I’m a guitarist. I’m actually a really good guitarist. I’m self-taught and I have a lot of knowledge about the guitar that you’d find in advanced guitar books. If, that is, I were to figure out the words to express it all, and write them down.
My particular way of playing is a bit unusual. I make it up as I go along. I improvise. I invent everything fresh from the very start. Oh, I can do songs, but I prefer to improvise. Seems more spontaneous, more expressive. But it’s tougher, because you have to be able to express your thoughts and feelings in something other than words. That requires a number of things, one of which is being able to examine one’s feelings, and then to match the sounds from the guitar with the feelings in you. It takes time, long reflection, lots and lots of practice, and it takes a good understanding of the sounds that come from a guitar too.
There are lots of lessons for life in learning to play the guitar. Lessons about hard work, practice, dedication, and all those good things. One of the more important lessons, though, is: Play a different chord.
On a guitar, not only does one chord sound different from another, it looks different too.
When you play a “D” chord it produces a certain sound. And… it produces a certain feeling. When I play a “D” chord, I then play, in what I’ll call a “D chord feeling.” I can give you a few other feelings that come along too. For example, when I play a “D” chord, I almost immediately fall into Celtic-sounding music. The “D” chord facilitates that. It gives me what I identify as an “Irish” feeling. I literally “see” in my mind’s eye the color green and, occasionally, a little leprechaun hat. So, I play the “D” chord and I then invent a whole bunch of sounds that definitely sound Irish/Celtic. Oh, I’m not Irish, but I’m very familiar with Irish folk music, so that’s what I mean by an “Irish feeling.”
Here are the chords that put me into what seems to me to be an “Irish” frame of mind: D, F#m, Bm, A, E, G. The colors I see flashing through my mind are greens, yellow, orange… Kelly-type greens, of course.
Here are some chords that get me into a more “Spanish” mood: Am, F, G, C, Dm. The colors I see are red, black, white, rich, deep brown, deep green. Spanish colors.
When I play “Irish,” even though I’m making it up fresh, I hear lots of things that I’ve played before. I don’t mind that, because I understand the value of practice. However, it doesn’t necessarily provide that wonderful thrill I get when I play something really nice. (1) When I want that thrill, I… play a different chord. Any different chord.
Guitar runs and chords are patterns, shapes. That’s why I mentioned that one chord looks different from another up at the top of this. Your fingers do different things, depending on where they start from. The shapes and patterns are different depending on where you start.
Oh, the technicians — the ones with great technique on the guitar — will tell you that the patterns are all the same up and down the fingerboard. And they are. But… but, the feel is still different, depending on where you start.
You can reset that all the time, but the start-off point influences where your fingers go from there. If I allow my fingers to follow the new pattern from the new chord, from the new starting point, my fingers produce a different sound, and a different feeling.
And sometimes, they give me that wonderful thrill that we get from producing something new and wonderful. Each such moment is a triumph. A mind-expanding, growth-inducing, depth-promoting triumph. Just as important: such a musical line of inquiry changes the entire trajectory of your thought processes — as it pertains to music — completely.
You go down an entirely different mental, intellectual and emotional path from the one you were on just moments before.
That’s the important lesson for life itself that we can obtain from playing the guitar.
There are lots of reasons to play a different chord. Stuck in a rut. Tired of things. Tired of playing “Irish.” Even: it’s all become too easy, too rote. Or… if it’s not working anymore.
People can get enmired in old, familiar habits, even habits that don’t work. Because they’re familiar, we tend to run to them by default. We know what they’ll do, and we know how to handle the fallout. Even if it doesn’t work, we might have figured that we’re okay with the results as long as they’re not too catastrophic. The drunk puts up with the passing out and hangover she knows inevitably follow the party fun.
However, the hangover makes her miserable, and for the time of the hangover, she’s thinking, “Gotta cut this out!” Or the musical equivalent of: “play a different chord.”
