How Making Mistakes Makes You a Better Guitar Player
My young son is already a little perfectionist.
If he's drawing and he messes up a letter, it's like it's the end of his little world. He gets either angry, frustrated or heartbroken.
He hasn't started to learn an instrument yet (although he's interested in guitar and keyboard, and he digs Rush and the Beatles; Daddy is proud), but I see a lot of myself in his perfectionist streak.
I can remember trying for what seemed like weeks to nail the intro lick to "Here and Now" from Steve Vai's Sex and Religion album (You can hear the track below). When I finally got it, I was the happiest dude in the world. I ran out to tell my dad and, with a knowing look, he said, "Great. Now do it again." Smartass.
I guess the old adage "Once is a mistake, twice is jazz" works the other way, too: Once is a fluke, twice is a ... good start?
Anyway, in the process of trying to pin down that one little lick (courtesy of a Vai lesson in Guitar World, as a matter of fact), I must have misplayed it a million different ways. Part of the lick requires a pull-off from the eighth to the seventh fret, then a few more notes on adjacent strings, again on the seventh fret. Then there's a slide and another pull-off lick. Then you do it all again, this time around the 14th fret.
In figuring out the best way to attack this lick, I learned some valuable lessons about how to mute the barred notes that I wasn't playing yet; how to slide precisely from one note to another that's quite a distance away and, thanks to a particularly happy accident, how to hit a pinch harmonic then immediately slide out of it into another note—a key Vai technique that I hadn't been able to decipher until I'd hit upon it once by mistake while playing the "Here and Now" lick a little sloppily.
That's the thing about mistakes: The more you make, the better you get. They help you eliminate incorrect or downright awful-sounding approaches, but they can also open up new ideas.
Although the Lydian mode was always lurking out there, I stumbled across it by accident, courtesy of a handy little mistake. When playing a major scale using a three-note-per-string pattern, I switched patterns one string early and realized that it sounded, well, pretty bitchin'.
Check out the first two bars of the tab below to see where I made the clanger and discovered the Lydian mode. I eventually figured out what it was that I was playing, and that floaty, dreamy sound that you get from the Lydian mode became a big part of my playing for quite a while, as you'll hear by comparing the next two bars, which represent A Major and A Lydian versions of the same riff.
If it hadn't been for my willingness to pay attention to my mistakes, I probably would have missed out on writing all sorts of floaty dreamy riffs.
It's important to not be scared of making mistakes, even when you're playing for an audience. A player who is too tentative and timid to make a mistake usually sounds nervous and mechanical.
Have you ever watched Rick Springfield play? Dude isn't out there framing himself as a shredder by any means, but there's an attitude and abandon to his playing that you just can't achieve if you're too scared to make a mistake.
The truth is, you're probably not going to nail that five-octave eight-fingered arpeggio lick every single time you play it. But if you approach it like you're terrified of making a mistake, you might play it note perfect but you could also be sapping it of some of the excitement and energy that made you think the lick was so cool in the first place.
Peter Hodgson is a journalist, an award-winning shredder, an instructional columnist, a guitar teacher, a guitar repair guy, a dad and an extremely amateur barista. In his spare time he runs a blog, I Heart Guitar, which allows him to publicly geek out over his obsessions. Peter is from Melbourne, Australia, where he writes for various magazines, including Guitar World.