Handcuffed To The Fretboard: Why You Still Haven’t Mastered The Basics

Read Time 3 Minutes

Getting Back to Basics

“Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they’ve been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don’t explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing.” –Tom Waits

Most guitarists find at some point that their fingers outrun their brains.  Their hands click magnetically into place on the same old licks and riffs. The same old songs. It’s like having your fingers stuck on autopilot.

Some people are totally happy with that. They just want to get a tiny taste of what it feels like to play their favorite rock riff. And you know what? Rock on.

If that’s you’re content with that, I say go for it. There’s nothing wrong with being a hobbyist, rocking out once in a while, making a little noise. Life’s short. Crank it up, disturb some air molecules. Have fun.

But if you’re content being a hobbyist, this post (and the posts to come) might not be for you.

Here I’m talking to the creatively restless. I’m talking to those who don’t just want to parrot the same material that thousands of other guitarists are parroting.

The problem is, once you’ve learned to mimic a few wicked-sounding licks, it gets hard to find the motivation to go back and learn the basics. Maybe you’ve even come up with a few killer riffs of your own out of trial and error. Or sheer talent (you lucky dog). But such happy accidents still leave you stumped on how to work with those riffs or expand on them.

At that point, you find yourself stuck in a very uncomfortable space. By then, the noodling habit is deeply ingrained—which makes it tough to focus on the fundamentals—yet you don’t have a solid foundation, so you can’t really build on your skills either. When you play something cool and original, you don’t really understand what you did right, and can’t learn from your own best work.

That’s a tough spot to be stuck in. Let’s face it: after months or years of stumbling in the dark, it’s hard to humble yourself and mentally commit to being a beginner again.

Overplaying (playing beyond your understanding) is so seductive because it allows you to roughly imitate the work of advanced musicians… and it allows you to play those advanced-sounding things very quickly.

To play “Black Dog”, All you have to do is look up a guitar tab and wiggle your fingers in exactly the right patterns. Within a few hours or days, you’ve learned to play “Black Dog”. Your friends all slap themselves on the head and go “Whoa, you play like Jimmy Page! Hey guys, come check this out!”

But have you gained any deeper understanding of that riff? Have you actually learned anything about how music is created? Are you really making music in the sense that Jimmy Page makes music?

If you want to write your own music, improvise, and realize your full artistic potential, you’re going to need more than just a bag of memorized tricks. You’re going to need a rich palette of skills, techniques, and music theory to draw from while expressing yourself.

So if your fingers outrun your brain, and you need to backtrack to learn your ABC’s… this new series is for you. In the posts to come, we’ll be getting back to basics.

We’re going to:

Get a fresh start by clearing our minds and hands of old habits.

  • Learn to trust the process and have faith in ourselves.
  • Get back on track when we catch ourselves noodling.
  • Take small daily steps.
  • Enjoy the basics.
  • Gain real knowledge of music and its creation.
  • And we’re going to make it all as interesting and pleasurable as possible.

When you get back to basics, you experience a new satisfaction. Deep relief. A sense of peace. You’re laying a rock-solid foundation that you can build on. It’s good, honest work.

With that work comes a level of confidence, consistency, and freedom that dabblers may envy but will never taste for themselves.

Seriously. If you’ve read this far, you owe it to yourself to commit.

If you’re on board, a lot of work lies ahead. But the work itself is trivial compared to the satisfaction of doing what you’re called to do.

Thanks for reading.

Your homework is to take a quick inventory of what you have. To make the most of this series you’ll need:

  • A Guitar.
  • A Tuner.
  • At least one good guitar book.
  • A music theory book.

You’ll have most—if not all—of that stuff lying around your house already.

See you next time.

Handcuffed Part 2 can be found here.
Handcuffed Part 3 can be found here.

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Nicholas Tozier

Nicholas Tozier is a book hoarder and songbird from the woods of Maine. In 2012 he made a small cameo in Songwriting Without Boundaries by Berklee professor Pat Pattison, and was named one of CDBaby’s top 10 Songwriting Resources to follow on Twitter.

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10 years ago

now this article really stuck a thorn in me can’t wait for part 2

Nicholas Tozier
Nicholas Tozier
Reply to  George
10 years ago

Thanks George! Coming soon.

10 years ago

Part 2 should come out soon!!

Nicholas Tozier
Nicholas Tozier
Reply to  Haggai
10 years ago

Working on it as we speak, Haggai!

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