The Blues And The Implausible Truth

Oct 12, 2018

I've quoted this Mike Bloomfield bit before, but it captures so much about learning to play guitar it's worth repeating. Bloomfield, recounting his early days, said, "I was learning to play, you know, for a few years, and then suddenly, when I was about 18, I got good." I don't think anybody picks up the guitar hoping to suck at it; we're all trying to get good. But of course, if we care at all about music we tend to be ferocious critics of our own playing, so it's a little like a dog chasing hubcaps: we wouldn't know what to do if we got there, but because of the setup, that's a pretty unlikely scenario from the get-go.

When I was in school, planning my senior thesis recital concert with my advisor, we had this conversation about who I was going to ask to play the charts I was writing. He suggested I get this guy John to play trumpet. "No way," I said, "I can't ask him. He's, like, the best jazz musician on campus." Which is when the real lesson began. "Listen," said my advisor, "the moment you agreed to do a concert, you said 'Yes, I belong on stage, doing this performance.' Now you say you're not worthy of the best trumpet player you can get for your band. Well, you can't have it both ways. Either you're good enough or you're not, and you've already said you're good enough to do the show. So you're good enough to play with great musicians, too."

So I did the concert, with the best people I could get, and I didn't make jazz history – or, arguably, any actual jazz music that night – but my charts got played well, and, oddly enough, people seemed to dig it. I was pretty sure I still wasn't good yet, so this was kind of hard to fathom.

A couple of decades later, when my kids were born, I pretty much quit performing for about four or five years. When I finally started playing out again, I'd get home from a gig and Ms. Fretboard would ask, "So how did it go?" And I would invariably reply, "It was extremely weird – people seemed to really like it." Which made me happy, but felt genuinely surprising. And it was equally surprising, and ultimately a little annoying to Ms. Fretboard, the depth of my astonishment, and my peculiarly visceral pleasure at being heard and appreciated. Eventually, it began to sink in, that I sort of knew what I was doing and could more or less make things go somewhat the way I wanted them to go on the guitar; that I had, in fact, on some level and for some circumstances, finally gotten good.

So you could say, "Well, it's Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours," and maybe so, if playing the ukulele to my kids during bathtime could be counted towards the total. But then, around this same time, Mose Allison passed a way, and an old student and friend of mine posted a live recording of me playing a version of "Ever Since The World Ended" at a coffeehouse gig in New York. The recording had to be at least twenty years old, and I positively cringed when his post popped up. "Oh, good lord, I sucked back then; surely this will be unbearable to listen to." But of course, in the end, I gave it a spin. And to my amazement, I sounded pretty much like I do now.

This felt scientifically impossible. Because it could only mean one of two things. Either I hadn't finally gotten good over the past two decades, or – even more implausible – I already knew how to play back then. That I had already, in fact, gotten good, more than twenty years ago, and simply hadn't realized it yet.

So here's the question: what if you're already good? Yeah, you could always get better, and there's always more to learn, and compared to this guitar player or that favorite record, blah blah blah. But what if you're already good enough to, in the words of Frank Zappa, "just stand up there and play the f*cking blues, because it sounds good"? What if you're already good, and you just don't realize it?