Inspiration Versus Intimidation

As a followup to Podcast #4, I thought I’d talk about perception and playing guitar.

I’ve gotten some emails from people who read through my GuitArchitecture blog, and wanted to know what they should do if they’re not the next Guthrie Gowan, Hendrix, Holdsworth or the next (insert great player here).  I understand where they’re coming from.  If you turn on a computer it’s hard not to find some terrifying audio or video clip of someone playing really advanced guitar.

The implication that you could come to is that everyone in the world is playing guitar at an amazing level and the pressure many guitarists (and I suspect other musicians as well) feel is that they need to meet that standard.

Before I attempt to defuse this argument, I’d like to address the leap in technical advances on guitar and then talk about why it doesn’t matter.

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Free Bird as an aphrodisiac

A friend of mine, who’s an excellent guitarist, was talking to me about the radical shift in technical standards in guitar playing and said, “You know – I remember when “Free Bird” was considered a virtuoso guitar solo.  If you could play that you were pretty much guaranteed to go home with someone at the end of the gig.  But now…I’ve got guys who have been playing for less than a year who can play that.”

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Knowledge might seem arithmetic in its application
but like technology it’s exponential.

When I say that technology is exponential, I mean that technological advances typically build on previous technological breakthroughs.  For example, the ENIAC (i.e. the first computer-depending on how you define “computer”), used punch cards, weighed 30 tons, took up approximately 1800 square feet and used around 18,000 vacuum tubes. (No word on what kind of tone it had!)  All of this for a processing speed comparable to a calculator.  Notice the timeline in each step beyond that initial innovation (taken in part from The computer history timeline):

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  • ENIAC
  • the invention of the transistor
  • the invention of  FORTRAN computer language
  • integrated circuits
  • the ram chip
  • the microprocessor and the floppy disc
  • IBM home computer and MS-DOS
  • Apple Lisa (with first GUI)
  • Windows

and then a series of major advances in microprocessor speed and size.  Each one of these changes ultimately created exponential innovations. In order for me to run a laptop guitar rig, I need a laptop with an operating system, a  fast processing speed, substantial ram, a fast hard drive, an audio converter, and software to make sense of what I’m trying to input and output from the computer.  None of this was even remotely in the thoughts of a potential application for a computer when ENIAC was built.

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Where before they took years or decades, advances now occur daily or sometimes hourly because each piece of technology allows someone else to build on it  and make their own innovation by taking it in a different direction.

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When Nicolò Paganini was alive, he was able to position himself uniquely as he was not only a virtuoso performer, but also developed a repertoire that only he had the technical skill set to play.  But once the music was published, other people started being able to play the music.  Some of the techniques became standardized, and pedagogical approaches improved.  With each passing generation more and more people were able to play it.

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Now, while still difficult music, it’s nowhere near as impossible as it initially seemed.  Here’s some footage of Sarah Chang when she was 10 years old in 1990 performing some of his music.

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If you think about it in the history of shred guitar, you would not have current innovators without people like Yngwie Malmsteen and Eddie Van Halen.  When those initial recordings came out they were considered impossible.  No one knew what the hell to do with Eruption.  It was Ed’s big middle finger to everyone – because no one could touch what he was doing at the time of Van Halen 1.  When I hear Far Beyond The Sun, I think back to people listening to the Rising Force CD and shaking their heads in disbelief.  Now either one of those pieces is something that you could learn to play given the proper instruction, music, time and a audio/visual demonstration.

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The reason for this is it’s much easier to do something when you hear or see it being done.  

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Once you hear someone play a solo at a high speed, you know that speed is attainable – because you’ve heard them play it and it transcends your limitations. When you see a video of them playing it, it makes it even easier as you can see more of the physical nuances of how something is being played.

 

With every recording and video, there is probably someone who is adapting or learning a technique associated with that recording and using it as a stepping stone. This is why there is such a glut of guitar videos, and why it seems that everyone is making one.

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There certainly are a lot of videos out there but they don’t tell the full story of the player.  And with that in mind, it’s now time for:

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Another Berklee story:

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My first day at Berklee, I was in my dorm room and heard someone playing Tony MacAlpine.  I grabbed my guitar and went looking for the room to see what was going on.  The music was coming from the dorm room directly beneath me – at the time I had a black Aria Pro II Knight Warrior I knocked on the door and the door swung open and there was another guitarist also named Scott who also had a black Aria Pro II Knight Warrior strapped onto his body (this turned out to be a fortuitous moment for me because Scott today is one of my dearest friends (and an unbelievable guitarist)).  I introduced myself and walked in.  Scott sat down on his bed and started playing some terrifying 2 handed pattern on his guitar.  I processed that for a moment and then went to go meet his roommate, Drew.

