Never Stop Learning


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Never stop learning.

If as a guitarist you ever think ‘right that’s it, nothing left to learn’ then you need to take a real look at the depth and breadth of talent that exists and see what else you can add to your style. And if ever, as I have many times, start thinking ‘everything is sounding the same’ and ‘I’m feeling a bit stale’ then the same applies. Learning from a new style or approach doesn’t mean that you want to change the way you play or sound. As an individual you will take all of your experiences and musical preferences and synthesise them into something that is unique to you. You are the filter. Stuff you like gets filtered in and stuff you don’t like will get filtered out, you have no control over that.You will never be as good as you want to be, there will always be someone who’s playing you prefer to your own and you can always improve in some aspect of your playing. This applies whether its technical proficiency like speed accuracy, vibrato, scale knowledge or song writing and arranging parts. When you forget this you may as well go and do something else. I think this rule applies to many things in life. Wanting to improve and be better is not the same as being unhappy with your playing. I am pretty happy with my tone and how I sound and when I play I often get positive comments. I know I am much better than I ever dreamed I would be and if I could as a 14 year old see how good I became I know I would have been a very happy teenager! However you can always improve. Never stop learning – The day you stop learning is the day you start dying.

If your playing is feeling bit stale one of the best ways I have found is just to put the thing down for a couple of weeks and listen to music that you would not normally listen to. I find listening to different music is particularly inspiring whether it’s classical, piano based songs or just something the polar opposite from what you are used to, you never know you may like it. I am a rock guitarist and love rock music. I have spent some time working in the Middle East and Turkey and the one thing I got from that was really getting to like middle eastern music. It is perfect in the setting and you can hear where flamenco has its roots and in turn I love flamenco. I go to Spain regularly and although I don’t put it on in the car or listen to it at home, in Spain the experience of watching a Flamenco show and hearing the playing is amazing. Learn to appreciate music, you don’t have to like it. The more you absorb the more you will have to tap into. Your playing always starts in your brain. When you get stale its because your brain becomes disengaged and your fingers become cleverer your brain, like the tail wagging the dog. Essentially what has happened is the muscle memory from playing the same licks and pattern over and over becomes so entrenched that you just play without thinking. This isn’t wrong we just need to add some new ideas so our fingers have somewhere else to go.

Us guitarists are creative people but how does the brain become creative?  Some recent studies on guitarists brains have made some interesting discoveries – recounting a Guitar World magazine article when they reported on some research conducted in Berlin in 2012. Their findings were that ‘neural networks could sychronise not only while playing a piece but even slightly before playing’ and further more while playing the brain temporarily deactivates the region of the brain that while achieving big picture goals routinely shuts down. This marks a switch from conscious to unconscious thought patterns. In comparison less experienced players try to perform a solo the conscious part of the brain remains switched on which implies that ‘real’ guitarists are able to switch more easily to a mode of thought that is more creative. The same study also made it clear that guitarists are ‘spiritual and intuitive people’. This sort of intuitive thinking runs all the way to how guitarists learn. Unlike musicians who learn through sheet music, guitarists, according to researchers at Vanderbilt University, get a better grasp of a song by looking at someone playing it rather than reading the notes on paper. This is certainly true for me. I tend to use tab or music to reinforce what I have learned by watching or using my ears.

The study also highlighted the case of jazz guitarist Pat Martino who in his mid 30’s had 70% of his temporal lobe removed due to a brain haemorrhage. Upon coming out of surgery he had no memory of and was unable to play the guitar or even remember his musical career. However within 2 years he had figured out how to play again and in 7 years playing professionally. ‘Understand the simplicity of this and the irony as well’, he says of his ability to re-master the guitar. ‘We begin to experience life on a continuous level, and it becomes implanted in us subliminally. It remains as a part of us from that time forward’. We can interpret this as ‘Playing guitar isn’t a skill, it’s a way of being’. Its something that once it becomes a part of us we do unconsciously and actually its when we start to think about it that things start going wrong. I only ever make mistakes when I am really thinking about what I am doing. If I just let it happen I usually play better. (You can read the full study here)

