I started playing guitar because of the band Nirvana.
Well, to be exact it was because of a girl. She told me to check out this band called Nirvana. And so I did.
I listened to Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York. That made me want to pick up guitar. And so I did.
My grandmother gave me RM80 to purchase my very first Sunburst Blue Kapok Guitar from Spectrum shopping mall in Ampang. After 3 months, my dad noticed I was still intent on playing the guitar so he bought me a proper classical guitar on the condition that I took classical guitar lessons.
And so I did.
19 years later, I still am playing guitar. I learned a lot along the way. Reflecting on this, I thought I would share 3 things I didn’t realize when I started playing guitar. These are things that I wish someone told me when I started. I’m not sure whether young Az would have listened but hey, one can try!
Here they are:
It will take longer that you think
When I started playing guitar, I thought that I’d be amazing after 2 to 5 years of playing. The truth is it will take longer than you think. I learned from reading Seth Godin’s book The Dip about how you improve much faster at the beginning and then settle into a dip as you progress when you learn a new skill. This plateau is what makes most people quit what they do after some time. That’s why you hear about friends who tried learning guitar for awhile but then stopped.
The secret is to realize that this is part of the process. When you realize this is the case for anything you learn, it will help you through those difficult periods when you’re stuck.
The basics are everything
When I was a newbie, I was fascinated with classical guitar pieces like Isaac Albeniz’s Asturias or Van Halen’s Eruption. I imagined the day I could play pieces like that. It was later on that I realized the basics are everything. If you can’t do a clear hammer-on with just two notes, a faster phrase in an elaborate scale run is almost impossible. If you can’t change clearly between two chords, you can’t play those fast chord changes in Classical Gas. Even now, after 19 years of playing, I work the most on basic things like playing a single note with a good tone or right hand fingerstyle technique or coordination between both hands for an A minor pentatonic scale or Cmajor7 arpeggio. The basics are everything! With the basics combined, we get the complex pieces we admire so much.
Musicality is more important than speed
A lot of people are at awe when someone plays something super fast on guitar. It’s just human nature. We are awestruck at the seemingly impossible. It’s like spotting Superman in real life or meeting an X-Men on guitar. But, as I work professionally I discover that musicality is more important than speed. True, in a professional setting, you need that speed and technique. In fact, for the more difficult gigs you will need a lot of technique but musicality has to be at the core.
Musicality covers the realm of being able to listen to other musicians and reacting appropriately. It covers being able to find the right tone or sound for the right band or ensemble. Some musicians are only able to play fast but do not know how to listen. The best ensembles I’ve ever seen or been in thrive on musicality and interacting organically. It doesn’t matter whether it’s my duo gig with vocalist Kirsten Long at a jazz club or when I perform as part of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra – musicality is very important. The core is being able to listen. Listen and respond. I’m not saying speed is not important. Instead, I’m saying it has to be musical speed. All the technique has to be grounded in making the music sound good.
So what can you do to internalize these lessons? Here are some actions steps:
1. Set a specific amount of time to practice daily
Allocate time for practice so that you work on your weaknesses daily. Even practicing guitar 10-minutes a day can make a difference. Even when you feel like you’re not improving, keep doing the work. As my jazz improvisation teacher Hal Crook used to say, “the process is the thing.”
2. Work on the basics
Work on the basic techniques and get those strong. Here’s a list of what you could practice on guitar:
- open string tone
- fretting note pressure
- picking down
- picking up
- strumming down
- strumming up
- tone variations on a single note
- playing exactly on the beat of a metronome, i.e. “making the metronome beat disappear”
These seem very basic but can shape your playing in a big way!
3. Focus on the musicality of what you play
Do you play licks that sometimes sound mechanical? Does your rhythm playing seem stiff and rigid? Focus on making what you play more musical. Record your playing and see what you can do to make it better.
Do you always play solo? Try playing as a duo or group!
Do you always play slow songs? Try learning an up-tempo tune!
Expand your musicality by challenging yourself beyond conventional technique. Work on what I call “invisible technique” – the stuff that you don’t see so easily – the opposite of “flashy chops”. One of my musical heroes Adam Rafferty talks about it in his blog post here.
Hope you found this blog post helpful. Please share this post if you think others might benefit from it!
Now, I’d love to hear from you.
What didn’t you realize when you started playing guitar?
What did you wish someone told you when you first picked up guitar?
Leave your answer in the comments below! Remember to share as much detail as possible so that we can all learn from one another. Your insight may help another guitarist from across the world.
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