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How great guitarists can inspire - rather than intimidate - your playing

Close Up Of Man Using Tapping Technique On Electric Guitar
(Image credit: monkeybusinessimages)

Seems like everywhere I look now, there are incredible guitarists playing incredible things that I will never be able to play. They must have always been there but with the internet making everything so much closer, it’s getting more personal.

At NAMM this year, I met up with loads of fellow YouTube instructors and also many top-shelf players that I really admire. It seems feelings of inadequacy are common; it’s a driving force for some, and a pressure for others.

“I’ll never have such incredible note choice, or extended vocabulary, be fast enough, or have such a powerful tone, or be able to blast through changes with ease, or pick that perfect note every time… so what’s the point?”

I was musing on this topic and wondering how it got to be like this. I doubt Neil Young would feel bad about his playing after watching Tommy Emmanuel – so why do I sometimes get down on my playing after watching Josh Smith or Tom Quayle? 

Don’t be afraid of how hard a thing ‘might be’. Don’t let a scrawny negative thought throw you off a desire

Lately I’ve been wanting to get more into hybrid picking, and cats like Josh and Tom make it look effortless. It’s inspiring to watch in person; they are human and it doesn’t look so hard… until you actually try to play it.

It seems to me that if you see or hear someone doing something amazing, and you are inspired to learn it, or even a part of it, there are stages of the process that, if understood, might help remove some of the fear and shield you from that turning into a downer.

There’s a wonderful saying from the Stoic philosopher Seneca, “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” I think there’s some interesting wisdom here that we can apply to the study of music.

Phase 1. Inspiration

I’d never heard anything like it. It seemed Josh and Greg had tapped into some magic – they were finding incredibly strong melodies, with incredible tone, touch and technique and I left the gig feeling super inspired. I didn’t have a guitar in my hotel room, so I was playing things in my mind and was thirsty for practice!

Phase 2. Mapping

I started thinking about what I might need to do, to start working on some of that amazing modern blues vocabulary and technique: where should I get it – are there video lessons around, or books? I found some online lessons from Josh that explained some of his processes and some specific licks to work on. I’m determined to get a routine together to make it happen.

Sometimes at this point the fears kick in and I worry that there’s no way I’ll ever be able to do something… without even giving it a go? Really dude? I need to give myself a stern talking to and remind myself of the hundreds of times I thought something might be impossible but, with some practice, it started going fine. Don’t be afraid of how hard a thing ‘might be’. Don’t let a scrawny negative thought throw you off a desire.

Phase 3. Start doing it

I chose three licks that I liked the sound of and started trying to get them under my fingers. They’re difficult and I found it challenging. Much harder than I thought. Not sure I’ll ever be able to work them up to speed? Do I have time for this? Maybe I’m not cut out for this? Maybe I should work on something easier?

Oh dear. More fears have started. These need to be turned off. They’re not helpful and I knew they were likely to come by at some point. I gather they are common when one is pushing boundaries, trying desperately to get better. This is the main thing to be aware of – that these thoughts are not going to help at all. 

When they visit me now, I ask my mind to take them away and get me better thoughts. Accept the thoughts are there but give them no credence. You probably won’t be able to stop them every time, but don’t allow them to put you off your ambition.

Phase 4. Pushing through

Slow and mindful practice is the answer. I try not to allow myself to be impatient – I know it’s hard and it’s going to take some time. I want to enjoy the journey, but I need to remind myself of that too. And sometimes I might not reach the ‘end goal’ but will have learned a lot along the way. 

I’m also fine with sometimes simplifying or adapting very difficult parts if I think it will help me express them more musically – that’s the point right? Unless it’s for a cover or lesson then we can change things as we like – music is art and should be fluid.

Phase 5. Enjoyment

I always make a point of enjoying things I’ve worked for (especially musical ideas) and therefore I also often find myself using them perhaps too much. But I’m cool with that – the more we use a lick or concept, the more instinctive it’ll become and the more likely it will be to come out in a moment of pure, raw improvisation.

I try to remind myself of the hundreds of times I thought something would be too difficult but that, with some practice, became something I really enjoyed and could actually achieve.

I hope these thoughts might help you maintain drive and motivation to learn something exciting or ambitious. The more you do it, the less the fears will influence your path and you’ll find the whole journey more rewarding and fun. Safe travels, my friends.