The unconscious brain is far more powerful than we realise and is always running in the background without us being aware of it. This is why if you have a problem that you can’t find a solution for or a difficult decision to make sometimes when you step away from it and ‘sleep on it’ the solution is far more apparent and obvious. We need to just get out of our own way and allow our brains to do the work in the background. When you are in creative mode it is your unconscious brain that takes over and we can say you are in an ‘open mind’ state. When your playing is in a rut, or you can’t play something or you think there is nothing else to learn it is because your are working in a ‘closed mind’ state and not allowing your creative ‘open’ mind to function. I always found that when I went on holiday and hadn’t played for a couple of weeks I would always play better when I picked it up again. This is because when I wasn’t playing my brain still was, unconsciously. Going through chords, melodies and riffs. If I didn’t have access to the music I usually listened to I would be listening to the radio or music in restaurants and absorbing it unconsciously. On return I would find that these new influences, even if I didn’t want them to, would start to appear in my playing. Even now, if there is something I can’t quite get my standard approach is to put the guitar down and do something else like walk the dogs (I come up with all sorts of creative ideas walking the dogs) I will just visualise what it is I am trying to do. More often than not when I pick the guitar up again I’ll just be able to do what I wanted without thinking about it. Many people think that creative people are just born that way but this is not the case. Creative peoples’ brains aren’t any different from non-creative people s brains, they just have ability to switch into a creative mode more easily.

When you hear a great song or great guitar solo you may think that you would never be able to come up with an idea like that. Sometimes ideas and creations become so entrenched that we forget that someone once thought of it and there was a time when it didn’t exist. One of my favourite comic lines was in Channel 4’s Comic Strip ‘Bad News’ a parody of a rock band where the guitarist says ‘I could play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ when I was 12, Jimmy Page didn’t actually write until he was 22, I think that says a lot!’ Being able to copy someone else’s creative idea is not the same as coming up with your own however the starting point is to be able to play other people things but then in your creative mind be able to evolve them into something else. You may find a rhythmic hook in a riff that really appeals and apply it to different notes at a different tempo, then re order it and develop it so it becomes your idea. You have to be in an open mind state for this to happen. Ideas for songs and lyrics and melodies can come from anywhere but in reality we don’t know where our ideas come from. Many songwriters just talk about the fact that the song was already there, it just came to them. And I think this is a good way to think about it. Lets imagine that ‘Stairway to Heaven’ already existed before 1970, it just found a doorway into our world though Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s open and creative states. Now imagine all the great songs you know and love, where did they come from? I really like the idea that they are already floating around waiting for a conduit to turn them into a reality. Certainly you hear songs for the first time and can’t imagine ever not knowing them or a time when they didn’t exist. Getting yourself into a creative ‘open’ mind is something you have control over but not every one can do it easily and we need to be aware that our standard state of being is closed.

The main criterion to generate an open state is you have to be in the right mood or frame of mind. I have always found that I work best and play best when I am really tired, late at night. When I was learning to play I found that I would improve in stages. I’d reach a plateau and feel like I wasn’t getting anywhere then, one evening, usually very late and I was half asleep, something would click and I would be twice as good as I had been an hour before. This happened on a regular basis for about 3 years as I was reaching what I considered to be a level of competence that was acceptable for me to go and join a band. Getting the mood right means getting your surroundings right, creating an oasis that allows the creative brain to come out of its shell and flourish. Some creative people understand the need to be in the right frame of mind and use external substances to enhance this. Many great songs have been written by people who have chemically altered their brain chemistry in various ways that are the wrong side of the current laws of the land. I am not one to judge this but don’t partake myself other than I find a few beers of couple of glasses of wine can sometimes help. The point is if you know how to tap into your unconscious then you are less likely to need help from external sources and ensure you never stop learning.

