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May 2014

Quit Playing Guitar

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Hello, gentle reader.

Please stand up from your computer monitor, walk over to your nearest guitar, pick it up and play for one minute; I''ll wait...

None of you are moving. I''m serious, this is an experiment, in the interest of guitar science you need to walk over to your nearest guitar and play for one minute. It''s not like you have anything better to do right now... you''re just sitting there web surfing. Take a one-minute guitar break, then come back.

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Ok, and we''re back.

When you picked up your guitar, did you immediately play the same fast riff that you''ve been playing for about a decade? After exhausting that same tired, cliche string of notes, did you then move to another riff that you''ve been boring yourself with for years? I did. Every time I pick up a guitar, I mindlessly spew out the same shit I''ve played since I was a teenager. It takes me about four minutes to play everything I have developed over the past twenty five years. It would drive me crazy if it weren''t so mindless, I''m not even aware that I do it. We all do it. There are amazing players that I''ve worked with over the years and every sound check when they play alone to check their gear, they play their own little, annoying string of mindless notes.

This reminds me of a documentary I saw by Jerry Seinfeld where he retired his stand up routine that he''d been developing and perfecting since he was a kid. The doc follows Jerry as he tries to create a new show. It was brutal to watch this once hilarious comic trying to entertain without relying on all of his standard riffs. He worked like mad to invent five solid minutes of good observational humor only to have it fall flat on stage. Like Jerry, at different times in my career when I was feeling particularly uninspired I told myself I would go through an entire gig or session trying to play all new stuff; just listen, and see where my ears may take me as opposed to relying on brainless muscle memory. I''ve never been able to make it through even one song with out reverting to my tired bag of tricks. When I try to break out of my very small box, I go blank.

Jerry Seinfeld''s well-oiled, flawless, old stand up routine was the foundation for his entire comic empire. The thing about it was that his delivery remained perfect. He''d never rush a punch line or skip a long, dramatic pause. When I did my "pick up a guitar and play for a minute" test, and tried to really analyze my stupid go-to riffs, I found that because they were so mindless, soul-less, and dead, they had morphed into a sloppy, pocketless cacophony. I rushed everything. Ironically, the stuff I played the most had become poorly executed.

What to do? Continue playing the same slop or torture myself trying to break into brand new slop? The best thing I ever did for my playing was to quit playing guitar. I bought a mandolin about sixteen years ago, got a chord book and started from scratch. I knew nothing about the mandolin other than I liked the way it sounded. Not only did it really help my guitar playing but it''s gotten me a ton of work over the years. About six years ago I bought a pedal steel and did the same thing. (A word of advice: if you are going to buy a pedal steel, get a good one. You can''t make music on a poorly built steel because it will never play in-tune. I spent some serious bank on a GFI which is way better than I am. I would have never stuck with it if I was learning on something unplayable).

When my guitar playing hits a particularly stagnant spot, I stop playing guitar at home and only play steel. The great thing about an unfamiliar instrument is that it makes you listen. Steel makes you see how all these color tones work. It''s also great for your pitch and will help make your guitar bends more in tune. I wasn''t going to become a better guitar player by playing the same string of notes. Yes... it''s rich irony... I had to quit playing guitar to be better.

One final, funny story. Years ago, Bill Monroe would play every week at a club called The Bell Cove in Nashville. It was a tiny, no cover club where bluegrassers would jam on Bill night. A friend of mine played with him once (I was too chicken). My friend said that after he took his third solo, Bill leaned over and said to him, "play something else, that lick ain''t no skeleton key"


John Bohlinger is a Montana native and former Ivy Leaguer who was close to earning a Ph.D. in psychology when he dropped out to pursue a life in music. "The psych background comes in handy when dealing with the music business" John quips. Over his fifteen years in Nashville, John has toured the world, holding down the guitar/mandolin/pedal steel end for over 30 major label artists; he currently leads the band for the hit show Nashville Star, which has moved to NBC. John''s songs and playing can be heard in several major motion pictures, major label releases and literally hundreds of television drops. For more info visit johnbohlinger.com


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