Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Of Dogs and Homework


There is guitar playing and there is life. Sometimes life gets in the way of guitar playing. That has been the case the past two weeks. My practice has slipped and my focus is shot.

What I’m saying is… the dog ate my homework.

She didn’t actually eat my homework, or in this case I guess it would be my sheet music, but adopting our beautiful new puppy, Zuzu, has ruined my practice schedule, along with my sleep schedule and my mind in general. Just over two weeks ago, my family decide to finally fulfill my daughter’s life-long dream- if eight-years old can be said to have life-long dreams- and get a puppy. We got incredibly lucky and we were able to rescue the adorable little girl that you see above.. She is sweet and gentle and quite sleepy. She is also, as anyone who has ever had a puppy will tell you, a ton of extra work, and that work has mostly fallen to me.

Sweet little Zuzu doesn’t deserve the blame here, however. The reality is there will always be something that screws up my guitar practice. Someday (maybe) this quarantine will end and I will have to figure out where practicing can fit in between twelve hour work days, long commutes, being a dad and occasionally even sleeping. I am a bad guitar player, in part, because I have been bad at fitting my guitar playing in to everything else that happens in my life. Music is a hobby for me. I have no intention of ever trying to make a living doing it. When it comes down to it, it can’t really rank that high in my priorities.

But one reason that I don’t just scrap the whole idea of playing music altogether is that I love the discipline of it. I need the discipline of it. Along with exercise, playing music is the main experience in my life that is capable of reminding me that progress comes from doing a little bit every day. Seeing small improvements here and there brings me comfort. It is a reminder that we can be better. Change is possible. I can’t imagine a time where that lesson would be more vital to our everyday existence than it is now. It is one thing to say that change is possible, but it is another to experience change regularly, to embody it. Playing guitar has given me that experience, especially during quarantine, when it feels so hard to imagine change really coming about.

The lessons of playing music don’t just apply to the good times though. They are there when things go wrong as well. Improvement is never a straight line. It is never a series of uninterrupted successes. Failing is part of the process too. So is regression and frustration and wanting to give up and making ridiculous excuses that involve your dog. There is nothing to do but start again. Back to the one. Take two or take two million.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Burnout


It was a rough week of practice. For the first time during quarantine, I missed two days of practice in a week. I also started to feel terrible about my playing, which is something that happens every so often. For days or even weeks at a time, I don’t like the way my guitar sounds. I don’t like anything I am playing and I don’t really want to play much. None of it makes any sense, of course, but it happens anyway.

In this case, I am feeling like this is a little bit of burnout. Recently, I have been focused on playing a number of difficult new things and that has been fun and challenging. It has also been frustrating at times and lately the frustration seems to be outweighing the fun. As I wrote about earlier, I am battling with one of the greatest pieces of rock guitar playing, learning Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing. It has actually been going fairly well, but progress is slow. While I might have been able to learn an entire fingerstyle arrangement in the time I have spent on Little Wing, I am still only working on the intro of it. It feels daunting to even start learning the verses.

But Little Wing isn’t really the source of my frustration lately. I am still really enjoying learning it and I never expected it to happen quickly. I did expect that I would have more success with the inversions I have been working on and that has definitely been a disappointment. I have one week left on these in my current practice regime so I will power through, but I will be happy to move on from them (at least as the central thing I am practicing, you never really move on from anything).

Still, being frustrated with something that is hard to play is one thing, but right now I hate everything I am playing. Acoustic. Electric. Difficult, simple, it doesn’t matter. I am writing this now and when I finish, I will go practice and I am not looking forward to that for the first time in a long time. I don’t want to feel this way but I do and there is no point denying it.

Obviously, I can’t stop playing. That is a slippery slope and one that I have been down before. I am finishing a section of practice this week anyway, so I would be making a new regime anyway and it seems like the timing is good there. Maybe playing something new will help, but it doesn’t feel that way right now. Maybe, this is just something I have to go through periodically. The more I play music, the more I feel like I have a relationship with music. Relationships are difficult, even the best ones. I think it is even more true with music, because, in some ways, my relationship with music is with myself. I can’t blame music for the problems in this relationship, because it is just an abstract concept. I can blame myself, but I don’t see how that will help. Ultimately, the only choice is to play through it and know it will be better on the other side.

Diary of A Bad Guitar Player: Natural Guitar


This week’s diary entry was delayed for two reasons. First, I was camping this past weekend and that kept me away from technology for a few days. Those days just happen to coincide with the days when I usually write this entry.

The second reason for the delay was that the experience of practicing in the serene spot that I had while camping and a few other parts of that experience got me thinking about playing the guitar in a different way and I was not immediately able to find words to express what I was thinking and experiencing in the days after.

On our camping trip, I had a sweet little morning practice routine going. After brewing some coffee on the camping stove, I trucked out along a cliffside path through the woods to a spot where the forest opened up onto- and looked out over the eroded sands- the ocean. There I sat down and began to practice as egrets and cormorants fished for their breakfast and swallows darted between the sand and the trees. It was a beautiful spot and a beautiful way to begin a day. Just me and m guitar and the wild world around me.

