Extended String Training: Musicians are athletes too

Extended String Training: Musicians are athletes too
"Okay, YOU can stop practicing. But just you."

Year after year athletes come to spring training/pre-season and fans think, Why do we need all these games? Everyone remembers the rules. Well.. Everyone except Manny Ramirez.

It’s not the most fun to watch – and we certainly don’t watch them do crunches for hours and drink smoothies made of the wrong parts of vegetables – but the point is to work the body into getting used to repetitive activities. Familiar enough, in fact, to push those bones beyond that base level and into an area beyond what humans should be able to do.

Jamming is similar – it takes very specific muscles that almost nobody is born with and lots of repetition. But repetition is just a good start.

You’ve seen people play bass? It’s like wrestling an aggressively hula-dancing boa constrictor (granted, one with impeccable melody).

It takes not only a bit of muscle memory, but a fair amount of wind, as well, to dig out enough effort and feeling and make playing (bass or baseball) seem natural and not like a chore.

The epic Guns n’ Roses tune “Sweet Child of Mine” came from a string skipping exercise Slash was doing (meaning the notes aren’t on consecutive strings). Axl overheard the now-famous lead and made him put it in the song.

But consider that – Slash still practiced in the ‘80s. Slash still practiced after G n’ R formed. Slash was not content with just being good – he wanted to rule.

And ruling involves consistency – meaning near-constant practice.

The credo I live by involves a quote from famed horn player Dizzy Gillespie:

If I lay off the horn for a day,
I know it;
if I lay off for two days,
my peers know it;
if I lay off for three days,
the whole world knows it.

This revelation did come from a man who played so much that his cheeks eventually landed second jobs as weather balloons, BUT the tough breaks go with the instrument – ask any long-time guitarist if he can feel the tips of his fingers and he’ll say ‘What?’ (because he’s half-deaf), but after you repeat yourself he’ll confirm that he’ll never be a surgeon.

So… practice. Obviously.

But take your instrument(s) into consideration when you do. What do you need to work on? What annoyingly repetitive drill can you be doing when your Axl stumbles in and turns it into a song you'll probably hate forever?

If I don’t constantly (seriously, friends, daily) drill all five positions of the minor blues pentatonic scale my Fender Strat, I find that my fingers have trouble moving as fast as my brain would like. If I lay off my steel-stringed acoustic for more than a day or two, barre chords can get ridiculous after just one song. And of I don’t conga here and there as if it was my birthday (when it's obviously not), doing so turns my knuckles to a hazy shade of purple.

(An aside: The Jam Room officially endorses Fender electric guitars, Epiphone acoustics and LP percussives, if anyone out there wants to send some free stuff.)

Finally, consider this little anecdote…

One of the best things I ever did for myself (musically) was also the worst purchase I ever made.

I learned to play guitar in college (really quickly, I might add – we English majors have lots of time to think). The way I did it was to just pick up other people’s guitars, put one of those chord tab posters on the wall (this) and start playing the easiest songs that I liked (mostly CCR).

But when I went home that first summer I had nothing. So I did what any college student would do – I bought the cheapest piece of crap I could find at the music store. The guy couldn’t even tune it to the piano. He just handed it to me with a look that said Good luck.

But the worst problem I should have seen – the action was way too high. The action (the space between the fretboard and the strings) was nearly an inch by the time you got to the twelfth fret, making playing anything with barre chords nearly impossible.

Can you guess what happened yet?

I’ll jump straight to the positive results. After three long months of trying to jam on the stupid thing, I went back to school, picked Joby’s sweet Martin back up and played it ten times faster than I had before. My hand muscles were insane. My chord changes now smooth. Within the next school year we started a band.

I’m not going to recommend you go out and buy a crappy guitar (I’m not even sure you could find one that dumb if you tried (this was the guitar we burned in the bonfire at last year’s Annual Jam)), but I will recommend a few forearm exercises and some bowling.

And you singers? Learn to breathe through your larynx. Singers sing with their gut, not their throat.

All the drummers out there just need to relax and invest in a cool pair of shades… Because the ringing in your ears will never let you sleep ever again.

Sure there are a few active prodigies who make it seem like all you need to do in order to be a musician is light up a Camel and go buy some whiskey – can you imagine Keith Richards practicing? That guy looks like he’s made of tobacco ash – but even John Popper lost weight when it got too hard.

So get out there and hustle. May the best band win.

And don't forget to pick up your participation trophy at the local liquor store.

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