Playing the guitar (and music in general) means learning to think in new ways and, sometimes, work against human nature. I’d like to give you some great mental tricks to help you learn guitar concepts and become a better guitarist.
This is not a music theory article. Instead I’m going to show you how to get past some of the all-too-human blockages that keep you from playing better. And some of it may sound New-Agey, but don’t let that scare you off. There’s nothing hear that I haven’t used myself and taught to private students to great effect. I give you these ideas as someone who has taught hundreds of students and played thousands of shows.
1. A bad note never killed anyone. Have you ever seen an audience member fall over dead because the musician on stage made a mistake? Me neither. Chances are nobody even heard the mistake. Music is one of the safest activities in the world. Much safer than say, amateur brain surgery.
And yet we have a very human fear of mistakes. We don’t want them to happen and when they do we want to go back and fix them. But when you’re playing with and for other people, you can’t do that. Most likely, nobody heard the mistake and the band won’t know what you’re doing and will keep going without you.
Here’s how I want you to practice this. Grab your guitar and play a song you don’t have down perfect yet. Play through the whole song and do not stop for mistakes. Stay on the beat, get back on the horse, and finish the song. It’ll be an uphill battle with your brain if you’re not used to doing it. It’s waaaay more important to keep the groove than to play every note perfect.
If the best guitarists in the world look they like play their instrument fearlessly, it’s because they do. And you can too.
Now, I don’t want to sound irresponsible here. It is important to learn to play correctly as well. After you’ve played the song, you’ll want to go in and work on the details that you missed, one at a time. That’s a different process and one that should be taken just as seriously.
But when you’re playing through a whole song, ignore the mistakes. Or embrace them. That’s fun too. One of my tricks is to play the part wrong the same way the next time it comes up in the song. Then they think you meant it that way!
2. You must have focus, Grasshopper. Being able to focus and concentrate on playing a piece of music for 3-6 minutes is no easy task. If you find your focus wandering (and mistakes being made) in the short 2 or 3 line pieces your teacher gives you, this is something you can work on.
You’re obviously focused on playing guitar, but it’s easy to let other thoughts slip in that can ruin your performance. A friend of mine was just telling me about a show she did recently. Her ex-boyfriend was in the audience and during her whole performance she kept running over their relationship in her head. As a result she made mistakes and was unhappy with the performance.
You need to clear your mind (let’s get all Jedi here!) and focus solely on the song. Meditation can help with this. Choose a simple word, something innocuous, like “chair”. Now, set a subtle alarm of some sort for 3 minutes. Maybe a vibrating cell phone so it doesn’t jar you too much. Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Repeat your word over and over in your head or aloud. Whenever some other thought starts to creep in, push it out and go back to your word. It will take practice, but your focus will improve drastically if you do this often. When you can focus well for 3 minutes, try 4 then 5.
3. Boobs are distracting. Picture yourself the rock star you want to be. You’re on stage in a huge arena in front of 50,000 people. It’s blazing hot under the lights. People are screaming their fool heads off every time you hit a chord. Cacophony everywhere. And yes, chicks are flashing you and throwing panties on the stage.
You think some of this might be distracting while you play? Not only do you need to be able to focus in your quiet practice time, you also need to be able to play through any distraction thrown at you. Even if you’re playing a tiny coffee shop gig, some moron will order an espresso while you’re playing and that hissssss of the steamed milk can seriously jack up your groove.
I encourage you to practice playing with distractions. Try to play a song while the TV is on. Or for an even bigger challenge, try playing while a different song is playing on the radio. Do some finger exercises while you’re talking to someone on the phone. Working through these ideas will help your fingers do their job even if your brain is thrown off for a second.
If you work at these three ideas, you’ll become a better guitarist, enjoy the experience more, and arrive at that fearless musical Nirvana you’re looking for.