When I was about 17, I decided to try and learn to play the guitar. I already had 8 years of piano lessons under my belt, and thought it would be great to learn another instrument. The guitar was useful, portable, beautiful. And playing it was painful. So I quit. I’m just not a fan of pain.
Then 2 years ago I was again drawn to the useful portability of the guitar when I was working for my temple’s religious school. I pushed through the pain and found that after about a month it didn’t hurt any more. Instead, it was fun. A few months later, I started writing songs on the guitar, and found a whole new world of options for my songwriting.
I’ve studied music, specifically the piano, for over 26 years. I have a handle on how music works, and what options are available to me. I know my theory, I know my piano. In college I gained a better grasp on how melodies, good melodies, work. I also learned how harmony does work, how it has evolved, how we can push the boundaries ever-so-slightly to get exactly the sound we want without exactly breaking the rules. I wrote songs which depended on this knowledge. If I ran into a road-block, I used my knowledge to solve the problem. In essence, I used a lot of the math qualities in my writing.
Then I learned to play the guitar. Rather, play AT the guitar. And to write songs using the guitar. At first I was restricted by my knowledge of music, because some guitar chords are simply difficult to play. I tried to use the math system I developed, but since my guitar knowledge and abilities were severely limited, so were my solution options. So I went online and decided that I would try to learn all the chords. Again, like when I was 17, I gave up because of pain. I just really don’t like pain if it can be avoided. I still learned the occasional chord in order to enhance my knowledge a bit, but if it hurt, I just swapped it out for something easier. Yup, I’m lazy.
Sometime around February of this year I was sitting with my guitar and decided to just goof off on it. I randomly pressed strings at various places on the fretboard. I found a lot of sounds I really liked, and a lot I didn’t. But due to the way guitars work, I just switched strings or frets (or both) until I found the sound acceptable. Then I started using my self-taught sounds in my songwriting.
It’s been very different for me. I love the math qualities of music. I love that the solution is frequently a half-step away. I love looking at the piano keys or the little black dots on the horizontal lines in order to find the answer. I have loved the results from my math music. But now I’m starting to love the random, feeling-based way I write via the guitar. It’s so different. The solution is still always near, but I don’t think it out. I feel it out: “My hand feels like it wants to be here-ish on the fretboard. My ears like the timbre of this combination of strings.”
I’m confident that I’m not playing anything “new”. Much more knowledgeable and practiced guitarists have likely produced similar or exact sounds. But to me, in my mind, the way I play at the guitar, I invented them. They’re mine. I don’t avoid open strings. I pretty much play everything in E or G, at least until I use the capo. I take my knowledge and theory training and moderately disregard it, because I’m looking for sound. Sure, those elements are still used, because they are ingrained at this point. But they are only part of the equation. They only influence what I want to hear, but not how I find what I want to hear.
Does this process take longer? You betcha. But it’s worth it. It enhances my songwriting. It enhances my hearing. It enhances me. I’m going with instinct over training. And it’s beautiful.