December/January 2016

by Kevin Downing

Guitar Cool: Escaping Mediocrity

by Kevin Downing

Guitar Cool: Escaping Mediocrity

Many music teachers will have students who say they want to be great guitar players, but have no idea how to escape mediocrity, who to be great or how to even get there. Many students cite the popular research showing that if you study something for 15 minutes a day you can be become an expert after a certain time frame, or the research that states you can become an expert after only 10,000 hours of training. Those types of stats might work in other areas of life, but not in music.

Most guitarists play for enjoyment, i.e. they play for fun after work and on the weekends. That shouldn’t stop you from trying to be the best you can possibly be with the time you have available. So what might be stopping you from achieving things at a high level? I believe it comes from two areas.

1. Many people have never achieved anything of a significantly high level in their lives so don’t know the path to get there. By a significantly high level, I mean in school, work, sport, music or arts etc., preferably at an international level. Likewise many who have achieved at such high levels don’t know how to pass the knowledge on to others.

2. Parents these days often involve their children in too many extra curricular activities. They might have music after school on Monday followed by karate, then on Tuesday it is swimming followed by dancing, etc. When a kid or teenager’s whole week is swallowed up like this, it teaches them to be mediocre at everything, while not allowing them to achieve any single activity at a high level.

After work or school activities normally include either a sport or an art, but you can’t hope to achieve both at a high level simply because both are very time consuming activities.

Now you might well argue that because you have a job, family, mortgage, etc., you don’t need to have a ‘let’s achieve at the highest level’ mindset. But many of my students who play for fun do play at a top level. What many guitar students don’t realise is that it doesn’t take that much extra effort to play like a professional, or to even play with the world’s top professionals. You have most probably heard how sports people play in pro am tournaments? Well musicians do to, but in a slightly different way.

If you want to be a great guitarist playing at high levels then I suggest you get rid of some of the other activities that consume your time and concentrate on one area that you are truly passionate about. I often use a triangle to demonstrate this idea, which I call the Bermuda Triangle.

As you know there are three sides to every triangle and if one side is missing, then there is no triangle.  It is the same if you want to be a high achiever at anything. To begin you need to have a passion to do something. Something that really gets you going, that you can’t stop thinking about, or put down for very long. That passion must generate a desire to learn all you can and to be able to perform it at a high level.

Commitment is the other side of the triangle. Commitment means that you will stick to whatever it is you need to do to achieve whatever it is you want to do, through good and bad times. This is the stuff that all the top bands have had to get them through the hard times ie. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc.

Having a great teacher/mentor completes the triangle. By having a great teacher/mentor means you can get a long the path a lot quicker than you could by yourself, and means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel along the way. Just like the All Blacks have coaches, musicians can have their coaches to.

If one of the pieces that make the triangle is missing, then you will go down the middle of it into the depths of the unknown, never to be heard of again – just like the real Bermuda Triangle.

There are many average guitar players in NZ, but you don’t have to be as you already have the potential to get to the next level if you want it bad enough. Just remember that if you focus on one thing with passion (in our case, guitar), make the commitment, and find a great teacher/mentor, you will do very well in your musical endeavours.

Kevin Downing is a professional guitarist, teacher, and author. He can be contacted through his website at or PO Box 4586, Palmerston North 4442.  Tel (06) 357 0057