by Steve Vai
(Part 2 of 7, originally published March 1989).
When you concentrate on a given situation wholeheartedly, you’ll get the best results. The key is single-pointedness of mind. This holds true for any pursuit; a bricklayer who concentrates on the work at hand covers every detail and gets the job done quicker and better. When you read a book with your mind fully focused, your comprehension and retention are vastly improved.
Here’s a musical example: I was transcribing music for Frank Zappa, doing everything from guitar and drum solos to orchestral scores and lead sheets. The work was quite intensive, and I found myself spending 10 or 12 hours a day listening to just one minute of music. I was concentrating so intently that I felt dazed whenever I stopped for a moment, but I achieved unprecedented results. I discovered new forms of written notation, greatly developed my ears, and transcribed some of the most rhythmically complex musical situations ever recorded — all by sheer single-pointedness of mind.
Mind control of this sort is a meditation. People meditate all the time without realizing it; watching TV is a meditation, in a sense. When many people hear the word “meditation”, they relate it to spiritual realms. “Stilling the mind” is probably the highest form of meditation. That is, keeping one’s mind from erroneous thoughts and focusing on the divine (or whatever path you’re on). We get the best results when we meditate on a subject, but alas, meditation is not easy. The mind loves to wander, and these intrusions keep you from the precious results you seek.
Now what on the face of God’s beautiful blue earth does all of this have to do with learning to play the guitar?
When you meditate on something, you’re forced to look at it from many different angles, including some you’ve probably never thought of. You’re forced to reach down into the depths of your identity and individuality. Consequently, your results will be uniquely yours. That’s what we seek as musicians: to light that tiny flare (or bonfire) of originality and individuality.
The following exercise will help you develop your musical meditation skills. Take one isolated musical idea, such as a single chord or riff. For our example, let’s take vibrato. Vibrato is a very expressive technique, and can say a thousand different things when properly used (or misused). Sit with your guitar and a clock, and vibrate a note for one hour. Sounds simple, but here’s the catch…
Never deviate from holding that note.
Pick it as many times as you like. Try many different vibrato approaches (fast, slow, soulful, mellifluous, etc).
Most important, don’t let your mind wander. When you find yourself thinking of anything other than vibrato (and you will, probably in the first few seconds), pull your mind back to the note. Your mind will wander off into thoughts such as “Am I doing this right?”, then “Boy, what a waste of time this is!” Eventually, you’ll find yourself thinking about your friends, your financial situation, what you did yesterday, what you’re going to do tomorrow, and of course, “Let’s eat!” This is the hard part. Just keep pulling your mind back to vibrating that note. It’s a discipline worth working on.
Eventually, you’ll exhaust all conventional vibrato approaches, all the ways you saw someone else do it. Then (if you have the discipline to continue), your mind will enter private realms and you will reach deeper into your own uniqueness for different ideas.
You may have to start practicing this technique little by little, doing it for just five or ten minutes. Try timing yourself. Ultimately, you’ll find that when it comes time to “just play”, you’ll use these vibratos with great ease, and you will discover something different in your playing.
You can practice this exercise with any riff, solo, or chord change. Just keep your mind on it and constantly analyze your performance. It can become very soulful. You might, for example, take just two notes — any two — and play them for an hour without straying from them. Try any approach; stretch them, use different picking styles, play hard or soft, make the notes long or short, or vibrate them.
One of the great things you’ll gain from this type of practicing is authority. When you play something, you’ll feel confident about pulling it off with flying colors.
But most important, you’ll gain discipline. Great results require discipline, and meditation is a discipline. But if you are really into this, it won’t seem like a discipline, but a pleasure. But there’s one thing for sure: Nothing you read in a column can teach you anything. You just have to do it!