I remember the first time I ever saw a guitar tuner. I was sitting offstage with my father—I don’t remember where. I couldn’t have been more than seven years old.
Dad’s guitar was in his lap, and he asked me to hold the tuner for him. It was this giant black box, much bigger than my hand, with what looked like an old radio dial inside. Dad would pluck a string and the red needle behind the tiny window would move sharply and suddenly, as if blown by a gust of wind, stopping somewhere a little off center.
On the tuner was a tiny switch with six labeled stops, one for each string. After each string was tuned, with that needle perfectly centered and balanced, dad would give the go-ahead, and I’d flip the switch to the next string.
It reminded me of other tools he’d shown and explained to me, like a carpenter’s level. And to me that’s what it was, and is to this day: the tuner is a tool of the craft, just like any hammer or level or coffee can filled with nails.
Tune Your Mind
We all know the importance of tuning the guitar. It’s just part of your job as a guitarist, right?
What if, after you tuned your guitar, you took your hands off the instrument entirely and paused to think about what you want to play, learn, or practice in this session?
What if you took a minute to tune your mind the same way you tune your guitar, and didn’t play a single note until you’d centered your mind on one thing?
Your mind is, in fact, an instrument you can tune. You choose what to fix your attention on at any given moment, and by doing that you choose to ignore everything else. And given the amount of information that blasts each of us in the face each day, deciding what to focus in on and what to tune out of is beyond important. It’s practically a survival technique for this modern-day digital jungle.
Smitch touched on this in his Guitar Meditation post when he talked about surrounding yourself with things that make you think about music. Things that make you want to play guitar. He’s absolutely right—first, you’re never too old to start plastering your walls with pictures of your idols. Second, the most basic tactic for getting good at anything is to give it your diligent attention. And that alone is surprisingly difficult. It’s hard enough that I’ve spent years of my life just training myself to hold my own attention in one place.
So in addition to nesting yourself among posters of your heroes and stacks of CDs, you can also control the inner environment of your mind itself by simply making decisions about where you want to place your attention, and then following through on that decision.
Easier said than done, right?
I’ve found it absolutely necessary to take a few minutes before every practice session to have a chat with myself about what the focus of the session is going to be—and also a chat about things that I’m not going to do during the session. No noodling. No checking the smartphone.
Then, throughout the session, I make a habit of constantly checking whether I’m doing what I resolved to do, or whether my mind and hands have wandered.
I’ll admit it: I wander constantly. But I also constantly pull myself back to my original purpose. Sometimes that purpose is practicing something fairly dry, other times that purpose is struggling with a creative problem that’s arisen in a song I’m writing. But either way, for me each practice session is a constant process of pulling the mental needle back on center.
Your Mind is Like a Beater Guitar
Hopefully your guitar stays in tune fairly well once you’ve tuned each string. There’s something pleasing about setting each string right, one at a time, isn’t there? And then it most likely stays in tune quite well for a while.
Well, unfortunately, our minds don’t stay in tune at all. I know mine doesn’t.
Have you ever tried to meditate? It’s hilarious. I try every day for twenty to thirty minutes. Every single time, I’m amazed at how often I find myself distracted. Some days go well—that is, I manage to stay fairly focused for thirty seconds or so at a time, a major win—but more often than that I spend most of a thirty-minute breath meditation just catching myself wandering (again) and pulling myself back (again and again and again).
It’s a lot like trying to tune a warped guitar with seven-year-old strings on it. You may get a string in tune for a few seconds, but it quickly slips. That’s just the way our minds are, and improving on that can feel like tuning and tuning and tuning a broken-down old beater guitar for days on end.
Gradually, things do get better, but only gradually. So when you’re practicing, please stay alert for distraction—but have a sense of humor about it, and be patient with your own lack of discipline. Just keep tuning, and tuning, and tuning. Keep pulling that needle gently but firmly back to center whenever you notice it drifting.
The Simplest, Most Difficult Thing in the World
Meditation is the basic practice of choosing where to put your attention, deciding how long you’re going to hold it there, and then doing it. And it’s never easy.
Go ahead and try it: focus your attention on something that you know you need to practice. Set a timer. Then begin. Continually pull your attention back to the task whenever you notice you’ve wandered. Your mind is an instrument that deserves just as much care and maintenance as your guitar—more, actually, and even if you spend the entire session just struggling with yourself, believe me—that’s a productive struggle.
This is the simplest and most difficult thing in the world. It will not only make you a better guitarist, but it’ll train you in the ability to focus your full attention on one thing at a time—and that will serve you well in every area of life.