The Complete Guitarist: Solving the Mystery of "the Zone"
We've all seen it. Quarterbacks completing pass after pass. Basketball players making shot after shot. Goalies making save after save.
We often say to ourselves, "They are on fire tonight" or "They are unconscious" or "They are in the zone."
How many times have we seen our favorite musicians in that same place, just playing every single note and phrase effortlessly as if the notes just flowed from them like a river?
All of a sudden it's not a guitar in their hands. It's an extension of their bodies. They've achieved what we refer to as "the zone." But how many times have we, as musicians, reached that place ourselves? This column will help to demystify this thing called "the zone" and offer insights as to how to train our minds and fingers to get there.
First we must define "the zone." We can describe it, but it is very hard to define. To me, "the zone" is the place where there is no thinking of the past or the future, just that exact moment. Everything just flows. In relation to guitar playing, it's the place where your fingers become detached from your mind and brain and follow something higher, almost instinctual.
Past phrases do not matter, and there is no thought as to what you will play next. This sounds simple but might be the most challenging accomplishment and place to get to and stay as a guitarist. Here are a few tips that help me get to that place.
MASTER YOUR INSTRUMENT AND YOUR CRAFT.
As my readers and students know, mastery of what you are playing is of supreme importance to me. I cannot stress it enough. Total knowledge of the fretboard and the connections between the notes is the first step in the path to finding "the zone." You want to get to the point where you do not have to think about modes and patterns. You just want to play. This requires time, a whole lot of practice, effort and, dare I say, sacrifice. It will take you as long as it takes you.
This is where the brain and finger connection occurs. This connection doesn't necessarily mean you must master every style of music and guitar known to man. For example, I've witnessed Stevie Ray Vaughan be in that zone numerous times. He may not have been a master of the fretboard, but he certainly was a master in his own genre. The same can be said after watching Steve Vai, Andres Segovia and Tommy Emmanuel. All different styles but all masters of their style. And all in "the zone."
FORGET IT ALL AND PLAY
Yes, you heard me correctly. Learn everything, master it and forget it. Here's where the brain must detach from the fingers; it's where the instinct and connection to something bigger than you occurs. Unfortunately, most musicians forget to learn and master their instrument. They try and skip to this point without doing the hard work. I said it before and I'll say it again: Everyone wants to be the greatest guitarist in the world, but most don't want to practice like one. A surefire sign that you are on the path to "the zone" is when others say you make it look easy.
Remember, there's always a lot of hard work that goes into making something look easy. Stevie Ray Vaughan used to say, "If I play from my mind, I'm in trouble." But be warned, Stevie was a master. When you are playing phrases without thinking about the scales and patterns you learned, you are heading in the right direction. You almost have to "unlearn" in a way. When I'm playing classical pieces, if I have to think about the next part, I have to go back to the drawing board and work harder to commit the music to my fingers. When I am playing a lead and I start to think about what mode I'm in, I need to go back and empty my cup, as it were, and work on connecting the notes on the fretboard. Being in "the zone" means not having to think about things like that.
STOP THE MENTAL CHATTER
This is something we all struggle with. How many times are we in the middle of playing a great lead or piece of music and we say to ourselves things like, "Man I sound great" or "I hope I get the next part right"? At that moment, I will bet you dollars to donuts we make a mistake. Why? Because we got out of "the zone" and listened to our ego. The ego tells us how great we are and how bad we are. Neither has anything to do with the music we're making. Not only can mental chatter cause us to lose our focus, but it can be destructive. Negative thoughts of not being good or talented enough can be just as harmful as arrogant thoughts of thinking you're the greatest player in the room. The best way to silence the mental chatter is to master the music and be inside it. Again the key to "the zone" is having no thoughts other than the music.
Visualizing what I have to play, especially in the classical repertoire, has helped me enormously. Segovia used to practice his pieces "en mente," which means in the mind. If I can visualize myself playing a piece while I'm at the gym or doing laundry, I know I'm on my way to mastering it and on my way to "the zone." The same can be said for lead guitar. Visualize stepping outside of yourself and watching yourself play. Hear the band and how your playing weaves in and out with the sounds of fellow musicians at any given moment. Again, you will not be thinking about what you are playing but rather listening as an outsider to what is happening around you. Take it from me firsthand, it's a mind-blowing experience.
I recommend a book called Zen Guitar by Toshio Sudo for further knowledge regarding this subject and all guitar-related subjects. Whenever I get into a rut, I reread this book and always find inspiration.
So get out there, pick up your guitar and play, just like yesterday, kids. As always, I thank you for reading my columns. Comments and feedback are welcome and encouraged.
Guitarist Richard Rossicone is a veteran of the New York City and Long Island original and cover band scene. He's been playing since he was 8, when he attended his first concert (Kiss) and saw Pete Townshend smash a guitar. He has studied with various instructors over the years, which led him to a career in music therapy. He began his educational journey at Queensboro Community College, where the faculty introducing him to classical music. He received his associate's degree in fine arts in 1997 and went on to receive his bachelor's in music therapy in 2001 and his master's in music therapy from New York University in 2004. He's been Board Certified as a music therapist since 2002. Richard continued his studies at C.W. Post University, pursuing a second master's degree in classical guitar performance and music history, studying under Harris Becker. He's been teaching guitar, piano and theory since 2002 and in 2006 started his own company, Rossicone Music Studios. Visit him at Axgrinder.com and his Complete Guitarist Facebook page. Check out Richard's new book, 'The Complete Guitarist Handbook: Vol. 1,' which is available at Amazon.com.