Learn the rules, then you can break them.

I was going to write about a song I’ve been writing that has been giving me some trouble. I’ve been trying to create a solo for a slow blues song and lately I haven’t been able to write down what I want. I remembered a conversation from a few weeks ago, so instead today’s post is about learning the basics of something before you break the rules.

The other day I was struggling to hit a certain pitch on the high E string, 15th fret. I kept messing up so I decided to just work on some scales and get a feel for the key I was playing in. As I started repeating the scales that I’ve played over and over, I remembered something interesting that my Journalism professor said a few weeks back. We were talking about writing techniques, and knowing I’m a musician, he put the reference into terms I could better understand. As he was telling me about a form of writing, he said “It’s just like Hendrix playing the blues. You have to learn the rules, then you can break them.”

I left class that day hungry and tired, not really thinking about the conversation I just had. It must have stuck somewhere in my brain, because as I kept messing up and I started to get frustrated, I remembered what my professor had said.

In so many hobbies or skills that we try to build, it’s easy to look at idols like famous musicians or athletes and become frustrated when we can’t copy the amazing things they’re doing. Why can’t I play that song? Why can’t I jump that high? Why can’t I move my hands that fast? These are all things I’ve wondered about myself while comparing myself to my idols. But as I’ve kept playing the guitar and continued to practice, time has shown me that the only way to improve at something is to try, mess up, learn, and try again.

Music is a hobby where I started off wanting to sound like other people. After a decade of playing I’ve finally found my own sound, but that took a very long time. I’m a particularly impatient person sometimes, and learning the guitar has majorly influenced my patience and work ethic over the years. Learning the chords and scales, how to change keys or play in different tunings, and how to begin improvising are all skills that I learned by first mastering the basics of guitar.

The point of this rant is to tell you musicians that you NEED to learn the basics of your instrument before you can attempt to master it. You need to learn the chords on your guitar. You need to learn the basic C-scale. You need to learn how to play a pentatonic scale. You need to learn the rules before you can break them.

I’ve been playing guitar for a while now, and performing at gigs around Winnipeg for roughly three years. Until recently I wasn’t confident in my soloing or improvising while on stage. I would have to only play the studio-version or a boring solo because I wasn’t confident enough to go wild and just play.

However, all of the times that I messed up a note or didn’t hit the solo the way I wanted, I’d go home that night and play my entire setlist again before I went to sleep. I’d go through each song, and play all of the guitar layers until they were exactly how I wanted to sound. The backing rhythm, the acoustic layer, and my basic lead guitar would all have to be PERFECT before I tried playing the solo again.

On nights like this, where I was unhappy with a performance, I’d stay up playing until 4a.m. I noticed something interesting about these angry, late night jam sessions. I would suck at a solo, which would force me to stay up and break the song down and perfect it. Every time that I would do this, I would try to play the solo, and it would be better than ever before.

This happened more often than I would like to admit. I would completely re-learn the chords and rhythm of a song, which would in turn make my soloing significantly smoother and overall better. Looking back, this is kind of common sense, but I thought I would share these thoughts before you get trapped into the black-hole that I did some nights.

When you’re learning a song, learn every layer, and learn every part. Not just the lead section. And when you’re not learning a specific song, go back and practice your scales and chord changes. I guarantee you’ll find that soloing and jamming will come easier once you’re basic skills are in better shape.

Cheers.

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