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.


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.


Tim Ferriss, Martial Arts, Focus And Guitar

The Four Hour???

In a press tour promoting his new book, The 4-Hour Chef, Tim Ferriss (the author of The 4-Hour Work Week and The 4-Hour Body), made an interesting comment to The Metro paper (underlined emphasis is mine).

What are the common misconceptions of learning?
One of the bigger misconceptions of learning is that many skills take a lifetime to get world-class at, or 10,000 hours to become world-class at. If you want to be Tiger Woods at age 8, you’re going to know you have the potential because you’ll be drawing sketches of people hitting balls with different irons, which he was, instead of pirate ships. But, if you want to be the best in your circle of friends or in the top five percent in the U.S. population at golf, swimming, Spanish, Japanese, whatever it might be, I firmly believe that you can accomplish that in most cases in six months or less. To be functionally fluent in a language, for instance, you need about 1,200 words. If you really train someone well, they can acquire 200 to 300 words a day, which means that in a week they can acquire the vocabulary necessary to speak a language.”–the-art-of-learning

Here’s a related quote from the Amazon page for the book, “WHAT IF YOU COULD BECOME WORLD-CLASS IN ANYTHING IN 6 MONTHS OR LESS?….The 4-Hour Chef isn’t just a cookbook. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure guide to the world of rapid learning.”

This is a competition mentality applied to learning and it’s also a symptom of a key thing that’s wrong with our culture.


The process of learning something shouldn’t simply be rooted in a desire to  become better at something than the next person, instead, one should engage in the process of learning things to become a better version of oneself.


Just ask a martial artist.


Martial Arts

Martial arts originally developed as a survival mechanism.  If you were attacked by a robber or fighting in a battle and could fight better than the person attacking you, having  that skill meant that you had a better chance of getting out alive.

But then someone brought a gun to the party.

Initially, guns took a long time for load and fire and weren’t that accurate so they were more of a long range weapon.  But that changed over time and when it did, hand to hand combat increasingly couldn’t compete with a gun.  An obscure deadly kick that you’ve developed to perfection after years of practice is not going to stop someone just out of range from pulling a trigger (or stop a sniper from taking you out from a foot ball field away).

But did this stop people from learning martial arts?  Not at all.  Martial arts kept going because martial artists recognized that fighting was only one aspect of any martial arts.  In working through the discipline needed to develop those skills, martial artists made themselves better people and better artists.  They focused on training and competition and belts, because there was rarely a need to use it in self defense on the streets.

On a whole, the focus changed from self-defense to self betterment.

I should mention here that Tim Ferriss won a Chinese National Kickboxing championship with relatively minimal training.  Since contestants were disqualified by stepping outside of a box in the fighting area, he won the competition by pushing each of his opponents outside the box to win.

So he won a title, but only learned little about the art.

In contrast, consider this David Lee Roth story.  On one of his appearances on the Howard Stern show, Roth was asked how many black belts he had and he said (please note – all quotes here are paraphrased), “Well I only have one because I’m only working in one style right now”.  Stern then asked, “But you’ve been doing this for years so how come you only have one belt?” Roth replied, “Well I have a lot of belts from all of the different styles I’ve worked on over the years but I don’t think you can call yourself a black belt in Kung-Fu if you haven’t done it in a while.”



I should mention that I’ve read The 4-hour work week.  It’s an interesting book (the whole idea of outsourcing routine money making things was really interesting),  but it’s a deceptive title.

Tim Ferriss spent countless hours promoting that book, he just didn’t call it work.  He’s a driven guy and a very hard worker and that (in addition to providing products with a unique point of view) got him to where he is.

But the people who are reading these books are learning the wrong lesson.

Tim Ferriss is a master.  But he’s a master at running and sustaining the Tim Ferris machine, and that’s something he’s put a lifetime of work into and not four hours a week.

This other concept of short-term mastery comes back to my original point.


What is it you want to do?

This idea of short term mastery is nothing new.  Thousands of people have already adapted this idea by getting quick licks under their fingers and posting them on YouTube.

But they’re not master players.  They’re technicians.

And a lot of those videos are awful.  Terrible tone, shaky timing, questionable technique….It has nothing to do with mastery of anything and is instead simply about being better than the people around them.


In contrast, here’s a 2010 quote from Jonas Hellborg:

“In order to function as a human being, you have to be able to focus.  You have to be able to center.  Some people are into religion.  They pray or meditate or they do this or that.  Music is such a thing.  It’s a discipline and you use it for the purpose of focusing your mental, your spiritual activity in one direction and become whole.  As you do that you will get more and more capacity as a musician.  But if you can express what you need to express with just a limited vocabulary, you can still do that.  It’s not about the vocabulary.  It’s not about how many words you can use; it’s about what you can say.”


I’ll throw out a Branford quote as well,

“…We live in a country that seems to be in a massive state of delusion where the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being that.   My students…all they want to hear is how good they are and how talented they are but most of them are not really willing to work to the degree to live up to that.”


Do you want to be the person who’s the best at something in a room or do you want to be the best person you can?


Going back to the martial art idea, with all of the other means of making and/or hearing music at one’s disposal, there’s not much reason to play guitar except as a means of developing who you are as a person and taking short cuts in that arena is just cheating yourself of a deeper knowledge of who you are..

I hope this helps and as always, thanks for reading!