Improving at the guitar can be vastly easier and more fun if we can identify and understand the things that hold us back from being the musicians that we want to be. For example, some of us have basic physical problems which keep us from playing cleanly and accurately. Some of us have become frustrated and are not having fun with the guitar anymore because hours and hours of practice do not translate into any noticeable improvement. Some of us are crippled by stage fright and have retreated to bedroom-only playing.
Whatever the problem, rest assured that there is a solution, but to ensure success that solution must begin with a solid understanding of exactly what the problem is. Let me give you a non-musical example. If I go down into my basement one day and find water on the floor, there could be a number of possible causes. My roof might be leaking, there might be cracks in the foundation, or the drain in the floor might have backed-up. Without knowing the exact reason for the water on the floor in my basement, my solution to the problem might miss the mark completely. Sure, I could call a roofer and spend $25,000 on a new roof, but if it turns out that my roof was not the root cause of the problem then I’ve just wasted $25,000… and I still have water in my basement.
So what does this have to do with the guitar? Plenty. Let’s try a musical example this time. I love progressive metal, which means that I need to have major chops to play many of the songs that I like, but no matter how hard I try I can’t build the chops that I need. I’ve tried every speed-building method out there and I’m still nowhere. This is a classic example of trying to solve the wrong problem. I’ve convinced myself that the problem is speed, but lack of speed is actually a symptom of a deeper problem (or set of deeper problems), not the root cause of the problem. I am now officially wasting practice time, and most likely frustrating myself in the process.
Let’s take a moment to go over what separates a symptom from a root cause. A symptom is an effect or result of a root cause (or set of root causes). Not being able to build speed is a symptom. The root cause is the thing (or things) you can eliminate or change in order to solve a problem. There are many possible root causes for the inability to build speed. The most likely root cause is improper training of the muscles that control one or both of your hands. The unfortunate truth here is that a focus on speed before you’re ready will actually train the muscles in your hands to do the wrong things and take you further away from your goal instead of bringing you closer to it.
The good news is that in almost every case when looking for a root cause you will come back to one of three basic areas:
1. Physical – I have not yet trained my muscles to do the things I need them to do.
2. Musical – I do not yet have a full grasp of the melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, etc. that I need to make a piece of music sound the way I want it to sound.
3. Mental/Emotional – I am unable to maintain focus on the task at hand.
The devil, of course, is always in the details, and there are various flavors of root causes in each area. For example, a physical problem with my fretting hand might actually be caused by my thumb. A rhythmic problem might reveal that I can’t tap out the rhythm of a certain passage even without the guitar in my hands. Mental problems often surface in the area of practice habits. I might start my practice sessions with the best intentions of working on problem areas, but then realize that at some point auto-pilot kicked in and I’ve been playing the intro to “Smoke on the Water” for the last half hour.
The point of all this is not just mental exercise. If you can understand and then improve on the things that are holding you back, you can get better very quickly, and you can have fun at the same time… so start thinking like a problem-solver. Define at least one problem with your playing. Be as specific as possible. Get to at least one root cause and then ask yourself how you’re going to fix the problem. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you improve.
This is the first of three problem-solving prerequisites at WhyISuckAtGuitar.com. For a video version of this lesson and other free lessons please visit www.whyisuckatguitar.com.