Let me ask you a question: if you were to list five words that defined what’s most important to your guitar playing success, what would they be? Maybe speed, theory, technique, ear, and knowledge? How about picking, strumming, fretting, legato, and dexterity? Chords, scales, arpeggios, notes, and rhythm?
These lists are pretty standard among guitarists and commoners alike, and each of these words describes something important to the mental and physical acts of playing, but none of them are in my personal top five. Why? Because they all represent mostly surface-level concepts or ideas. None of them go wide or deep enough, and therefore, none get to the core of what really makes focused, intentional creative expression work in the real world.
Here’s my list; compare and notice the contrast between these and the sample word groups I gave above:
These words not only invoke an altogether different sort of imagery, but also embody the deeper foundational ideals behind our playing in general, and the ways we approach our practice and training in particular. Because they’re intangible concepts, they’re necessarily abstract, which leads to some degree of individual interpretation. This isn’t necessarily bad, and although these concepts can (and will) mean different things to different people, we all have some idea of what each means in a general sense.
More important than mere imagery or the words themselves is the true meaning, or spirit of each term: my list defines what might traditionally be called martial virtues, and they exist in some form among the various warrior cultures humankind has produced over the last several millennia.
These virtues form the backbone of warrior or martial culture, but they’re equally important to the formation and longevity of a civilization’s artistic or “creative” culture.
We can think of warrior and artist/artisan cultures as “twin pillars” of civilization: both form, shape, and sustain the tenets that define who and what we are culturally, and determine the qualities (and “quality”) of the greater civilization, too. When these virtues are no longer upheld, the corresponding culture degenerates and falls. And, when one pillar collapses, so does the other.
Although we’ve examined and discussed this idea elsewhere, I think it’s well worth covering here as well. Understanding and implementing the underlying concepts are absolutely crucial to guitar playing success, along with gaining competence, clarity, and skill within any of the so-called artistic or “creative” disciplines.
Ah, there’s that word again: discipline. We don’t need a dictionary definition here, as we all have a good grasp of what it means, but how consistently do we really use it in our daily lives, much less as the linchpin of our overall guitar playing strategy? We’ve gotten comfortable with the notion of commoditized “entertainment” and flavor-of-the-minute fluff to placate our overstimulated and oversaturated senses. We’re overflowing with insubstantial distractions, and it’s worsened by unfocused, undisciplined Will and mental positioning.
Passivity has replaced Passion; mediocrity has replaced what’s meaningful.
What do you want from your playing? What do you want from and for your life? If the answer to either question is more than the bare minimum required for anything (which is what most people give in most situations and settings), it’s going to take discipline to get there.
The discussion of discipline leads us to our next virtue: determination. At first glance, discipline and determination might seem to imply the same concept, and while there is overlap, there are key differences between the two. Discipline and determination play off one another in that discipline keeps determination honed in on the target once we’ve decided to keep moving toward a goal or course of action, and determination helps maintain a sense of discipline when things get tough.
Are you determined to become more than you were before? Are you determined to forge ahead where most people with guitars quit altogether after missing those “overnight” results we often see advertised by various lesson programs? Are you going to throw in the towel when it becomes difficult and time-consuming, or do you have the grit and fortitude to impose your Will upon the world via focused, intentional creative expression?
Good guitar playing is a dynamic, integrated process which doesn’t happen all at once. We recognize this intellectually, yet so many of us hang it up when the process actually takes time. Just as the Nietzschean concept of slave morality can be transcended through the Will, so too can the sea of mediocre, sub-par musical and creative efforts be left behind.
When we consider that most people who buy, receive, steal, or otherwise come into guitar ownership in some way or another 1) never really do much with it at all, or 2) quit playing or even trying after a short period of time, we see it’s pretty easy to become a statistic; feeding the percentage of those who’ve given up. But, that also makes it easier to do something truly meaningful, as the number of players doing remarkable things is pretty small, comparatively speaking.
Are you a statistic, or are you willing to empower yourself by doing something meaningful?
Next on the list is purpose, and this one’s easy to miss altogether. What’s your purpose for playing? What can you bring to your own life and the world around you? Most of us have to think about this for a while, and answers like “Because I like it” and “I don’t know” aren’t what we’re going for here. Why do you like it? Hell, I’ve always liked bratwurst and strong ale with a lot of hops, but I don’t think either have done much good for me.
