I got an email yesterday from a YOUTUBE fan that prompted me to write him a response at 2 am. He’s actually in New York City as well and came to my house once for a private lesson.
He expressed his overwhelming frustration with trying to improve his guitar skills. The ups, the downs – one day it feels good, the next day it doesn’t, he feels “stuck” and so on. He feels that he has hit a wall.
While it may appear to the public that I am a streamlined pro guitar player, don’t be fooled. It’s like seeing a cute baby but NOT seeing 26 hours of bloody labor 🙂
I have had many hours of frustration over the years, and put in hard work. One of the most encouraging moments during my teenage years was receiving a letter from Pepe Romero – basically assuring me that he too put in many hours of hard work and had his frustrations, his ups & downs.
I can remember back in my college years spending hours – pushing against myself as I practiced, always angry at myself for not being better, staring in disbelief at my own playing and feeling it was just not good enough.
There is a LOT of psychological stuff at play here. The more you see the cup half empty – it just gets emptier…so this is a terrible trap and it is in fact a psycho spiritual issue. It certainly helps to have a teacher who can guide you at this point.
But let’s say you have no teacher and you’re frustrated, what should you do? Here’s what I wrote at 2am yesterday:
Re: My Frustration Defies Description..!
Good to hear from you. I want you to feel good and get better!!!
Here’s what you need to do. Do one simple thing on guitar that you can do, no problem and let yourself do it and enjoy it. Forget about the idea of improving for a moment . Take a deep breath and step into the enjoyment. It sounds like you are grabbing tightly, so use the energy of appreciation and gratitude to get mellow! 🙂
Naturally, you guitar playing will expand and variations will come, but you may have to let it, rather than force it.
Also – get your guitar set up so that it is easy to play, so that you are not straining. Any virtuoso has an instrument that is easy to play, so it is not like wrestling or weight lifting. You’d be surprised to hear how guys play lighter than you think.
I am telling you this having gone through many many frustrating hours myself as a young guy studying classical. Everything seemed like a struggle on guitar.
You need to always look for the easiest most comforatble and reliable way to finger something, rather than force your idea of how it should be. It’s a spirit of discovery…
Find a simple piece that you can master, allow your touch to warm up when you practice. PLAY SLOW! Never put a microscope on yourself and be gentle with yourself if you make a mistake, give up the idea of perfection. I practiced one song all night tonight, and took the attitude “well it’s coming, let’s see where it is in one week”. I just kind of let it spill out over and over and found a new thing here and there, but with little clutching.
Easier said than done, I know. As I said – I know frustration well. Hang in there!!! You got the talent and passion – you just need guidance.=-=-=-=-=-
Doesn’t this echo life? It’s not just guitar – but when we allow things be be, and to see the fullness and beauty that we have, and are thankful for it – it expands naturally without effort or strain.
The guitar has taught me much of life – and life has taught me much guitar. I say thank you to the Universe, to Source, to God – for this incredible journey!
Until next time…keep pickin’
RELATED: 10 Tips for Healthy Guitar Practicing
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Adam this is SO true. Sometimes the fingers just don’t go where I want them to and I feel like pulling an old-school Pete Townshend on my Seagull Artist… then I realize that this would be economically ill-advised and take a deep breath instead.
That’s a great idea when frustrated to step back and play something within one’s comfort zone. I find personally the best way to get some peace back is to remind myself how far I’ve come, and that although I may never be an Adam Rafferty or Tommy Emmanuel, I will always get better so long as I continue to grab the guitar and play a bit every day.
Some days I suck, some days I can see a little progress, and some days I really make myself smile. :-)) I bank those away and try to remember them when all I hear is suckage. heh.
Thanks for your great inspiration!
Eldon Payne says
At times I want to just hurl every guitar I own into Tampa Bay. This was just the inspiration that I needed. I will endeavor to persevere.
