I took a guitar lesson in the pandemic. The best thing the instructor asked me to do was keep a "wins" journal. I didn't know what that was. They explained what they considered "wins":
When you get through an exercise at a particular tempo without making a mistake
When you learn a new chord or a new lick
When you practiced (at all) that day
When you like the way your guitar sounds
...and so on.
I started to realize the journal would accomplish a couple of things. For one, it would create a record of progress. I would be able to see how I was improving over time, sort of like marking your height on a doorframe as you grow up.
More importantly, it was a kind of positive reinforcement, framing guitar playing as a series of successes, progress, and wins. Rather than a battle, constant disappointment, and frustration with lack of ability.
I also started to use the wins journal to plan upcoming practices, based on previous ones or things I want to work on.
2. Don't look at the neck
If you want to be able to play without staring at your hands, practice not looking at your hands. It sounds obvious, but I didn't realize this until fairly recently. Classical musicians learn this quickly, because they have to look at sheet music instead.
You will be surprised how quickly you learn to trust your hands and fingers, and to instantly correct when you are wrong. It makes a huge difference in your playing and your confidence
Yes, when you are first learning something new, you might need to look down for a bit, but the sooner you get in the habit of not looking at the neck when you play, the better off you will be, and the easier it will get.
3. Use a metronome
You think you're doing pretty good? Put a metronome or drumbeat on, loop your exercise, and see how consistent you really are. I suspect you will find you are not as fast or consistent as you think.
Metronomes aren't scores. Higher isn't better, slower isn't worse. Metronomes are simply ways of helping you practice better.
Start with the metronome slow enough that you can get through something (your scale or exercise) easily. When you are smooth and fluid, bump up the tempo up a little. Repeat. If you get it so fast you are struggling, back it down until you can get through your piece.
Do not "chase" the metronome or try to keep up. The metronome is telling you where you are, not where you should be. Slow down, get smooth, then you can go a little faster. The metronome will give you some objective feedback about your progress, and it will reinforce consistency of tempo.
You can get an app for your phone, or use a drum machine (real or virtual).
4. Spaced repetition
You aren't going to get better by practicing the same thing for 4 hours once. You will get better by doing spaced repetition.
That means short, frequent, consistent practice sessions, rather than long, infrequent, occasional practice sessions. 20-30 minutes a day, every day, focused on particular exercises, techniques, and pieces will produce results.
Within that 20-30 minutes, don't spend all the time on one thing. Break it up. Do 3 or 4 things for a few minutes each, then repeat a couple of times.
This is proven to be the best way to learn just about anything.
5. Practice is the answer for everything
Whatever the problem is with your guitar playing, the answer is almost always "practice more".
That includes things like "I don't have any ideas for riffs or songs", "I think I need a new guitar or piece of gear", and "I don't like my guitar sound", as well as the usual problems with chords, rhythms, scales, riffs, string skipping, string bends, alternate picking, sweep picking, or playing lead.
Just practice. Pick up your instrument, give yourself 20-30 minutes, and focus.
As I said in a recent episode of the podcast, I have spent many evenings in the pandemic watching old shows. HBO Max has "The Larry Sanders Show", which remains compelling. I noticed they also had Judd Apatow's 2018 documentary about Garry Shandling, "The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling". I started the first of its 2 parts expecting a typical hagiography by a series of talking heads.
I got something more inspiring and interesting.
The movie highlights a fundamental conflict within Shandling. He is knowledgeable about Zen Buddhism. He meditates. He journals. He is clearly looking to alleviate the suffering that comes from attachment. But Shandling is also striving for success and personal happiness, and his hunger for those achievements is palpable.
The documentary gave me new appreciation for Shandling as a person, and for his work. As funny and entertaining as both Shandling and this movie can be, I also found something melancholy and poetic in both.
George Carlin's American Dream
Judd Apatow also made a documentary about George Carlin -- "George Carlin's American Dream" was released earlier this year. Carlin's work remains extremely relevant.
