I’ve been a guitar player for a very long time, but each and every day, I discover something else I don’t know how to play. It is this acquisition of knowledge that turns out to be the main challenge, in guitar playing, more than the development of dexterity. Getting your hands to mechanically move, on your mind’s command, to where they need to be, on time, is a big challenge, for sure, but it becomes an obsession with so many players, that they turn a blind eye to all the other things they need to know. When you observe the best players, they play lines of the most astonishing complexity, but their hands hardly move at all. This seems to be a necessary pre-condition for playing really well, but it isn’t the whole story.
Honestly admitting to yourself what you don’t know is a very important part of improving, as a player. I know this to be true for all spheres of art, actually. Sitting down and talking to yourself and making an inventory of what you don’t know feels quite deflating, at times. You realise that, as far as you have come, you have so far to go. On the other hand, that’s what keeps you excited, interested and engaged in becoming a better player. I guarantee that for every player that has become bored with his instrument there is a person in sheer denial about what they still don’t know. A counter balance for the list of things you still don’t know is a list of the things you already do know.
Having worked out what you don’t know, setting yourself the task of learning it and putting in the effort to really make the knowledge stick, in your mind, is the next difficult challenge. Don’t rush. This step takes a lifetime. What you have to do is chip away at the list consistently and diligently. You aren’t going to learn it all overnight. Nobody does. This is where the dedication to your art is tested.
Quite frequently, while learning something new, you discover gaps in things you thought you had already perfected. For example, while I am quite dextrous on the fingerboard, my right hand finger picking technique is pretty rudimentary. In some cases, that lack of muscle memory hinders my learning. I also occasionally find a stretch or left hand repositioning exercise that is beyond my ability to achieve, even with the fluidity and dexterity I have developed to date. This is where I have to go back to the drawing board and gradually build up the physical moves I need to be able to play the thing I want to play.
What makes guitarists amazing to watch, for me, is their ability to pull just the right sequence of notes, or the perfect “lick”, out of the bag at the right musical moment. Their knowledge of musical possibilities is encyclopaedic, they know how to articulate every phrase they can choose from and playing just the right phrase becomes analogous to selecting just the right word (the mot juste), when writing prose. They know their licks so well and they have such an extensive phrase vocabulary, that the selection process is almost automatic (or at least autonomic) and driven by emotion, rather than intellect.
Things I do know how to do, on guitar, include playing fluid lines, playing to the sweet notes in a chord, I know my way around the whole fingerboard reasonably assuredly, my tone is well sorted, I have pretty good vibrato and tremolo technique and I can articulate notes well. I have a reasonable back catalogue of phrases and licks to draw from. Those are all assets.
What I don’t know (and this is a hopelessly abbreviated list, given as an example) is how to play extremely fast and extended legato runs, I don’t know all my scales, my jazz chord substitution knowledge is risible, I encounter guitar players with more extensive lick libraries in their brains, my tone is still evolving, I am working on subtler tremolo techniques and I don’t really sight read all that consistently. I’m working on borrowing ideas from a range of techniques outside of my usual musical style. Every day, I find a new lick to play that my fingers are reluctant to play. To learn these phrases, I have to do a lot of repetition; a hell of a lot of repetition. The idea is to start slowly, play the line cleanly and to gradually build up the speed over a period of days, or weeks if necessary.
Part of my learning technique is to use video instruction, such as the excellent tutorials you can buy from Truefire.com, but I also use tablature transcriptions from Ultimateguitar.com, loaded into a programme called Guitar Pro 6. I also listen to tracks by artists I like and sometimes use Riff Station to slow the faster lines down, so that I can build my own speed gradually. The tablature is something I use to clarify which notes were played, but I often change the fingerings to suit myself, so that I can play the lines more comfortably. You also often see a difference between the tabbed fingering and what you can observe the original artist playing, on videos of them playing live that sometimes appear on YouTube. Tablature is more a suggestion, than gospel truth.
When I began learning guitar, none of these resources existed. I had to pick out lines by ear, from vinyl records or cassette tapes. My renditions were frequently inaccurate. There wasn’t any available tablature and the sheet music that was available was quite heavily biased toward jazz and piano. A good guitar teacher could encourage you and make sure you weren’t developing extremely bad habits, but it was all pretty crude and rude. Guitar players, today, have much better learning materials and learning opportunities. Knowing how hard the musical knowledge was to acquire, in previous decades, really tells you how hard the star guitar players and guitar heroes had to work, to develop their musical abilities. It wasn’t easy. It’s still not easy, but at least there are better resources for learning available.
When you pursue this programme of continuous learning, you very quickly build up an almost overwhelming backlog of things you want to learn, but find you cannot learn them fast enough to satisfy your hunger. Patience. All you can do is the equivalent of turning up at the woodpile and chopping the wood. You know what I mean. There is a huge pile of logs to be split and you feel daunted by how long it will take and how much strength, sweat and endurance it will require. It’s also endlessly repetitive and boring. However, you split the first log, and then the second and you keep going, log by log, until the whole pile of logs has been split. That’s all you can do, when you set yourself a programme of learning. Keep at it.
I know experienced players that are content to rehash the things they already know, or who get fixated with sorting out their gear and their tone, but neglect their absorption of the licks and techniques of other players, or whose dexterity seems stuck at one level, but never improves. They all have things to learn. We all do. However, they don’t do anything about it. Doing something about it is the hard part.
I know that I have fallen into similar traps, over the years and the price of doing so is losing interest in playing. To keep your playing vibrant and fresh, you have to keep moving forward. You have to admit to what you don’t know and painfully take baby steps to learn it. It’s brutal and humiliating, humbling and frustrating, but it is the only way forward available. Eventually, though, you find yourself playing things that put a smile on your own face, which amaze yourself and which are closer to the elusive music you can hear in your head. It’s a nice feeling when you find yourself really liking what you’re playing. That’s when you begin to find and express your own, unique musical voice.
The biggest upside of all the pain and drudgery that comes with continuing to set yourself new challenges is that at least you’ll always have something new to do. While you have something new to do, there is a reason to get up in the morning. Let that purposefulness carry you forward.