Playing What You Don’t Know


Advancing as a guitar player is never seen as a slow and steady climb. It is more like a series of steps with pretty long spaces in between. While it might seem like you don’t get better for weeks or months at a time, one breakthrough can lead to months of inspiration. Those are the times I look forward to, and probably the reason I do this whole guitar thing. Modern ‘guitar culture’ sends us an endless stream of messages about what guitar to use, what to wear, how to look, what to listen to, and debate endlessly about gear. In the end, it is the player that has to push through all of that and not just reinforce what we already know, but be brave enough to venture into something we don’t. This article will help us along that journey, but only if we take the leap.


OK, Far Beyond the Sun, from the top!

Far Beyond the Sun, from the top!

Traditionally, music was learned through direct connection: a master musician taught a student. Lessons got a little harder each week, and the student practiced hard and get better at a slow, steady pace. Traditional classical instruments are still taught in this manner, as well as some jazz programs at higher levels. However, modern electric (and much acoustic) guitar playing isn’t taught like this. Every guitar teacher has his/own method, and electric guitar is still so young compared to those older classical instruments, that it really hasn’t had time to establish a method that works for everyone. Besides, lessons aren’t for everyone. Not everyone wants or needs lessons, and with the internet, you can learn a lot on your own. Even reading guitar magazines helps so much these days, as you can learn many different styles, complete with sound clips all without leaving your home. All it takes is being self-motivated enough to sit down in learn them.


McCartney doesn't seem to have this problem, so why do I?

McCartney doesn’t seem to have this problem, so why do I?

Newton’s First Law says that a body at rest wants to stay at rest. When applied to guitar playing, and learning new things, our natural inclination is to do nothing. That is easy! You already have a pool of knowledge, so it is time to draw from it! Problem with this is that if you write songs, at some point your 22nd song will sound a lot like your 3rd. Yes, bands and musicians have made careers out of recycling ideas over and over (put on your schoolboy uniform and think hard), but these days, the more you know, the better equipped you are to Tell Your Own Story.


3d-printed guitars are certainly outside the box.

3d-printed guitars are certainly outside the box.

The problem arises when we pickup up our guitars and immediately start playing what we know. Of course I do! It rocks! My hands know exactly where to go! Everybody thinks I am so cool because of my rockin’ licks! 

But this is the problem. If we always stay in our comfort zone, we never want to leave. Soon 20 years go by, and we are still the same player as we were 20 years ago. Same solos, same intros we play, same cool showpiece we practiced like crazy…20 years ago. If we want to be better players, we might want to start doing something now that stimulates creativity. The idea is that if we take ourselves outside of what is comfortable, we realize what we know is inadequate. And, if we don’t see a teacher who should regularly do this, we have to do it ourselves.


New musical situations are challenging, but fun. Yeah, we feel like we are in 2nd grade when playing over an unfamiliar chord progression, or might not quite have our tone perfect for playing classic metal, but you will get there, and acquire more tools in the process. Here are a few ideas:

  • Play in unfamiliar keys. Blues in F, or metal in Eb (without retuning)
  • Retune your guitar to something different, or play in standard tuning if you always downtune.
  • Use the neck pickup and your tone control
  • Use the clean channel.
  • Set up your effects in a random order
  • Get a looping pedal and practice improvising over unfamiliar chords.
  • Try a different pickup than you would normally choose.
  • Listen to different music and find something you like in it
  • Write using a capo. Record parts on that song without using a capo.
  • Learn very basic keyboards- it will change how you view the guitar
  • Avoid riffs or power chords in the next song you write
  • Use conventional gear in an unconventional way
  • If you’ve heard it before, don’t do it
  • Take your influences and discard them
  • If you play something horrible, do it over and over
  • Learn the basics of scales and chords they are used over
  • If you are terrible at tapping, write a song using only tapping
  • Use a different guitar than you are ‘supposed to’ for the style you play
  • try to write a pop song, or a song for a commercial
  • No repeating patterns!
  • One thing, repeated. Precisely and quickly!
  • Pick up a slide. Play metal.
  • Play solos with nothing but chords
  • If your hands automatically do something when you pick up the guitar, don’t do that one thing. Ever. Again.

While not everything on the list is possible at once, it does give you an idea of what I’m thinking. If we are unhappy with what we play, we have to decide not to play that way anymore. Find things you like in other players, and then meld them with your own approach- you might find that someone will listen to you one day with the same sense of wonder. But only if we break out of the patterns that we have always relied on. Music should constantly evolve, and so should our playing. If we don’t constantly poke a stick into our own backs, no one else will.

The Journey of Learning

Embarking on a lifetime with music isn’t for everyone. It takes discipline. It means realizing you will never be satisfied where you are, and more concerned with where you aren’t. It means making time for practice and creativity in our busy lives.

And it is a lot of fun.

Guitar players have it easy. It isn’t like the stereotypical piano lessons, with the stern teacher hitting your wrists with rulers if the hand position isn’t perfect. Modern guitar playing has no real methodology. For every ‘correct’ way of doing things, you can find 100 guitarists who not only have achieved some sort of success, but play very very well despite the fact that the way they play is ‘wrong’.

So, what is right?

Well, to me, what is right is based on the effort it takes to accomplish. I teach about economy, or, not working too hard. Guitar playing isn’t about strength, it is about dexterity. It is about moving only the amount you need to accomplish a task and no more. It is about recognizing where we hold tension in our bodies. And it is about the willingness to make mistakes and learn from them.

That last one, that is sometimes the hardest. We don’t like not knowing. Especially as adults, we don’t like feeling that we don’t know things.

That last point is a big one. Certain personalities are more suited to learning than others. Since guitar lessons (at least with me) are not always about playing a piece you have practiced, we have to be ok with making mistakes and learning from them.

No guitarist steps on stage or records without preparation. It is unfair to compare ourselves with what we hear or see. So, we practice. We make mistakes, and some terrible noises along the way. We get up, dust ourselves off, and one day realize that we make less mistakes than we did before. So things get better.

Keep that head down, take a baby step. Don’t keep wishing we are at the top of the mountain because we saw some rock-guy-flavor-of-the day who seems to be there (he isn’t). Funny thing, no matter how many years we put into it, we only realize that there is just so much more to learn. And we have to be OK with that, and even embrace it.

This kind of person makes the best students who will carry music and creativity with them forever.

It is the Parents that Make Children Better Students

It still amazes me about some parents who bring their children to lessons, that they haven’t fostered any type of appreciation for music themselves much less with their children. The children of these types of parents do not even know what a guitar sounds like, much less what it is capable of, or the rich history of guitar-based music. These are the hardest students to teach because they are not even quite sure why they are there. It is really the parents’ job to foster an appreciation for music throughout the child’s life, so the child really wants to be there. This can simply be having music on in the house or car a lot, to taking the child to see concerts and other performances, to regularly singing songs to or with your child.  In truth, all of it is important, and a child is more likely to work hard on something that they enjoy doing with their parent.
It is a great thing for a parent to be involved in as well, either sitting in lessons to understand what I teach, or to learn alongside their child. Then they have something they can do together.

Supportive, interactive and music-loving parents make the best environment for learning.