How the Navy SEALS Taught Me To Learn the Guitar
First off, no, I am not a Navy SEAL. On my best day, I couldn’t have fetched their water.
But I have read and watched plenty of fiction and non-fiction about these American heroes and their approach to the demanding job they volunteered to do for this country. And one thing that has always struck me is the collection of maxims they use to describe that job and their approach to it.
I have discovered that many of them can be adapted to any job, including learning to play the guitar. If you are trying to learn something new or just need motivation to complete a project, let the Seals lend you a hand.
The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday
This means that each day you need to work harder than the day before. And when you do that, yesterday seems easy. I apply this to my guitar playing by raising the bar every time I sit down to practice. I may review what I did yesterday, but I never rest on my laurels.
Every day I add a new song, a new measure, or sometimes a single note. Or if it is a phrase I am already playing through, I up the metronome’s speed. Each day I add a level of difficulty or complexity that makes yesterday seem easy.
Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
The SEALS spend a great deal of time in their training being uncomfortable. Practicing how to function in the most adverse environments, even undergoing torture, teaches how to adapt to it.
And while the pain of learning guitar can’t be equated to waterboarding, it still hurts. And you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Half of playing the guitar is pressing your fingertips down onto pieces of wire against a wood surface. Then sliding those fingertips up and down the piece of wire. This is uncomfortable. In fact, it hurts. But like any adversity, your body learns to adapt. Over a period of weeks, you develop callouses on your fingertips, so you can get comfortable being uncomfortable.
The other part is holding your right arm in an awkward position and moving your right hand up and down repeatedly. Don’t believe me? Hold your right arm out away from your body with your elbow up and out. Then extend your forearm down at a forty-five-degree angle with your hand somewhere around your waist, but out about eight inches.
Now hold it there for an hour.
And you haven’t plucked the first string yet.
(With apologies to left-handed people, I will refer to how I do things when I am playing throughout this piece.)
But like any exercise, repetition breeds, if not comfort, then at least tolerance. I’ve been playing for ten months, at least an hour every day, and my right arm is still sore from time to time. And both hands.
All in, All the Time
Half measures avail you nothing. Learning the guitar or any new skill requires total commitment and focus. Getting an expensive guitar and watching a couple of YouTube videos of Slash or Eric Clapton will only make you broke and frustrated.
You have to go all in, all the time. Like I said above, I have practiced every day for at least an hour for ten months. Most days, it was more like two. That’s hundreds of hours I’ve put into this thing. SEAL training runs about 20 hours a day for 24 weeks, so I’ve got a ways to go. They also say that it takes 10,000 hours to master something, so I’m not even close.
But, I’m still all in, all the time. Every day. Twenty minutes of warmup, twenty minutes of lessons, and twenty minutes of practice. At least. More if I can. Because that’s what it takes.
There’s a guy out there selling the proposition that it only takes 20 hours, not 10,000, to learn something.
I’m calling bullshit. First, they say it takes 10,000 hours to master something, not learn it. And what does learn mean? I don’t know what that guy means, but I can guarantee you, in 20 hours, you barely know where the strings are.
If you try to follow the advice of guys like that, you will fail at whatever it is you are trying to do. Twenty hours isn’t all in. That’s one day in the life of a SEAL and about three weeks of learning the guitar. Just getting started.
Two Is One and One Is None
This has to do with redundancy. If you are out in the crap and people are trying to kill you, it’s no good relying on a single piece of equipment. You need backups. And backups of your backups.
And learning the guitar or anything else is the same way. You can’t do something once and say you know it. Every new thing I tackle, I practice over and over, dozens of times a day. And it will take days, if not weeks, to learn each thing. That’s hundreds of times, not one.
Even if you feel you have truly learned something, you need to be able to do it without looking at it or thinking about it. I’ll get back to that one in a minute, but assuming you know something and really knowing it are two different things.
A SEAL knows how to take their weapon apart and put it back together. In the dark. Because they may have to. One thing I will do as I get close to mastering a piece is to play it with my eyes closed. You’ve trained ten fingers to do the job, you shouldn’t need your eyes to help.
One of my favorite teachers on YouTube is Mary Spender. She will frequently talk about a song while playing it. Think about that. She is looking into the camera, talking to you. Meanwhile, her hands are playing a song. How many hundreds of times did she have to play that song to be able to do that?
One is none.
Slow Is Smooth, Smooth Is Fast
Ahh, this is a good one. And probably the most important of all. It is also the hardest to learn. I struggled with it. Everyone struggles with it.
Napolean had his own version, Dress me slowly, I am in a hurry.
What this means is that each movement needs to be well thought out and perfectly executed. And the only way to achieve that is through repetitive practice. But, as another saying wrongly asserts, practice doesn’t make perfect. Another of my teachers, Justin Sandercoe, says it repeatedly Practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect.
And the only way to practice perfectly is to slow down. One note on one string. As guitarists or any skill, we enjoy watching people that are good at it. Whether it’s Eric Clapton, Chet Atkins, or Slash, they are masters of their craft. And they can play very fast and do it perfectly.
But that’s not how they learned it. They learned it by going slow and playing each note precisely and perfectly. One note on one string. And once they mastered that note, they moved on to the next.
I thought teaching my right and left hands to do two different things simultaneously in perfect synchronicity would be difficult. And it is. Then, I started trying to learn Travis picking. This is a style of play named after the great Merle Travis but made more famous by the likes of Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, and many others. The song Dust in the Wind by Kansas is a great, modern-day example.
But with Travis picking, it’s not enough to teach your two hands to work separately. Your left thumb is also working independently. Sometimes, seemingly playing a completely different tune than the rest of your fingers.
And for one song I am trying to master, I am literally learning one note at a time. Very slowly. Music is measured in beats per minute (BPM). Most songs played at speed start at around 100 BPM and go up to a ridiculous number. I usually start at about 40 BPM and am happy if I can get it to 80.
If you try to learn anything fast and ignore the mistakes you make, you will know how to do it with mistakes. You won’t get the speed down and then fix the mistakes later. Those mistakes will be hardwired into your muscle memory forever.
No Plan Survives First Contact With the Enemy
This one I learned the hard way and was literally shocked by it. I had been practicing for about three months and had a couple of eight-bar pieces I felt I had mastered. I could play them without mistakes over and over. With my eyes closed.
And then, I made contact with the enemy. And by enemy, I mean a live audience. In this case, my wife. I sat down in front of her and placed my fingers on the strings, and began to…
Completely screw up. Missed notes, forgotten phrases. It was a disaster.
But it was a valuable learning experience that the SEALS had already warned me about. I just didn’t listen.
So, that’s when I figured out I needed even more practice. I needed to be able to play the song without thinking about it. One is none. I needed to play it so often that I couldn’t make a mistake if I wanted to. One teacher suggested playing the song while you are watching TV. I still haven’t gotten that far.
So now, every day, part of my practice is ten pieces I am trying to master. And each week, I play five of those for my bride. Whether she likes it or not. And every month or two, I rotate a new piece into the mix. Because even now, seven months later, I still rarely get through an entire part perfectly.
And until I do, no one else will ever hear me play.
“I’ll know my song well before I start singing”
And finally, there is one more SEAL maxim that I knew before I ever began this journey because that’s who I am.