Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Let’s talk about Locking In

Hello again, my guitar playing friends.

Well, it has been another week in quarantine and another week of solid practice. I am seeing progress on the two new fingerstyle songs I am working on and that feels great. On the other hand, I have really gotten away from ear training this week and I feel guilty about that. It is always the most difficult to work on the things that produce the fewest tangible results. Learning a song means, at some point, you will be able to sit down in front of people and play that song and that makes the practicing that goes into it feel like it is leading to something. With so many other important things- like ear training- there is no singular endpoint to imagine and look forward to and I think that makes it feel overwhelming.

I have begun to add ten minutes of speed work into the beginning of my practices and I think that is something I will stick with. I started doing this because I would just feel stiff at the beginning of each practice session. I mixed simple finger exercises with playing scales to warm-up my fingers and in just a few days I started to see small increases in my speed with these. I have also noticed that this warm-up is a great rhythm warm-up as well. When I am playing at the end of my fingers’ ability to keep up, I have to “lock-in” to the rhythm even as I am losing it. As I fall behind, I try to stay mentally connected to the beat even though I am not playing with it physically.

“Locking-in” is something I have been thinking about a lot this week while I am playing. I notice that this kind of progression happens whenever I learn a new fingerstyle arrangement. At first, when I am primarily focused on which fingers go where, I react to the beat as best I can. I always work with a metronome and always start at a slow pace. Sometimes I am pushing the beat when I know the fingerings and slipping behind it when I am struggling with them. Once I get used to the fingerings a little- not even close to mastering them, but just familiar with them- getting them fit into the rhythm starts to be the main thing I am working on. I’ll miss notes and slip behind or ahead of the beat, but I am trying to hold on to it each bar and with each note. Then the biggest change in the process happens and it seems to happen without me intending for it to happen. Suddenly, I start playing the song or a section of the song and I will “lock-in.”

When I say “lock-in” I certainly don’t mean that I suddenly begin playing with rhythmic precision. Instead, I feel like the beat takes over. I am now feeling the beat first and playing with it. Or playing to it. Or both. I am not sure exactly what the change really is, but something is different. If I screw up a note or chord change, I am still locked into the beat as I am going and hitting the next note or chord on time in spite of the error. Even if I don’t hit the next note, I am still being carried forward by the beat and hearing my place in it. I think this is biggest turning point in the process of learning a new song. Once this happens, everything opens up. I start hearing the song, even before I am playing it correctly and my fingers start to move to the right notes with far less effort.

I have been thinking about this so much because I think that the faster I can get to this place, the faster I can learn things on the guitar. Because I am not sure exactly why it begins to happen when it does, I have a hard time seeing how to get to it quicker, but I think that doing so is key. If this is all very esoteric and incomprehensible, I apologize. I can imagine better musicians out there thinking, “of course you have to lock-in, dumbass, that is what playing music is,” but I don’t think what I am trying to describe is something that only I struggle with.

Obvious or esoteric or just plain confusing as it may be, I think the difference between playing on time with the beat and being “locked-in” is one of the core ideas in music. I have heard tons of musicians talk about, but never in terms of how they approach it when learning a new song or technique or concept. I suspect this because so much of this is intuitive, or it is supposed to be. When it comes to music, I have never had much intuitive ability and I imagine that is why I am a bad guitar player. Regardless, this is an idea that fascinates me and if I have to analytically bludgeon it into submission, so be it. Whatever it takes to stop sucking.