Self-help "guru" Kevin Trudeau was recently sentenced to 10 years in jail for his fraudulent claims that capitalize on our self-improvement obsession.
In case you haven’t noticed, society is obsessed with efficiency and self-improvement. We read countless books on it (only to find out later that “they” are selling snake oil and junk science … I’m looking at you, Kevin Trudeau). We buy questionable products that claim to magically fix some perceived problem with our bodies or mental outlook. We have apps to help us exercise or eat better. We have to have the latest gadgets because their miniscule spec improvements will save us a couple of seconds when uploading a video or updating our cyber followers on every aspect of our lives. It’s exhausting!
Our most precious of pastimes—playing music—is not spared, either. We’re constantly scouring videos, articles, reviews, ads, and retailers’ websites for info on gear that’ll improve our tone. At concerts, we often spend more time wondering what pickups are in axes and which pedals are behind wedge monitors than we do soaking up the music. We spend countless hours practicing licks and riffs, reading lessons, and watching videos on how to play like our heroes.
Having interviewed hundreds of guitarists and bassists over the years, I’ve heard a lot of advice from world-renowned players on how to improve. The tips range from what sorts of scales or fingering exercises to practice with a metronome to what sorts of players to jam with (“Make sure they’re better than you—it’ll make you rise to the challenge”), what sorts of settings get the most out of a typical rig (“Make sure your amp’s power tubes are really working,” and “You’ll actually sound heavier with less gain”), what books or albums are most educational or inspiring, and what not to do when you’re in a rut (“Don’t play anything when you pick up the guitar … wait for a musical idea to come into your head, then figure out how to play it”).
All of these tips are great (though the bastard in me advises challenging any and every hard-and-fast rule you hear). But some of the most useful advice I’ve heard is something far easier than all of those. Let me rephrase that: Given our obsession with self-improvement, it may not actually be easier—but it’s far simpler.
Put down your guitar and go live. Go have fun. Get away from all things guitar, and spend quality time in other life-affirming pursuits.
Over the years, players of many different stripes have stressed essentially the same idea, but it’s often dismissed, overlooked, or forgotten as we snap back to the 21st-century habit of thinking the solution is always “try harder,” “work smarter,” and “maximize [insert business- or self-improvement buzzword here].”
The funny thing is, forcing ourselves to chill out and have fun has an incredible impact on our lofty self-improvement goals. Many scientific studies affirm that the results refresh us—physically, emotionally, and intellectually—and are more effective than any quick-fix fad or innovative technology.
I recently returned from the first proper vacation I’ve had alone with my wife (i.e., without our three awesome boys) in the 19 years we’ve been together. We escaped the frigid climes of the arctic-vortex-whipped Midwest and basked in the awesomeness of the Caribbean, where it was 80 degrees in or out of the water. We didn’t plan a thing ahead of time. Just drove around the tiny island in our tiny car, chose restaurants on the spur of the moment, snorkeled, petted stingrays in water so aqua you’d swear it was photoshopped, and scuba-dived for the first time ever—on a whim.
I brought along one of my trusty Teles to plunk away on for a few minutes before hitting the sack each night and falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing outside our window. Guess what? As I aimlessly fretted that maple neck, I found myself playing things differently than I’ve ever played before. Not necessarily new riffs or song parts, but a new mentality and viewpoint. “Holy shit—I gotta remember this,” I thought.
A couple of weeks after returning to the grind of reality, my wife and I went to see comedian Jim Gaffigan perform his hilarious brand of food-obsessed self-derision and deceptively gentle commentary on the ironies of modern life—like how weddings these days are like some bizarre, money-vaporizing fantasy about being medieval royalty uniting rival kingdoms. When I got home, I should’ve gone straight to bed. Instead, I picked up another Tele and twanged for a bit. Suddenly, the viewpoint I’d started tapping into on vacation yielded concrete ideas for a new song in what I like to think of as my own style—but with a new twist.
I’m not sharing any of this to brag or act like I’m blazing new trails—intellectually or musically—but I am hoping you take me up on the challenge. Of all the wisdom I’ve ever heard or read from great players, nothing can top it.
Put down your guitar and go live.
Your family, your bandmates, your coworkers, and your soul, if there is such a thing, will thank you when you come back as a new being.