I may change this title. I’m not really sure how to summarise this post into a descriptive title. I’d like to share some thoughts and reflections I’ve had recently about my relationship with the guitar.
Many of you know that I’ve been quite focused on developing an understanding of the mechanics and principles of fretting hand efficiency for some time. The specifics of my study of fretting really isn’t the topic I wish to explore in this post. However, as part of this study I’ve devised a large number of efficient patterns and sequences, which I’ve been spending time practicing. The goal is not only to test my ideas, but also to take these coordinations as a basis from which I can go on to build new musical vocabulary.
For now, let’s just say that I think I’m past proof of concept for these ideas in my own playing, and that I may have become a little carried away in this exploration.
I had a bad experience at work last week, and I was in a bad mood when I got home. To try to get my mind off things, I picked up my guitar and started practicing some digital patterns. A few minutes in, my girlfriend asked why I don’t play more songs. I realise now that she was genuinely curious, and that she meant nothing negative by it. She has been regularly subjected to atonal woobledybloop nonsense for over a year, I suppose at a certain point she has to wonder what it’s all for. However, my mood as it was, this upset me.
I’ve been playing guitar now for over 20 years, and in that time I’ve learned hundreds of songs. However, I don’t learn new songs very often anymore. I could quickly relearn any song I’ve learned before, and I would have no unusual difficulties learning new songs. Honestly though, right now I’d have only a very small repetoire of songs that I would be able to perform if I were given a guitar and pushed out onto a stage this evening.
So, I thought about the reasons I don’t focus on learning songs. Several reasons occurred to me, some which I feel are totally valid, others which perhaps hint at a general dissatisfaction with my relationship with the guitar.
I am not a performing guitarist or a guitar teacher. I simply don’t need a large repetoire of songs that I can perform or teach at a moments notice. I gave up all aspirations I had to play guitar in any professional capacity over a decade ago. On one level it was a difficult decision, I had spent thousands of hours of my youth working towards that goal. On another level, it was liberating. I felt that I could finally learn and practice the things that most interested me, with the goal of helping myself to become the player I most wanted to be, rather than the player I felt I needed to be to get into bands and get gigs. In any case, there’s no professional impetus to learn songs.
Also, since I began my career, I’ve moved away from home. It’s been years since I’ve been able to meet any of my musician friends to play music together. I don’t know any local musicians, and so my time playing guitar is time spent alone. I’m really not much of a singer, and I’ve never want to be “the guy with the guitar” at social gatherings, but if I’m ever handed an acoustic guitar and asked to play something I already have a few songs that fit my voice. Not many, but more than enough for that context. There’s really no social motivation for me to learn songs.
I think more significantly, I don’t really feel any sense of satisfaction or accomplishment from learning songs, at least not those that most listeners would recognise. I always feel silly saying it, but I am an advanced guitarist. There really isn’t going to be much in popular songs which I will find difficult or challenging. For most vocal music, even the process of playing through the song in full is a bit tedious. As I said, I’m really not much a singer, and it’s not exactly engaging to sit repeating the basic verse and chorus patterns of most songs until the end, or until a guitar solo starts. I know I should at least transcribe songs regularly to keep my ears sharp, but a lot of the time this kind of practice feels like pointless busy work.
A natural idea then would be to try to learn something more difficult. Some members on this forum have mentioned they think the real test of your technique is to play through full “shred” pieces from beginning to end. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I’ve been there and I’ve done that. This isn’t to say that there aren’t pieces that wouldn’t be a challenge, of course there are.
However, on a practical level this just doesn’t make sense as a standard operating procedure. If I want to learn a Holdsworth or Gambale piece for example, there usually aren’t tabs available so I have to do it myself. It’s a big time investment just to get the notes on the page. However, most of that type of playing really isn’t possible unless you understand how the notes are mapped to the fretboard, and working through the various permutations is also very time consuming. Then there’s the time investment to practice the piece and get in under the fingers.
This isn’t “learning a song,” it’s a project that takes months. Often after transcribing and mapping to the fretboard, I’ve often heard the piece so much that I don’t really want to hear myself practicing it. If I can stay motivated and I get the piece under my fingers, I have to ask myself what has really been accomplished. I will have learned something about a favourite player’s phrasing, style and composition, which has genuine musical value. It’s obviously an excellent project for ear training and it will result in some techical improvement. One could argue that I’ve spent months learning an obscure piece that nobody else wants to hear. A piece that will take regular practice to maintain.
Personally, I feel I get many of the same benefits from studying isolated segments, learning specific licks and trying to modify or personalise them so that the influence is clear but the lick can be more than a direct quotation. I also honestly feel like I’ve had greater success in making my favourite players’ influences actually manifest in my playing by operating in this fashion and learning to imitate their mechanics.
I could also certainly challenge myself by learning some classical pieces for violin or flute, etc. If I learn from sheet music, I have to contend with my visual impairments. There’s still the difficulty of mapping the notes onto the guitar to make the passages playable, and now with no guarantees that it’s even possible. As much as I love classical music, I don’t often enjoy hearing it played on electric guitars.
Another reason I’ve identified, is that I find problem solving, exploring and practicing mechanics to be cathartic. I also spend a lot of time improvising over looped chords, trying to find some interesting chordal movements and freely improvising to try to find new musical ideas. I only have so much time I can spend practicing guitar, and so time spent practicing in the manner I have been will take from time that could have been spent learning songs.
With so much emphasis placed on learning and playing songs, I’d like to ask you all some questions. Do you still find learning songs to be inherently rewarding? What do you derive satisfaction from in your practice? Have any of you ever felt similarly? If so, what did you do anything to shift your focus back towards learning songs/pieces? If not, can you identify anything which you feel keeps you focused on learning songs/pieces?
I feel this might be a symtom of a general feeling of dissatisfaction with my relationship with the guitar. I feel I should be excited about learning songs the way I used to be, and that I’ve been neglecting something.
Something else has also happened lately, which conversely has been a very contradictory positive feeling. I’ll make another thread about that experience.