Learning to Play
There are the things that we all believe, that we know, but are often overlooked. Yet this is very important to playing well. These are some of the things we could’ve learned right away if we had the right teacher. Or just thought the right thoughts. Suffice it to say, Common Sense is one of the biggest oxymoron on the planet.
Want to learn how to play music? In large part, you need learn how to let go, and pay attention at the same time.
Every music student I ever know, including myself, might roll their eyes as if to say, “yeah, yeah, when do we play”.
Think about it, almost anyone can be playing any instrument along to a Rock Song in just a few minutes. I’ve proved that over and over.
Now, 20 minutes of reading that is guaranteed to make everyone a better player. For most people, fundamental awareness of the basics is where the greatest, quickest gains can be had.
If you doubt it, just think of a band where the guitar is way out of tune with the other instruments. That one thing ruins any chance of anything sounding good.
Clearly, if you play guitar or bass, get a tuner that reads your signal and use it! And if you think you’ve got it down and don’t need a tuner, put it to the test. When the tuner always agrees with you, you can put it down. If you find your pitch is perfect, it will server you when you can’t hear yourself. better safe than sorry.
Being out of tune is fundamentally wrong, 99.9% of the time. There are lots of things that often go fundamentally wrong.
Just remember that as much as having fun is a part of music, being smart, being aware, and being prepared, can be just as important as raw talent. Plenty of talented individuals haven’t produced music that is near as good as mediocre talents that worked like hell and paid attention.
We just want to help you understand as much of what determines musical success and to help you focus on it and get past it. Take some time to pay attention to the fundamentals and then find the ten or so things that you feel are important to be aware of and work on consistently. Hopefully, there will be at least a few things that are on our list that are on yours.
And don’t forget to spend a lot of time not thinking but just playing!
The Top Ten Things I Learned While Learning to Play Music
The Top Ten things one needed to learn to learn to play guitar, learn to sing, and learn to write songs, I had to pretty much figure out for myself. In all the formal lessons I had I was trying to learn how to play, most teachers seemed focused on something other than playing. The best news is that you have the Internet now and there is are so many people, resources and tools out there to learn how to play faster and easier than ever!
One wanted me to learn jazz, one fusion, one wanted to mess with hand positions, one wanted me to play true to the original versions of songs that HE liked. You could learn from all of this, but I enjoyed the free lessons I got from just playing on my own and playing with other people.
I did learn some things through the paid music lessons, and certainly there was more to each teacher than the above “focus area”. But none of them focused on what helped me really get better fundamentally. In the grand scheme of things, hard work good, hard work fine, but first take care of head.
I mean thinking! And while some of what you read may seem simple, knowing something and actually responding in kind are often two different things.
Assess, Plan and Execute; rinse and repeat forever. So, here are a few fundamentals (the Top Ten) that I found to be a big help to understand and put to use in playing music and learning to play music well.
If you’re uptight, its going to be hard to let the music energy flow. Performing, even when its just to four walls, often brings an anxiety similar to public speaking. When you’re in front of a lot of people the first few times, you’re likely to be at least a little nervous, maybe even totally stressed. That’s natural. And its good news too. Eventually, all that energy can become a part of each performance. That same adrenaline rush can be your best friend, if it flows right. It can also kill a musical effort before it gets off the ground.
If you feel up tight and stressed, its likely to result in you not being able to play your best. Make sure you read how relaxed you feel from time to time and manage it. Remind yourself to relax. Then, taking a couple of deep breathes might be all it takes.
Think of some of the great performances you’ve seen. Most times when someone is really good, they can make it look so easy and so relaxed or just channeling so much energy right through their instrument. One of the reasons is probably they are feeling comfortable and relaxed about what they are doing. Bet they’ve done it way more than you, which helps a lot.
As you’re playing, see if your hands, arms, and other parts of your body are clenched tightly at times. If they are, practice relaxing your muscles. Being tight isn’t going to help anything. Music energy flows, tightening up shuts the flow off like a faucet. Make sure you’re breathing comfortably as everything is going on.
We’re not saying don’t play with energy or enthusiasm, just try to make sure you give yourself a chance by not being uptight and stressed out.
And when you feel uptight a little bit, take a deep breath, let it out slow and let your muscles relax a bit. Then let your mind relax a bit. Then regroup and try it again. And again, until it becomes habit.
Make it a Habit
People are creatures of habit. Life offers good habits, bad habits, and everything in between. Playing Music is no different.
Habits are often easy to acquire and difficult to change. You operate out of habit in everything you do to a degree.
A lot of playing is muscle memory. By playing things over and over your fingers and hands use muscle memory to allow you to play naturally, to be in the moment. Develop productive Physical Habits. You learn by doing best, so do it a lot.
Develop good musical habits. Practice regularly and focus on the positive things. That little habit alone will really develop into something. Change you strings regularly, take care of your guitar like it means something to you. Be receptive to criticism. A lot of criticism is poorly delivered, but just as often there are things to be learned from it.
Try to see music from different perspectives. Keep your mind open by habit.
