Practicing Guitar and Your “Happy” Brain Chemicals…

The Brain on DopamineThis is a pretty taboo subject, but let’s dive in.

I recently got an email from a reader saying:

“Hi Adam. I’m going through a phase where I can’t find any I situation or have as much fun playing as I used to. Have you got any idea or any tips or me to get back into it? Thanks – Mick”

Musicians are human, and all of us have ups & downs because it is built into our system. When we have ups & downs, much of “how we feel” has do do with the presence or absence of certain naturally produced brain chemicals.

(Paraphrased from Psychology Today:)

Dopamine, Endorphins, Oxytocin and Seratonin are what are known as our “Happy Chemicals.” It would of course be nice if we got a steady flood of these in our brains, but we don’t.

Sometimes we do things that are unhealthy to keep the happy chemicals flowing inside us.

For example, scans of peoples brains on cocaine show a dopamine “rush” flooding the brain, Then when the “dopamine” wears off, there is a let down, and then craving for more.

As guitarists – we may plug into a sexy digital delay or reverb, and the new sounds give a “rush.” Or we buy a new guitar because in the shop we get that rush. When I upload a video and get some “positive approval via feedback” dopamine floods my mind, and like anyone, I want to do it again and again.

But, like many stimuli – the more we do it, the more the effect lessens. For example – the juicy new guitar or effect pedal doesn’t release the same “juice” after a year of repeated exposure.

What then?

Let’s rephrase the question.

“What should I do when my guitar playing isn’t firing off my happy chemicals?”

Now this gets us closer to the issue. The music is not the variable, our brains are!

1) Get Curious – Learn Something New

When we play too much of the same stuff, we no longer get the chemical rush we once got from a piece of music. It may be time to learn something new, or maybe put the guitar down and listen to some new music.

2) Try a new sound to stimulate curiosity & discovery

Try playing a different guitar, playing your tunes with a capo at a new fret, or messing with some effects pedals. This can set off some new reactions in your brain – and this can help you get un-stuck.

Don’t spend too much money on this though – because the answer is in your brain, it’s not the “thing”

Sometimes I will take a guitar and tune it a step lower. Simple change but it “colors my world” differently, and then I am back in the flow!

3) Make it Social

Get some Dopamine flowing inside your brain from some “love and approval” and you’ll probably feel victorious.

Best is to play music in front of actual real living breathing people and get positive feedback. Small gigs, church and playing for family are all great for this.

Second best – share it online via Youtube or Facebook. One positive comment (a reward) will do the trick and get you feeling groovy again.

When I practice too much it feels meaningless, but when I play music for someone “makes it all worth it.”


Here is the most important tip of all. Even when you don’t feel like it, you have to think like the “boss”, not the “employee.”

Making new habits requires a “rewiring and redistribution” of chemcials so new things will feel uncomfortable, not worth it, and maybe not give the rush right away.

It may even feel threatening to not get your usual rush, and step into a new behavior, since these chemicals are used for our sense of “survival”.

  • The average employee wants to stop, take breaks and get away with getting paid and maybe not really working.
  • The basketball team wants to quit practice 10 minutes early.
  • The waitstaff wants to close the restaurant because there are so few customers.

It’s the coach, manager or boss that makes sure the company keeps producing, selling and kicking butt no matter what whether there are groovy feeling chemicals or not.

The Takeaway

Now that you know about the happy chemicals – you can see the bigger picture and discipline yourself better. Now, git to work!

How to Achieve Maximum Confidence for Performing Fingerstyle Guitar

Guitar Hands
Performing fingerstyle guitar on stage can be nerve-racking.

Something you have played perfectly at home suddenly “falls apart” when you try to get on stage and do it in front of people.

For my first few years touring, my hands would shake on stage too, so don’t worry – it’s normal.

I’m going to show you how to solve this problem.

[Read more…]

Don’t Wash Your Face Before a Fingerstyle Guitar Gig!

I have a tip you will thank me for later, and it’s all about right hand fingerstyle guitar technique.

Don’t wash your face before you play a gig.


Yes that’s right. Don’t wash your face.

It’s a great tip that my classical teacher showed me when I was 15 years old, and somehow my memory served it up the other night as I was going on stage.

[Read more…]

Adam Rafferty Rethinks Recording CDs & Distribution

Note: This article is NOT a gripe & whine session. It’s an inquiry of “what should musicians do now that the game has changed?”

  • Below I will outline 12 points.
  • Items 1 – 6 diagnose “the problem” with doing things the old way in the today’s environment (it’s a mismatch)
  • Items 7 – 11 become solution oriented, so yes there is hope! (we have to think differently)
  • Item 10 is my big AHA moment and I describe what I may do next

[Read more…]

Practicing Music or Practicing Guitar Technique – What’s Better?

Adam Rafferty guitar technique
Often when we hear a soulful musical performance we can’t imagine that the “wonderful music” had to be practiced technically.

Even though we are “feeling it” as listeners, much more than “feelings” had to go in to it.

Master musicians look at music from all angles, musical and technical.

Master musicians love it all…music and technique. They go together.

[Read more…]

Announcing – the “Fingerstyle Favorites” iPad Mini Winner!

Thank You!
Thank you to everyone who bought “Fingerstyle Favorites” last week! If you purchased between July 8 – 15, 2014 you were automatically entered to win an iPad Mini.

Here is the Prize Drawing – Captured on Video…
It’s about 5 minutes long, and I want you to see how I did the drawing. A few of you asked how I would do the drawing so that it was fair and random.

Watch Now to find out if YOU won:

4 Tips for Keeping Your Guitar Arrangements Under Your Fingers

A student just asked me the question from the “Ask Adam” page.

“Adam…..I have a problem of remembering songs I’ve already learned
when they haven’t been played in a couple of weeks…usually when I’m
concentrating on new material. How do you keep it all under your fingers?”

When I learn a new song, or am writing a song I have to almost have to “forget” every other song I know.

For example, I recently came up with an arrangement for “Killing me Softly” and I had to
play nothing but that song for a week.

[Read more…]