Being in your oasis, whether alone or with other musicians,  in the right environment, without interruptions, away from the stresses and hustle of daily life, for a decent length of time is far more likely to lead to an open mind state leading to creativity. Put simply you need to give yourself boundaries of space and time. So give yourself space and give yourself time and make sure no one can disturb you. Time is an important factor; give yourself a starting and finishing time. I often find that it can take an hour  just to get into the right frame of mind and mood. Musically I have never come up with anything profound in the first five minutes of playing but after an hour and a half I’ll start just playing things I know could go somewhere. One of my main issues though is that I struggle to remember what it is I have played as it’s floated by, I have been the conduit and then it ‘s flown away again. This has happened to me countless times. So always make sure you have the means to record yourself. I used to record myself on cassettes but now I have a cheap tripod with an iPhone adaptor to hold it steady and if I come up with something I like I can record a video so not only will I be able to hear what it sounded like the next day but I can see how I played it. Keep all your ideas no matter how lame they may seem. I can’t tell you how many ideas I have lost because I recorded over them or lost the tapes. I also find I can slip into creative mode when I am not expecting it. For my job I had to travel a lot by car and often I’d be driving at night and a full song would pop up in my head, lyrics and everything. By the time I had arrived at my hotel and unpacked it would be gone. Try as you might you never get that song back. Recording it at the time is the only way. I would even call my own mobile and leave a voice mail with me kind of singing the song down the line. The key point is when the ides come record them because you won’t remember them.

I have never been one for learning songs absolutely note for note. I certainly never saw the point when it was an artist like Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan who would play it different every time any way, the ultimate in creativity. That is because when I am in my open mind state I am more focussed on what it feels like and just playing, disengaged from everything except my guitar. My open mind state is where I have developed my musicality, written the songs I am proud of even if they are not commercially successful. It’s the state I am in if I am improvising or just pick up a guitar to noodle on it for a while. There have been occasions when the family is going to bed and I’ll pick up an acoustic to strum away on for 5 minutes, without realising 3 hours can have gone by. Creativity and consequently learning is only possible if we engage our brains open mode. In open mode you never stop learning.

It is important to allow anything to happen in our creative time. You may start thinking you’re going to work on a song or particular part but find your self drifting to something else. Some of my best work has been when I had intended to work on something else (for example I wrote this piece when I had intended to plan my next video guitar lesson). If I had prevented myself from drifting I would never have created the work I felt was better. In creative mode nothing is wrong and any rubbish you produce may lead to the killer riff, unforgettable hook, perfect execution of a technique or the next years biggest hit song. Allow it to happen naturally and allow yourself to not be in control of it. Time is incredibly important whether on your own, with collaborators or in a band situation. I have always noticed that the best ideas and most creativity happen in the last part of the session. This is because the open mind starts to feel more comfortable and allows the ideas to flow as the session starts to come to an end. This is because when you have no limit on your time e.g. at home at night you can just keep going and recording and stay open. You can always listen to your creations the next day. When you know your time is ending you will naturally go back into closed mode in order to assimilate what you have done and execute it. This is when as a band we’ll play though that song we’ve just written, try and play the solo up to speed with the backing track or go through the new licks we have taught ourselves.

It takes the close mind state to actually do something constructive with these great ideas floating around us and turn them into something we have created or achieved, whether that is a new song, a solo, a riff and mastering a technique. A great team will always include someone who is great at coming up with the ideas, an innovator, and someone who is great at making these ideas happen, an implementer. One can’t exist without the other. Your open mind state is your innovator and your closed mind state is your implementer. A great song writing team often has one person in each state at any one time, one to capture the ideas off the other. If you are working alone always give your self some closed mind time at the end of your session to assimilate what you have done. This results in a much more satisfying result as it is you demonstrating to yourself what you have achieved. In the closed mind state is where you will be putting your ideas together and performing them. Once you have created all the killer guitar parts the perfection and execution of them is down to our closed mind. The close mind state will review and edit what you have done, select the good stuff, discard the rubbish and hone the parts down to the point where they ‘exist’. This is an important point. You need to open mind to connect with your new ideas and learning. You need your closed mind to make it a reality. Take making an album for example. Creative open time is needed to work on the songs and get the ideas flowing. Closed time is needed for the arrangement and structure of the songs to tale place. Open time is needs to record a demo it so you can then listen back in closed mode and iron out small changes, melodies, parts, arrangements. Closed mode is needed to record the parts as intended with perfect execution. Open mode is needed to mix the parts and experiment with levels, effects, and eq. Close mode is needed to master and make your mix sound as good as it can. Then when you perform your song you need to be well rehearsed and make sure you don’t mess anything up which you do in closed mind but with a clear pathway to the open mind but ensuring when we are playing we’re not thinking about it too much.

What we guitarists and probably musicians in general do is perform in closed mode but allow our unconscious level to be just below the surface and slip into it when we need to. As I have always found when performing, when you start to think about it is when you start to make mistakes.

8th May 2014


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