Head Hands and Heart | Hub Guitar

Head Hands and Heart

Artwork by Elena Kalashnik

Head, Hands, and Heart

To play guitar at a high level, you’ve got to call in equal part upon your heads, hands and heart.

This means that your body, your system for playing guitar, is coordinated and able to meet the demands of instrument.

This simple analogy can be a useful model to help you understand how to get everything working together.

Head

Before we talk about what should be in your head, it’s important to talk about what should not be in your head.

Self-judgment

During a past performance, you might remember a time when you succumbed to doubtful thoughts. Suddenly, instead of performing at your best, you’re preoccupied with worry about how others might perceive your performance.

Most of us have lived through this experience. This sudden shift in confidence can cause us to conserve our energy, get lost in a stir of self-doubt, and ultimately perform beneath the level that we’re capable of. If you’ve ever caught yourself thinking about this while playing the guitar, you’ve probably noticed that your playing sounded even worse at that time. Of course it did!

If you tell yourself, “I'm no good at the guitar,” you’re not going to be very good at it, are you?

Do whatever work you need in order to accept your current level, appreciate the joy of playing the guitar, and be crazy about the possibility of advancing that level.

Distractions

When you’re playing the guitar, your mind shouldn’t wander. Thinking about anything but what you’re playing is counterproductive. You want to focus.

What to think of during practice

“Practice” is the time that you spend deliberately improving your playing ability.

During practice, you need to concentrate the powers of your mind on that which you want to improve. And you need to take focus away from those which are irrelevant to that goal.

For instance, if you want to improve your tone, you should modify what you are practicing and discard anything that takes attention away from tone. That would mean slowing your practice down. Turn the metronome off. If there’s something in front of you taking attention away from tone, push it aside.

Simplify the examples you play. The more attention resources you spend playing, the fewer you have available to improve your tone.

If you are practicing improvisation, you’ll want to be thinking about what notes you’re playing and how they fit into the chords. Note that practicing improvisation is quite different from performing it.

During practice, you should think critically and think hard about making improvements.

During performance

Performance can include self-performances without an audience, as well as performances in front of large crowds of people. Generally when you play a piece of your repertoire from top-to-bottom, that would count.

Although you have to use your conscious mind quite a bit during practice, during performance you’re actually trying to use the unconscious side of it. you’re so focused on what you’re playing that you’re not really actually thinking. It can take many years to learn to play this effortlessly. But even at the intermediate level, you should start to notice that you can play some things effortlessly, without really thinking about it—and that’s how you want to feel during performance.

If you’re in a performance worrying about your sound, your gear, and the notes you’re playing, the audience can hear that, and they don’t like the way it sounds. Do you want to hear some guy whining about whether he’s playing the right notes? Of course not. But your audience can hear your self-judgment in the very notes you play.

Most audiences don’t know much about music. They will never approach you after a performance and say, “Hey, really nice use of the Lydian Dominant there. And those polyrhythms were killer.” Most people would rather listen to a beginner sharing an earnest performance than an advanced player giving a neurotic one.

That’s why even mediocre players can get people riled up and make millions of dollars. They may not be great players, but they are great performers.

If your head is holding you back

A few signs that your head doesn’t have the right stuff in it:

  • You don’t understand what to play or how to play it
  • You don’t know what notes will sound good on which chord
  • You don’t know what chords or scales will match
  • You know some chords and scales, but only in a limited sense (one or two appropriate chords, or one or two appropriate scale patterns—as opposed to all of them)
  • You find yourself thinking about something other than guitar while you play
  • You experience anxiety or self-doubt while you play

Hands

Your hands are your tool for gaining control over the instrument. They are likely the only pair you’ll ever have.

While it’s important to get in control of what your hands can do, it’s also important to recognize that music is not only about your physical technique. For every one musician who bases their career on astonishing technique, there are ten who focus elsewhere. There are a few pitfalls here that can end up getting your hands out of sync with the rest of you.

The virtuoso trap

Your guitar playing goal does not need to be set by the standards of that handful of players on Earth with the greatest technique. Don’t fall into the virtuoso trap.

The guitar players who have the best technique in the whole world share an interesting set of features that you should be mindful of.

  1. Their audience is made of other musicians.
  2. They quite possibly started playing at an unusually young age.
  3. They have spent an ungodly amount of time building technique.

It is delightful to hear people pushing the boundaries of guitar technique. And we worship the players who have reached the highest possible level of speed and accuracy. But let’s not get confused and think that music is a contest to see who can play the most notes.

That means that when you hear someone with jaw-dropping, world-class guitar technique, you should aim to appreciate without envy. You can be a great guitar player, too—but not if you try to compete with everybody. Most of the world’s best guitar players are unknown to the general public—and the typical person, asked to name the world’s best guitar player, will often give an example of an average (and more famous) player.

If this doesn’t apply to you, and you really are on the path to elite guitar technique, that’s wonderful! You already know who you are. But be wary of holding to yourself to this standard when it may not be the best—or only—standard to measure yourself with.

Coordination

One of the most important aspect of how your hands work together is how well-coordinated they are. Most people can develop exceptional abilities in either hand. But coordinating the two is a long-lasting challenge. In your practice, consider the speed, accuracy, tone and stretch capabilities of your fretting hand as well as the speed, accuracy and tone of your picking hand. But also try to assess the coordination between the two hands, and how that affects your playing.

Insufficient practice

Sometimes the medicine just tastes bitter. You do indeed need to develop a reliable command of the most basic techniques needed to play the guitar. You do not need to mastery every technique, but you need to master the basic ones that are used over and over again.

You can easily spend an hour playing the guitar without improving your technique. Your technique will not improve unless you specifically try to improve it. Otherwise, every line cook would automatically evolve into a master chef, given time.

Spotting problems with your hands

You can tell you have a problem with your hands if:

  • Your rhythm is off
  • You can’t play as fast as you need to
  • You frequently make mistakes, especially playing the wrong string
  • Your hands are uncoordinated; one can’t keep up with the other
  • Your tone sounds bad or your playing is sloppy

Heart

Even if you learn every scale, chord and arpeggio, build great technique and strong rhythm, and hone your ear until it’s sharp, these things cannot make a great guitar player. These are only tools used to play the guitar.

Put it this way. How many words do you need in your vocabulary to be a great author? If you learn 1,000 more words how much does your likelihood of writing a best-selling novel increase?

You need knowledge, technique and skill but you also need style and inspiration. You need to play stuff that other people want to hear. You need to play stuff that you want to hear.

In short, you need to put your heart into it. This is the aesthetic of being a guitar player, and it’s arguably the most important part.

The good news is that building your guitar skills puts you in an excellent position to play something meaningful. It doesn’t matter what you want to say if you lack the ability to speak it.

Here are a few common signs that you’re not playing from your heart:

  • You’re not doing any performing.
  • You can play alot of things but you don’t feel “into” it.
  • When you pick up the guitar, you’re looking at the clock waiting for practice time to be over.
  • You’re not having fun.
  • You don’t know what to play.

It’s easy to forget that playing guitar is about feeling something and then expressing that feeling with sound. You can express it to yourself, to someone close to you, or to a massive audience—that’s up to you.

Here are a few things you can do to put your heart back into your playing:

  • Write a song for someone special to you, and play it for them.
  • Write music of any kind in general.
  • Have fun. When’s the last time you had fun playing guitar? If you don’t feel fun right away, fake it until you make it.

Coda

Playing guitar is the result of coordinating your head, hands and heart for the purpose of self-expression.

The most important part is how much energy, excitement and passion you can pour into it.

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