The documentary traces Carlin's evolution as a person and thinker, and shows how his ambitions and feelings drove his extremely clever material. The film, like the critics, can be overly dismissive of some of his early work. It seems unfair to expect Carlin to make us laugh and think for his entire career. Most comedians would have settled for an entire career built around Carlin's lesser bits, and we would have considered theme to be great. Check it out, but be sure to watch a few George Carlin specials, too.
This documentary about The Beatles making what would become "Let It Be" is an impressive achievement in some ways. Peter Jackson and his team had mountains of footage to wade through, all needing clean-up, and still missing coverage of essential bits and moments. All those shortcomings were resolved, through technology and hard work. The film looks vintage, but good. The sound is great. A modest framework has been added to help give some shape -- there's a calendar, and each of the three sections of this 6-hour film focuses on a particular slice of the project.
But it's way too long. Perhaps it is truly capturing how these interminable and aimless sessions must have felt to the participants. Perhaps it is just difficult for me to appreciate, because much of the footage isn't "revelatory", it's somewhere between "Well, this is what writing songs and rehearsing with a band is like. What's the big deal?" and a kind of PTSD flashback of the worst band practices and arguments you've ever had.
Overall, the film does help remind us The Beatles were just a band. A really good band, made of talented players and writers, hardened by a few years of intense gigs, who made some foundational records and had incredible influence...but also just a band.
And this is what bands do, what practices feel like. Long. Boring. Full of goof-off covers, space jams, multiple tries at songs, and occasionally, transcendence when you hit on something good or play a song particularly well. Crankiness, fights, people trying to push things into shape, and people quitting.
There is something nice about sticking with the original footage and resisting the urge to supplement it with modern interviews, voiceovers, or anything additional. But this also makes "Get Back" somewhat monochromatic, and combined with the sort of shapeless nature of the film, it made watching it feel a bit like a chore. The titles next to every single musical moment seem a bit overblown, too.
Nothing really happens. We don't get much context around why The Beatles want to do this (or even if they want to). If you know The Beatles and their story, there's foreshadowing inherent in the project. But if you don't...you aren't told this would be their last album. There's also so much left out, including how these sessions turned into the very different album that was ultimately released, what the band thought, how it was received, and so on.
And then the movie just sort of ends. Recommended only if you're a hardcore Beatles fan.
Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits
Like the Moog documentary, it is unfortunate this project is not better, because it is now likely the only non-fiction film we will get about The Slits. I can look past the extremely low budget -- it has no real lighting, most of the dialog is picked up with ambient mics, and the movie seems to have been shot on consumer-grade gear. OK, fine, but this is such a compelling story about critical people from the original UK punk scene, so the story will be great, right?
Director William Badgley does not manage to tell it well. The best bits of the documentary come from the "where are they now" aspect of the film, though the answers are mostly sadly predictable (dead, in recovery from drugs, etc.) with a few shining exceptions.
Badgley spends a lot of time with some of the members of the band, and what feels like hardly any with others. Viv Albertine, in particular, seems to get almost no camera time. This is odd, because she is the most articulate of the former members, and because she wrote an excellent memoir which does a far better job of telling not just her story, but the band's story as well.
I suspect Badgley was intent on staying in the good graces of the band, and/or that the band had final cut. This is because several critical bits of information are simply left out of the band's story. One of those critical bits of information is that Ari Up's mother -- publishing heiress Nora Forster -- married Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) in 1979. (Forster is 13 years older than Lydon, and Lydon is 6 years older than Ari.)
Lydon and Forster adopted two of Ari Up's children 10 years before her death. You can do some internet research as to why, but it does not cast Ari Up in a good light.
Lydon does not appear in the documentary, nor is he really mentioned. He probably didn't want to be in the documentary, and he can be litigious. Still, facts are facts.
Another fact is that Ari Up refused treatment for her cancer, which could have saved her life (and would certainly have prolonged it). Again, a known fact that goes unmentioned.
These omissions make me wonder what else was left out of the story. Read Viv Albertine's book instead.