I’ve been taking my guitar to work with me for a couple of weeks now, and already the difference is like night and day. It’s really gratifying to see that, actually.
Of course, the question it raises in my own head is: “Gee, jackass, if you can get so much of your speed back in two weeks, imagine what you could do if you actually kept it up instead of abandoning it after a few months like you always do.”
The voice in my head is kind of an asshole.
Still, it feels good to feel like not such a fumble-fingered goofus all the time. To be able to just noodle around and have my fingers be capable of moving around 80% of as fast as my brain wants them to, as opposed to 20%. That’s a really frickin’ big difference.
I can also tell that my subtle changes in practice are making a difference. Ages ago, when I was 15 or so and first really trying to learn the guitar, I taught myself out of two books: the Ernie Ball instructional books, volume 1 (for beginners) and 2 (for intermediates). Same books as those linked, but, uh, earlier editions. Honestly, I can’t find my copies of those books anywhere, and it’s likely that at some point in time I got rid of them. I’m a little peeved at myself for that, because I still think they were excellent beginner’s books for if/when Boy decides he wants to learn how to play.
Still, they weren’t exactly enough, and had I not been paired with a college roommate who actually could play the guitar and had some tutoring therein, I might have really stayed stuck. He helped bump me out of my rut and expand my horizons quite a bit…until I fell into another rut, of course.
I’ve found that, for me, I tend to do very well as long as I have some sort of new inspiration or new way of thinking. It can be a book, a person, or just a snippet of a song on the radio – and I’ll pick up the guitar and crank away for a while, as long as I’ve got the bug. But unless I have something to cause me to shift my gears, I end up doing more or less the same thing over and over, I get tired of it, and I let it go. Well, and there’s also the thousand and one distractions of daily life to boot.
This time, though, I’m taking a different approach, based largely on a different book that Dys thoughtfully gave me for Christmas a few years past, Jeff Peretz’s Zen and the Art of Guitar. Peretz is attempting to teach a different way of looking at the instrument – rather than teaching a particular style, he focuses mastering the fundamentals, the underpinnings of every style, so you can then move on and create your own. This has been a good, general way to shift my attention.
More specifically, he has two theories that I’ve taken very seriously. First, and I’ll quote from him, “There are times when you are playing the guitar and times when you are practicing the guitar. Be mindful not to confus the two. When practicing, you play with a specific intent to improve some aspect(s) of your playing.”
That, to me, was something of a revelation. So instead of playing a song or a part of a song or noodling loosely, I now tend to spend most of my practice time doing stuff that’s not so much “musical” as it is an exercise. Oh, I might run two-octave major scales, move up a fret, and repeat all the way up the fretboard, and that sounds kind of musical but it’s also repetitive as hell. Do-re-mi ad infinitum. But it helps build my dexterity and burns the scale into my consciousness so I can run through it by muscle memory alone.
Yesterday is also an example – I noticed how much trouble I was having with some scales that require stretches, so I just ran through a bunch of completely non-musical exercises that forced me to put a fret’s worth of gap between my fingers. First finger, gap, second, third, fourth. Then first, second, gap, third, fourth. Et cetera. It sounded like hell (and kinda hurt) but that’s good practice. Addressing a weak point.
Second, Peretz says “practice every day. Even if it’s only ten minutes.” And, well, yeah, I’m trying pretty hard on that one. Having a guitar handy during my lunch hour five days a week is a big help there.
So now, for anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour each day, I break out my Peretz book and run through some very generic warmup exercises. Then I might do some more advanced stuff from his book; or I might get out my old book of scales and just do all of those exercises – playing something funky like a Locrian or whole-tone or diminished scale in four or five different finger patterns. (Because while I know my majors and minors and pentatonics pretty damned well, thank you, I suck at all of the more obscure modes. And mastering new fingerings never hurt anybody.) And once I’ve done all of that, maybe I’ll do something different to address something that seems to be a sticking point that day. Or maybe I’ll turn back to one of my original inspirations by pulling out my ancient Ozzy songbook (essentially all of the “Diary of a Madman” album and half of “Blizzard of Ozz”) and seeing if I can learn something.
I’m feeling a lot more nimble in my fingers and in my musical brain lately. Now if I can just keep it up.