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Overcoming Musical Gear Ignorance – Part 2: Excuses

Are we making excuses for why we aren’t better musicians?

Overcoming Musical Gear Ignorance” is an article I wrote that was published as a guest blog on my friend David Santistevan’s site. If you haven’t read it yet, go read it now.

In that article, I gave 50 technical questions as “homework” for the musician that wants to get better at being a musician. The broad list covers a lot of little things that musicians really ought to know, but think they don’t need to know.

While we could easily get sidetracked judging ourselves based on whether we can answer those specific questions or not, the real issue I’m hoping to address is our attitudes about learning.

Learning is tough. Really tough. It takes dedication, willingness, and humility to learn new things. It’s not surprising that we make a lot of excuses to avoid it.

Excuses, excuses, excuses

Over the years, I have cited lots of reasons for why I wasn’t progressing as a musician, but they were simply excuses. Here are a few of my mental blocks.

1. My fingers are too fat.

Back in high school I picked up the guitar because I wanted to write songs. After a year or two of trying to learn how to play, I told Nathan Hamlin, my trusted friend and songwriting partner, that my fingers were too fat to play guitar well. His response?

bratwurstsScott, my dad Vance has huge sausage fingers and he can play guitar better than I can. You have no excuse.

Nathan was right. I stopped making excuses and learned how to play guitar. Now people ask me to play guitar for them.

Still want to make excuses? Phil Keaggy has only 9 digits, Chad James has only one hand, and Mark Goffeney has no hands, but it hasn’t stopped any of them from playing guitar.

2. I need a better guitar.

For years I was convinced that if I just had a more expensive guitar, I too could play like a pro. Wrong.

In college I met Ben Albright, a guy who was known for his guitar prowess. Time and time again, I watched as he would pick up the same crappy instrument I had just laid down and play something inspiring. Clearly the guitar was not the problem.

The roadblock was in my mind. There was a reason I couldn’t make a guitar sing like Ben could. Besides not putting in the many hours of practice that he had, I had already decided that I couldn’t make great music without great instruments.

screen capture from It Might Get LoudIn a previous post called “How to Get Perfect Guitar Tone,” I included a video clip from It Might Get Loud of Jack White building and then playing a makeshift guitar on his front porch. The improvised “guitar” he makes proves his point that great music is possible even if the instrument is not very good.

I can’t blame my guitar.

3. I need better recording equipment.

We live in such a wonderful time. Recording has never been more accessible, affordable, or high quality.

My soon-to-be released album All Is Sideways was recorded in locations all over the U.S. over the past 3 years. Some of the songs have more than 50 layered tracks. I was privileged to be able to record with talented players on great instruments with really nice microphones and preamps into a sweet computer.

cover of Sgt. PeppersThe funny thing I have to remind myself is that some of the greatest albums of all time have been made with much less. The Beatles recorded their highly complex Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with a pair of 4-track tape machines.

Compared to the tools we have available to us today, musicians and engineers of the past worked with sticks and stones. Men have flown to outer space and back in rocket ships with computers on board that pale in comparison to the iPods in our pockets. Yet somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that to make an album like Led Zeppelin’s IV today, we need million dollar systems with all the latest technology.

Sorry, kids. Your gear can’t be the scapegoat here. Garageband is more than adequate.

Who’s left to blame?

Excuses don’t make me a better player. Better gear doesn’t make me a better player. Only my determination to learn, practice, and actively become a better player makes me a better player.

In my signal chain, sadly, I am the weakest link.

I want to fix that and it’s going to take a lot of hard work to get there.

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