Science and Religion

When I was young and first started playing the guitar, I was often very impatient to be able to play just like my heroes that I was emulating. On one hand, I had a fierce desire to be able to play well, and I wasn't afraid to "bite off more than I could chew."

This quality may have served me well in some ways (the "little engine that could" syndrome), but it also was a major hindrance in other ways. I definitely had a tendency to try to run before I could walk.

For years (and to this day) technique has been something of a struggle for me. I think my over-eagerness as a young player did a lot to make me a sloppy player. When I was learning a new solo, I would often slough over parts that I couldn't play cleanly, just to try to be able to play it up to tempo. The same thing would happen if I was learning a new classical piece, or even a tune. I remember when I first took lessons with Randall Dollahon at the University of Miami, he had me show him a list of standards I knew. I proudly produced a pretty good sized list, and he had me go through and play the melodies of several of the tunes. Most of the tunes I couldn't get through without making several mistakes, forgetting the bridge, ect., and in some cases I realized that I'd never even bothered to learn the entire melody.

Anyway, I've noticed over the years that when a musician has great technique, it's usually almost as much fun to watch him or her play as to listen. The movements of the hands of a great guitarist or pianist are beautiful to see, and look almost like a miniature ballet; graceful, subtle, and effortless. In order to have great technique (or even decent technique) one needs to approach the instrument with the scientific method; that is to say, one needs to patiently isolate each problem, slowly and methodically solve that problem, and then move on to the next one.

On the other hand, we've all heard musicians who were technically brilliant, but left us rather cold. I think it's important to keep a little of that youthful passion, and even impatience, in one's mindset in order to balance out the cold, practical "scientific" side. Mr. Spock needs his Dr. McCoy. Yin needs its Yang. The trick is to keep the two in harmony with each other so that one doesn't out balance the other. Think of it, if you will, of achieving a balance between the intellectual and the spiritual.

Hands in Harmony

As a guitarist you always have two major elements that work together to produce music; your two arms and hands. Other parts of the body play an important role as well, and it's important in general to eliminate unnecessary tension from any part of your body while playing; however, it's the two hands that are directly responsible for producing sound from the instrument.

Assuming one plays right handed, the left hand is used for "fretting" notes, as well as for hammering on, pulling of, and effects such as vibrato and slides. The right hand is mainly the percussive element that actually strikes the string (except in the case of hammer ons and pull offs) and sets it to vibrate. Because the two hands have different functions, it's important to keep in mind that they should be able to work as independently of each other as possible.

With the piano, both the right and left hands have the same task; both choose which notes to play, and both actually hit the keys to produce the sound. With the guitar, one has to divide these functions between two limbs just to produce one note.

In general, when you are playing, both hands should exert just as much pressure as is necessary to produce the desired sound, no more and no less. Just as it's very common for guitarists to exert too much pressure on the left hand fingers, especially for difficult passages, it's also common to "compensate" in the right hand and tense up there as well. As much as many players could stand to exert less pressure in the left hand, it is true that there are times when a considerable amount of pressure, and the resulting tension, is unavoidable in the left hand. The right hand, however, rarely requires that much pressure (either for pick or fingerstyle) and it can be useful to isolate the two hands and experiment with just how much pressure is really necessary to, say, play a good loud rest stroke, or fret an F barre chord so that none of the notes buzz.

Relaxation is even more important to keep in mind during technically difficult passages. When things start to become stressful, our bodies natural response is to tense up. The reason those great players we see look like they're playing effortlessly is that they are! I saw a video tape of a seminar that guitar great Lenny Breau gave in which he was talking about technique. He said that he always thought of a Zen saying he'd read once; "the easiest way of doing something is with the least amount of difficulty." Everyone laughed, but Lenny said that this was essentially the encapsulation of playing with good technique.

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