childish in comparison.

Seriously, I felt like a joke. 

And that’s what made it sting the most:

I felt stoked and then I felt like a joke.

My mind can justify this easily enough, of course.

Rick has been playing for about a decade longer than I have (without years-long interruptions).

He was classically trained.

He doesn’t have tendinitis and can get in multiple hours of practice per day.

He has a stronger build and quicker fast-twitch muscles.

He has guitars with better strings, intonation, and action (I haven’t properly adjusted mine since moving across the country).

On top of that, many––if not most––clips that players publish are the result of dozens of discarded takes and not the most accurate depiction of their skill level (though I would guess Rick is an exception to this rule).

…The list of justifications and reasons why it doesn’t make sense for me to contracts my playing with his are endless.

But they don’t matter.

Because those reasons––however valid or invalid––don’t change the underlying emotional reaction that ensues when I compared myself to him.

And it’s the underlying emotion that drives my future actions (or inactions).

So after viewing his clip, and then viewing mine (a productive thing to do in a different context, but a terrible thing to do given the state of mind I was in); I felt blue and bummed out.

To add insult to emotional injury, hardly anyone was reacting to the clip I posted.

Another side note: Isn’t that often the case?

If we feel insecure, no amount of validation is enough to set us straight… because we are seeing only that which reinforces the insecurity, while underemphasizing or ignoring evidence to the contrary.

On top of that, research suggests that we have a higher sensitivity to negative stimuli than positive.

That makes sense, since for our ancestors on the African savanna; a threat meant death and required immediate action to avoid. Good news just meant that we could carry on living; it didn’t require anything urgent from us.

So I put the guitar down and started reading some of what my wife calls “junk food fiction“ (Stephen King has been a staple since my adolescence).

So I put the guitar down and started reading some of what my wife calls “junk food fiction.“ (Stephen King has been a staple since my adolescence).

I ate some rice and squash for dinner and silently brooded about it.

With my belly full, I got over myself and pulled out of my pathetic pity party to write this:

Stop comparing yourself to others.

This is useful enough advice, often disseminated, but it’s also incomplete.

Because we are inherently social creatures and we cannot help but compare ourselves to others. 

It seems to be part of how we function.

It’s part of how we make sense of the world and our place in it.

It’s part of how we know how to relate to one another. 

It’s part of how we form our self-concept and identity (for better or worse). 

So here are some useful distinctions…

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Comparison is a polluted form of inspiration or instruction.

You can use others as models for what is possible to achieve.

You can draw inspiration from them, and learn what they do so you can do it too.

You can even measure your own progress over time by seeing where you stand today, and seeing how much you stand to gain as you continue to practice (in light of where someone you admire has gone).

But the moment you begin to compare yourself––at your core––to them, you’re wading into dangerous (and dangerously irrelevant) territory.

What they have achieved has nothing to do with you.

It’s nothing personal.

It says nothing about what you are capable of, your current accomplishments, or where you can go from here.

They’re just doing their thing, working to become better, and sharing their progress.

And you’re just doing yours.

That’s your responsibility.

And it’s on you to bear that burden as best you can.

If you get caught in comparison, it can be incredibly demotivating to see the gap between where you are and where someone else is.

And it’s even worse when you see the sheer volume of people who are much further along the path than you are.

The internet and social media allows you to see this every day, if you so choose. You can find countless others who are better than you in some technical way or another.

But this comparison isn’t helpful. It’s more often harmful.

It zaps you of motivation.

It can give you the sense that you are too late, or falling behind, or that your body and brain just isn’t cut out for greatness on the guitar… and all manner of other self-debilitating trains of thought.

These stressful thoughts and subsequent setbacks aren’t necessarily only short-term, either. They can pull you away from the guitar for days, weeks, months, and even years.

I have seen this happen over and over again.

Convinced that they’re not good enough, players will give up the guitar in search of greener pastures.

And sometimes they never pick it back up.

What’s wild is that I’ve seen it happen to players who are in a league of their own!

I won’t name names, but there are players who are profoundly respected and unfathomably skilled who get caught in this trap, too.

It doesn’t go away just because you reach the next level.

You might be the very best in the world at something on the guitar; but there’s always someone else who is better at something than you are. And there are always those who are catching up to you.

There is always someone better than you and that will never stop.

We keep pushing the envelope for each other. We go as far as we can go so that others can follow in our footsteps and then go even further.

That’s just the way of it. And it’s a beautiful process of evolution.

If you’re at the top and feel threatened; your pain only comes from playing the comparison game.

All of these thoughts lead you and your attention far away from where it belongs: on yourself, your own personal progress, your playing, and your music.

If you commit to comparing yourself only to who you were during your last practice session and who you envision yourself becoming; you’re in a proper and productive state of mind. 

Of course, it can still be rough to compare yourself to your own potential. 

But it also helps to draw the best out of you. And it’s a much more constructive comparison to make than comparing yourself to others.

And some players are more sensitive to this comparison poison than others.

Some players even thrive on the competition. They seek to constantly one-up everyone else.

Others simply have no problem with it. They just like to play, like to improve, like to make music, and they enjoy that others feel that way, too.

And most of the time; that’s how I feel, too.

But sometimes I’m just in a mood, you know? And that might happen to you sometimes, too.

It pays to be vigilant and attentive to when you are feeling insecure… and to avoid making it worse by exposing yourself to consummate players who make you feel inferior.

I know that over the years, I have squandered a considerable amount of time and energy comparing myself to other players.

So here’s a useful Mind-Shift Mantra: 

Forget comparison. Observe the playing of others for inspiration or instruction, instead.

And don’t do it often (except out of enjoyment).

Keep your eye on your own aims, on your own fingers, on your own strings.

Glance up every now and then to see just how high you can climb.

But remember that you can close your eyes to do that, too.

You can envision what’s possible for yourself in your own imagination and dreams.

And you can let that vision draw out the best in you.

In doing so, you never once have to compare yourself with others and suffer the consequences that come from that.

So I’ll let Rick Graham continue to be the legend that he is.

And I’ll tend to my own playing, my own creations, and the contributions that can come from it.



One Reply to “WTF! (How to Turn Comparison into Inspiration)”

  1. It’s no coincidence that I just finished reading a section on “Insecurity” in Julia Cameron’s book “Walking in this World” only to find this message in my inbox, which has been sitting there until I could finally “catch up” enough to get to reading it.

    In this section of the book, she, too, compares her own beginning piano skills to one of her inspirations, a masterful pianist. Some gems I’ve gleaned from this section are as follows:

    – “No two players play alike, and there is that word, play. As artists, we do better focused on the play of learning than on the work of getting ahead.”
    – When we compete and compare instead of strive to emulate and empathize with other artists, we greet their skills with hostility and or own lesser skills with dismay.”
    – In regards to our own potential: “The root word of ‘potential’ is ‘potency,’ or ‘power.’ Just as the eagle’s fledgling is less formidable than the eventual eagle, so, too, our embryonic steps in a new art form fail to accurately convey our later creative flight.”

    She then goes on to suggest an exercise at the end of the unit. “Take pen in hand. Number from 1 to 50. List 50 specifics and positive things that you like and approve about yourself exactly the way you are. These likable traits can be physical, mental, spiritual, personal, or even professional…So often we are focused on what we would like to change—and change for the better—that we fail to celebrate what is wonderfully enjoyable exactly the way it is. We are often far closer to our own ideal—and ideals—than we dare recognize…By counting our blessings we can come to see that we are blessed and that we need not compare ourselves to anyone.”

    Just wanted to pass this along. Thanks for the great insights. Now I’m off to catch up to some more great posts!

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