On the guitar, a chord’s a number of different notes played nearly simultaneously. A life chord’s the same thing. Only, life happens over a much longer stretch than a song, so “simultaneously” — in life — can mean “over a couple of days.”
The drunk resolves to play a different chord, generally for the duration of the hangover. Then she goes back to play the same chord all over again. What she’s failed to realize is that the chord she’s playing consists of PartyFunAndDrinking-PassingOut-HangoverMisery. All part of the same chord. (Let’s call it the “PFAD” chord, for brevity’s sake.)
To change the chord, you have to change at least one part of the chord, if not the entire chord. You have to play an entirely different chord. So, even the fun part, the “PartyFunAndDrinking” part has to go away too. Or become very, very different. And that means that to play a different chord, you just might have to get rid of something fun. Obviously you have to replace it with… something else fun. That’s the challenge… to replace something fun with something else fun, you have to know what’s fun. For you, that is.
That’s not as easy as it sounds. What do you do that’s fun? What do you do that’s fun? Note the change in emphasis. It’s important.(2)
We have so much around us in the way of passive entertainment that we classify as “fun,” that simply won’t work as a way to change the chord. Why? Drinking and Partying are… doing something. Watching television is something being done to you. So, you have to replace doing something with doing something else. That’s also what you do when you play a different chord on the guitar. You play something different. You do something different.
I’ve been talking about the “PFAD” chord. But there are many, many other chords in life. For example there’s the SkipCollege-Party-GetALowEndJob” chord. There’s a fun part of that chord too, but you still might need to play a different chord. If that chord stops making you happy, then you have to change it, and you have to get rid of the part that drives that life chord: the very first part. Lots of people recognize that.
How about that “BoringMarriage-CheatOnSpouse-GetADivorce” chord? It’s interesting how in each of these life chords, there’s just one component that we can change that changes the chord entirely. In the “PFAD” chord, if you get rid of the PartyFunAndDrinking part, the entire chord changes. And… if you get rid of only the “Drinking” part of PartyFunAndDrinking, then you change up the entire chord too. Just a bit more subtly.
Just like on the guitar. Add a seventh to a “D” chord, and you change the entire sound… and the feel of it too, but subtly. And, if you know how to play the guitar, you might have just brought yourself entirely out of Ireland! And, into Mississippi, where you find some of the great, great bluesmen of all time. Take the “D” from a major to a minor and you go straight from Ireland to Spain.
In the “SkipCollege-Party-GetALowEndJob” chord, if you get rid of the “SkipCollege” part, you have a chance at least to avoid the “GetALowEndJob” part. And all too often, “LowEnd” is synonymous with “DeadEnd.”
In the “BoringMarriage…” chord, there’s that “BoringMarriage” part. Well, isn’t that part entirely in the control of you and your spouse? Why, yes. Yes, it is! How nice would it be to take the second and third parts of that chord and get rid of them entirely? You know, the “CheatOnSpouse-GetADivorce” parts.
You’ll notice, though, that in all cases, you have to do something. Improving your life won’t just happen. To “skip” SkipCollege you then have to go to college. So much better to do that when you’re young.
To avoid a BoringMarriage, you have to do what it takes to make your marriage exciting. So much better to do that before your marriage becomes boring.
And so on…
There are a million million such chord sequences in life. Some of them need to be changed out for new ones. Some need to go away entirely. Some need to be improved, some reduced, some simply modified. Some need components replaced entirely. That’s always true. In everyone’s life there are chords that just don’t work. They don’t change the fact that your life can have beauty, excitement, fun, thrills… growth.
If you want to make things better, if you want new, exciting, fresh, thrilling…or just different: play a different chord.
(1) Not always true. I’m at the point in my guitar skills, where I can play very fast, but also shape the individual notes as I play, and depending on the mood of the moment.
(2) Me? Language and languages, history, astronomy, physics, guitar, other music, writing, swimming, faces, programming, drawing, painting, learning, learning, learning, more learning… and more.