Why didn’t I just listen to my mother?
I tried to play guitar for eleven years in a wasteland of stupidity. Learning the hard way only taught me one thing: that I shouldn’t have wasted a lot of time learning the hard way. But as they say, experience is the best teacher.
At the age of thirteen, I wanted to play the bass guitar. My mom, sensing temporary infatuation, said, “We already have a piano. If you want to learn music, you should take lessons and practice, and then once you learn music we can see about a bass guitar.” Shucks. I didn’t want to learn music, I wanted to play the freaking bass.
A few years later, I scored a very cheaply constructed acoustic guitar. In the Nowhere family tradition, I opted to teach myself rather than locate an instructor who would tolerate my guerilla hard-headedness. I slammed around on the damned thing in total darkness for a couple of years. Finally, a kind-hearted soul showed me how to actually tune it. I had to relearn how to play real chords. An additional diffculty to be sure, but I persevered, despite terribly sore fingertips. Over the next three years, I learned how figure out several simple major chord tunes.
In the interim, I landed a gig singing in a local band. The guitarist showed me some minor chords and a whole new world was opened to me. Spurred onward by this revelation, I finally bought a chord book began writing a few songs. I obtained a better guitar. ‘There,’ I thought, ‘I’m set’.
I continued to learn chords until somewhere along the line, I ceased to add new knowledge, assuming that I’d ‘learned’ how to play. Codswallop.
Sir Issac Newton overlooked one very important law in the science of Physics. Science sometimes tends to overlook the obvious, in its undying search for exactitude. There exists, however, the law of Accident. As my grandfather used to say, ‘Even a blind pig will find an acorn every now and then’. This aptly explains the law of Accident. a much later version of the law appeared in the slang form of ‘Shit Happens’, and it’s true.
I happened to discover Practice completely by accident. I knew, well into my first decade of playing, that there was something missing, yet I knew not what this ‘something’ was, nor how or where to find it. A teacher would have been invaluable, but I eschewed convention, and paid dearly for my bêtise over a period of several years. I kept assuming that something else would occur, and that one morning I would awake to some startling, and newly acquired skill.
That something came, but in a wholly different form than I was expecting. And it took several years to develop.
I was reading an article that Triumph guitarist Rik Emmett had written for Guitar Player magazine, in which he was describing practice. His article seemed to centre around something that was foreign to me. Rik expressed a great deal of reverence on this particular subject, and my interest was piqued. Within the month, the article had prompted me to purchase a book entitled Harmony by Walter Piston. Another article in the same magazine, written by Howard Roberts, prompted me to construct ‘box scale’ charts, and fervent searches at antique stores rewarded me with a killer Seth Thomas metronome, constructed of solid mahogany.
After acquiring the basic devices, I obtained a footrest, a music stand, and a new nylon string guitar. I grew my fingernails out and began to Practice. Later, I was introduced to Robert Fripp’s excellent and insightful Guitar Craft lessons, and continued my practice in ernest. One may wonder why I suddenly decided to practice using a classical guitar. I became aware that all of my old habits must mercilessly be destroyed. Beginning anew was not merely symbolic, it was Reality, and a new approach only made sense.
After a prolonged period of time, after which new habits had become ingrained in my head as well as my fingers, I did away with the classical guitar, the footrest, and the fingernails, all of which were perceived as stepping stones to a new way of thinking, rather than becoming the goal.
The actor Hugh Laurie once stated that music was his religion, and I’m hip to his analogy. Practice, as I’d sensed from Emmett’s article, must be approached with reverence. For instance (and according to Robert Fripp), one must be able to ‘do’ nothing before one can expect oneself to accomplish anything. This may at once sound oxymoronic, but I can assure you that truer words have never been uttered nor written.
I had failed to realise that in music, as in every other persuit, there exists an unseen Octave of Progression. After having learned a handful of chords, I had expected the rest of the Octave to complete itself. Only after beginning to Practice did I discover that I had remained in the C note of my Octave of Progression, succeeding only in chasing my tail.
The beginning of every natural progression starts with the note, or Force, of C Major, and there is no other way. This is a very important point to understand, and has been taught among the learned since antiquity, but the cause has never been expounded on. ‘Why not start at A?’ one may be tempted to ask. Because A and B forces already exist.
C represents the beginning of something new. Imagine A as the father and B as the mother. C is thus the child. This C is also known in some arcane schools as the Neutralising Factor. None of the whys and wherefores are important, only to realise this is a big thing, because it gives us a place to start.
Practice is also represented by C, so before Practice, two other qualities must be present: Intense Desire, represented by A, and Patience, represented by the B force. Practice, along with the necessary Attention (a prerequisite, and self-inflected ‘shock’ of self-conscience), brings on a certain type of friction, resulting in the formation of the next note in our Octave, the D force, which becomes Discipline. This note offers, in and of itself, a new branch of knowledge.
In music, the A force represents Tempo, or Time, B represents Pitch, and C represents Feel. Together, these three qualities are akin to what the Holy Trinity represents in religion. Even God represented Himself as Three Forces: The Alpha, and the Omega, of course, but the third force was the unobseved and ignored ‘everything’ in between, the Octave of Progression. This is the real meat. It doesn’t matter from where this knowledge originates; it would be of no use to our senses. It is enough to realise that it will become more or less apparent after an extended period of time, during which one must attempt to ‘do’. Suffice it to say that if we wish to persue music, we must first develop the aforementioned Intense Desire which must become what may be called our Centre of Gravity, afterward, no other activity will displace practice and then music as paramount. I’ll expound on this centre of gravity at a later date.
When we intend to Practice, we want to sit quietly with our instrument of choice in our practice space for ten or fifteen minutes first, and use this time to centre ourselves and reflect on that which we are about to participate in. This act has been carried out by countless disciples of music since time immemorial. It pays to bear this in mind. Next, we tune our instrument; in this we will be tuning ourselves. Then, when we are ready, we start our metronome, and begin the session. During this period, we must not allow anything to sway our focus or otherwise interrupt us. As Mr. Fripp stated, The quality of our Attention is reflected in the quality of our Practice.
As I stated earlier, Practice is an art unto itself. Attention must be paid to every detail: No part of our plucking hand should never touch the top of the guitar in order to anchor our hand down as a point of reference. We must learn to instinctively know where the strings lie beneath our floating hand. When using a plectrum, our picking strokes should begin on the downstroke and progress in an alternating up and down style. Regarding to our fretting hand, we should ascend one finger at a time, leaving the fingers on the string until all four fingers have been applied, then we should release the string, ascending or descending to the next string in the same manner. Within a given scale pattern, the same finger should be used in the corresponding position whether ascending or descending with our fingers, or in the strings we are plucking. We should not allow our fingers to bounce around aimlessly to first one fret and then the other: we are attempting to establish order out of chaos. Of primary concern is the peculiar runaway pinkie syndrome. The amount of control we are capable of exercising over ourselves can be measured by how much control we are capable of exercising over our little finger, especially as our fingers are in the descending mode. Odds are, our pinkie is want to fly about wildly. We want to restrict our movements to as little as possible, but as much as necessary. Order and Control is what we are undertaking to instill. The devil is in the details, as they say, thus we shall attempt to give ourselves hell.
If you are new to this approach, and you think that the above sounds demanding, actually I haven’t even scratched the surface. Next time I’ll go farther into this underappreciated facet of the craft. It will change everything that you think you already know about yourself. You’ll be a better person on account of it, though. Maybe even a better musician.