Repent, or Else: The 7 Deadly Sins of Guitar Playing

Ah, the concepts of sin and good guitar playing: two of my favorite subjects, and a truly iconic duo. Sin and guitarists go together like whiskey and ice, Gibson and Marshall, American blues and the Devil, et al. They’ve had a long, prosperous marriage, and while they can be great fun individually, they’re especially exquisite together. windows39

But, we ain’t talking about Keith Richards or Robert Johnson here. Nope. Our purpose is to examine and avoid another kind of sin, relating to our guitar playing, specifically … and I don’t recommend indulging in this group. 

There are 7 Deadly Sins to avoid as a guitarist, and you give in to them at your own peril.

If you don’t want to suffer an eternity of torment (or suffer for as long as your guitar playing journey lasts, anyway), then heed these words and get hip. After all, there are much better ways of inflicting torture with wood and wire than by trying to bang out single notes and chords over and over again.

Agreed? Good.

Let’s begin the sermon.

1. Lack of Fundamental Awareness

We must develop a degree of fundamental awareness with regard to our playing, or we’ll be spinning our wheels and going nowhere fast. Fundamental awareness basically means knowing the instrument, and having an innate sense of what we’re doing and why.

This includes developing our sense of touch, developing our ear, developing skills of visualization and other “mental” functions using the imagination and “mind’s eye”, and generally fostering a sort of sixth-sense about our overall playing and the process.

We go into greater detail when cultivating these skills in the “Blind Swordsman” facet(s) of the Guitar Antihero trainings, but ultimately, you have to make friends with the instrument. Know it, understand it, understand what it can and will (and won’t) do for you … and also, what you can, will, and won’t do with it.

Don’t just pick it up, plunk around without paying attention to what’s going on, then put it back down again. That becomes habit more easily than conscious, focused attention/awareness, and the habit’s usually much harder to get rid of later. Start with cultivating awareness, and let the rest follow.

2. Neglecting Good Battle Plans

While fundamental awareness is crucial, it lacks effectiveness without direction. Just being aware will only get us so far without a sense of where we’re going, and a solid plan to get there.

The creative process is inherently chaotic, but we seek to control the chaos as much as possible: this is where and why a Battle Plan becomes so vital to conquering our objectives.

Legendary leaders/teachers like Alexander the Great and Paul Gilbert leave little to chance.

Whether they’re military or musical strategists doesn’t really matter here, because the underlying methodology is essentially the same: King Alexander didn’t battle the Persian Empire unprepared, and world-class guitar monsters like Paul Gilbert spend time marshalling their relevant forces for a practice, performance, or writing situation.

Prepare and expect to win.

You can learn more about developing winning Battle Plans here.

3. Playing the Short Game

If we’re going to be in it to win it, we have to play a Long Game. Yes, great guitar playing takes a long time. No, that doesn’t mean you can’t do something significant in a short amount of time … but, it does mean that real, lasting results and the understanding thereof don’t come overnight.

Virtually nothing worth doing happens quickly, and we must invest in ourselves and seek long-term results here. Learning a handful of songs is fine, but what good are they to you, aside from being able to play a handful of songs?

You might nail a cool rendition of “Crazy Train”, but the world has already had Randy Rhoads, and we want to know what you are going to do. Besides, the goal of being like someone else can only lead to becoming an imitation at best, and we seek greater authenticity in our playing and lives.

Stylistic development and finding your own voice is a Long Game. Real guitar playing is a Long Game. Short Game is fine (and necessary) for some things, but be sure you’re able to see things from a 20,000 foot view, instead of the shortsightedness most guitarists are plagued with.

This video goes deeper into the Long Game of real guitar playing.

In the meantime, learn to see farther and think bigger.

4. Relying on Monkey Method as a Foundation

Like the Short Game, Monkey Method is sometimes needed, but it’s a terrible foundation on which to build your guitar playing empire. If you don’t know what I mean by “Monkey Method” … and if you’ve been following along, you should, because I rant about it in video, writing, audio, and in person … Monkey Method simply means learning to play like someone teaching a monkey how to make sounds on a guitar.

Put your fingers here and hit these strings. Wow! Now you’re playing the guitar! Holy fuck! Here’s your banana or whatever, and you’ll get some peanuts if you move your fingers here and hit these strings. Isn’t that great?

No?

No, it’s not. It sucks.

What’s worse, it’s the way most people teach and learn to play.

Simple repetition and producing somewhat accurate sounds do not a real guitarist make, and this approach can only produce Short Game results, at best. There’s no real room for expansion beyond the Short Game, because 1) the player is likely unaware of the Long Game, and 2) the requisite skills and abilities needed for the Long Game aren’t present.

To be clear, some things like technical development require a certain amount of what we’d consider Monkey Method, but with an important twist: the aforementioned awareness and attention are factored into repetitive practice, which produces far better results than just moving around the neck and whacking the strings someone told us to hit.

Relying on Monkey Method also means we’re increasingly dependent upon other people to get anywhere with our playing, and that, of course, is the opposite of a rugged, results-oriented system that commands respect.

Unless you like the idea of being spoon-fed information by someone who may or may not know what the fuck they’re doing and might not have a Long Game view, and barring a Planet of the Apes scenario in the near future, you’re better served by modeling Prometheus (the Titan, not the movie) than Curious George.

Leave the musical monkeys to the organ grinders.

5. Valuing Specific Techniques over Concepts

This is all too common, and it’s a direct outcome of using the Monkey Method to play the Short Game. Technique and specific “techniques” are obviously important, as they’re ultimately what allow us to physically play what we want, but they’re not the end goal.

Rather, our technique and guitar-specific techniques are tools for the job of better guitar playing, much like the guitar is a tool for the job of greater personal power through the development of our Creative Character.

