I Suck At Guitar Because Im Insane

A lesson on challenging incorrect assumptions that can keep us from improving.

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Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We've all done this at some point, but those of us who have trouble improving at the guitar are likely doing it every time we pick up our instruments, figuratively banging our heads against the wall over and over again to no avail. First a non-musical example. I'm trapped in a room and I need to get out, so I try breaking through the wall, but it doesn't work. On the second day, instead of trying to find a different way out of the room I try to break through the wall again. Ten years go by. Every day I try to break through the wall and every day it doesn't work. On the first day of the 11th year I notice that there's a window on the other side of the room, which I open easily and crawl through. Ten years I've been trapped in this room and I've never noticed this window before because I've been so focused on trying to break through the wall. This sounds stupid and every one of us would swear that we could never be so blind, but many of us (including me) do this all the time. For years I had problems with accuracy. No matter how easy or difficult a piece of music was, I would make mistakes lots of them. Obviously the answer was to try harder (whatever that meant), but the harder I tried the worse things got. Over twenty years after I first picked up the guitar (twenty years twice as long as my supposedly ridiculous example!) it occurred to me that maybe something was fundamentally wrong with my approach to improvement. I began examining the assumptions that I'd built up about what I should hear and feel while playing the guitar. Turns out some of my assumptions were wrong. For example, I assumed (incorrectly) that whatever tension that I had always felt in my hands, arms and elsewhere in my body was supposed to be there. This was not a conscious assumption, but it was there nonetheless. I began watching YouTube videos of really good guitarists and asking myself if it was possible that they felt the same level of tension that I felt while playing and determined that it was highly likely that they did not experience the same level of tension. I had a whole lot of work ahead of me in trying to figure out how to reduce unnecessary tension (and let's not even talk about the twenty years of bad muscle memory to overcome), but I was happy because I had at least defined a path to improvement and I had something real to focus on. Change did not happen overnight. My hands literally felt like I was turning them inside out for the first couple of weeks while I was practicing to reduce tension. The good news, though, is that removal of incorrect assumptions can generate improvement at rates you may have never thought possible. A few weeks later I had broken through (or maybe I should say I went through the window) and my accuracy started to improve rapidly. I improved my accuracy more in six months than I had in the previous twenty years. Challenging assumptions can be a powerful improvement tool, especially in areas where you've been working for a long time and have not seen any results. The longer you work without improvement, the more likely it is that you've got a false assumption. What are the assumptions that you've built up over time? How should playing the guitar feel? Should your hands tense up like hardened concrete? Are your practice sessions productive or do you waste a lot of time? Are you focusing too much on one aspect of playing (speed maybe?) and neglecting others (rhythm, tone, vibrato, phrasing). Start answering these questions and you'll start improving. This is the second of three problem-solving prerequisites at WhyISuckAtGuitar.com. For a video version of this lesson and other free lessons please visit www.whyisuckatguitar.com.

11 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    JL_Shredder
    Night wrote: Great pointer I had this revelation about 7 years in realizing I was literally mashing the living hell out of my fretboard at times. I eased up on my fretting hand and also began focusing on how smooth the movement of my picking hand came to be. I'm far from good as it stands now, I ought to pick back up some practice regimes and begin getting as serious as I was less than a decade ago XP
    I'm actually a bit rusty compared to 2 years ago. I'd had trouble adjusting to new circumstances and my practice time suffered. I find that when that happens, shredders don't want to give up speed, so they tend to focus on one or two techniques (sweeping and a few of my "signature" licks for me). Though you can maintain speed this way, you begin to sound repetetive as time passes. It really takes devoted practice to all techniques, but Improvisation is the most important thing to work on. When you improvise, everything comes together.
    Buran_d'Or
    It is a funny thing, this tension issue. I have trouble with it too. Sometimes though you pick up your guitar and you play really relaxed and you think wow, that goes easy, and then right away the tension kicks back in.I think it is almost the most important thing for a guitar teacher to tell students over and over again, to release the tension. My three teachers never ever mentioned it even once. Thanks for the info anyway, i have been trying to un-tense (?) my hand for a long time now. it is working a bit by bit.
    pray4plagues69
    The exact same thing happened to me ive been practicing an exercise and sucking at it cuz of the tention for almost a year if anybody wants to see it type john li on youtube
    gweddle.nz
    I've reached this point. I played for years with terrible form. I enjoyed punk rock that required very little skill, and it was all about having the guitar low and just making noise. As I grew out of the punk I found my guitar skills to be extremely lacking and I was unable to play anything else with any real proficiency. A good 6 or more years passed when I decided enough was enough and I wanted to get good at guitar. I ended up delving into the world of fingerstyle. I mostly enjoyed acoustic music so this seemed like a good path.I got into it and really quite enjoyed it. Over the past year my right hand skilled up quite rapidly. I'm starting to reach the point where I can almost just play the strings I need without thinking about it. The problem? My left hand just ins't up to the task. I struggle to play songs cleanly and fluently and I realised that I just had too much tension in my left hand. It didn't glide across the fretboard and it just felt awkward. For years I've been playing with poor positioning and far too much pressure. Undoing this muscle memory is like learning guitar all over again and I'm not going to lie... it's bloody hard.I'm less frustrated now I know what is holding me back, but it's going to take a while to burn in this new light touch. I haven't even begun to synchronize the light touch with my right hand yet as when I play I automatically start tensing my left hand again.
    JL_Shredder
    onlyoneleft wrote: i like the quote at the beginning. and i've got the same problem too,well, still do. so in other words,there shouldn't be any tension whatsoever when guitar playing is involved?
    Basically, it means no noticeable tension. Keep your hands as relaxed as possible and don't strain. Experiment and try to find the minimum pressure at which a string will produce a clear tone every time. You may have to slow down and rework some aspects of your playing from the ground up with this new approach, but once you've caught back up, your progress will take off like a rocket.
    Night
    Great pointer I had this revelation about 7 years in realizing I was literally mashing the living hell out of my fretboard at times. I eased up on my fretting hand and also began focusing on how smooth the movement of my picking hand came to be. I'm far from good as it stands now, I ought to pick back up some practice regimes and begin getting as serious as I was less than a decade ago XP
    540_guitar
    Yet the title of the article presents a paradox, because you kinda have to be insane to devote your whole life to guitar dont you?
    rsalit
    Its interesting that when you start to learn its so hard and you press so hard to make the right sounds. After you learn, the challenge is to remove all the tension and play as lightly as possible.
    onlyoneleft
    i like the quote at the beginning. and i've got the same problem too,well, still do. so in other words,there shouldn't be any tension whatsoever when guitar playing is involved?
    dvuksanovich
    It's not a matter of "no tension whatsoever." Tension is necessary to do anything physical. It's a matter of eliminating tension that is not necessary. That's why it can be important to reassess what playing should feel like from time to time. If you assume that all that tension is necessary, you'll put a ceiling on your development. Also note that challenging assumptions works with non-physical problems as well. I just happened to use a physical example.
    Metalmaniac816
    I have the exact same problem, I thought it was because my fingers weren't strong enough and I didn't play enough but now that I think of it, I might be pressing down on the strings to hard.