“The guitar just doesn’t make sense to my brain. I feel lost every time I play. Luckily I actually am good at rote memorization so through sheer determination I have copied and memorized a lot of other people’s stuff. But I don’t have a clue what I’m doing and feel like I’m faking it. I feel so lost in what I’m doing and it feels like my fingers won’t always do what I tell them. I have way too many books and videos and lessons that I don’t know where to start.”
Somehow, Mark found himself in a rut. Now, Mark is no beginner. He describes himself like this: “I’ve been playing guitar for 15 years, minus the 3 years I gave it up out of frustration. I know people that have been playing for 5 years that could play circles around me.”
If Mark were alone here, it would be no cause for concern. This is what Thayer McClanahan, a proficient hobbyist from NY who’s also been playing for around that long said:
“I feel like no matter what I try I’ll never be able to see the fretboard clearly like I see the layout of a piano. Whenever I’m playing my ear takes over and my musical brain shuts down. I wind up playing things I’ve played a million times without breaking any new ground. That major third between the G and B strings ruins my flow / life.”
Again, the a gaping crack between what he wants to play, what he hears inside, and what he is able to actually do on guitar. He knows, from other instruments, that this has to do with one thing: the fretboard. More specifically, where symmetry breaks down on strings 2 and 3.
Now, these two stories share a lot in common. These are guys who love music, but who do other stuff ‘for real’. There is no reason why they should really master the fretboard, other than 15 years of dedication. But what about a pro?
“I am a professional musician but I’ve never been satisfied with my knowledge of the fretboard. There are so many holes in my knowledge of theory for guitar. I play other instruments and I learned “properly” how to apply theory and I could “play the instrument”. Guitar unfortunately was riddled early on with bad, lazy teachers who just taught me how to play songs and a few chord shapes and scales here and there. I feel like I just “fake” the guitar, that it’s not my own. Couple that with a bout with apathy and I just have not been able to find the motivation to punch through this ceiling I feel trapped under.”
This is Shawn, a professional guitar player of 15 years who somehow found himself in the same rut. Again, he says he feels he’s faking it. Apparently, the fretboard seems to much for him. He just doesn’t have the right tools.
Ken is “pushing 50” and is a busy lawyer who’s been playing for even longer. His story hints at what that flawed approach might be:
“I’m a pretty damn good lead player for a hobbyist. I got ’em all fooled how good I am but I know better. Every time I go down the theory path, I just don’t seem to be able to connect the dots. I learned all the notes on the fretboard once, spent hours on my stupid iPod app drilling myself in doctors offices, etc. Still didn’t click and not sure how much of that I’ve retained. When I learned the pentatonic, it clicked, that one little box opened up a whole new world of lead playing for me. But that was 35 years ago, I’ve gnawed that bone to the marrow. Nothing since that has been nearly so easy to pick up and run with. Yeah, natural minor is cool but… there’s more, I just don’t get it when I start reading theory books and I’m frustrated. I feel like I only have red, green and blue crayons and I draw like a 5 year old when I want to have a million colors and paint like Michael Angelo.”
He tried rote. He memorized all the notes, but somehow that just didn’t cut it. The only thing that helped was the cookie-cutter approach: fingering boxes.
The trouble with boxes is… they box you in. After 35 years, he still can’t get out of that hole and is desperate for real knowledge and ability.
Sarai Smallwood, from Texas is in a similar position. She can tell what would happen if she went with fingering boxes but is frustrated at the lack of real information:
“I always have moments where I have this amazing song in my head, but I know that my current skills aren’t up to snuff so I go out and try to find a system that allows me to transfer what’s in my head to the guitar; but I find myself running into not having a structured way of learning, and I easily get frustrated because I don’t know if I’m making progress or just spinning my wheels. When I don’t see those immediate results I feel like I’m wasting my time so my practices tend to drift off until I’m just not practicing at all and I never really learn or get better. I just end up in a never ending cycle.
I’ll see my other guitar friends play and know that half of the things that they play are only through rote memorization, so I know that they don’t really understand what they are playing. Whenever I ask them how long it took to get to their level of playing, they tell me that it took them years. For me that’s discouraging because if it took them that long and they don’t understand the “what” and “why” behind their playing then how long will it take me to get beyond their level?”
Who wouldn’t feel that way? Mike Evans, just like Mark, ended up with “Too much choice; I can measure my guitar books and dvds by the yard, but never concentrate on any single one. I think I collect books rather than using them!”
And like Thayer and Ken, he winds up repeating himself:
“The other main factor in achieving little is my tendency to play the dozen tunes I already know rather than tackle new skills or tunes. The big problem here is that I make the same mistakes in the same places over and over again.”
As chess prodigy Joshua Waitzkin puts it, practice makes permanent. Yes, mistakes too.
Russell, who found himself up against the same wall, is another collector:
“I’m always looking for the most efficient method of learning the fretboard and theory. Then I get overwhelmed by the amount of information making it hard for me to focus on one lesson, I try to take in too much at one time.”
This is insane! This is like buying more and more food but never eating any!
Tom, another player who feels “frustration from lack of progress in my real, complete understanding and ability to apply my understanding to the fretboard” on the other hand, points out a solution:
“I only have enough time for a 15 or 20 minute session, that’s barely enough time to get warmed up – but I don’t have to be warmed up to develop my brain and my ear. Technique heavy sessions can be saved for times when I have more time, but there is no excuse not to use the time that I do have on other aspects of musicianship and fretboard knowledge and fluency.”
“There is no excuse not to use the time that I do have on other aspects of musicianship and fretboard knowledge and fluency.”
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