Brian's Guitar Journal

Day 131 : Welcome to the Jungle

If you’ve been reading this blog a while, or if you’ve ever taken a lesson with me, you know I use metaphors like there going out of style… which is a simile. Maybe it’s actually simile that I’m using all the time. Oh well. That’s not important right now.

Right now I want to tell you how my guitar practice became a journey into the jungle. Every day I start practice here in the studio, stiff and stilted. My head is wrapped up tight with daily responsibilities, expectations, deadlines. My knees, hips and shoulders are locked up in the puritanical, eternally-anglo, defensive clench. In this position the notes and sounds within my immediate grasp are just awful. The melodies and harmonic structures are all lazy, shallow, pattern-based and trite. Lucky for me I’ve learned that there is a way out of this place.

I found out a long time ago that all the good sounds, all the exciting musical ideas, are out there: in the jungle. The guitar is such an amazing instrument capable of a seemingly infinite shades of tone, and dynamics. Just this simple arrangement of strings over frets lends itself to so many techniques: picking, strumming, legato, bending, tapping, harmonics, rasgueados – each twisting and coloring the melodic line, rhythmic pulse or harmonic structure in ways that are still yet to be discovered.

I remember when I first started venturing out into the jungle. It was a frantic mess. A blind dash into the unknown followed up by pangs of hunger to find something. Something consonant. Something cool. Something that will impress friends. Something I can sell. If I found a particularly rich patch of sonic resource, I’d get out my tape recorder or draw a little fretboard map so that I’d know where I could come back to excavate with heavy machinery. My ego fantasized about marking off some rectangular patch of sound and calling it my home. “My” sound. I looked around in awe at all this infinite potential and sighed at how long it would take me to tame it all.

But the jungle will never belong to anyone. In fact, if you hang out in the jungle long enough, you will eventually return to it in your heart. You will relax and become at home out here. Slowly that is what is happening to me. I can see that right now I’m moving from one extreme toward the other. I spend literally all my time trying to get way out there in the jungle, where I discover exotic sounds and thrilling new combinations of sounds.

I don’t try to tame anything, but I notice my head full of duality and theory still can’t help but abstract and categorize what I hear and how it is made. That may or may not change. I’m not trying to be any particular way. The ability to abstract and categorize is precisely what allowed me break out of the civilized musical world, so if anything it’s an asset. But it is a tool that I will drop on the ground immediately if it keeps me from climbing a dangerously tall tree or swimming down into the darkness of a cold lake. If it’s not there when I get back, or if one day I simply find there is no reason to pick it back up again, I suppose I’ll be done with theory on that day. But for now I still use it a lot.

The other important thing is the felling. The feeling of strength, balance and oxygen in the muscles and bones. Relaxation isn’t the right word because there is definitely time of intense exertion. But it all feels a lot more relaxed than the grinding of muscles and joints that I felt when I tried to play “properly”. The entry to this is in the breathing. Take deep diaphragm breaths. Notice how the breath can sometimes feel like it is extending all the way to the fingertips. Bend your knees and keep weight forward on your feet. Lastly, the spine has to be staked properly. Like a wild animal whose never had to sit at a desk. Never had to punch a clock. Never had to post a blog.

Even these blog posts seem as though they must be becoming more and more opaque to a general audience. I wonder if I am losing the trail of breadcrumbs back to civilization. Well, if that’s that true than I want to make sure I tell you (while I still can) that civilization’s overrated. You should get out here any way you can. It is a bright beautiful huge world that is a thousand times better than being locked up, stiff, safe and inside.

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