Do You Need A Guitar To Be A Guitarist?

In an earlier post, I provided some scrutiny to the blanket idea to a common self-help sentiment that, “the answer (to your questions/searching/etc) lies within.”

And while there is some truth to that sentiment, it is only a 1/2 truth.  You can find some answers within, but only when interacting with external influences.

“It’s about my music…”

When I taught lessons at CalArts, variations of the above statement came up repeatedly from students who didn’t see the merits of learning other people’s songs as lesson material.  “Can’t we just work on my stuff?”

Well, we can…but there’s a problem:

  • every song you write is the same chord progression moved to other keys
  • you have two strumming styles
  • your melodies all seem to be a variation on one melody

In other words, the problem is you just keep writing the same song over and over again with different lyrics.

This is what happens when you work on things in complete isolation.  You end up “discovering” things that are already well worn territory, and you develop a language that might have incredible emotional meaning for you but doesn’t necessarily engage other people.

It’s like learning a native language.   You could just say, “gaga-goo-goo” the rest of your life instead of learning words but while your parents would know what you were saying, it would be lost on anyone outside that circle. You have to learn other people’s words to have the common ground to communicate with other people.  The originality comes from being able to form your own unique sentences and your own ideas.

So the teachable moment comes from getting students to realize that you can learn other people’s material with the intent of developing your own music instead of simply learning how to play their songs.   It comes back to two core concepts of mine – having a “why” and learning the deeper lesson.

Do You Need A Guitar To Be A Guitarist?

It’s a trick question as the answer is yes and no.

When you first start off, you have to have a guitar to be a guitarist.  I’ve known a number of people who truly had the souls of a guitarist and were as passionate as guitars and guitar playing as I was, but they’re uber – fans.  That’s fine but they’ll never be a guitarist because they have no desire to pick up the instrument and play.

So you can have all the intent in the world, but if you don’t play the guitar, you’ll never be a guitarist.

In contrast, at a certain point being a guitarist becomes a skill.  You don’t become defined by what you play, but instead by how you play it.

There is a story of Miyamoto Musashi, possibly the most renown samurai in history, being called to a duel on an island.  Allegedly Musashi, who at that point in his life stopped using traditional swords in favor of a bokken (a wooden sword), got into a boat and carved a bokken out of a spare oar on the boat.  Musashi killed the opponent with the bokken upon arriving on the island, and bid a retreat in the boat before his opponents followers could attack.

Musashi didn’t need a sword to be a master swordsman.

Gear

In this season of black fridays and holiday excess, I invite you to be mindful and take stock of what you really need to play.

  • If you’re a guitarist and your guitar is not in playable condition, you’re going to need something (a setup, repair or possibly a new instrument).  Ditto for an amp if your an electric player.
  • If you need to record and don’t have a way to record audio, you may need something,
  • If the only pedal you have at your disposal is an Arion Distortion you may need something.

But often what’s needed is a set up, or some new strings, or some lessons to get inspired and go to another place.

It’s easy to get caught up in gear lust and say that if you only had (insert mystery guitar/amp pedal here) that you would be able to do (insert desired outcome).

But it’s important to remember that just as gear can be inspiring –  an abundance of options doesn’t lead to exploration of all options, it leads to paralysis.

A key feature of teaching improvisation involves teaching people to work within limitations. It’s in the limitations that you can find the unique approaches and the vocabulary that you thought you were missing.

This holiday season – I invite you to take stock of what you really need to reach your goals and to explore maximizing what you already have.

Do you need to be a guitarist to own a guitar?

Does owning one guitar over another make you any more of a guitarist?

The answer lies within and without.

-SC

2 thoughts on “Do You Need A Guitar To Be A Guitarist?

  1. Another really good post! Dig this statement: You can find some answers within, but only when interacting with external influences. That is the key to so much of life, the ultimate creative act.

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