Me too, I get frustrated…just keep goin!!! – AR
Wanda Valverde says
Just talk to me. A video, You Tube is better instead of reading a well-crafted post. Speak from the heart please!~
Or you could just… give it to me… Seriously, don’t let the Ocean have it. She’s a LIAR; she doesn’t actually know how to play
Roman Age says
First time I read your blog, interesting but it would be, coming from the very talented guitar player you are.
I think that frustration or no frustration is a state of mind. It has little to do with how good the player is, as there’s always room for improvement, and more furstration on the way.
I have no intention of ever playing really seriously, let alone becoming a pro, but can still feel frustrated, at times, but not much overall. As for a pro guitar players, even if it may seem they’ve ‘made it’, I can see many more reasons for them to feel frustrated (sometimes).
One factor that can contribute to frustration is when comparing to others, although it can also be a great source for learning and improving. I believe in that respect, that just bit of frustration is usefull.
Youtube for instance is wonderful to check out and learn from very talented guitarists, professionals who allow you to really see what they do (like you), but I don’t see the point in overdoing it, I have found a few guitarists who really inspire me, but for the majority, however talented they may be, I wouldn’t necessary want to try doing the same thing. I think it is very important for any guitar player, at any level, to remember why they want to play, what they like, what’s the meaning of the tune they are playing.
chris acosta says
this was awesome. I really enjoyed the letter you wrote and agreed with everything. Thanks for an awesome inspirational letter!
Jim S. says
Yes I would like to say I have been playing almost 34 years now and I feel that I have mastered quite a bit of various great artists over the years. I would like to point out some very key issues that have been overlooked by you frustrated people and that is the weather. The guitar is far from being a perfect instrument, things change on it over night and that can be from the strings and the bridge. I have spent countless hours adjusting my guitars to how I had them set the day before. If you play acoustic and the weather is cold your strings will be stiff and less flexible compared to when it is warm then they will have more action. As for an electric, there are various bridges and adjustments but as for what really works the best is the type of bridge that is used on the Fender guitar or any guitar that has that similar bridge. The wood contracts over night thus making your adjustments on your strings tighten up making the stuff you felt at ease with the previous day a little more complicated to play. There is a set screw on the back of the bridge to move the saddle closer or further away making the flexiblility on the string have variations to it. There is also two allen wrench screws that adjust the height of the individual string to where you will be able to get the maximum performance of each string. Each one of the 6 strings are adjusted differently for the scale patterns to been played but also flexibility to each one that can be chimed and and be able to be played at a masterd level. I know all of this from over the years of being frustrated knowing that my strings had changed over night and it doesn’t matter what type of guitar you have, I have 18 of them and every one needs work on it the next day. So if you ever wondered why you play good one day and the next day you don’t, your instrument needs to be adjusted each day for maximum performance. This is a very true from experience story. I can say this much, once the height of the string has been achived for greatest performance, then most generally all you need to adjust is the string going back and forth and most generally you will need to loosen it more than tighten. Now you all have a secret.
Adam Rafferty says
Another nurdle of wisdom from A NAshville setup guru – for acoustics, have a few different saddles on hand for weather changes, don’t go messing with the truss rod to help the action as a first step.
Thanks for the comprehensive reply!
Dt46eE Good point. I hadn’t thought about it quite that way. 🙂
Joshua Mutama says
“Hey Adam….Im a 22 year old, been playing since i was 19. some times i feel im heading no where, like i just hit a wall and got stuck there. This is my biggest frustration. I don’t know how to use the things that i have learned. Am I doing it wrong, what should i do, What should I learn. Finding someone to teach me is hard, so understanding concepts is next to impossible.”
bob romeo says
hi Adam, it is so great to watch you play. I am an 80yr old guy that loves music. I am trying to learn fingerstyle, it is a bit hard, my fingers get a bi ttwisted. it is a struggle. any easy way to get going with this, plus I am intimidated with playing in front of people.
thanks for being there for us
Very good response! Would like to hear more about how to deal with nerves when playing solo. I do fine at home, or playing in a group backing up vocalists- but nerves get to me when I’m doing solo work. Not a pro, but periodically I’m asked to support church services, wedding and funerals…
amei esse dica vc descreveu tudo que sinto e apontou otimas soloções ai. obrigado!
