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Stepping Out on Your Main Squeeze

How changing up your arsenal can stimulate your brain

John''s book, A Guitar and a Pen, hit stores May 14. To promote the book, they are hosting a contest to give away a Gibson acoustic valued at $2500. Visit or learn more about the book and the contest
I recently read a study on brain development where scientists found that when their control group made simple modifications in their daily routine, their brains were stimulated. Something as seemingly miniscule as a right-handed person brushing his or her teeth with the left hand leads to dendrite growth -- we''re talking about actual physical change. That''s great news for musicians; playing an instrument makes the player ambidextrous. I know that personally, when I really got hooked on music as a kid, I developed a deeper intellectual curiosity. Studies repeatedly find that children involved in music programs tend to be better students, and senior citizens who play an instrument keep their mental faculties longer than their couch-sitting, non-playing, inactive peers. Though senior citizens that daily exercise their brains with Sudoku or crossword puzzles do very well in the brain activity department as well, but that''s just not my bag. I''d much rather geek out on a guitar.

All of this got me thinking, at this point in my life, am I actually using my brain when I play or am I just working on pure muscle memory? I know that I have a vocabulary of riffs that I rely on way too much. Improvisation rarely goes to uncharted territory -- it''s more like assembling a model car than painting a picture. Most of us tend to assemble our solos by combining different sections from our box of tricks rather than creating from scratch.

In truth, most gigs are too important to try something new. Last week a killer drummer I know named Jack Gavin hired me to fill in as Tanya Tucker''s guitar player. I did take a few liberties on a couple of songs with some regrettable results. One particularly embarrassing moment came when we played "Something" by the Beatles. I stuck really close to Harrison''s part throughout the song; it''s so perfect and such a strong signature that to change it would be like painting a mustache on Mona Lisa. For some reason, during the last quarter of the solo, a voice inside my head said, "let''s see what happens when you put your fingers there." I ended up with a cacophonous flat 2-over-6 thing that had the entire band giggling. We listen to the board recording the next day, and I cringed sheepishly as Jack kept hitting the repeat button for "Something." That''s the kind of thing that makes a player want to avoid big leaps out of the comfort zone.

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A safer step out of the comfortable cage is to change guitars a bit more often. I tend to be a Tele guy; they issue you one at the border of Tennessee, where the rules clearly state that no guitar player may enter Nashville without one. I''ve been abusing my same old Valley Arts Tele for years. It went in the shop a while ago to get the frets replaced, and I was forced to play some of my other guitars.

In keeping with the out-of-your-comfort-zone challenge, I began playing my beloved PRS, which could not be more different than my go-to Tele. Playing the PRS made me choose different notes. It made me slow down and work a melody a bit more than I tend to on a Tele. The different tone and feel got me away from my same old cliché licks, and I think I grew a bit as a player. After a few months on the PRS I started playing my Gibson 336, which felt even more foreign and really got me to a different place. The first gig I played with the 336 was the televised Opry with Randy Owen. Randy''s manager, Shawn Pennington, once played the Opry with a Flying V just to be the only guitarist to ever do it; inspired by the story I undauntedly grabbed the 336. When we were rushed on stage during the commercial break, I struggled to plug in and get a tone going and I cursed Shawn''s V story and my impetuousness for following his lead and choosing such an unfamiliar ax for a pressure gig. I felt very uncomfortable during the first song, but once it settled in, things got better. By the second set, I was thrilled with the Larry Carlton-ish tone the 336 was giving me. It had never occurred to me until then that the Carlton tone works perfectly in a country context. So, as of late, I''ve been switching between the 336 and the PRS on most gigs. I really enjoy where these guitars take me.

The moral to this story: switch it up a little, try something uncomfortable and make those dendrites grow. Every now and then try not to sound like you.

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