What does playing a music instrument mean to you?

For the last few months, I’ve been asking all my students this very question in view of later compiling it into this article, an exercise meant both to drive them to want to play more (by understanding each others’ perspective why they play the guitar/bass/uke – the instruments I teach), and also for the better good of trying to motivate anyone reading this article to pick up an instrument – whatever the instrument – and play. To that effect, I am also including some videos for further inspiration.

Answers varied from “my way of communicating to Jesus through praise” (Alex, acoustic student) to “a way to develop my creative side” (Graham, skype electric student) to “a treat for my retirement” (Martin, acoustic student) to “something completely different that is so enjoyable that time flies away” (Byron, uke student) to “infinitely deep and rewarding- something you can do by yourself or share with others” (William, skype electric student),  to the even more out-there “a way to be inspired and to tap into the rhythm of the universe!” as Rob, an electric guitar student put it.

However you look at it, playing a musical instrument means different things to different people, and the aim of this article is to highlight that. To me, as a tutor and performer alike, it means a lot, but mostly

a) a way to translate my never-ending quest for being creative.
In my daily life and even outside of musical fields, I constantly seek and am thrilled by novel ideas, hence the guitar is my tool to give my share for more alternative ways to create new music. An artist first, then a musician, then a guitarist. In other words, I always try to feed any audience that element of surprise.
Being creative is a constant challenge to keep the mind fresh, as through finding ways to make dreams an aural reality (i.e. writing songs), one stays young. Read this article for more details about the benefits that learning music has on the mind.

b) a therapy.
If there are long periods of teaching without creating new music, I feel an urge to express myself the soonest possible. So in a way, without a musical instrument, I do not feel alive. Music is a fire in the belly, and the instrument is only a medium to convey that passion.

c) a means to happiness.
As a young professional, I was an office department manager. But I quit that job as most of the time I thought of the guitar anyway. I took the step of leaving the country I was born in (small island Malta) only to live from what I love – MUSIC! I have persisted long hours of study to be where I am, and I still sacrifice time from other things, but ultimately I am doing what I love, and I would not have it any other way as nothing is as rewarding as seeing others excel in their instrument thanks to my help.

In a nutshell, my life is surrounded by music and the rest fills the blanks, never the other way round.

So one can imagine how it feels to read the same line of thought re-echoed by my budding 14 year old rocker Henry Brewer who thinks that “the guitar means everything to me. It is one of the main things that keeps me motivated in day to day life, and I would like to become a musician/teacher when I grow up. Whenever I play the guitar I always derive a great satisfaction!!!”

Or as adult student George Stein, also a pianist, puts it : “I can’t live without music and sound. I would rather be blind than deaf. As a little kid, I could pick out simple melodies on the piano on my own… it always made sense. I started piano age 7, trumpet age 8, drums at 10 & baritone horn at 12. Later as a young man I started to play around with guitar, but never pursued it. A few years ago I bought a decent Tanglewood 6-string acoustic and started to play more, on my own before I realised that I would get further faster if I took some lessons. Fast forward after 3 years of lessons, the guitar is starting to make sense… still not like the piano (that will still take a while) but I feel like I can play. I now own 6 guitars, play at least a little pretty much every day, …. I like being able to play, and making music is just such a thrill, every time… I guess for me, learning guitar has enabled me to continue to not only make music, but to also grow and develop as a musician. It’s fun, and it fills an important space to me. Life without music – all kinds – isn’t really life.”

Words of weight there for you! But yes, playing any instrument is a therapy, a challenge, and a reward.

“I have never been particularly musical, but have always appreciated musicianship in all its forms.  For me now, I find the ukulele an escape from everything.  Because it requires the same concentration as say, reading, but also incorporates participation, it is such a soothing and welcome relief from the day to day grind.  It has already brought me immense satisfaction and I have already found a groove with it that I didn’t realise was even available.” opines Paul Gill, an adult who studies ukulele with me, just because “it is different than all my peers learning guitar”. That is uniqueness for you! And I applaud him for that – always watch the rest, and take a different path!