Rick Hansen says
Thank you for the great advice and encouragement. Best wishes.
Philip Quintas says
Great post, Adam! I had played or practiced in about a week and after reading your blog post, I picked up my guitar and just enjoyed improvising on bluesy a riff in E. I feel much better now.
Philip Quintas says
That is: …I HADN’T played or practiced in about a week… I usually proofread my comments better!
I just love your blog and the music you play.
I believe the music you play is of very high level already and the gap between your level and mine (i am sure there are thousands like me wanting to play like you) is very wide.
For example, for the Stevie Wonder pieces, are there any simpler / beginner versions where we can start with and slowly upgrade to more sophisticated levels. Just like an example, I am driving a Nissan Micra and suddenly, I am asked to drive a Ferrari on the F1. This example can be compared to our situation right now. We want but we can’t !
Thank you for your comment.
Bill Lingelbaugh says
I started my practice yesterday around 11am. Groove scales, finger inversions, legato, trying to move the guitar to my right leg, Boom chick, percussive slaps on the bass E and nothing was going right. I had taken several breaks and was just about ready to put it away and write it off as a bad day. Around noon I decided to check my email and ‘bang,’ there was an email from you. Topic ‘Frustration’.
I had to look around my place to see if you were sitting there sending it from my house. The timing was pretty eerie. I read it about 3 times and I calmed down. Great advice. Are you a wizard or something? I printed the email and now it’s taped to my music stand. Reading it now comes before Groove scales.
Good luck on your Europe tour. I’m sure the people will love your music as much as I do.
I ordered the DVD’s today. Can’t wait to get them and jump in with both feet.
Thank you so very, very much.
Bill thanks and stay in touch with your progress!!!
khadri smith says
one of my friend told me to just play…and try not to think so much….just listen to the sound… sing the song , melody, lyrics etc. Fear from playin solo comes from… fear of judgement by others…. If george benson makes a mistake when he is playing something …he just laughs…and the audience is forgiving..because George doesn’t take it that serious…we all make mistakes…it just how you deal with it… The audience will sense your fear…and they will become more observant…and the cycle increases…as the stress level rises…and they will feed on it…as you second guess yourself…….the most beautiful and free soulful playing comes when you have no fear…similar to a saved person professing his belief in god…. letting the world know frees the soul….
or as Marley said “No worries” Play from the heart.
I am happy to read your comments. It is really helpful. Especially while playing the fast solos, i was really struggling and i sometimes thought that i was going nowhere. But i found the answer in your words. ” try to play slower first”. And i made the same and of course over and over again. Now i feel great that i can improve my solos and and add some spirit in it. That is the way i think, divide the solo into small parts and play slowly over and over again. Ugur
Ugur, tahnks for commenting. Sorry for my late reply. Yes, break it down, practice in small parts! – AR
George Margo says
I have been a teacher for many years.. I got frustrated with my playing and gave up performing and started teaching. It worked out better for me. Less pressure and more satisfaction . As a rule ” Teachers dont perform and performers should not teach.. When you play you are in the zone and it shows in your facial expressions…..That is a gift………..Some have it and most dont….
A great lesson Adam I totally agree with the idea of just embrace it and enjoy it then improvement will come. The longer i play and more advanced i get i find that i play my best when im inspired!
and i play terribly when im just going through the motions. I also like tommy E’s philosophy which i think he got from Chet – “let Music be your Teacher” with this in mind we are constantly looking for sources of inspiration!
