We have all seen it. Quarterbacks completing pass after pass. Basketball players making shot after shot. Hockey goalies making save after save. We often say to ourselves, “they are on fire tonight” or “they are unconscious” or “they are in the zone”. How many times have we seen our favorite musicians and in particular favorite guitarists in the same place just playing every single note and phrase effortlessly as if the notes just flowed from them like a river? All of a sudden its not a guitar in their hands. Its an extension of their bodies. They have achieved what we ever to as “the zone”. But how many times have we as musicians and guitarists gotten to that place ourselves? This blog will help to demystify this thing called “the zone” and offer some insights as to how to train our minds and fingers to get there.
To begin with first we must define what “the zone” is. We can describe it but it is very hard to define. To me “the zone” is the place where there is no thinking of the past or the future, just that exact moment. Everything just flows. In relation to guitar playing, it is the place where your fingers become detached from your mind and brain and follow something higher, almost instinctual. Past phrases do not matter and there is no thought as to what you will play next. This sounds simple but may be the most challenging accomplishment and place to get to and stay as a guitarist and musician. Here are a few tips that help me get to that place.
MASTER YOUR INSTRUMENT AND YOUR CRAFT. As all of my readers and students know, complete mastery of what you are playing is of supreme importance to me. I cannot stress it enough. Total knowledge of the fretboard and the connections between the notes is the first step in the path to finding “the zone”. You want to get to the point where you do not have to think about modes and patterns. You just want to play. This requires time, a whole lot of practice, effort and, yes dare I say, sacrifice. It will take you as long as it takes you. This is where the brain and finger connection occurs. This connection doesn’t necessarily mean to master very style of music and guitar known to man. For example, I have witnessed the late Stevie Ray Vaughn be in that zone numerous times. He may not be a master of the fretboard but he certainly is a master in his own genre. The same can be said after watching Steve Vai, Andres Segovia and Tommy Emmanuel. All different styles but all masters of their style. And all in “the zone”.
FORGET IT ALL AND PLAY. Yes, you heard me correctly. Learn everything, master it and forget it. Here is where the brain must detach from the fingers and the instinct and the connection to something bigger than you occurs. Unfortunately, most musicians forget to learn and master their instrument. They try and skip to this point without doing the hard work. I said it before and I will say it again: everyone wants to be the greatest guitarist in the world but most do not want to practice like one. A surefire sign that you are on the path to “the zone” is when other say that you make it look easy. Remember, there is always a lot of hard work that goes into making something look easy. Stevie Ray Vaughn used to say, “if I play from my mind, I’m in trouble”. But be warned, Stevie was a master. When you are playing phrases without thinking about the scales and patterns you learned, then you are heading in the right direction. You almost have to “unlearn” in a way. When I am playing classical pieces, if I have to think about the next part, then I have to go back to the drawing board and work harder to commit the music to my fingers. When I am playing a lead and I start to think about what mode I am in, I need to go back and empty my cup as it were and work on connecting the notes on the fretboard better. Being in “the zone” means not having to think about things like that.
STOP THE MENTAL CHATTER. This is something we all struggle with. How many times are we in the middle of playing a great lead or a great piece of music and we say to ourselves things like “man I sound great” or ” I hope I get the next part right”? At that moment, I will bet you dollars to donuts that we make a mistake. Why? Because we got out of “the zone” and listened to our ego. The ego tells us how great we are and how bad we are. Both statements have nothing to do with the music we are making. Not only can mental chatter cause us to lose our focus but it can be destructive as well. Negative thoughts of not being good or talented enough can be just as harmful as arrogant thoughts of thinking that you are the greatest player in the room. The best way to silence the mental chatter are to master the music and be inside of it. Again the key to “the zone” is having no thought other than the music at that given moment.
VISUALIZATION. Visualizing what I have to play, especially in the classical repertoire, has helped me enormously. Segovia used to practice his pieces “en mente”, which means
in the mind”. If I can visualize myself playing a piece while i am at the gym or doing laundry, then I know that I am on my way to mastering it and on my way to “the zone”. The same can be said for lead guitar. Visualize stepping outside of yourself and watching you play. Hear the band and how your playing weaves in and out with the other sounds of fellow musicians at any given moment. Again, you will not be thinking about what you are playing but rather, listening as an outsider to what is happening around you. take it from me firsthand, it is an mind blowing experience.
I whole heartedly recommend a book called Zen Guitar by Toshio Sudo for further knowledge regarding this subject and all subjects guitar related. Whenever I get into a rut, I reread this book and I always find a chapter or passage to draw inspiration from.
So get out there, pick up your guitar and play, just like yesterday kids. As always I thank you for reading my blogs and any comments and feedback are welcome and encouraged.