Maintaining Musicality Upon Achieving Dexterity

5 Things You Can Do To Not Get Caught Up In The Physical Aspect of Playing

To learn the guitar is a physically demanding instrument on the hands. You're digging your fingertips into metal and wood as hard as you can. You can get blisters and/or blood blisters until you develop calluses. Once you've got the calluses on your fingertips, there are other parts of the hands that also need them as you advance. You start learning to bend strings, and you realize your calluses weren't all that tough.

And then there's all the (what I refer to as) math. Ok, blues in A, that's the 5th fret. I'll use the A blues scale to solo that's on the 5th fret, too. The flat 7 sounds good on blues, that's G, which is the 8th fret of the second string.

And by the time you've thought through that process, 4 measures have gone by.

You *have* to think fast. You have to keep time. You have to listen to the other musicians you're playing with, and not let that detract from your playing. You gotta look up and smile so you don't scare away people in the audience.

Once you've got past that point, it becomes lessons in dexterity. Can you play this pattern, of this scale, as 16th notes at 120bpm? What are the modes of that scale? What other chords would that scale work with? So much thinking, and so much to think about.

The listener, however, just wants to take in some good music.

Do not ever, ever forget that.

All in all, we are playing to the layperson. The layperson is not concerned if you're using the 3rd mode of harmonic major or the 7th mode of melodic minor. They don't care if you just pulled off three measures of 8th note quintuplets in alternating 3rds using that scale. All they want to do is listen to music and, as Billy Joel (gag me) says, 'forget about life for a while'.

Bill Evans, in a documentary called 'The Universal Mind of Bill Evans', argues that in music; the opinion of the layperson is almost more valuable than that of an expert. The layperson is not caught up in the technicality of playing music-- they simply want to enjoy it.

On a side note, what a strange thing. No other field has that quandary. Perhaps that's why famous musicians are often at odds with music critics. They have no idea what goes into creating art, what value could their opinion possibly hold? No one says they prefer the quadratic formula's structure over the convoluted kinematic equations and derivative nature from E=mc2. People aren't opinionated over the benefit of wooden telephone poles over steel.

Strangely, it's the layperson's lack of knowledge of music that makes them the expert; and that is who, regardless of genre, you must always play for. What that boils down to is being melodic.

One way I explain the achievement of dexterity to my students is like vocabulary. You have a good vocabulary and command over the English language, but if you're constantly busting out the $0.25 words your friends are going to think you're constantly being condescending. I'm reminded of a scene from "30 Rock" where Jack Donaghy says to Dot Com, 'this need you have to be the smartest guy in the room is... off putting. '. Dot Com's downtrodden response is, 'I guess that's why I'm still single. '.

Overplaying might not cost you a significant other, but it may cost you fans.

So here are some ideas to consider when you're 3 measures into your solo and are already playing the altered natural 5 scale in 16th note quintuplets:

1.) Think melodic.
This cannot be stressed enough. The fancy chops mean nothing if there's not a solid foundation for them to decorate.
I'll sing the melody to the song as I start a solo. It provides a place to start, melodically, to build on top of. You don't need to even start on the same note, just try mimicking its contour and rhythm.

2.) Think rhythmically.
The greatest melodies all have a strong rhythmic component, which is often something relatively simple. Or, listen to the phrases the bass player or drummer are using and try to mimic those rhythms. That kind of stuff also makes the band sound tighter.

You can play jingle bells using the whole tone scale, and it will still sound like jingle bells because the rhythm is distinct to jingle bells. Rhythm is the glue that holds music together. Before humans were stretching animal guts across hollowed out pieces of wood, or blowing into hollowed out pieces of bone (that's pretty twisted, who thought of doing that?), we were beating on things.

Sonny Rollins

3.) Breathe.
All pitched instruments are trying to mimic the sound of the human voice. All humans must breathe to stay alive. So in trying to create these melodic phrases, exhale as you do so. Leave space where you inhale, just as a singer would.

4.) Transcribe.
Learn note for note solos of great instrumentalists. Ideally, write it all down, but at least get where you can play along with the recording. If you only play shred guitar, learn a David Gilmour solo. If you only play rock, learn a Grant Green or Sonny Rollins solo. Taking yourself out of your comfort zone will also get you seeing new ideas that you can incorporate within your comfort zone. You'll see some techniques are universal within music, and some are often within one style. You'll also gain insight into how a genius approaches their instrument.

David Gilmour
Grant Green

The greatest musicians are ones who aren't afraid of taking themselves out of their comfort zone. Whether it's learning a completely new style, or the note for note transcriptions of players better than them; there is a world beyond technical mastery.
Technical mastery is really only the first step.

Guitar Blogger Adam Douglass

Adam Douglass has been playing guitar for 25 years and teaching for a good 20. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York where he is an instructor; and plays with his band doing his original music, jazz standards, or whatever other gigs might come his way. His guitar of choice is the Fender Stratocaster, though if money were no object he'd have 3 or 4 of everything. He prefers tube screamer-like overdrives and clean boosts, with touch of analog delay. Hit him up at, as he is always happy to discuss interesting topics.

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