Sometimes the hardest part of playing the guitar is figuring out what to play. As many songs as I know, I still sometimes find myself drawing a blank when asked to play one. Thankfully, that doesn’t generally last long, having written a couple hundred songs and probably learned a couple thousand over the years.
There’s an aspect to this that goes further than just memory, though. Ultimately you should be able to just pick up your guitar and play it, whether you know what’s going to come out or not. This is a different skill from the ability to learn and memorize songs or parts. Playing like this takes some faith in your ability to go with the flow and just listen to what you’re doing at that given moment. That might sound hard, but with the right mindset it’s actually one of the easiest and most satisfying things to do.
Stumbling into a revelation
To illustrate, let me share a formative experience. I attended a summer program at a prestigious music college when I was a teenager. It was an eye-opener in a lot of ways, starting with walking in the door on day one and being surrounded by hundreds of people with guitars. Most of them could play better than me at that point, and it was as intimidating as it was exciting. But I learned a lot that summer, and left six weeks later a much more confident player. I have to credit my classes and teachers for some of that. But I think the most important and lasting lessons came from the jam sessions.
I had made friends with some guys in the dorm room down the hall, and we started trying to play together. At first, we tried to play songs we all knew. Being teenage boys in the summer of 1984, we were trying our best to play Led Zeppelin, Rush, and Van Halen songs…all beyond our reach at the time. We knew the parts, but couldn’t manage to put them together. Then someone made a suggestion, maybe something that had come up in one of our jazz workshops: what if we just played our instruments and tried to have a conversation?
At first, this led to a lot of noise and a cacophony that we just found funny. But then something amazing happened. The more we attempted this, the more musical our noise became. We started to record the sessions and would listen back afterward in the dorm room. Sometimes we would be shocked at what we had done, being so wrapped up in the moment while we were playing that we didn’t actually remember any of it. By the end of the summer, we had evolved into a pretty tight little band, and were actually able to play some of those songs we had struggled with so much at the beginning. What we didn’t know when we started this experiment was that we would learn a crucial lesson.
Exploration is essential.
It’s important to memorize parts. First of all, you’ll never learn to play a whole song if you can’t remember how to play a D chord or keep a sequence straight. And of course, the song isn’t the song if you can’t play the right notes. But memorization is just one part of the learning process. We start by learning where to put our fingers to play notes and chords, and then we learn sequences and patterns that eventually form songs. Those are the first two parts of the process. The third and possibly most important is what I’ll call flow.
“Flow” means you can perform the sequences you’ve memorized seamlessly and without thinking about it. It’s a goal we’re always aiming for, and it takes time to get there. Repetition is a part of that process. But the other skill that allows this to happen is the ability to play in the moment: to just make a sound and enjoy making it without worrying about how well it was executed. You could think of it as the flip side of the memorization process. There is practice that trains you to hit the same target consistently, and then there’s practice that trains you to be comfortable just going for the target without anxiety or fear.
This fear is one of the great obstacles all student musicians face, and conquering it is the essential step that allows experienced players to become truly accomplished. The best way to conquer that fear is to play without expectation or judgment. As one of my mentors and teachers David Darling put it, to just make “one quality sound” at a time.
So how do I learn this?
When you pick up your instrument, you should spend at least a little time each session just playing. Not trying to do anything in particular, but just making sounds and enjoying them. Suspend judgment and criticism. Don’t worry about what it’s “supposed” to sound like…just get comfortable going for something and seeing what happens.
If you’re interested in songwriting or improvisation, you’re dead in the water without this skill. There’s no way to create if you’re afraid to start from nothing! But even if you’re not, these explorations build confidence. They also teach you to play WITH sounds instead of just playing them. To react to each note in the moment, and to become absorbed in the music rather than the mechanics.
For me, this is possibly the most exciting part of playing. It’s a great feeling to execute a part perfectly, especially one you’ve struggled with. But it’s indescribably cool to create something out of nothing, or to become so lost in what you’re doing that you’re not thinking at all: it just happens.
If you’re reading this wondering if you even have it in you to reach this point as a player, remember that I had no idea what I was doing when my friends and I stumbled into it. We started out struggling to execute things we weren’t capable of yet. That has value in itself as well, but it’s also frustrating. What we found was a joy in making music with the skills we had at that moment. THIS is every musician’s ultimate goal whether we know it or not: to feel that feeling.
When I found it, it hooked me for life.