The Efficient Guitarist - When I Quit the Guitar

Preface: before I get back to the series "Mad About Modes" I took a slight diversion for a technique lesson. I'm going to take one more diversion and talk about an interesting time in my life, a time when I quit the guitar (almost) on purpose. I wasn't sure if I ever wanted to share it, but it had a profound impact on my journey and that alone makes it worth sharing. Lydian will be the for us next month :-)

"When I Quit the Guitar"

It's been almost 12 years since I first met Matt Buttler, and I use the term 'met' loosely as I still have not met him in person.  I was posting on a guitar forum somewhere on the web and I ran into Matt's posts.  He was opinionated, brazen and controversial; exactly my kind of guy.  We started to converse over email and AIM and got to know each other pretty well.  We spoke on the phone weekly about music and our deep love of the guitar.  He always had interesting advice for me and I rarely ever followed it.  His most controversial piece of advice for me was to quit playing guitar in order to get better.  After one of our many talks about how to improve as a musician, he said that in order for me to improve, I'd need to stop playing the guitar long enough to lose my habits.  At the time, I thought he was nuts (I actually still do, but that's for other reasons).  Also at the time, quitting was impossible: I was playing most nights and teaching 6-days a week. I was a working musician and not playing meant not eating.

But I took his point to heart and put it in my educational shoebox somewhere deep in the recesses of my brain.  One day, I'd get to it if I could, but I doubted that I'd ever get a chance to do so.

Matt had chosen a different path than I had.  He played all the time, but he did it on his own terms. Working by day as a programmer, music was his passion.  He would often quit the guitar by taking up a new instrument.  It was saxophone for a while, and then it was studying rap music to better understand rhythm.  No matter what he did, he sounded like nobody else I've ever heard: totally original.

In 2008, I decided to throw caution to the wind and change my life.  I packed up all my stuff, said goodbye to a dream music education studio that I had built over a 10-year period and moved to San Francisco.  I was starting my life over.  It was the perfect time, and probably the only time in my life that I could afford to stop playing guitar for a while.  Since I only knew a few musicians in San Francisco, if I wanted to start my playing over, this was the time to do it.  There were no students and no gigs until I chose to start my career again.

I basically stopped playing guitar from October 2008 to February 2009. I didn't quit in the sense that the guitars were put away and banished, but I rarely played.  I will admit that I missed guitar a lot.  And when I did play, my time with the guitar was unstructured and free.  The were no tunes or goals.  I just played for fun.  I went from playing 8-10 hours a day to playing 8-10 hours a month, sometimes less.  It was an interesting change for me, to say the least.

During that time, I never stopped studying music. Anyone who thinks that you can stop the soundtrack in your head is crazy.  I thought about music all the time!  I listened to music as often as I could.  I just didn't pick the guitar up for 4-5 months.  I tried to listen to different music during this time - music that made me think in new ways.  I absolutely stopped listening to jazz.  I got really in 70s Genesis with Peter Gabriel and other music that I just hadn't had a chance to really listen to in depth.  I spent my weekends discovering California and driving the Pacific Coast Highway as often as I could. I cleared my head.  I started listening to music in a way that I hadn't since I was in college and spent my evenings 'digging tunes' and discovering jazz.  It was amazing.  I rebooted.

As I started to play again, I actually tried not to practice.  I just played.  Whatever came into my mind is what I went with.  Matt was right: I sounded different.  It was freeing.  The best way that I can explain it is to use an analogy: Before, I was an interior decorator:

I was always dressing up existing spaces.  After, I felt like a contractor; I was putting up walls and structure.  The licks were almost all gone.  Most of the extra filler in my playing was also gone.  Surprisingly, what wasn't gone was my technique.  I found it pretty easy to pick up the guitar again and within a week, I felt physically able to do whatever I wanted.

My playing was eerily pure. It was a total reset of my playing and it was the best thing that I've ever done.  I came back to music realizing that what I'd spent far too long studying scales and not enough time really understanding harmony.  I got into musical structure in a big way.  If I practiced anything I practiced arpeggios.  Tons and tons of arpeggios.  It was the purest thing I could think of that was devoid of a style.  The change in my playing was dramatic.  I had cut my playing down to the essential structures and started to build again.

I still can't believe how simple this change was.  I focused on playing the notes in the chords when I improvised.  Scales eviscerate when you think this way.  Scales, if anything at all are a result of playing a few different arpeggios in a row, as you shouldn't be playing scales in A B C D E F G order anyway.  I don't know if I would have come to this musical catharsis without taking a step back and taking the guitar out of my hands. I'm reminded if a great quote:
"Take the horn out your mouth," Miles exclaimed to John Coltrane after John explained that "once I start playing, I can't stop".  I took the guitar out of my hands in order to get to the next level.

Now, this radical advice won't work for everyone.  A lot of it depends on timing.  Can you really take the time off?  For most professional musicians, a sabbatical like this would be impossible.  Maybe it's not impossible for you.  And to be clear, I'm not advocating that you quit forever.  You should stop just long enough to reset your system.  And when you do come back to it, do it differently.  Otherwise, you'll just fall back into your old habits.  I can guarantee that almost everyone reading this has had a period where life got busy and you didn't play got a while.  Those bumps in the road rarely lead to reflection about your playing because you're so busy with something else.  I'm talking about stopping in a period where you otherwise would be playing or practicing all the time.  In lieu of playing, I'm advocating that you think about music in a different way and work it into your soul.

Part of the magic for me was that this coincided with a move.  I was starting everything else over, so why not music.  Even funnier is that this die-hard jazz guitarist came back as a Strat player with a penchant for single coil tone, and light distortion on my tube amp.

Try it. It just may change your life and your playing forever. Thanks, Matt. One day I'll get you thank you in person for this...


You can also visit with Marc at his blog - The Efficient Guitarist

Just can't get enough? Check out...