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The DIY Musician: Three Rules to Follow When You Suck at Guitar

It was July 19, 2009, when I performed my worst show ever.

The gig took place at a film festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, right after we did a featured showing of Max Shores' award-winning cigar box guitar documentary, Songs Inside the Box.

The attendees of this concert had just seen this film that was centered around me, and when it was finally my turn to perform a live show for them, I totally blew it.

I sucked.

The songs were strained and my delivery was amateur at best. I looked tortured and lost on stage. I still cringe when I remember it.

Oh, they were nice to me after the show. However, you could see in their faces that they'd just wasted an evening with a poseur. I was crushed.

But something major happened on the two-hour drive home that evening: Instead of wringing my hands and lamenting the gig (as was usually the case), I started asking myself, "What are the specific details that went into my bad performance?" I turned off the radio, set the cruise control on the car and went through my whole act, song by song.

RULE 1: Analyze your failures without getting emotional about them.

Notice I didn’t continue to flog myself? I knew I sucked and I knew I could get better. I just had to figure out how to do it.

I then asked myself the most important question: "What are the successful musicians doing right?" I was performing as a one-man band at the time, so I decided to study successful one-man bands such as Florida blues powerhouse Ben Prestage; Memphis phenom Richard Johnston and hobo rocker Seasick Steve. They all played so effortlessly, they could tear the roof off a joint, and each had aspects of their styles I was striving to pick up.

RULE 2:Find the successful people and study them.

When I got home, I completely abandoned my entire set list and the way I performed it. This means tearing down almost 15 years of songs, playing style and attitude. I studied the masters and took notes. Every part of my playing was changed, transformed and improved. (One of my personal discoveries was my lack of "the groove" in my music. I had to learn how to lock my playing into the stomp of my foot and put my entire body into one chugging rhythm.)

In order to see if I was on the right path, I started going to open mics so I could try these new things out in front of a live crowd. If the crowd liked it, the song or technique stayed. If it tanked, I'd rework it.

RULE 3:Perform in front of other people at open mics. They will be your best gauge of improvement.

Allowing yourself to play horribly in front people is a risk few people are willing to take. However, most crowds at open mics expect performers to be less-than-stellar. In fact, most of them are there for the same reason: to improve! Plan on attending weekly and talk to people about your performances. I’ve found most musicians who are still cutting their teeth are very supportive of each other.

It's six years later and I can now tear the roof off a joint. I'm still improving, still studying the masters and still trying new things, but when I have a sub-par gig, I just go back and analyze it.

Are you struggling with your playing...or maybe something even bigger in your life? DON'T GIVE UP! Step back, take a look at things and learn about the people who were successful before you.

“Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” — Winston Churchill

Here’s a video of me performing a Rush cover on cigar box guitar and foot stomper. This video was shot several years ago, soon after I revamped my entire style and polished it with the three rules above. (I admit the singing is a little weak. Like my performances, it’s something I’m always trying to improve.)

Stay primal…and don’t give up!

Shane Speal is the "King of the Cigar Box Guitar" and the creator of the modern cigar box guitar movement. Hear the music, see the instruments and read about his Cigar Box Guitar Museum at Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.