Can I let you guys in on a little secret?
I am terrified of the guitar. It’s not entirely that I can’t play it…(although that’s a lot of it) but there is something that makes me reluctant to touch it. At all. Maybe it’s partly that other people can play it so well. It’s almost like if I pick it up any more than I absolutely have to to get by, I will offend the gods of rock and be stricken with writer’s block that shall sentence me to the world of corporate accounting permanently. Like, even into the afterlife.*
I know that all I have to do to get better is spend some time and put in a little elbow grease. Where I am right now, the learning curve could be insanely steep, and with a little practice, I could at least be comfortable playing one. And not even be half bad at it. But for some reason, that first step–just picking it up–is a very, very difficult thing.
I played more years ago. I took guitar classes in college. And when I bought my first guitar…well, you can’t even imagine that glee. An instrument I could actually move around, and take places with me. Something I could groove on, and a new place for songwriting inspiration. And I hadn’t tried to play it yet–so I hadn’t failed then. I think there is some worry that I will try, and not improve, and put a lot of time into something where I actually get nowhere.
It feels like a guitar is the ideal instrument to be good at, for all of those reasons. It’s portable, it sounds great, it’s nice next to a campfire, and everyone can play one. Right?
Truth be told, I love the piano. That, I played for long enough to develop some real skill. For a few years, I didn’t have access to one, so my skills might have waned a little, except for a keyboard that my family bought me for Christmas one year. Even in the absence of a “real” piano, that kept me on the keys…and I’m ever grateful. It’s not that I don’t want to learn something new, it’s just that I want to already be good. And of course, don’t we all. Having a skill like playing an instrument removes what I see as a barrier to writing great songs. Certainly, being an instrumentalist, or even a vocalist, is not a prerequisite, but it certainly helps.
I went to the TAXI Road Rally with the intention of attending as many courses as I could about marketing my music. Using social media, using internet radio, using whatever I could and whatever it would take. By the end of the first class I took-the first class on the first day, I could no longer stomach the topic. That said, I’ve been reading books about it for several months, and it just sort of put my brain on overload. Mostly, it’s to the point where I have to stop reading and getting ideas and start following through on them. So, just prior to what I was fairly certain would soon be my head exploding, I opted for a topic change. And, I had a break from classes to attend a one-on-one mentoring session with a mentor of my choice…Jai Josefs.
Jai is not a record producer, or an A&R guy, or an indie artist–he’s a songwriter, and a top songwriting coach. I had him critique a song with a working title of “Memories Tonight.” He gave me a good mix of feedback–what I’d done right and what I could improve, and I left the session feeling very good about my existing talent, and about my ability to make the changes he was suggesting. I signed up for a separate, longer session with him and showed him three more of my songs that I’m hoping to put on my first full-length CD. I got great tips from him, specific to these songs and my writing style. I also attended two of his seminars at the Road Rally. (That’s a lot, considering how many highly skilled people are offering their expertise at a convention like this, and how few chances you really have to absorb as much of their knowledge as possible.)
Anyway, all of that leads up to one of the comments he made in one of his workshops. This man has had a number of successful cuts as a songwriter, and has taught high-caliber students who went on to write hit singles and win Grammys. He said that he isn’t much of a singer–but he took voice lessons for a couple of years, and as a result, his melodies got a lot more interesting. As songwriters, it’s natural that we’re limited by our musical abilities. And while I feel better, being a singer and piano player, that guitar in the corner is just sitting there, looking like another limit.
For now, I’m spending more time with my piano. I love the sounds it makes, and I love that I can play it, in any key, and that I understand its chord structure. I can do really awesome things on the piano. When I get serious about it and sit down, I find cool licks–all the time! But, pianos aren’t very portable or campfire-friendly, and I’ve gotten to be a little bit reliant on the piano “feel”–the weight of the keys and the timbre of the hammer hitting the strings. Not that any of my pianos at home actually have strings… I still hate that I’m limited on the guitar. But then, I also hate that I don’t get to choose how many hours are in a day. I could spend the time working with what I have on songs that I can be proud of, developing my writing and getting closer to that, or I can spend the time developing a skill that I’d also like to have, but is less important to me than the songs. It’s all about choices.
It’s like they say, though…time is the great equalizer. It’s the one thing everybody has in common. This week, I have exactly the same number of hours as Amy Lee, Reba McEntire and Ryan Tedder do. They just have 40 more to devote to their music careers. 🙂
*The comments made in this blog may or may not at times represent the actual religious or philosophical beliefs of Dana Jo Forseth.
I’ve been struggling with the same thing for the 20 years I’ve been playing guitar. Piano has always been automatic, because it’s the first instrument I learned, and I’ve played live and practiced so much on the bass, that it’s an extension of my hands. The guitar has been a different animal. Part of the problem is that I’ve always had the good fortune of playing with great guitarists, which sets the bar to high right off the bat. You said that it seemed so easy for some people. I totally get that.
The first thing I discovered that helped me was learning and playing entire songs. Scales and chords are fine, but playing a song , in real time, and not stopping for mistakes, helps a lot. Playing these songs live seems to cement this. The more you perform on the guitar, the more natural it will become.
As far as practice, it isn’t like when we were kids, and we could spend 8 hours a day practicing. It’s not realistic. You have to find certain exercises that maximize gain in a minimum amount of time. For example, I have a barre chord exercise that takes a total of about 15 min. a day, but will get you playing barre chords a lot cleaner and faster almost right away. I’d be glad to show you some of those little short cuts, when you have time. Anyway, it kind of struck me how I’ve felt the same frustration, so I had to comment.
Thanks, John! I really appreciate your comments on this. Sometimes I’m not sure what to share with the world, but it helps to know I’m not alone in feeling this way. I think if I got past bar chords I would feel a whole lot better about the guitar! I’d love to learn those exercises from you!
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Michael Gilboe says
Remember, after those “pros” do all their work, interviews, press junkets, etc… you’d be surprised how much of a full time job all of that stuff that isn’t making music becomes for all of them…
That’s why I said music careers. I can imagine how quickly the admin piece fills up the time, and how the creative pieces get pushed aside, even (and especially) for superstars who have record labels handling things like merch and promotion.