Fresh on the heels of returning from the transformative experience that was Vai Academy, I had the opportunity to record an episode of the Vibrato.fm podcast. These two seemingly disconnected events got me thinking about what it means to be a "good" guitarist and our insatiable desire to compare ourselves to others.
I don't know if other instrumentalists have this same issue, but guitarists just love to rank and compare each other. I don't know if it's baked into the culture or some primordial facet of the instrument itself. What I do know is that it's often a fruitless exercise that probably does more harm than good.
Think of the simple experience of walking into a guitar store to try something out. The second you walk in you're probably subconsciously scouting out who is already in the store and playing. Are they putting on a one-man clinic? Are they playing quietly and meekly? Are they better than you? We can't help, we love judging other guitarists.
Here's the thing though: this attitude only brings frustration, heartache and lot of bad karma into the universe. Rob Chapman put it best in this video:
The Amazing Race
So what does this mean in the context of learning the instrument and growing as a musician? I think of this in pseudo-mathematical terms (bear with me). Imagine an infinite plane full of guitarists. You can think of one direction as being less experienced and the opposite as being more experienced. The funny thing about infinite planes is that you can put a point anywhere on it and it's exactly in the middle of the plane. Because all sides stretch into infinity everywhere is essentially the middle. In the realm of guitar it means that wherever you are, there are just as many players on either side of you on the continuum of skill and experience no matter how good you get.
Depressing? It is only if you cling to the notion of measuring your own progress in relation to others. If you flip your thinking around it's actually a very liberating concept. Since you're always in the middle it's pointless to try to be better than anyone else. It doesn't mean that there's no progress or growth, only that the yardstick of measuring it in relation to other guitarists is ineffective and inaccurate.
Now you may be thinking, "wait Guthrie Govan is better than 99.9% of all other guitarists. How the hell is he in the middle?" If you were to ask any really accomplished guitarist if they thought they had mastered the instrument, they would likely say "no" and list all of the things other players can do that they wish they had in their arsenal. Yes, even Yngwie.
Is the population of guitarists more experienced than a Govan smaller than the one for me or you? Yes, but that's not the point. No matter how good a player is, they never get to the top. This isn't college football—there are no weekly rankings issued. The grand ziggurat of guitarists is all in our minds.
High-minded philosophy in the comfort of your home is one thing, but how does it apply in our daily musical lives? How do we deal with that odd mix of awe and envy we feel in the presence of a player that blows us away and makes us doubt our worthiness as a guitarist?
When you hear someone that is "good" you're hearing things that touch you musically. The reason we all have favorite players is that there's some mysterious part of their musical choices that stimulate something deep in our own psyches. It may be that the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan aligns exactly with your own inner-music. But more likely than not, SRV's music covers just a portion of it. That's why we tend to have multiple guitarists that we really like.
When you hear someone play that moves you, think about what it is they do that causes that reaction. Is there something you can learn from that? Is there something you can incorporate into your own style? Thinking more along these lines and less about the "rankings" will give you a whole new appreciation both for the player as well as your own musical tastes.
The real musical journey we are all making is finding that music within. It's finding those notes, rhythms and textures that deeply move us. When we first start out, we find it in the playing of others. As we progress we start to find more of it within ourselves. That's the stuff that matters. Heroes and influences are great for starting the journey, but ultimately we have to figure out who we are as a player and musician.
In the end, the great rat-race of guitarists trying to establish credibility and stake out territory as "the greatest" is pointless. Ultimately you're stuck with yourself and you won't really grow or find happiness with music until you come to terms with that. I can't out-Steve Vai Steve Vai himself, but I'll be damned if anyone is going to out-Alex Vollmer me.