Good habits will provide great returns. Work at them for a while and they become habit and take less and less energy to do. Try writing your top ten list down and referring to it every day to remind you of what’s important. That’s a pretty painless habit to develop that can be very effective.
Some equipment is way better than other equipment. Some are better only in opinion. A guitar that won’t tune properly or has a crappy tone or action just won’t sound as good, everything else being the same. Many things are just a matter of preference or opinion. Sometimes its hard to tell the difference between the two.
Think of the worst portable stereo you’ve ever heard and then the best stereo you ever heard. An extreme difference in quality probably exists. Music equipment in general is the same way, although often not as clear cut, just almost.
There are really nice sounding and playing $200 guitars out there, for example. We have a few ourselves. Occasionally a $100 instrument comes along that is amazing for the price. Typically a quality guitar can always be found for three or four hundred dollars. We also have spent way more on guitars that didn’t work out.
There are some real expensive guitars that are more than worth what you pay for them in quality and from an investment standpoint as well. Its like having money in the bank that you can play with until you need the case. And given the choice, we must admit, the guitars we play most cost more than $1000. Beware, most people are lucky to get what they paid for.
Remember too, that you can have a great guitar and amp, and a cheap cord will ruin it all. Much of music is a chain of equipment, and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Be careful when buying equipment. There is a world of difference between good and bad when it comes to sound, just like the stereo example. Just because it has a big price tag, doesn’t mean its a good deal. And just because something sounds good and works for someone else doesn’t mean it fits you. Getting a good guitar gives you a chance to sound good and often inspires it. Give the decision the attention it deserves.
Bad equipment is a liability that nothing can overcome. Crappy speakers sound crappy even if your favorite artist’s favorite song is playing. So buying wisely is really important. The less money you have to spend, the more important buying wisely becomes.
Before you buy something at a store, ask them what they would give you for it used. To a music store, day old gear in perfect condition is barely worth even half of what you paid to the same store the previous day. When you’re buying gear, all music stores act like you’re their best friend. When you’re selling to them, the same gear automatically becomes crap to them for some reason. Buy smart and carefully.
And when people tell you that what they are selling is the best for you, keep in mind its often best for them for you to buy that particular piece. If it was such a good deal, the deal would speak for itself.
Try to get equipment that will give you a chance to sound good. And try to exercise patience and not buy something because it looks hot, or its the same kind someone else has that you know. Buy equipment that will serve well thought out requirements. Shop around. Look in the want ads, go to stores, check the mail order catalogs, ask your musician friends, find a shop with a money back guarantee so you can try it at home for a while and return it if it doesn’t work out.
Most of all, find something that inspires you to play well. The happier you are with your equipment, the better you’ll be able to play.
Good steady tempo is critical to music. This is another fundamental that is abused frequently. Many individual musicians and groups as well, fluctuate tempo greatly while doing a song. This is hard to dance to, play along with, and even harder to listen to from the crowd’s standpoint.
Practicing with a metronome (there’s an App for that), drum machine or even a record can often give you an idea of how good or bad your sense of tempo is. With a metronome like sound, you never have to guess who’s gotten off tempo, because the machine is likely to be perfect.
A musician that can’t hold time is like a curse to a band. Maintaining a constant, even tempo is critical to being a good musician.
Being knowledgeable can be your greatest asset. Learning about different aspects of music, equipment, people skills, showmanship, the principles of sound waves, all help set you apart from the musicians at large.
The more you know, the better shot you give yourself at being good and playing with good people. Explore every music related topic that interests you.
Knowledge is a reward in and of itself. It also pays great dividends in ways that you could never predict. The more energy you put into this quest, the better.
We’ve already talked about this one before. If one string on one instrument is out of tune, and heard by the crowd, all is lost. Surely you’ve seen a band that was tuned badly. Seems like everyone but the band knows it sometimes.
Most people think they have an inferior ability to hear pitch. They think they are pretty much tone deaf, or at least very limited. While I agree that most can’t just pick up an instrument and play it by ear, or sing in perfect key, or even name notes and intervals, most people’s sense of pitch when they’re listening to someone play is pretty good. They may not know why a band sounds bad, but they know bad when they hear it.
Funny thing is I’ve watched bands that were badly out of tune with each other and even though they have the trained ears, supposedly anyway, the crowd almost always knows. Usually, at least one member of the band doesn’t realize it. Don’t let that be your band.
Being too far out of tune is terrible. Do yourself a favor and make sure you have a tuner and that everyone you play with uses it. Listening to someone tuning by ear is annoying, admit it. That means you sound annoying when you tune as well. There are very reasonably priced tuners out there (there’s an app for that!) that are cheap or free and reliable . They can also be worth their weight in gold.
You can have the most raw talent of anyone and come off terribly by not being prepared well. Preparation can save the day. Knowing the material well, being well rehearsed, putting energy into discovering flaws in you’re execution and resolving them, and focused practice, all are a part of being prepared.