Asking enough of the right questions will reveal the truth, and the right question in this instance is almost always “Why”. Why do you like playing? Why does it make you feel the way it does? Why did you choose this contraption of wood and wire as a vehicle for expressing whatever you’re wanting to say? Why do you want/need to express it? Etc, etc. There’s always something working on a deeper level here, and that something often goes unnoticed until it’s uncovered by honest self-inquiry and examination.
Every action should be purpose-driven, and we have to align with that purpose in order to take the most effective action. That’s pretty damn tough if we don’t know what that purpose is, right? Aligning with our purpose helps kick our determination into gear, because we’re reminded of the reason(s) behind what we do. Be active about this, not passive; there’s already enough of that everywhere you turn. Also, keep in mind that your purpose is yours, and isn’t for anyone else. Do this for yourself.
Sacrifice is necessary, but never comfortable. That’s good, because discomfort can indicate movement in the right direction. What will you sacrifice for your purpose and yourself? An hour a day spent honing your skill set is one less hour you can spend watching TV, stumbling through the entanglement of endless Facebook updates and YouTube videos, obsessively checking your e-mail, or otherwise pissing your opportunities for improvement down the drain.
The drive to empower yourself with dedicated training must be stronger than the pull to not do what’s needed to accomplish your ends. The drive to sit with a guitar and work basic picking patterns must be stronger than the pull toward checking Twitter updates. The drive to understand and apply chord theory must be stronger than the pull toward finishing that Netflix movie you started the night before. The drive to work with a metronome to increase speed while maintaining accuracy must be stronger than the pull toward going out to the bar with friends. There are a hundred other examples we could use here, but I think you get the idea.
Sacrifice isn’t usually much fun while we’re experiencing it, but it’s almost always worthwhile. It takes real, active discipline. But, what we give up in order to reap greater rewards is hardly ever useful or productive anyway. Win-win situation.
As guitarists, we’re able to do things most people can’t or won’t, but probably wish they could or would.
If you’re at all motivated by social standing, or how others see you, the above statement will feed your desire to improve your playing. If you’re more motivated by internal factors, or a sense of personal accomplishment, that statement will inspire you to push forward with a greater sense of personal responsibility. Either way, sufficient sacrifice is a necessary part of the process.
We’ve come to the last virtue on our list, and it’s probably the hardest to pin down: honor. What do we mean by honor, exactly? The word “honor” has been misused and maligned so much, most of us have no real idea what it even is, much less how to get it, or what to do with it once we have it. Merriam-Webster gives different definitions; some of which are contextually different from our purpose here, but we’re most interested in this:
To be clear, we’re not talking about being some do-gooder, or anything else related to the social sphere and/or other people’s perspectives here. Our ends don’t require acting chivalrous, or any other such frilly, morally-pure sense of social conduct. We ain’t trying to save an unsaveable world here, milady. *genuflects* We’re talking about personal honor; a personal, maybe private, code of conduct, made by us, and to which we hold ourselves accountable.
Read that last sentence again.
This personal honor is individual, determined by oneself, and embodies our personal, individual, principles and ideals. We follow it because we must follow it; not because we’ve made some deal with another person, but because we’ve made a deal with ourselves. It’s our own invention, and it makes us responsible to ourselves.
The honor we’re dealing with implies a sort of personal integrity in relation to ourselves, and how we view and approach our guitar work. Notice this part of the Merriam-Webster definition: “one’s word given as a guarantee of performance <on my honor, I will be there>”. You have to “show up” for yourself, and you must give your word as “a guarantee of performance”. Honestly, this won’t work for most people, because most people won’t do much of anything beyond the bare minimum requirements in a given situation.
That’s okay, because we’re not expecting that from them, and it’s really better for us anyway: above average can look like excellence when it sits in contrast to passive mediocrity. Our personal honor involves committing to the process of self-empowerment through the vehicle of six strings; self-improvement and self-awareness via the guitar and overcoming its challenges.
Again, this doesn’t involve other people. It’s something for YOU, and you alone. If you want to include others in your creative mission, then you can do so later, after you’ve established a commitment to excellence with your playing and the process. You have to build your foundation first in order to inspire, educate, or even entertain others.
Commit to making the most of your time, every single time you pick up the guitar, relative to your current state of ability and understanding. Commit to moving forward, and moving toward greater levels of ability and understanding, every single time you pick up your guitar. This takes discipline, and requires sacrifice. We must be determined in our efforts, and have a clearly-defined purpose for why we’re doing what we do. Commit to yourself here, and I promise you’ll achieve better, more satisfying, and more permanent results than adopting a lazier stance common among the masses.
