All my childhood I wanted to play guitar.
I thought it was the coolest instrument. I used to look up guitars in magazines, wishing I had one. Eventually I began getting lessons. Eventually I began being able to play okay. But I was never satisfied. I wanted to be great. I wanted to be an immense player, one of those virtuosos who could shred scales at lightning speed, whose fingers ran up and down the fretboard like water. I was never able to really hit that level. The failures discouraged me a lot. Being technically proficient, being able to sweep like an automaton, was my metric for being a guitarist.
I was the ‘guitarist’s guitarist’ so to speak. I was obsessed with gear. I used to make documents where I’d list all the guitar models and amplifiers that I wanted. It was at least two dozen, incidentally. In contrast to this precise obsessiveness I took a more indifferent approach to musical theory. I didn’t really need to learn standard notation, I figured; I had the tabs. I didn’t think about chords progressions or song structures. I wanted to play like a God. And that meant powerhouse technical skills. I poured most of my energy into ‘getting good’ at technique.
Guitar is probably the most famed instrument in modern music, and more than any other it has a lot of egoticity attached to it. It’s an instrument that now floats between the stereotype of the acoustic-strummer yodelling out famous songs at parties to impress girls, and the technique-crazed guitar heroes, spending hours in their rooms each day trying to play harmonic minor scales at the speed of light. Both are ultimately shallow uses of the instrument: one uses it as a dating tool, the other uses it as a form of self-indulgence. There’s nothing wrong with improving your technical abilities. But a quick glance around Youtube will indicate that many — too many — guitarists only seem to know how to tear up the fretboard at freakish speed. And, at a point, the sounds they’re making become extremely generic, even robotic. There’s no sense of musicality to it. No melody, structure, build-up, dynamics. It’s a full speed-a-thon for three minutes.
The great guitarists all have a unique way of playing. Their sound is their own. They explore the instrument with their own use of technique, preferred musical identities, favoured scales. They play well and they play expressively. Too many ‘guitar freaks’ don’t recognize this. They don’t develop their own style. They simply sound near identical to one another, running up and down the fretboard at 200bpm.
The ‘ego’ of guitar tends to be attached to its rock star like fantasies. I’d bet most people who pick the instrument up have at some point fantasised, and possibly even aimed for, being the huge rock musician playing to a crowd of thousands. It’s an attractive goal, and in guitar culture, it makes you look like the coolest one on that stage. I know I was that guy. ‘Showing off’ was kind of what the guitar became all about. It was no longer a composing tool: it was an instrument for validation. I wanted people to be amazed by my fingerwork. Part of the problem is that the value many of us come to is working on technical skill and purely technicality. Technique is no longer a means to an end. It’s no longer about having wider musical abilities, it’s all about being as complicated and as fast as possible. And the focus ends there. It’s no longer about making better music — it’s about being training your fingers to be as sharp and fast as daggers wielded by a Ninja.
Somewhere along the line I went from wanting to get good at guitar to make music, to simply wanting to get good at guitar skills. If you’re not the one playing the seven minute solo constructed with thousands of notes played entirely in demisemiquavers, it’s pretty dull to listen to. Guitar leads work best when there’s a sense of melody or dynamism to them. When they’re part of song, adding musicality to it. Atonality works best when you can feel the mood and discordance behind it. Generally speaking, the bands that focus on being as technical as possible all begin to sound alike; a blur of technical brilliance with very little compositional intrigue.
But therein lies the issue of guitar ego: the music is secondary. Instead of focusing on theme, tone, mood or structure, the Ego Guitarist focuses on what they think is compelling: watching their fingers sweep up and down. Watching them go from the one end of the guitar to the other. It is impressive — it impressed them enough to learn to do it — but only for a brief duration of time. People are drawn more to music that moves them or touches them in some way, that explores something they are interested in through sound. Guitar techniques are best in service of that: creating something that communicates with people, that compels them, that immerses them in the soundscape you’re delivering. Running scales again and again at immense speeds is a bit like making a film using complex tracking shots and chiaroscuro lighting to show someone…. making and eating their breakfast. The technical elements behind it might be amazing, but it’s in service of nothing: the technique is the whole point, what it’s showing is banal.
There’s a counterintuitive lesson I gleaned from guitar. For a long time I worked on speed rather than accuracy and precision. I didn’t want to take things slow, I wanted to speedrun the thing, pushing myself to try to play a new riff or scale as fast as I could immediately. As it would later turn out, taking it slow opened by eyes to two things. One being that speed comes more naturally when you know exactly where your fingers need to be and that mistakes are less common. Secondly, by taking it slow, you can hear each note. You can see what the lead you’re learning is (or isn’t) doing. You appreciate the music behind it, each sound in connection with another, how they connect together at varying levels of speed. Eventually, it did ‘click’ with me that this is supposed to be about making music, about immersion in the sound. Not how fast my hands could move.
Playing like a ‘Guitar God’ does look cool and it can be impressive. But what is being played has other metrics to cross as well: it has to be engaging and listenable, it has to give the listener something more than “Oh, cool, he can play”. Shredded-up scales are fine in your bedroom or a rehearsal studio, but they can get incredibly boring when there’s little musicality or diversity within the playing. A worthwhile venture can be to look at some of the famous concertos of bygone days to see the blend between technicality and composition when masterfully handled. A lot of guitarists love covering the violins in Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” but I wonder if they observe and study its structure and composition and what Vivaldi was doing musically to make such iconic music. I know I didn’t when I tried to learn it initially.
The danger with becoming an ‘Ego Guitarist’ is that you lose the music in favour of massaging your ego. The instrument becomes more about how you imagine others perceive you. Guitar, to me, became a mechanical process of getting good. I valued technique and forgot about the creativity. When I never balanced between them, my playing suffered. The problem with this process is that is limits how you approach the instrument. You see it as a means of becoming impressive to others, not a form of expression.
Ultimately, guitar has been pushed to its technical limits. The focus needs to be return to making powerful music with it.