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Scott might disagree with me now, but here’s what I remember –  Drew was one of the most technically proficient guitarists I’ve ever seen.  He had literally taken the Michael Angelo instructional video and learned all of the licks but was playing them just as cleanly but even faster.  When he improvised a solo, he kind just re-arranged parts of those licks – but it was still incredibly impressive.

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I left pretty stunned.  I had just seen the two most technical guitar players at the school, but what I thought I had seen were two typical guitarists and that this was the performance standard of all the guitarists there.  I was starting to wonder just how far in over my head I was at this school.

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A couple of days later, I walked by the practice rooms.  A transcription of an Eric Johnson piece had just gotten published in one of the guitar magazines and I was now listening to twenty guitar players all playing the same lick at different speeds.  I processed that for about ten minutes – and realized my initial perception about the general level of skill amongst my fellow players was completely wrong.

Looking back at it now, I recognize that my thinking was faulty on multiple levels.

  • I assumed that everyone was “better” than me.

 

  • I assumed that “better” was a universal definition.

 

  • I assumed that my value as a player was only a comparative value related to how well other people play.

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Now I think all of these assumptions were wrong.

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To be sure, there are markers that you are improving as a player.  Maybe it’s fluency, maybe it’s repertoire, maybe it’s connection with the music or the instrument.  For each person, how they are getting better is ultimately self-defined.

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If you define it solely based on what other people can do, you’re selling yourself short.

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There are technical hurdles to playing music.  If someone counts off a tempo and you play your hot lead line over it – you can either cut it or you can’t.  There’s no real debate over that.  It’s strictly a performance issue.  You can, for example, either play an arpeggio at a certain tempo consistently or you can’t.  If the player next to you can play that arpeggio consistently at that tempo, then they have achieved a higher skill set on performing that arpeggio – but that has no reflection on either of your abilities to play music.  Just like your speed at filling gas tank has no direct reflection on your ability to drive.

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I’ve had students who have come to me and said, “I’m never going to be able to play like (player x) so why even bother?”  This is like saying, “Noam Chomsky speaks English and I speak English, but I’ll never speak about linguistics in English like Noam Chomsky so I might as well not even say anything at all.”  Hopefully, this line of thinking sounds silly when you put it in context.  English is only a language.  You use it to express yourself.  It doesn’t matter what judgements people put on it, it only matters that you can communicate effectively.  The same is true for music as well.

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Unfortunately, the social lesson that many people learn is that their value is comparative.

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  • We value ourselves based not only on how much money we make, but how much other people make
  • on how our lives and the things in our lives stack up against other people’s
  • on how many cds we’ve sold versus other cd sales, etc, etc….

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If you fall into this category here’s one way to turn this line of thinking around that will be more beneficial to you:

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Ask not “how do I stack up against others?”, but instead, “what can I gain from this?”

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If  I see someone playing an awesome solo, I don’t think, “Oh man I wonder if I can play that well?” (Although I certainly used to!)  I listen for the things that I like (or sometimes don’t like) and then see how I could incorporate that into my playing.   I take the things around me and try to use them for inspiration.  That way I don’t waste energy on getting intimidated.

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It can be hard to maintain that observation, but if you perceive getting better as a self-made standard that others can help you rise up to rather than a standard of others that you need to reach, I think it may serve you much better.

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I mention Guthrie Govan’s playing here because I really dig it.  I think he’s a brilliant guitarist.  But I really don’t give a toss about how I stack up against him. The world doesn’t need another Guthrie Gowan.  We already have one, and he’s great but what I do care about is how I can take every innovation of his I like and adapt it to what I do to advance my playing.

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“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.”

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Lord Basho was once asked by an acolyte what could be done to make the world a better place.  He was purported to have replied, “be the best person you can be – and then there will be one less rascal in the world.”

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The world doesn’t need another version of anyone, it instead needs you to become the best version of yourself you can.

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As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

One thought on “Inspiration Versus Intimidation

  1. It’s funny how memory works. I remember Scott telling me you were the best technical guy in the school. On my first day I ran into Wolfgang Muthspiel playing in the hallway. That almost sent me home. Scott was doing the Di Meola sextuplet thing on two strings. I was doing the chaotic Gary Moore Sextuplet thing on one. Scott’s way was better.

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