Commit to the process, commit to the instrument, and commit to yourself. Don’t cheat yourself out of opportunities to achieve more than you think you’re able.
Now that we’ve established a basic overview of each virtue listed at the beginning, let’s look at this article’s title, and how it’s critical to our discussion.
Martial virtues are declining in Western civilization, and they’re collapsing more and more with the ever-widening gulf between warrior and civilian cultures. The less connected we feel to the warrior class and its virtues, the less prevalent those virtues become in everyday life. This disconnect is felt in our creative/artistic culture, too: if you want to see this profound effect, just look at what our “entertainment” has become, along with the 15 seconds of fame possibilities of social media, and how “the arts” have largely become indistinguishable background noise in our daily lives.
Looking at pictures of cats and someone’s breakfast online is the new art museum, posting about how offended we are by everything imaginable is the new poetry, and songs about stupid shit nobody really cares about are the new composition and performance.
I can only imagine Rembrandt, Goethe, and Segovia are rolling in their respective graves with jealousy right about now. Hey, maybe their ghosts can clutter random Facebook posts and Twitter feeds with rants about how unfair it is they’re not a part of it all?
The three dead guys I just referenced possessed each of the five virtues we’ve covered, by the way. Wanna know how I know that? It’s simple: we remember them. Years after each has gone by way of the flesh (i.e.: died), we still remember them. Not only do we remember them, but we remember them for actually being good enough to view, read, and listen to what their creative efforts produced. Further, this viewing, reading, and listening hasn’t always been passive, or otherwise done out of sheer boredom. We did it, and do it, because we want to when our time could be spent doing something else.
What will your legacy be? Do you choose shallowness or substance?
Remember the “twin pillars” of civilization we mentioned before? Well, our artistic or creative culture is declining, too, and it’s killing Creative Character. Let’s see what good ol’ Merriam-Webster has to say about the two words comprising that term, starting with “creative”:
And, the relevant definition of “character”:
When combined, these terms give us “Creative Character”, which we could define as “The complex of mental and ethical traits of a person, group, or nation given to creating.” This is only my definition (and, to the best of my knowledge, my term), but I think it clarifies the idea so we can better work with it.
Said another way, our Creative Character is the combination and culmination of the five virtues we’ve been dealing with, along with Mind/mental position and Will, and it’s active, not passive. Creative Character isn’t just something you have, rather it’s an active force; adapting and adjusting itself to meet circumstances and other stimuli as we move along. Creative Character is an asset; a quality, but it must be cultivated and continually nourished, or it will stagnate and die from lack of or improper use.
Passive mediocrity & herd mentality kill our individual and collective Creative Character.
Again, take a look at so-called reality TV, bland social media “activism” and outrage, the indistinguishable nature of our arts and entertainment, and the limp, flavorless efforts most give to producing work of much real substance to see the condition of our civilization’s Creative Character. While you’re at it, take a look at your own Creative Character, and realize what befalls the greater group begins with its individual members. For good and ill, it starts with me, and it starts with you.
The decline of martial virtues is causing the death of Creative Character, and while this isn’t happening directly, it’s happening, nonetheless. Just because the links between warrior and artist cultures aren’t immediately apparent doesn’t mean the effects of one’s state on the other are any less real. These martial virtues are the same as artistic virtues, and neither culture can afford to lose them.
So, I ask you again: what will your legacy be? Will you be an active, focused, and disciplined guide for positive achievement in your guitar playing and your life? Or, would you rather be a passive, mediocre, and lazy member of the unwitting masses; embracing slave morality and settling for less than “good enough” while furthering the decay of our greater culture?
Guitar playing is a legitimate Path to Power in your own life and the lives of those around you.
Good guitar playing cultivates a valuable skill set beyond making pretty or loud sounds: it builds confidence, discipline, greater internal and external awareness, lateral and analytical thinking, physical dexterity, the ability to see and hear beyond what most people’s senses allow, and a whole host of other, beneficial qualities.
The choice is yours, and it’s all up to you. Adopt these five virtues, grow your own Creative Character, and commit yourself to the process. Become the conqueror in your own life – musically, creatively, and otherwise. Onward and upward.
P.S. – If you’re interested in achieving more as a focused, disciplined guitarist while strengthening your own Creative Character in the battle against passive mediocrity, regardless of whether you’ve got some experience or are just starting out, you can find the Antihero Academy here.