Because this was so idyllic, I wanted to play beautiful music and have that music score the serenity of the moment and… well, of course, I sucked. I sucked out loud over the dunes and that crashing tides, over the tangles of briars, over the majestic oaks and maples. After all, this wasn’t a recital. This was practice and I was practicing shit I can’t yet play and playing it as badly as ever. I could wish to replace my metronome with the soft crash of the waves, I could hope to harmonize with the cedar waxwings and goldfinches fluttering through the trees, but I was still me and the guitar was still a guitar and as beautiful as all the world around me might be, it was still separate from me. Still just a place that I visit and it’s music is not my music.

If this had been the only experience I took away from this minor departure, I would probably not have struggled to express my experiences for the past few days. But something else happened while I was voluntarily living out of a tent with my family this past week. Sitting by the campfire, I set my guitar down, probably to prevent one of the kids from setting it aflame with an errant marshmallow. My niece picked it up and began to mess around with it. I explained to her how the frets worked and showed her how to hold down a string (I was hard for her, it’s always hard when you first try). She listened and tried and struggled and wen back to the serious matter of extinguishing blazing confections.

After ten or fifteen minutes, she asked me “ how do I play something on it?” The question stymied me. I think I said, “well, it’s not easy.” Or something similarly trite and unhelpful. She didn’t stop playing though. She puzzled over the strings and the frets and the entire idea of the instrument for a while longer, strumming here, picking there, listening to the sounds and trying to make sense of them. So I watched her for a while and started thinking about how I look at the guitar.

The guitar is this strange instrument. If you look at the keyboard of a piano, each note has one key, but on a guitar, the same note could be played maybe three or four different places on the instrument. Starting out, we try to make sense of this by learning all these chord shapes and fingering patterns for scales and eventually, it kind of makes some kind of sense. But, after a while, that becomes the only way that you look at the guitar and it is not always a natural way to look at it. You get to the point of trying to make the guitar fit in a piano-shaped box, musically speaking. This can be particularly true when practicing things like chord inversions, which is what I have been working on recently.

One exercise that I love to break out of this way of thinking comes from one of my favorite YouTube guitar teachers, Assaf Levavy of Lick N Riff. In this video, he breaks down a way to improvise with just Emaj7 and Amaj7 in fingerstyle and using the open E and A strings. I love this because with just a couple of very intuitive fingerings and a little knowledge of the E major scale, you can improvise these gorgeous lines over E and A bass notes, exploring and inventing in a way that uses the guitar as a guitar, with open strings, slides, single finger barres- all the simple techniques that belong to the instrument itself.

Because I have also been working on “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix as discussed here, I thought about Jimi’s playing this way as well. One of the reasons “Little Wing” is so captivating is that Jimi finds all these little passing lines within the chords he is (or often isn’t) playing. He is completely at home playing within the “shapes” of chords to the point where they disappear and he accesses everything that the guitar can be for itself.

I realize this is all a bit esoteric, but I think it is also practical. Getting away from all these complicated finger patterns is very freeing and seeing the power of what the guitar makes easy for you to play is a good idea every so often.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Days When You Don’t Have It


One thing that I have been thinking about this week while practicing is what happens on those days when you just don’t have it. I don’t mean days when you lack motivation. That is one thing, of course, but I have found that that is something you just have to fight through. I am talking about the days when you just don’t have it in the sense that you just can’t play well. When you can’t do what you usually do. When everything is forced and it all comes out bad.

I had a few days like that this week and I started to think about them.

What is going on when this happens?

What does it mean that it is happening?

How can I reduce the chances of this happening?

What should I do when I feel this happening?

With these questions on my mind, I started looking into skill acquisition to see if I could find some answers. One interesting article I found came from a sports science site called Humankinetics.com. It outlines the three stages of motor learning- Cognitive, Associative, and Autonomous. Most of the time we spend practicing is spent between the associative and the autonomous. The article explains the associative stage as “is transforming what to do into how to do.” So I might know from the sheet music that I need to play a G chord, but now I need to learn the motor pattern that makes that happen at the moment it needs to happen. Now, making a simple G chord is pretty easy for me at this point, so that particular example is closer to the autonomous level of learning, where motor skills can be reproduced automatically, leaving room for your mind to think about other things. To really play anything, we need to push most of the skills into the autonomous level.

Not being a cognitive scientist, I can only make a few guess at what the underlying causes of these off-days might be, but based on a simple understanding of these learning stages, I think the problem lies in the fact that there is no clear line between associative and autonomous for the person doing the learning. After the fact, those might be distinct categorizations, but if you are playing music, especially new, challenging music, you are going to spend the majority of your time in the border between the free-flowing autonomous actions and the more deliberate associative steps needed to get there.

It then becomes easy to mistake where you are at any given time. Some of the things that you might have assumed were locking into an autonomous process are actually not there yet. Throw in additional distractions, poor sleep or some other stressor and those not-quite-autonomous actions need more deliberate attention than they did yesterday. It feels like you “don’t have it” because your grip on the skill is less firm than it seems. Maybe you can do something autonomously in perfect conditions, but that is not the end of the road.

I think I can take away from this two important points. First, if you feel like you “don’t have it” any given day, you never “had it,” at the level you need it to be at. Second, when this happens, the best thing to do is to take note of it and take a step back and re-cement the basics behind what you are struggling with.