The Missing Ingredient In Your Guitar Playing… Is It You?

A few years back, I was asked to be the guitar tutor at a local music school. For one day each week, I would work with a handful of guitarists giving guidance and training.

My first day was spent being shown around the incredible facility complete with studio, session rooms, and complete band set-ups. Everyone was friendly and a little anxious, as was I. I was repeatedly told, “Wait till you hear Bob (not his real name)… you’ll struggle to teach him anything, he’s already amazing.”

The next day I was into my lessons and loving the variety of styles and flavors each aspiring musician brought to the lessons. I could feel them relaxing after they realized I wasn’t going to tell them to stop being them and become me. Too many tutors try to steer students into what THEY are into instead of cultivating the uniqueness of the person in front if them… But more about this in another article.

The time finally came when I would get to hear the brilliance of Bob. He was a quiet, shy, introverted guy in his mid 20’s. The kind of guy that doesn’t make eye contact and would prefer to be in front of a luminescent screen, rather than a human.

He had this air of confidence bordering on arrogance. And when he played, that arrogance was justified! He was incredible! Not a shredder though, he played with a clean tone and tastefulness… So how could I help him? He sounded like a pro…

The thing was, with all his flair and knowledge of chords and scales… Something was missing…. it wasn’t my eyes or ears that picked it… They were impressed… It was the way I FELT.

I felt cold and unemotionally involved. But also, I felt like he was saying (musically) what he thought he should say…. Like a salesman who knows the script, but… It’s a script, it’s not HIM.

So there it was. The thing he needed was HIMSELF… Very zen and woo woo sounding, but it’s hard to put it any other way. It lacked soul and uniqueness. It was like a superficial conversation or small talk. Not like a deep soul connecting discussion.

His obvious arrogance needed a shake up, so the usual gentle caressing approach wasn’t going to get through to him. So I put it to him bluntly. “Your an incredibly good guitarist, but nothing you played is unique. It felt like you were going through the motions… Dialling it in… if I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t be able to distinguish you from any other player.”

I was shocked at how cold I sounded… But he needed the medicine. His face went cold and you could see him flinch as the pain of what I said hit home… He was truly shocked, but I could tell I had his full attention now. He admitted that I was right, you could see him battling with this new knowledge.

I’ll continue this story in my next post. But for now, ask yourself this… What makes you unique? What combination of guitarists and musicians have influenced you? Your guitar heritage (the guitarists you love) is unique to you. The things you love about each musician will differ to even other fans of the same Muso.

For me it’s the way Gary Moore bends and vibrates strings… The sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Strat… the note choices of Steve Vai and Eric Johnson… The commanding presence and flair of Yngwie Malmsteen…

So what is it for you?


  1. philip wilkins

    Mark; I can not thank you enough for the one thing that has helped me the MOST. A simple little thing but VERY important, HOW TO HOLD YOUR PICK!!! Man what a difference in speed and accuracy!!!

  2. Richard

    Guess we’re back to Salieri’s comment about Mozart, “Too many notes.” And the very valid question, “Are we playing to impress people or in the service of a song?” These blogs are really good, Mark. Do try to keep them up (I know how difficult that is!) because you have a gift.

  3. Kossoff

    As the old saying goes Mark …. “The truth hurts”, and it sounds like it certainly did in this guys case. Never mind …. you have to be cruel to be kind, right?
    In answer to your question? I don’t believe I am unique, but I do find as I get older I am also getting more patient ….. patience is a virtue so I’ve been reminded many times.
    My favourite guitarist and inlfuence when growing up was the late, great Paul Kossoff (hence my user name) …. he played with so much soul and feeling, and his vibrato was even envied by the great Eric Clapton (according to an interview report). I also liked Ritchie Blackmore or his amazing sped and accuracy on the fretboard, and Jimmy Page or obvious reasons. I’ve just completed a Les Paul guitar mod, converting over to his 21 tone (push-pull switched) configuration….

    Keep up the good work…

    1. Mark McKenzie Post author

      G’day Phil, I also had a go at my own customizing of a Strat a few years back. Very rewarding, and shows how much you love the instrument too. Thanks again for the video review Phil. I’ll be keen to see your progress video when you’re all healed. It’s a scary thing to film yourself and send it out there, so “good on ya mate” as we say in NZ. I’ll check out Paul Kossoff too… not a guitarist I’m aware of embarrassingly.

      1. Kossoff

        Thanks Mark …

        Must be the engineer in me, I’ve also converted my Squier Strat copy over to a push-pull HSH configuration …. it sounds great.
        Paul Kossoff was lead guitar with the 60’s / 70’s group Free (Allright Now fame). He tragically died from drug induced heart failure during a return light from a tour of USA on 19th March 1976, with his then new group “Back Street Crawler” ….. such a sad loss, still even today.

        The hand is healing OK thanks …
        Take care for now …. Phil.

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