Being prepared for a situation means that you have run through it in your mind and thought of all the things that need to happen, how to make them happen, and how to resolve what might go wrong. Realizing that you just broke a G string and no one has one, or that the power source for the amps is far way and no one has the right extension chord can really ruin a performance. (Don’t laugh, it happened to us once).
Simply think about what you’re trying to accomplish and what it will take to pull it off. Develop a play list of songs. Many guitarist literally don’t know any complete songs and wonder why they’re not any good. Please!
Make a list that you revise over time of things you need to overcome is an easy way to minimize the effects when bad things happen to good musicians. A little preparation often provides a lot of progress.
So, everything is in tune, you’re material is right, you’re well prepared, you’re smart and ready. A bad mix will kill it everything. By mix we mean the relative presence (volume, equalization, effects, distortion and just the overall sound) of all the instruments together. If all the instruments are mixed well, but one is really loud, the mix is bad. Just like tune and tempo, one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.
This is another one of the things that almost everyone in the crowd will know and the performer(s) may be unaware of. There are dozens of considerations in the mix and they don’t necessarily concern a mixing board. Even a solo acoustic guitarist needs to concern himself with overall volume with respect to the size of the space, how many people are in it, where they are, and what the appropriate volume is.
Which is worse, a guitarist that is playing so loud the people around can’t stand it or one that is playing so softly that you swear the pick is never hitting the strings? Neither is very good and something in the middle of those two is probably the right level of volume.
Its even harder in the context of a band with 10 or 20 sources of sound. The crowd should be able to hear each piece, with some parts (solos) needing to be louder (on top of the mix) than the background.
The mix changes constantly. From song to song, bridge to verse, an empty room vs. a room packed with people. Mix is something that you don’t set and forget, you are constantly adjusting your sound as the music plays.
A bad mix can ruin everything. Try to become more aware of listening to the sound of the music as a whole, not just what you’re playing. Learn to play off the other musical sources, including silence. Rests are often the most ignored parts of the song and the part that really could benefit from attention. Rests let the music breathe. A good mix lets the music thrive.
Very harsh lyrics against a really hard driving beat sounds harsh by nature. Putting the exact same lyrics against a soft and sweet chord progression sounds like a completely different song. There is a clear contrast between harsh lyrics and a sweet melody. One lesson here is to try different things that may not seem to readily go together.
Contrast is the way one thing plays off another. A gritty lead over a sweet sounding progression. Luster happens when there are many balances and contrasts existing between different elements in each and every song or performance.
It comes out in the details and is almost inseparable from contrast. There are a lot of good musicians out out there, a lot of good performers and a lot of good bands. When you see someone that is so good they seem downright great, its probably based a lot on the fact that their sound keeps you interested. They keep drawing your attention to them, in a good way.
Contrast and luster draw attention in and keeps it coming back for more. Its the little things that really do this. A little harmony guitar part, harmonics, a nice tight break, different chord voicings, a different amp setting, a different guitar. All are things, the nuance, and the groove, when used properly, keep the audience and the players as well interested in what’s going on.
Hopefully, I don’t have to explain this too much. I doubt there is anyone that has enjoyed themselves too much.
There certainly have been people who found enjoyment in destructive ways, but that’s not a worry in music. Music can be an enjoyment so pure, you can give yourself to it and it will give more right back. People, circumstances, overdone recreation maybe, but not the music itself.
If you’re not enjoying what you are doing, we suggest trying it a different way. Then, if you can’t see it leading to enjoyment, we suggest you stop and figure out how to do that. Music is one of the greatest sources of pure joy known to man. If you’re not having fun, its you, not it, you might consider that that needs to change.
Even if you manage to do the rest of the things on this Top Ten Fundamentals List, if you’re not enjoying it, you haven’t gotten out of it what there is to be had. And its not just you that needs to be having fun, at least if you’re playing with and to others. Without them having fun, it won’t work that well either.
Make sure that you remember to enjoy the music and the process of learning how to get better. That easy effort alone can make the biggest difference of all in how your music grows and in how your music comes across to everyone else.
Talent isn’t everything. There’s lots of real talent doing nothing but going to waste. There are also those who appear at first to be moderately talented, at best, and they just keep on improving and improving until they pass everyone else up.
Talent is very misunderstood and often hard to gauge. Its clear when someone whose played the guitar for six month’s can play things others trying much longer can’t, that they have been given a gift. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be the best, or even better than you.
Plus, whatever talent you have, you have. That hand of cards was long over the first moment you woke up. You work with what you have, period. You can’t acquire any more talent and you can only develop what you’ve got.
Our advice is to assume you’ve got a fair bit of talent that at worst is a little buried, and work to develop it. When you judge people to have more talent than you or that you don’t have any, keep in mind that if you don’t have any, you’re in no place to judge whether you, or anyone else has it. Best to assume you have a normal amount of talent, whatever that is, and get on with your playing.
If you’re going to tell yourself anything, tell yourself that you’re getting better and better everyday and that you’re having fun. Tell yourself that if you work at it, you’re going to find more and more talent in you as you go. Then go out and put attention and effort into developing you’re gift and have as much fun as possible doing it. Everything else will take care of itself.