If you are like most players, you are desiring to become a better guitar player. Through my own learning experience and through teaching well over 1,000 students, I have learned a lot on this subject. Students often ask why they are not not at the level that they desire to be and what can be done about it. I have asked myself this same question many times in the past. A long time passed before I began to understand the answers. Like you probably have done, I have read a ton of interviews with great players and articles written by many of these same players. I often found it frustrating whenever the subject of learning to play guitar came up or when advice was offered on improving one's playing. With a small number of exceptions, very little time and space was offered on this. It's not uncommon to see the player's advice be summed up in a grand total of three words: Practice! Practice!! Practice!!! Well of course we all know that practicing is the main ingredient. But rarely are we told much more than that. In my long quest to become an excellent player and to help my students do the same I carefully took note of what worked and what didn't. What parts conventional wisdom is accurate and what parts are (at least in my opinion) are not. I believe the twenty concepts that have proven to bring great results to those who use them are:
A. Knows what your goals are.
B. Cares about helping you reach your goals.
C. Knows how to help you reach your goals.
When all the enemies of progress start to creep into your mind, you will need to bring your definite purpose to the forefront of your thinking. I have seen procrastination, fear of failure, self doubt, lack of motivation, temporary setbacks, and other negative things bring people with great potential to a halt. Knowing your definite purpose and reminding yourself of it when a negative thought comes into your mind will help you overcome it.
If you clearly know what your ultimate goals are, you can do this yourself. But if you need help in planning out the short and mid term goals to plan your strategy. Consult a teacher whom you trust and believe can help you with this - it's worth it, believe me. If you can't find a teacher who can do this for you, pay someone (yes, I said pay) to help you develop a specific plan to do this. The best person to approach for this is someone who is already doing whatever it is that you want to be doing.
Remember that it's OK to daydream and fantasize about where you are planning to go, but it can't stop there. Don't wish without planning! Don't dream without doing! And always, always, have a strategy. You may need to revise certain aspects of your strategy as time goes on and that's OK, but don't try to go forward without one if you want the maximum results in the shortest amount of time. In my early days learning to play guitar, I wasted a lot of time aimlessly desiring to get better without having a clue as to how to plan for it. Sure I practiced a lot, but without direction and without an efficient path to follow. Most of my substantial progress as a musician came only after I developed a strategy and worked with it. If you are wondering why I haven't given you a detailed explanation of the strategies I used in the past, it would be pointless for me to tell you what my strategy was, because it was specific only to my goals. Chances are, your goals may differ greatly from mine in many different ways. That is why you need your own strategy for your own personal goals. One last piece of advice before we move on, write everything on paper and read it everyday! It will keep you focused and on target.
A. Practicing is not goal orientated.
B. Not understanding the difference between playing one's guitar and practicing one's guitar.
If you are having any difficulties with practicing, talk to your teacher about it. He/she should be able to help you.
It seems strange to me how many incorrect assumptions and teachings there are about becoming a better guitarist. Here are a few things that are often not true.
A. You should be a well rounded player and learn lots of different styles of music to become a good guitarist. This is one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever heard on the subject. Segovia (the classical guitar master) wasn't well rounded - he didn't waste his time to master jazz or bluegrass for example. Yngwie Malmsteen didn't study intense jazz guitar. Most great jazz guitarists don't study classical guitar or heavy metal guitar. Stevie Ray Vaughn never learned to play fusion or metal. Great country players usually don't study Progressive Rock. Of course there are examples of players that do learn and play in more than one or two styles, but most of the really great guitarists are known for the style they focussed on. They are masters of their style, they are specialists, not a jack-of-all-trades type of player. Don't listen to people who say something like, "You must learn blues before you can learn heavy metal or classical guitar." You do not have to be well rounded.
The only time one needs to learn lots of different styles of music is because your goals require it. If you truly love a lot of styles and want to learn them all, then go ahead and do that. If you want to be a studio musician or a jobber, then you will need that versatility. It's very hard to be really good at many styles.
B. You should be able to play all the techniques of the guitar. Van Halen did tapping but not with all his fingers as others have done. He didn't play finger style much either, but we still regard him as an important guitarist, the same thing can be said for Vai and many others. Classical guitar master John Williams probably doesn't play well with a guitar pick (I am assuming this to be true, I have no proof of it), but he is considered one of the greatest classical guitarists alive today. Skills like improvisation, songwriting and playing with a guitar pick or not going to be high on his list of skills to acquire. This is because classical guitarists generally don't do those things - and don't need to to be great at what they do. These players are great players in their own ways and they have spent many years developing their skills. Learning everything about guitar playing would have taken away precious practice time from the things they needed to focus on to reach their goals.
C. Teaching yourself is the best way to be original. This is so obviously false it's hard to believe that anyone could actually believe it - yet some people still do. Don't fall into the trap of thinking this is the best way to learn. This is the most close-minded philosophy I can think of. Musical skills are tools. One should want to obtain and master as many of these tools as will be needed to reach your goals. Doing that alone won't work well and even if it does eventually work, it will take 10 times as long! Besides, how will you know if what you are trying to do is original if you don't learn about what has already been done?
D. To be great means I have to be better than everybody else. We already touched on this one above, but it is worth mentioning again here. What matters is reaching your goals, not someone else's goals. Who cares if you are or are not better than someone else? This is not the Olympics. Music is the art of expression (or for some people, the science of entertainment).
E. You need natural talent to be a great (or even a good) musician. Don't believe this. It is true that some people possess more natural abilities in one or skill or another. For example, some athletes are naturally fast sprinters. Others are great marathon runners. Others can swim faster or longer. Others can jump higher. Others are stronger. Others are smarter. Others have faster reflexes. Others can through a football better. Others can shoot a basketball better, etc. The point is athletes with great abilities have them usually in one area. For example, Michael Jorden (arguably the world's greatest basketball player of all time) was not very successful when he tried to play baseball (or golf for that matter). Think about athletes in the Olympics, they are specialists. They have found their natural ability and developed it to it's greatest potential, but that natural ability is usually limited to one skill.
Music is very different from a skill or a sport. There is no such thing as musical skill. There exists only a large set of musical skills. Think about some of the very different types of skills a musician needs to have: a highly developed ear, good physical technique on his/her instrument, heightened creativity, the ability to improvise well, songwriting/composing skills, the ability to play in time, the ability to play with others, the comprehension of music theory, a good memory, the ability to read music, etc. The list goes on and on. Some players have a natural ability to play fast, some have naturally good ears, some have good voices, some are naturally more creative than others, some are natural improvisers, etc. nobody has natural talent in all of the necessary areas to be a complete musician.
Think about the masters of music. Mozart was probably most naturally gifted in only three of these areas: technical skill, a great ear (perfect pitch), a great musical memory. But he had to work hard at all the other areas of music just like everybody else.
Chopin's natural ability was his ability to improvise. He was the master, but he worked very hard to become the virtuoso pianist that he would later become. Chopin also was the master at small forms, but struggled with large scale forms.
Beethoven probably had no natural ability known to himself for along time. He didn't even begin composing much until around the age of 30! He was not a child prodigy like Mozart and Chopin were. Beethoven was, of course, a master, but did not enjoy the fruits of any natural talents. He constantly edited his works over and over, trying to perfect them. Mozart , by comparison, very rarely ever edited anything he wrote.
Each of us has some natural ability of some kind. You may already know what yours is or you may not yet discovered it. If being a better musician is not coming easy for you that simply means you are like the rest of us.
In reaching your goals: There are only two real players in this game... You and Time.
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.
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