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Play Your Guitars, Train Your Brain

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How’s everyone doing? We all know that everyone has personal favorite axes. These are the old stalwarts that we end up going to the most. You know which ones I’m talking about. We go to them right away because we are so familiar with their feel and the sounds they produce. Recently, I realized just how essential it was, if you’re a musician who records or plays out regularly, to know all of your instruments in the most intimate sense. It’s even more important for any guitarist who owns a fairly decent number of instruments, say six or more.

It’s essential to know all of your instruments in the most intimate sense, and even more important for any guitarist who owns a fairly decent number of instruments.
You must first bond with each and every instrument you acquire if it’s going to be of any real use to you. Every time you pick up a different guitar (new, vintage or otherwise), your brain starts to make subconscious notes about its neck width, fret height, fingerboard radius and shape, string spacing, scale length, and a host of other aspects that your hands must get familiar with in order to get used to their new surroundings. Your brain actually “burns” new neural pathways that it will use to control your hands and body movements for each and every instrument you own.

The fact is that new instruments are even more complex in many ways, because now your two hands must learn the instrument from “square one.” A recent study discovered that classical musicians who always play the same instrument were far more likely to suffer repetitive motion injuries to their hands and wrists. A few columns back we discussed the importance of getting used to heavier string gauges slowly, to avoid developing serious hand and wrist injuries. Now there is evidence that playing many types of instruments will also help you avoid these common injuries.

Have you ever picked up a guitar that you hardly ever play, and it feels completely foreign? First, you have to establish a good rapport with it; then you must maintain that special connection as time goes on. If you stop playing it for a lengthy period of time, you have to go back and relearn. This is inefficient… a waste of time.

I found this out for myself over the course of one weekend. I pulled out a guitar that I hadn’t played in many a moon. Honestly, I did not recognize it the way I once did. It was annoying, because I needed to record a track with it. I started to play it, and before I knew it almost ten hours had passed, but I noticed that I was back in sync with it again. The next day, it felt like an old friend as soon as I took it out of its case. Why not develop an instrument rotation plan that keeps you familiar will all of your instruments? Perhaps an hour a week might do the trick, or less if you devoted some quality playing time to each guitar early on.

Some other things happen if you don’t play an instrument. The setup can change from lack of playing. Guitars love to be played, and a frequently played instrument is much happier—no doubt about it. Playing a guitar regularly will, in fact, keep your whole body familiar with it.

Here’s another thing that you might not have thought of—a guitar’s control layout. Right off the top of my head, I could compare a Gibson ES-335 and a Rickenbacker 360/6. Both are thin semi-hollowbody style guitars featuring a pickup selector toggle switch with two volume controls and two tone controls.

You may think that this isn’t an issue until you’re out on the gig and you need to adjust the guitar’s volume for a short section of the song. If you’ve mostly been playing the 335, your right hand is used to the volume controls being closest to the neck. If you strap on the Rickenbacker 360/6 and go for that same control, you’ll rudely find yourself turning the wrong control—the Rickenbacker’s volume/tone controls are mounted upside-down and reversed from the ES-335 you’re familiar with—surprise!

As you can see, there are a lot of reasons to switch often from one type of guitar to another. You’ll learn and remember what physical demands each guitar makes on your technique. Finger techniques, such as hammer-ons and pull-offs, are also built into these neural pathways, so that also means learning a new style or genre of music will break new ground for the tones you’ll produce from each particular guitar. This is a win-win situation, because if you start getting really familiar with every instrument in your collection, you’ll be able to play anything on it at any time. Your hands will be healthier because they will automatically have a neural default position for each guitar. To top it all off, every guitar you own will be more stable and happy since it’s being played on a regular basis (and this means less downtime in the repair shop from non-play). It’s the right thing to do. Happy picking and we’ll see you next month.



Dean Farley
Dean Farley is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings" (www.sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today
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