Tuning Up: Are We Doomed to Be “Inbred” Bores?

CAUTION: 24/7-guitar-nerd mentality can spectacularly backfire.

I’m about to do something I have an unfortunate knack for: saying stuff that’ll probably piss off a bunch of you. A deluge of furious comments and emails calling me an artsy-fartsy impostor who neither truly loves guitar nor deserves this gig is imminent.

Let’s begin with a simple four-question survey: 1) Are all your friends guitarists? 2) Is your Netflix cue and/or podcast stash jam-packed with music/musician documentaries and interviews? 3) Is your library stocked with nothing but biographies and memoirs on bands and music legends? 4) Are your social feeds dominated by videos and glamour-gear shots from your 6-string heroes and fellow guitar fanatics?

If you answered yes to even one of these, I’m here to stage an intervention.

Now, before you get all apoplectic and call for bundles of kindling, hear me out. First off, the fact that we’re all here imbibing freely of guitar nerdery means we’re on the same page about one thing—guitars rule. But let’s turn this around a bit, shall we?

If you knew someone who was crazy into movies, architecture, live theater, literature, or the visual arts … or, geez, any of the jillions of cool things in this world … mushroom hunting, landscaping, sightseeing, history, horseback riding, coding, gaming, bicycling, surfing, and on and on and on—so much so that they didn’t really listen to music—you’d lose your shit at them, right? That anyone wouldn’t partake decadently of this thing you and I have dedicated so much of our lives to is downright ludicrous—nay, blasphemous/crazytown!

If you were to attempt to steer this hypothetical person from their tragic paths and get them into some great tunes, they might counter, “Dude—this is my thing. I love this. I won’t be able to stay ‘in the game’ if I don’t go all-in. Hardcore.” To which you’d stutter, “But … but … but...” in abject horror.

“The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough killer guitar music and gear in the world to keep us all busy. There is. The calamity is that losing ourselves in it is all too literal.”

Yet, do we see this futility in ourselves? As both human beings with limited time on this orbiting rock and as supposed artists, we’re equally foolish if our minds are similarly one-tracked. The world is filled with so much that’s beautiful and amazing, that to obsess about any single thing—no matter how fantastic—at the expense of the best in so many other wonders, is a tragedy. Fine, focus on one thing—make it your specialty—but don’t delude yourself that there aren’t seriously diminishing returns if the vast majority of your time is dedicated to it.

Opening ourselves to the myriad beauties and wonders of mortality isn’t just a glorious end in itself. And it’s not just important because it helps us be decently rounded individuals who productively relate to and interact with our fellow beings. In my opinion, it’s also a hugely crucial means of enriching our own music, our own art. (God, I feel like a pretentious prick saying that—“our art”—but that’s what it is, right? If we’re not viewing it as such, then maybe that’s part of the problem.)

Just how much of a problem is this 24/7-guitar mentality? As the editorial director at a place where I deal with guitar stuff all day long, every day, maybe my view is skewed. Maybe it seems worse than it really is. I hope so. But to be honest, I see a lot of it—guys (mostly) who seem to just eat, drink, and breathe guitar crapola. Every. Waking. Minute.

The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough killer guitar music and gear in the world to keep us all busy. There is. The calamity is that losing ourselves in it is all too literal. Doing so makes us insipid, insular, lopsided doofs, both personally and musically. I mean, seriously—spend some time on YouTube and see for yourself: The supposedly mind-boggling players (marquee-level and not) who are so great at sounding like everyone but themselves are the ones who very clearly have no significant interests outside guitardom.

Being guitar fanatics does not doom us to being “inbred” bores—but for own sakes as guitar freaks, we do have to guard against it. Mightily. In order to create compelling music that doesn’t just wow shallow onlookers, we have to ingest a healthy diet of creative “nutrients” from all aspects of life. Otherwise we risk becoming cardboard caricatures pursuing a sad, misguided musical dream.

On Black Midi's Cavalcade, Geordie Greep’s fretwork is an example of the 6-string as a capable component as much as a solo instrument, never completely stealing the show.

Popular music and mainstream tastes may be more fractured than ever, but the guitar continues to thrive.

As we soft launch into the new year, I’m not waiting for the requisite guitar obituary in the news. It’s not going to happen again anytime soon. Why? Because as far as the mainstream media is concerned, our beloved instrument is not only dead, it's irrelevant to the point of not even being an afterthought. When the New York Times published their most recent albums of the year list, there was barely a guitar-based recording to be found. Still, there is not only hope, but also cause for jubilation.

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Diatonic sequences are powerful tools. Here’s how to use them wisely.



• Understand how to map out the neck in seven positions.
• Learn to combine legato and picking to create long phrases.
• Develop a smooth attack—even at high speeds.

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Knowing how to function in different keys is crucial to improvising in any context. One path to fretboard mastery is learning how to move through positions across the neck. Even something as simple as a three-note-per-string major scale can offer loads of options when it’s time to step up and rip. I’m going to outline seven technical sequences, each one focusing on a position of a diatonic major scale. This should provide a fun workout for the fingers and hopefully inspire a few licks of your own.
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