Why Mastering The Guitar Is Like Massaging A Dead Octopus

Octopus Playing Guitar

Read Time 3 Minutes

Massaging Freshly Dead Octopi

“Once you decide on your occupation you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work… you must dedicate yourself to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.” –Jiro Ono

Nestled into a tiny space in a Tokyo subway station you’ll find Sukiyabashi Jiro, a high-end sushi restaurant. The place has only ten seats, each of which is spoken for at least a month in advance of every meal. It serves no drinks. It serves no appetizers. This is a sushi place, and sushi is all you’ll get.

Octopus Playing Guitar
This is what playing guitar is like.

The owner, Jiro Ono, is 86 years old. He’s been making sushi his entire life, and his standards are uncompromising. Under Jiro’s strict direction, apprentices toil for decades and decades at the spadework associated with making great sushi. The newest recruits get the toughest, least rewarding jobs–they spend their days washing dishes and massaging freshly dead octopi for an hour at a time to make the meat tender. If fledgling guitarists had to undergo a similar process, we’d spend our first months or years on the job just tuning guitars and changing strings.

“I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it.” –Jiro

Jiro’s son Yoshikazu has spent his life apprenticing under his father. Yoshikazu is now fifty years old, and he’s due to inherit the restaurant from Jiro someday. Asked to explain the secret behind great sushi, Yoshikazu explains that there’s some amount of inborn talent involved–some of us are born with a more sensitive sense of smell and taste than others. Obviously someone who can’t tell a Cheez-it from a cheesecake probably isn’t going to get far. But beyond that, the techniques of creating sushi are well-known. There really is no secret other than focus and endurance.

“It really comes down to those who repeat the same things every day…” –Yoshikazu Ono

Guitar Mastery Takes Staunch Dedication

Could this be any more similar to what it takes to master the guitar? The principles of playing well aren’t exactly classified or confidential. There’s probably some talent involved, sure, but talent alone doesn’t get anybody to the top. Mastery takes staunch dedication and daily practice stretching on for months, years, and decades. Sitting around dreaming just doesn’t cut it.

All the materials you could want or need are all within reach. You can easily roll enough change to grab a copy of Ted Greene’s Chord Chemistry, and that book will keep you busy for years. All the fundamentals of music theory are readily available via books, teachers, and websites. The internet’s packed full of guitar lessons and information, of course. All these treasures are just lying around on the ground waiting to be picked up by anyone who’s willing to put in the time.

There’s no shortage of resources. What’s scarce is the motivation and the willpower to truly make the guitar a central focus–not just for a week. Not just for a month. For life.

That kind of focus isn’t easy. It takes real staying power to constantly workshop whatever’s weak in your playing, to traverse the same tough passages over and over until they finally sound clean and fluid. And it takes determination to learn music theory well enough to compose and improvise music with true freedom.

To improve your art, you’ve got to push yourself a little further into uncomfortable territory every day and stick with it until that becomes comfortable. You’re constantly turning up the heat.

Watching Jiro Ono at work in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it’s easy to see that the master still digs his work this late in the game. He might even dig it more at age 86 than ever before in his life. Jiro says that when he works, he feels “triumphant”. And why shouldn’t he? That’s the satisfaction of knowing you’re at the top of your game. I think we’d all love to know what that feels like.

Even now, Jiro’s still pushing himself. Still practicing. Still reaching.

“I’ll continue trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.” –Jiro Ono

Yeah, our hands and our brains are going to be sore from massaging that sonic octopus we call a guitar. But it’s a good, satisfying kind of soreness, right?

Let’s make a pact right now to never let that guitar get dusty. Let’s do the work.

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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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