I was once approached by a prospective new student who was interested in expanding his lead guitar skills. His situation was one I’ve run into many times: he’s been playing and writing music on the guitar for many years, but simply stopped progressing at a certain point. He needed someone to help push him over that next roadblock. So over the course of a few months, I began working with him on scales, music theory, improvisation, articulation, and the other various techniques necessary to become a competent lead guitarist.
After a few months of working together, I could see he was the portrait of a model student. He was curious, interested, and above all dedicated. He was making consistent progress in not only his technique but also in his understanding of music theory. After I saw enough progress, I told him it was time to start thinking of some guitar solos by other musicians he’d like to learn himself.
His response to me was a little curious. He said, “you know, there was this old band I was in where we were thinking about learning some Metallica solos. The other guitarist said we shouldn’t do it because we’d end up sounding just like Metallica. Is that something I should be worried about?”
His question was one that came with a lot of layers, and really spoke to the fears and insecurities that keep many musicians from making progress. The answer I gave him in return was, “you’ll only end up sounding like Metallica if you want to sound like Metallica.”
It’s pretty obvious that his bandmate’s reason for not wanting to learn Metallica solos was a cover for his own insecurities. Learning songs written by other musicians is a necessary part of our growth on the instrument. Knowing all the techniques and having the dexterity to be a great lead guitarist is one thing, but learning to apply it all in a way that’s meaningful is another. That’s something you learn through studying the music of other great players who came before you, and then using those ideas to help build and expand your own creativity.
So why exactly do musicians come up with these kinds of excuses?
When I was a young guitar player, I had very little understanding of music theory. I was otherwise extremely dedicated; my free time outside of school and homework was spent mostly practicing new things and pushing myself harder and harder to become a better player. I would see people better than I was and become envious, and that pushed me to practice further into the night. Despite all that though, my lack of understanding of the mechanics and fundamentals of music was holding me back from achieving my real potential.
A friend of mine began to press me to join him in a music theory class. I came up with all the same excuses:
“You don’t need to understand music theory to play the guitar.”
“I’m worried being constrained by all those rules will hurt my creativity.”
“Lots of great players didn’t know music theory, why should I?”
It was, of course, the same kind of excuses my student’s bandmate was giving him. The truth was that deep down, I was scared of it. My first teacher had tried to explain the fundamentals to me, but it didn’t make any sense to me at the time. So instead I just avoided it, and that fear of failure caused me to create all sorts of rationalizations as to why I didn’t need it.
In high school all my friends started to get jobs at the local supermarkets and drug stores, and of course my parents urged me to join them. Since I was too stubborn to go work a regular job, I decided to start teaching guitar lessons.
At that point, I had to face up to the fact that I could no longer get away with not knowing music theory. How could I sell myself as a teacher if I didn’t understand the very basics of music? So I picked up a book and started learning.
Sure enough, it wasn’t so bad! In fact, it was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my musical growth. Music theory wasn’t a bunch of strict rules and procedures, it was a set of techniques for creating harmonic and rhythmic structure in music. It didn’t slow my creativity, it expanded it! I could suddenly start writing and creating music with more layers and complexity. And if for some reason I didn’t like certain rules, I could simply break them. Many great composers broke the rules and ended up evolving and expanding music as we know it.
The fears and anxieties holding me back were very similar to those that were stopping my student’s bandmate. The reason he didn’t want to learn any Metallica solos was simple: he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to. He was afraid he couldn’t match up to the level of skill required to master something new, and so he chose to avoid it completely.
We oftentimes avoid new challenges in music because we fear the failure of not being able to conquer them. That fear is the biggest thing that keeps us from reaching our true potential. Learning to overcome that fear is a big step in pushing ourselves forward. When you run into a challenge you simply can’t overcome, find a way to do so. Read some books, watch some YouTube videos, or find a good teacher who can help you! Do anything you can to conquer that new challenge, otherwise it will fester into a growth that will hold you back forever.