A Zen Guitar Exercise

Level: Intermediate to Advanced

Tobias Hurwitz

There are rare moments, perhaps during an inspired improvisation, when music seems to just pour out of us. This music is much more beautiful, fluent, and advanced than we are normally able to play. It seems like we aren't even playing this music. It's being channeled from somewhere else. But, these magic moments often pass as suddenly as they appear. They seem impossible to predict, and equally impossible to recreate, or maintain. If they come when the red light is shining in the recording studio you've been blessed. If you were playing live in concert you were lucky. But, they seem to happen most often when you're alone and relaxed. Few people tend to understand when you try to explain what happened.

Of course, such moments are not restricted to guitar players. They can happen to anyone at any time in any walk of life. Once I was in the deli and asked for a pound of turkey breast. The man pulled out exactly a pound in one effortless motion. The scale read 1.00. I realized that this also was a Zen moment. Essentially, the man had pulled the proverbial needle from the haystack with casual ease. If he consciously tried to do it again, he might try a hundred times and continuously fail. In that case, he would be trying too hard, instead of unconsciously letting himself do it. He can do it. That has been proved.

Here is something I've been doing to try to "pull the needle from the haystack" with my guitar. I record a very difficult chord progression, one that contains many altered chords and tricky key changes. This progression is harder than I should be able to improvise fluidly over, given my current abilities. I play the progression back and just listen to it, imagining the sound of a beautiful guitar solo. Then I try to play along with it, and I record the results. Before beginning to play along, I try to empty my mind of all note names, theory, licks, arpeggios, scales, etc. I also close my eyes and place my hand somewhere in the middle of the neck, where I don't quite know what fret I'm on. When I begin to play, I just dive right in with complete recklessness and abandon. Sometimes I fall flat on my face. Other times, I'm able to navigate the progression with perfect ease and grace.

I still haven't managed to get to the point where I can succeed with enough consistency to make this very practical. But, I've had a lot of fun with the game. It feels like I'm standing in a doorway, able to see what's inside, but not able to walk all the way through. I want to live on the other side of the door. I suppose that's the point of the exercise. My theory of explanation has something to do with the subconscious mind being able to integrate and instantly apply its vast store-house of data, if you let it.

Stay Zen,

Tobias Hurwitz


Tobias Hurwitz is a guitar teacher in Baltimore, Md. Check out his CD "Painted Sky," containing the lead-off track, "Zen Guitar."


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