Diary of a Player (5 page)

herever you come from, some truths remain the same. And here's one: all new guitar players desperately want to start out playing “Layla” or “Stairway to Heaven” or “Eruption” right away. We all want to run before we can walk. For most of us, when you're just beginning to play as a kid, you're much more likely to find yourself working on a one-note-at-a-time version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” than climbing any stairway to heaven.

But if you have a little patience and you work really hard, then maybe you move on quickly to even greater
challenges—like actual songs with maybe a couple of chords. Unless you're a true prodigy, you're going to have to practice for a while being bad before you get any good. And it will seem like a waste of time. I remember that feeling well. But don't worry about wasting time, because it'll be so worth it. It's my experience that in the end, life lessons and guitar lessons begin to blur in all sorts of interesting ways.

It's my experience that in the end, life lessons and guitar lessons begin to blur in all sorts of interesting ways.

A few years ago a smart guy named Malcolm Gladwell wrote a really interesting book called
Outliers: The Story of Success
that takes a serious look at what factors contribute to any individual's success. One of the core conclusions that he reaches in his study is something he calls the “10,000-Hour Rule.” Basically, Gladwell writes that no matter what you're doing, you most likely need to spend ten thousand hours working at it before you master it.

Now, I don't know how accurate that figure is for the guitar, but I get the point. Some of you out there reading may have been blessed with the good fortune of being born great at something, but most of us mere mortals still have to get good first, and that process usually takes a little time. I think
it was years before I was doing anything you would consider “great.” But don't be dismayed. Those weren't bad years. Far from it. They were incredible and exciting in retrospect. A little hobby that seemed like a side interest was gradually becoming my focus. And now here I am.

The big problem here is that getting any young person with a short attention span to spend ten thousand hours doing anything can be an uphill battle. That's never been more true than these days when whatever kids do has to compete with so many attractive options. It can be surfing the Web, playing video games, tweeting, or Facebook. Back in my day, I confess that I played my fair share of Donkey Kong, but even then there was no Web for me to surf and I didn't have a status. Well, yes I did, it just wasn't posted anywhere yet.

Whatever you want to do in this life, I'm here to encourage you not to lose hope or give up during the first hundred or so of those ten thousand hours that it takes to get good. You should know that in my case it took me a while to “get the bug” for guitar, as my grandpa used to call it. He always said it would happen, almost like a slow sickness. And he knew it would take time.

I actually quit playing guitar for one summer because it was just too nice outside and I needed to concentrate fully
on playing sports, or at least that's how I pitifully explained it to my grandfather. It's easy to see why I did this—maybe I thought I could get good enough at something like baseball to actually have a future in it. More likely, at nine years old or so, I just felt it was too nice out that summer to stay inside and play the guitar. After all, the guitar is something you primarily just do inside, right? Boy was I wrong. Little did I know how infrequently I would actually play the guitar
in the summer someday. I'd say 90 percent of my gigs from May to September are outside. These days, playing in the summertime is most certainly an outdoor sport. Truth be told, I think what I was really trying to do by taking a break was ease into quitting the instrument altogether. I really just didn't love it yet. It hurt my hands unless I practiced all the time, it didn't sound like anything on the radio, and I was far from good at it. Maybe I wasn't meant to be a player.

After a few months of my premature retirement as a guitarist, my grandfather pulled me aside one day and asked me, “So, Brad, you still playing guitar?” I reminded Papaw that I had stopped for the summer. I could see that this news just broke his heart, though he tried to hide it. Here this man had given me one of his prized guitars to play and I was just slacking off and making excuses. My grandfather looked at
me sadly and let it go for a little while. Then one day, he said some words that have stayed with me always: “Brad, I sure wish you'd try that guitar again because I'm telling you right now—you're really gonna need it when you get older.” Papaw was more right than even he could have known.

fter summer, for some reason I decided to pick the guitar back up—and that instantly made my grandfather happy. Soon I started figuring out a thing or two and was able to play what sounded like actual songs. I had reached a crucial point in any player's progress. I had learned exactly enough on the guitar to impress myself and maybe a few other people. I was still a little too young to care about impressing girls with my guitar prowess, but don't worry, I eventually got there too.

I think back to so many nights when my mother—a wonderful teacher no less—was understandably distraught concerning my lousy study habits. I like to think that I was a pretty smart guy before and after the school bell rang, but in between, I was no straight-A student. Part of my problem was that I was able to pass most classes without ever opening a book. I was exactly smart enough to get a B or C without
really trying. But being a mediocre student is a bit of a problem when your mom is not only a teacher at your school but one of your teachers too. In her mind, without good grades I would never amount to anything. In my mind, I had a plan that bypassed school completely. And I had no idea how much of a long shot it was. I remembered hearing about how Steve Wariner had left school at seventeen to go on the road with Dottie West. I figured there had to be some tour bus out there with an empty bunk that needed my services.

So much time was spent arguing about my academics with my parents, who thankfully cared a lot about me and how I was doing. All these years later, research has shown that playing music can enhance a person's other academic studies, math especially. But it doesn't take into account the temptation to quit school altogether and go for the big time. That certainly can't help your math scores.

Back then, I really just wanted to play, and studying stayed on my back burner. Not only that, it got in the way. On some level, I just knew I had a musical destiny. And in my case, it just so happens that I turned out to be right when I told my parents that listening to music had to come before listening to lectures in class. I'm not suggesting that any kids out there try that at home—or at school for that matter. But in my case, a
little tunnel vision actually worked out quite well. One thing I've learned is that everybody's path in life is a little different, and sometimes the road less traveled pays off.

was in third grade and a member of the Glen Dale Methodist Church children's choir when they asked me to learn a few songs on the guitar. They thought it would be cute for a kid to back them up, as opposed to the usual little old lady on piano.

They gave me the music for “Try a Little Kindness”—the great Glen Campbell song—and “Life's Railway to Heaven” to play for the kids. So when I went in to discuss playing at the Sunday service, the choir director asked if I knew them well enough yet. I'd been working on them at home, so I started playing and singing right then and there. The choir director must have been at least a bit impressed and said, “Forget about us—
sing and play it this week.” So dressed in my Sunday best, which was more than likely pleated pants, penny loafers, and a sweater vest . . .

I played.

People clapped.

And the rest is history.

If anyone thought I was great, it was probably because I had the major (if fleeting) advantage of being nine. When you're young, if you're any good at anything, people tend to think you're great. It's all relative.

That Sunday, in front of forty-seven people at the early service and another seventy-six at the late, my whole performing life began.

If anyone thought I was great, it was probably because I had the major (if fleeting) advantage of being nine.

Back then in Glen Dale, we didn't need the social media like Twitter or Facebook to create buzz. We had churchgoers. Someone at church that day came up and said, “Well, if Brad knows a couple more songs, we could have him play at the church picnic next month.”

By then my guitar teacher had become a man named Clarence “Hank” Goddard. So he put together a little band specifically for the church picnic. It was at this picnic that we would be offered our first big pay date: one hundred dollars to play the Fireman's Christmas Party. That's right. The big time. And this same little band would become my music school, my vehicle, and my focus for the next several years. And Hank Goddard would become the second-most important guitar player I would ever know.

Guitar Tips from Brad


Practice makes perfect—or at the very least, practice makes you a little less lousy.


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