This post refers to guitars a lot (I am, after all, a guitar player), but the contents cross over to any instrument. I’ve used this manifesto as a teaching aid for decades to try to get my students into a headspace that encourages them to always focus on the important big picture stuff, even as they get further and further into the many fine details of playing music at a high level. I hope you find this article helpful! -Guff
I love guitars. I love everything about them. The way they look, the way they feel, the way they sound. I love the way they make me feel when I play them. Playing guitar has added so much meaning, depth and joy to my life. I’ve never felt that I had a lot of natural talent on the guitar (the concept of “natural talent” will be the subject of a future blog post), but my pure love of music and the instrument gave me the strength and determination to put in thousands upon thousands of hours of work and practice. I am always working as hard as I can to maximize my talents and abilities, and it is a lifelong journey.
Although I am primarily a self-taught player (I estimate that I had learned about 80% of what I know now before I attended music school), many people I have encountered in my life have given me great advice and pointed me in the right direction musically. I am eternally grateful to them, and I feel a karmic responsibility to do the same thing for other musicians when given the opportunity. I enjoy nothing more than sharing the things these people taught me, as well as the things I’ve learned on my own, with others who feel the same as I do about music.
While I’m most certainly not the best musician or guitarist around, I do feel that in my 30+ years of playing, I have developed certain approaches and strategies that could possibly help out other people on their own journey with music. In my opinion, there is no right way or wrong way to play music or your instrument, and what I present here is simply a set of guiding principles that have worked for me (and many other musicians). My goal as a teacher is to provide my students with the tools and philosophies that will allow them to develop their own unique approach to music and their instrument.
If you hold true to these philosophies, the technique and ability will come much faster, not to mention much easier. The battlefront is in your head, not in your hands. If you master the mental part, your hands have no choice but to follow.
OK, here we go…
PHILOSOPHIES, PART 1
- BE YOURSELF: Self expression is absolutely the most important factor in any artistic endeavor. Technical or simple, polished or raw, quiet or loud, mellow or aggressive, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that your playing provides the listener with an honest glimpse of your thoughts, your experiences, and what is in your heart, positive or negative. If you accomplish that, your music is good. Period. Communication with the listener creates a bond between artist and audience, and true communication can only be achieved with honesty. Give 100% of yourself when you play. People will notice.
- BE A MUSICIAN: Just because you can play an instrument DOES NOT automatically make you a musician. I’m perfectly capable of cutting someone open with a scalpel, but that in no way makes me a surgeon. It’s the same thing, y’know?. I know some technically amazing players who are terrible musicians, and I know people with very limited instrumental skills that make incredible music. The goal of a musician is to make great music, and I’m a firm believer in the notion that there are many roads to that destination. That being said, all true musicians have several things in common. A musician knows how to listen and react to the people they are playing with. A musician is someone who puts the song ahead of his or her ego. A musician is someone who loves and respects music. Always strive to be a musician.
- LISTEN: Ears are far more important than hands or fingers. Listen, HARD. Listen to every aspect of a song. Focus in on the hi-hat, listen to the production, analyze the bass line, feel the way the notes push and pull against each other, explore positive and negative space, listen to how one part affects every other part, listen to absolutely everything. Examine every minute detail, and see how they all affect the big picture. If you listen closely enough, all mysteries will eventually reveal themselves.
- STUDY: Any information about music will provide you with raw material. Read books, magazines and interviews. Watch videos and documentaries. Go to as many shows as possible. Dig deep for things you’ve never heard. Listen to the music you love, and discover and study their influences. Then discover and study their influences’ influences. Never, ever stop learning.
- STEAL, BUT NEVER IMITATE: Steal as much as you can from any musician you encounter, but never forget to put your own spin on what you have stolen. Every riff or lick has thousands of possible variations. Exploit them. “Style” can be explained as filtering your influences through your experiences and everything that makes you a unique individual. In a very basic way, this principle can be illustrated by equations like this: Albert King + Curtis Mayfield + Hippie Culture = Jimi Hendrix, or Aerosmith + The Sex Pistols + The Sunset Strip = Guns’n’Roses. What’s in your DNA? What equation could come close to defining YOU???
PHILOSOPHIES, PART 2: THE FIVE “T”s
These are five principles that I feel are absolutely essential to being a good musician. I’m listing them in order of importance, but don’t neglect any of them. Focus on this stuff in your practicing, and everything will turn out just fine. I promise!!!
- TIMING: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Believe that. Music should make people move, and it should also take them for a ride. Human beings have internal clocks, and the listener will notice IMMEDIATELY when there is an unintentional hiccup or variation in your playing. Lock in to the beat, AND DON”T LET GO. Practice with your bandmates until you are airtight. Whenever it is possible, practice with a metronome or drum beat. It will keep you honest. Keep your playing as even as humanly possible until it becomes second nature.
- TASTE: I define taste as knowing how to play exactly the right thing at exactly the right time, and knowing when it’s better to play nothing at all. Play exactly what is necessary. No more, no less.
- TOUCH: You’ve certainly heard the phrase, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”. The same holds true for music. It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it. If you are playing something aggressive, you should be strangling your instrument with everything you have, right on the verge of breaking it to bits. If you are playing something soft and pretty, you should caress your instrument like it’s your child sleeping in your arms. Touch is what puts emotion in your playing, and emotion is what turns notes into music.
- TONE: Your touch determines 90% of your tone. Eddie VanHalen sounds like Eddie VanHalen no matter what guitar and amp he is playing, and you should, too. However, that last 10% of the tone equation is VERY important. First of all, if you are happy with the way your equipment sounds, you will automatically play better. Second of all, a unique tone grabs the attention of the listener. There are no rights and wrongs, just play tons of stuff and experiment until you find what works for you.
- TECHNIQUE: I don’t define technique as pure instrumental facility. In my opinion, a musician only needs enough technique to be able to play HIS OR HER OWN music better than anyone else on the planet. Does it matter that Angus Young can’t play sweep arpeggios or do 8-finger tapping? No, because he can play the holy heck out of Angus Young licks, and that’s all that matters. People talk smack about Meg White’s drumming abilities, yet there is no other person in the world that can make those White Stripes songs come alive the way she can. There are many, many guitarists who can play the instrument better than I can, but NOBODY can play my songs as good as I play them, and that is the ultimate goal. Do what YOU do, better than anyone.