Alex Skolnick: How To Lose Your Envy And Become Your Own Best Guitar Player

April 05, 2010

In the last post, I looked at what comes to mind when I hear the words ‘guitar player’ as applied to the magazine. This time, I’d like to focus on what it means to be a ‘guitar player’ in a literal sense.

What is a guitar player? Who are we as guitar players? Where have we been and where are we going?

“Guitar player” is a title that should be treated with the utmost respect. From the moment you pick up that guitar, whether you're a ten year old strumming for the first time or a grizzled veteran with years of experience on stages and in studios, you are earning the rank of 'guitar player.' It is a mantle held sacred by those of us who manage to navigate the treacherous waters of a dismissive society with our musicianship and integrity intact.

There is no single type of guitar player. We come in two genders, numerous sizes and shapes, diverse cultures and ethnicities, multiple nationalities, and span all spectrums of socio-economic class. Some wear Wall Street-style business suits and drive BMW’s, while others wear overalls and drive pickup trucks. A guitar player may look like an actor or a model, a native from a tropical island, a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, or Lady Gaga's malnourished twin on a bad hair day.

Some of us balance our guitar playing with jobs at offices, schools, airports, and other places, while others use the guitar as our sole source of livelihood. But regardless of appearance, experience, musical taste, background, or lifestyle, we are united by six (or 12) strings and planks of wood glued together. We are ‘guitar players’ one and the same. And as guitar players, we each need to ask ourselves a question: Why am I doing this?

For most of us, the initial reason we begin playing is that the guitar bonds us with the sounds and images of our favorite musical artists. It excites us and adds color to our otherwise drab lives. It starts out as a really cool looking toy before morphing into a tool for our own artistic expression. But like many great tasks in life, there is no instant gratification. With challenges both internal and external, we soon reach a point where we have to struggle to continue. The loss of that initial excitement causes some to quit along the way. Those who do survive face resistance from their family, their peers, and their own psyches, resulting all too often in psychological baggage. This baggage turns into an epidemic where the primary motivation for playing guitar becomes the seeking of individual attention or validation self worth. This mindset has many dire consequences, one of them being obsessive competitiveness.

Have you ever seen another guy or another girl walking around with a guitar gig bag on his or her back and suddenly felt a snarl coming on, feeling as if you were an animal protective of its territory?

I confess to feeling that way at one time. Only when I got over this sense of competition and insecurity did my playing begin to really blossom. I was able to get in touch with what mattered: the art of music. It didn’t matter even if I came across the proverbial "other guitar player" who was further along than I was. In many ways it helped because I learned to appreciate these other artists, enjoy what they had to offer as a listener and use their advanced abilities as incentive and motivation to sharpen my own musical skills.

It is a challenge to get to this healthy place, partly because along the way we are inundated with so many choices and conflicting ideas about what the right decisions are. There are many other guitar players we can learn from, some who are world famous and some who are totally obscure. A guitarist who is relatively unknown or written off as outdated may be a better influence for you than the one in the magazine polls that your friends are telling you to listen to.

What can you do to get in touch with your better self as a guitar player? Find the musicians (not just guitarists), whose music most inspires you and whose personalities you find most energizing. These people, regardless of image, popularity, record sales and hearsay are the players who you should learn from the most and use as role models. Take their inspiration and channel it. Of course, you never want to model someone too closely because they aren’t you. Just as you should never dress, talk, or act exactly like someone else, you should never try to play just like them either. You must forge your own path.

Only by embarking on the frightening journey of self-discovery can you realize that the previously scary concept of the "other guitar player" in no way, shape, or form makes you less of a person or an artist. No one can take away your individual identity and personal experiences, right? By the same token, no one can ever come with the ideas that are in your head or express them in the exact tone of your voice. The key is finding that voice on your instrument and developing it. That’s when you begin to gain a sense of ease and security.

For me this happened by removing myself from the rat race of the overly competitive and the obsessed. This excavation involved a lot of hands-on experience, personal growth, honest assessments, and facing of truth and reality. This process was helped by the reading of enlightening books. Metaphors abound for the guitar player in great novels, memoirs, autobiographies, philosophy books, history books, and even children's books. You just have to look for them.

There are too many inspirational books to list, but I can recommend a few, including some that are written by other creative artists describing their own process of self-discovery. A great one in particular is by Anthony Bourdain who, before he was well known as a television personality, wrote Kitchen Confidential, a grittier than life memoir of an out of his league amateur cook who rises up through the ranks in the New York restaurant world, eventually becoming a great chef. Similarly, the novelist Erica Jong, one of my all time favorites, wrote a book about her own development and creative process entitled Seducing The Demon. Then there is screenwriter Julia Cameron whose terrific book, entitled The Artist’s Way, blends her own stories of artistic struggles into a guidebook for artists of all types. A few of these books are written by and for musicians. These include Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner,  Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo, and The Art Of Practicing by Madeline Bruser.

All these books offer reminders that while creating art may require its share of struggle and life lessons, it needn’t rob the artist of the passion for the art itself. If you take the tiniest bit of information from any of these sources, you will be taking a giant step away from the debilitating condition of obsession and unnecessary competitiveness that drives too many guitar players, a condition I call GID: Guitar Insecurity Disorder.

GID has a variety of symptoms. They include, but are not limited to: incessant talking about yourself and your guitar playing; constantly steering the subject back to you and your guitar during unrelated conversation; compulsive purchasing of unnecessary new gear; acting as if acquisition of said gear will somehow make you a better player and losing interest as soon as this infatuation wears off; showing disrespectful behavior toward other musicians on stage by hogging and chasing the spotlight; turning up too loud; playing over others as they’re trying to tune up, talk, jam, or work out ideas; showing up to rehearsal late or not at all; pestering others to jam with you even though they’ve shown no interest; inviting yourself to sit in on someone else’s gig or jam session without being asked; ranting about guitar players who are receiving more attention or publicity than you; blaming others for your dissatisfaction with yourself; verbally boasting that you can play the licks of another guitar player.

This last one in particular is the subject of a joke that is often told about guitar players—a joke that while funny, is painfully true:

Q: How many guitar players does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Ten. One to change it and nine to say, "I can do that!”

This notion of guitar players as insecure, overly competitive, musically insensitive dolts is something I’ve been working to change my whole adult life, through my own actions. But I can’t do it alone. I need your help.



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