In this excerpt from their new book, String Theories: Tips, Challenges, and Reflections for the Lifelong Guitarist, Adam Levy and Ethan Sherman offer ideas and approaches for taking your music and technique to the next level. For more about the book, see stringtheoriesbook.com.
Set Clear Goals
Take the time to set clear creative goals: What do you want to make? Be really specific about it.
If you’re making a go of a career in music, have clear career goals. Think about where you want to be in the world of music, professionally. Who are the people that you want to align yourself with? What are the important markers for you?
Write down these goals, and look at that piece of paper every day to remind yourself exactly what you’re working toward and how the things you’re doing today are going to help you get there. There may be detours and potholes along the way, but the clearer you are in your own mind about why you’re doing what you’re doing, the more diversions you can avoid, and the more directly you can get where you’re trying to go.
If you have some earlier recordings of yourself—a record you made last year, or a show you played two years ago, or a rehearsal from a month ago—listen to what you sounded like then. Also listen to what you sound like now. If you don’t have a recent recording, make one. It can be as simple as practicing alone or rehearsing with a group. Maybe invite some friends over, play a show just for them, and record that. Whatever you’re able to record, listen back and be honest with yourself. See what’s going on there. Are you going in a good direction? If you’re not, try to steer your ship in the direction you want to go. If you’re not clear about which direction that is, revisit setting goals.
Play with Musicians Who Are Better Than You
Whenever possible, play with musicians who challenge you. It kicks your ass in the best way. That’s not easy for everyone. You may not know where to find those people, or you may feel intimidated to initiate a conversation with them (let alone suggest getting together to play). In any case, try to make it happen—you will learn so much by playing with people who are better than you.
They may give you some advice, or they may not say anything at all. Sometimes you play with musicians who are on a higher level, and they don’t want to teach you—they just want to play the music! Either way, it’s on you to pay attention and get the lessons, both spoken and unspoken.
Side note: Make sure you pay that forward later. When you find yourself further down the road, and some younger, less experienced musician reaches out to you, make yourself available.
Eat Your Vegetables
Literally and figuratively. First and foremost, take care of your health: eat well, exercise, get a good night’s sleep, drink plenty of water. You’re going to need your body as you grow as a musician: there won’t be much point to growing creatively if your body is falling apart.
On the musical side, remember that practice time shouldn’t be spent playing the same songs you know and the same licks you know. Practice things that will push you in the direction of your goals. That may mean you’re practicing stuff that isn’t fun or doesn’t sound good today. It may not sound good tomorrow or next week either, but keep practicing until it does start to sound good. Ideas become real music by developing control in your hands and clarity in your mind.
Push Yourself Past Your Comfort Zone
We all have things that we tell ourselves are beyond our limitations. Once per week (at least), push yourself past that boundary line, even if it’s just one or two small steps. That’s how you grow. You take a gig you’re not quite ready for, you take up a new instrument, you sing onstage, etc.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
Many of the teachers who contribute lessons to Acoustic Guitar also offer private or group instruction, in-person or virtually. Check out our Acoustic Guitar Teacher Directory to learn more!