Like everything one works for in life, learning does not come without its sacrifice. As acoustic guitar student John Ford puts it :  “Playing guitar can be demanding, sometimes painful and often frustrating but it also allows me to switch off from day to day things and focus on trying to create something approaching music. The possibilities of the instrument are endless and every time I pick the guitar up something different will happen – often bad things –  but sometimes a chord change, a riff or a solo will fall into place and the world seems a better place”.

Irrespective of how daunting challenges might be, especially for younger students, they still see the rewards, as one Marko Mosquera forths : “To me the guitar is an instrument which can be good but at the same time challenging. It can be really enjoyable and fun to solo as well as play songs but at times it is also a hard amount of work. It is an instrument which can be used for so much, but I do find it at the same time hard and frustrating. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because after all we all need to overcome some challenges or do something that is a bit different which is why I started playing guitar in the first place.”

But then again – “the guitar is like a lover which your partner tolerates. It is not even forbidden or weird to play with your lover in front of your partner. For me, bass guitar time is when I don’t think about work and duties, and after spending a long time playing I feel relaxed. And I don’t need to have bad feelings about that lover :-)” is how lovely my bass student David Badin verses it. How could you think of the challenges when the rewards outweigh them?

Positivity and persistence! The only mindframes to overcome challenges and become good!

“Learning the guitar is fun yet challenging and I don’t even mind doing my homework. I like the feeling of learning a new song or solo, my guitar is so versatile, you can play almost anything with it.” is how 11-year old Nancy Booker faces it. She already has a Grade 5 exam under her belt, and is currently getting ready for a Grade 6.

“Something precious, a means to play songs. All my family are musicians so I look forward to play with my cousins on stage” is another young teenager (namely Leon Ansah) ‘s aim and reason to play acoustic guitar.

Or as adult Paul Killick views his acoustic guitar : “… mainly trying something I’ve always wanted to do, something completely different from anything else I do in life; it is being creative, and gets me out of my comfort zone! Also, it helps me appreciate the guitarists I like more!”

As a musician, the moment I decided to pick the guitar, I wanted to do it the serious way. I remember my parents insisted to not buy me a guitar as a gift on a plate but wanted me to work for it (maybe that is why I had such persistence after all), so for a whole summer I worked for one, and once I got it, I sought a guitar teacher. I had this will to become as good as possible the soonest possible to form a band, so the expertise of those who had been down the road before me was not an option but a must.

26 years later, as a tutor, I know that learning alone (off friends, the internet, going to gigs, etc) does not even start as compared to finding someone to guide you. It is like the story of the tortoise and the hare. Learning alone is like jumping from here to there without plan, whereas with a tutor you are presented with steps one at a time, facing up to challenges gradually rather than eating more than you can chew.

So I also asked my students how they feel about lessons and how they view their playing as compared to when they started…..

Kicking off with the previous Paul Killick : “I have got a little better than I was,  and when I do exactly what is suggested, then I have got a bit better again! It’s teaching me a discipline – making myself follow instructions. I have always tended to shy away from/give up on things that I can’t immediately do, so it is good for me to keep on at this, even though I feel I don’t have the natural aptitude for it. It is teaching me to persevere I guess. Lessons definitely teach you the good habits, the framework you need to be able to grow as a musician. And it gives you little goals each week, which then lead to a sense of achievement each week.”

Or as online student William Ayerst put it : “After a few months of struggling, I was able to play without wanting to clamp my fingers over my ears, and after a few years I’m finally starting to feel like I’m passable. The biggest realisation for me was that there was no shortcut – no trick or hack to get better – just hours and hours of hard work. Having lessons has given focus to that work and ensured I’m always pushing my boundaries further, instead of spinning my wheels.”

For bassist David Badin it is a matter of confidence : “I feel more comfortable playing and holding the bass than before. I could play tabs before but I didn’t have the basics. Learning about rhythm, notes, scales,.. made it clear about why and what I’m actually doing and I feel more confident while playing.

Young 11-year Nancy “was a complete beginner a few years ago” when she started. “Lessons have enabled me to progress at a much faster pace than just watching the internet. A teacher can help you not only learn new things but also master them”.