Look, I get it: it’s easy to become obsessed with technical proficiency, and I’ve been there myself. It’s easy to obsess over the particulars of a given technique, and want to focus all our time and effort on the perfection thereof.

But, since I’ve been there myself, I can tell you it’s not the way to go.

Let’s look at sweep picking, which is a good example here, and the cause of much obsession. Sweeping with arpeggios can be a great technique, but it’s only a technique, not the thing-in-itself (or, the Ding an sich for you Kant fans out there).

Taking things a step further, the hypothetical arpeggio isn’t the thing-in-itself either, and neither is the musical result of playing such. Again, we must look at the bigger picture here: the musical result is an attempt to quantify something greater, deeper, and mostly ungraspable that manifests itself now and again through our Creative Power and in our Creative Character.

It’s not about the music, it’s not about the musical components, and it sure as hell isn’t about the specific techniques used to produce those components. Instead, it’s really about that inherent, unnameable, “thing” of the Promethean Spark that we guitarists choose to partially express musically.

And, we can only express this partially, as we’re limited by what we can know, sense, and do at any given time: we do the best we’re able to catch a bit of that ever-fleeting, yet ever-present phenomenon that’s so impossible to pin down.

So, while techniques are certainly necessary, they’re not the end goal, and therefore shouldn’t be given that place of importance. You may well need a hammer to build a house, but the point of using one is what that house will produce and provide, not to obsess over swinging and hitting things in the process of building.

6. Laziness

It’s no surprise the “sin” of Sloth appears on the Catholic list of the 7 Deadlies as well (that list came before this one, for those who didn’t know), and with good reason. Nothing of any importance will get done if we’re physically, mentally, and otherwise lazy (i.e.: slothful). Not a damn thing.

This shouldn’t need to be said, but apparently, a good percentage of guitarists think they’ll get better by just thinking about playing (or not thinking about it, whichever it is).

You have to fucking do something, and it has to be more than just the bare minimum required for participation.

Remember how we talked about real guitar playing being a Long Game? Remember how we talked about not just relying on the Monkey Method approach? Remember the bit about cultivating awareness and developing good Battle Plans?

Yeah, all that stuff.

Guess what? All that stuff takes real work, and it usually ain’t pretty.

You can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, metaphorically and maybe even literally, if you really want to do and be something as a guitarist. There’s no way around that.

Proponents of Victim Virtue can cry and wail, but there are no participation trophies here. Nobody gives a damn that you own a guitar and maybe pick it up now and again. You certainly won’t ever use your playing as a vehicle for greater Authority and Power in your own life by half-assing things.

There is no place for that mentality in the Guitar Antihero ethos, and the real world outside of what we do here doesn’t care, either. We don’t live in a “fair” universe, and we have to develop ourselves and take our opportunities when they present themselves, which is usually after we’ve made them for ourselves.

We’re in the business of eliciting real, positive change and development in our playing and lives here, and Passive Mediocrity loses to Aggressive Mastery every single time. If you’ve been lazy (and we all have been at some point), it’s time to kick it in the ass and ramp things up a few notches.

Ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing, if you’re doing anything at all. If you don’t like the answers, change things. You might either quit altogether, or redirect your course of action. Whichever you choose, you’re going to live with the results.

Which brings us to our last, and possibly most important Deadly Sin …

7. Lack of Purpose

Everything we do should stem from a clearly-defined purpose. All action should be purpose-driven, and all of our creative efforts should align with our sense of purpose.

This purpose will be different for everyone, and there isn’t a “wrong” answer here. It’s intrinsically tied to our beliefs; our physical, emotional, and mental composition; our preferences, and our overall Creative Character.

It’s also related to that inherent, unnameable “thing” we talked about before; that “thing” of which we catch the occasional creative or inspirational and aspirational glimpse.

If your creative efforts, guitar-specific or otherwise, are properly aligned with your purpose for pursuing them, your results will always be better than not. Period. I normally hesitate to use words like “always” and “never” as qualifiers, but I think “always” is suitable in this case.

When we’re disjointed, conflicted, or otherwise in disarray within ourselves and regarding our behavior, our results suffer. This is true of anything, and good guitar playing isn’t exempt from this premise.

By contrast, when the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of ourselves are in alignment with one another, our results flourish. I say “aspects of”, and not “selves”, as they’re all part of the greater whole, not separate phenomena or manifestations: this also explains why things don’t work so well when we’re feeling out of whack.

Lack of purpose leads to lack of definition, which leads to greater uncertainty and confusion. This is where things get pretty hazy, as unclear vision is scarcely different from no vision at all.

The ability to see things clearly helps recognize and develop authenticity, which leads to personal Authority and Power: to me, this is best illustrated in the Daoist concept of “De” (Power/Virtue), and it allows us to do, be, and have more of what we want in the world.

Living in authenticity and Authority means living with purpose … why would our guitar playing not also benefit from this?

If you don’t know why you’re doing something, you’ll not know what you’re doing, or when you’ve done it. Also, if your purpose isn’t strong, or if it’s misaligned, you’ll lack the necessary fuel to keep moving and complete the job.

Only you can determine your purpose as a guitarist, and remember, it’s yours and for your direct benefit. Anything else will likely mean you fall short of your goal, and will leave you spinning aimlessly on the hamster wheel of creativity and life.

Well, that wraps up our list of the 7 Deadlies, and I hope you’ve given consideration to where you might be missing the mark in your own playing, and how to correct those areas and keep moving forward. This is up to you, and while people like me can help, you’re the one whose going to do the work.

Like the Buddha said “Work out your own salvation.” Or something along those lines.

Onward and upward.

P.S. – If you’re interested in repenting for any of the above “sins”, or if you’re on the right track and want to boost your results, you can find the currently available trainings at the Antihero Academy here.