Stephen Lennartz says
Spot on, Adam! I have been playing guitar for nearly 30 years & just now getting in to fingerstyle. Last week I found your beautiful version of “Michelle” on YouTube. At first I thought, “How am I going to handle this?” I stepped back. Took a deep breath. Watched the video (a lot!). In broke it down into individual sections to practice. While I still have a way to go with it, I have played Michelle for several very appreciative audiences! Looking forward to continuing to progress … slowly at first!
Cheers to all–
S – just make it swing & play that melody. That will pull it thru. 🙂
Thanks for the words of encouragement Raf. You are not only gifted in your musical abilities, but gifted in how you can connect with us “mortal” sixstringers. My frustration stems from only starting guitar late in life and possibly not having enough time to get to where I want to get to. Then I realize, and you said it, none of us, not even the pros, ever really get as good as they want to ! I enjoy my guitars every day. I’ve played fingerstyle for 6 years and some days I do actually say to myself, man, that was good. Many days I say man, that sucked ! I’ll keep at it and try to keep reminding myself that playing the guitar is a journey, not a destination.
Keep doin’ what you do Raf, we appreciate it.
HI John!!!! Thanks for commenting and sorry for the late reply! – AR
This was so inspiring. Thank you so very much!
Tye – thanks for commenting and sorry for the late reply! – AR
Thank you Adam,
Needed that.. Great advice.
Thoughts and words of a wise man.
baudoux david says
Sorry for my english but it’s not my native language.
I received the DVD last week and I play three to four hours every day, it’s really hard but I think I need to me a year to learn to play them correctly.
It’s very frustrating … but the last lessons of picking that I bought I put three years to 12 tracks …
but I am assuming that the more I play the better I play, therefore I learn faster.
the first chords of a new artist is very hard then pick up over time accelerates the learning and fun too …
the lessons are very well done and understandable English for a French
little flat, customs taxes are very high for shipments in Europe.
allen mcleod says
i’ve been playing for about 35 yrs…i’ve been mostly self-taught…getting tips from players here and there but mostly just putting in the hours on top of hours to see what happens…everything you say has exactly been my experience, also…i’ve learned how to learn how to play the guitar w/tenacity but great patience…and most importantly i’ve learned how not to beat myself up too much when it just doesn’t turn out like i’d like it…i just attempt it another day…sooner or later “it comes”…i’m 57 yrs. old – and i keep learning!!…you’re a great inspiration, adam…i can tell you do mankind a great service.
It is like other things in life. Like learning another language. It is a grueling work but rewards are wonderful. I will never give up on guitar but just keep pushing to get better. Excellent advise! Thanks!
I am just learning to enjoy he process of “learning to play the guitar”
Chris Kalafus says
A timely article as I was just questioning, “will I ever play a song flawlessly?” There’s so many great players and I try to get inspired by them but i also have to remind myself to just be me. Thanks for the great words Adam!!
allen mcleod says
as always, adam is speaking from experience…actually, I may be ahead of him on this one, as i have found everything he has said here to be my experience as well…but it’s always nice to hear someone confirm some things you’ve discovered for yourself…just giving yourself permission to screw things up on occasion gets you out of the vice and out of blind alleys.
Adam Rafferty says
Thank you Allen!
Emma Gray says
I’m 64 and have been learning/playing fingerstyle for the last ten years or so. All too often I find my fingers and shoulder (and mind) getting all tensed up and then — it’s time to take a break!
I think part of the frustration is that we all want to play like our heroes, like right now. Well, there’s that and we would also like to impress our friends. All that crap is messing with us while we’re practicing and self-criticizing each flubbed note. I agree with Adam: start by playing something fun, easy. Get warmed up before diving into one of the pieces that is calling for your attention.
Then, start slowly, with focussed attention only for yourself and the joy of hearing at least some of the correct notes. Forget anyone else. This is your time. If you hit a rough patch try repeating those measures, fingering changes, whatever. Experiment to see if there is a more comfortable fingering, hand position…
Like so many things we’re on a Hero’s Journey facing impossible odds to achieve. Luckily the journey never ends.