Slightly older Marko reckons that “I think it’s fair to say that I’ve advanced a fairly good amount from when I started playing. I learnt a lot more different topics on the guitar which I thought I would never be able to play. I have gone from starting to play with an acoustic guitar to moving on and playing with an electric guitar where you need to conquer different and more fast paced genres of music as well as being able to use it for different things because they are very different.”

Fellow young chap Henry believes that “my playing has vastly improved in the last 3 years that I have been studying the guitar. I have managed to get to a Grade 5 Level in 3 years thanks to lessons. Lessons are beneficial as they give purpose to the study of guitar, as you have something to work towards rather than sitting on your bed learning riffs off the internet. It also means that you can improve your playing much more quickly, because if something is wrong with your playing, a teacher can tell you, but the internet cannot.”

To the words of adults, bassist Lyn Hanrahan finds that “taking lessons has been essential for me. I need the structure to keep me practicing and to help me learn in the correct way.  Malcolm, gives me that structure.” and Rob Cruise feels “much better – before I was floundering around just trying to rigidly learn the songs I liked with no understanding of how they are put together or basic technique. The most satisfying thing about lessons so far is that I have been able to start to improvise and solo quite quickly, which I never thought I’d be able to do”.

Speaking of rewards – persistence pays back sooner than you think!

As reflected in the words of some ukulele students…..

Letting young 8-year old Charlie Walton go first : “There is a big difference from when I first started as Malcolm has taught me a lot. Also I can play a song and lots of rhythms now.”

In addition, adult Byron Heard is “amazed how your fingers learn their way without you thinking about it, if you practice enough.”

And maverick-minded Paul Gill (the adult who plays the uke to vary from all his guitar mates remember?) reckons that “considering that I couldn’t strum a melodic note before I started my lessons, the difference between my musical knowledge when I started and now is astounding.  The benefit of having a teacher who can acknowledge your ability and push you when you need to is invaluable.”

Some students are more specific to what they want to learn and how they look at their instrument. For example, Graham Seabrook, an online student from Malaysia finds “My playing has developed considerably since taking lessons. I think one of the main differences is the progression from being able to play a vertical C major scale to understanding how I can play it horizontally to connect along the fingerboard. Personally I feel this is the foundation of being a good player, as developing this further would eventually allow me to jam with other musicians in any key”.

John Ford, sitting comfortably in his London lounge, writes : “I have been taking guitar lesson for approximately 9 months, after spending a long time bashing around on the instrument with no real purpose. In that time I have found that my playing has improved considerably. My understanding of the instrument, knowledge of scales, chords, techniques and musical theory have all improved. The lessons have been really useful as they not only focus on individual areas but also give me an appreciation of how they all fit together.”

And acoustic student Alex Achikeh views it that “I am much more confident in playing and my rhythm has improved drastically. My technique has improved in what chords I knew previously especially when it comes to using the 1st and 2nd position to change between chords. There is a lot more structure to my learning and it allows me to develop in many areas that I would not have explored otherwise. It has given me the foundational knowledge of the fretboard which in terms makes it much easier to play scales and to play music rather than let music play me.”

“To play music rather than let music play me!” is a motto anyone learning any musical instrument should pick up as a creed!

Last few words from pianist & multi-instrumentalist (now predominantly a guitarist) George Stein  – “I understand the skill set, and know better what’s required to play what I want. Other people have told me that I sound good, that I can play now… I am still pretty self-critical, but when I record myself and play it back, I do have moments where I think… “gosh, that’s me?” So I’m learning, I’m improving, and I am getting more confident. I recognise this feeling, because I’ve had it before with other instruments… the point where you think, ‘yeah, I got this!’. Without a level of technical skill, even the most talented person will not be able to really express themself… they can’t really make music, on any instrument.
I think I now know how to practice, I know how to get better. Finding the time to properly practice is often a challenge, but lessons have given me a body of knowledge that allows me to develop much faster than if I were to try to teach myself.
I’m probably not always the easiest student, because at one level I am a beginner, on another level I am perhaps a bit more advanced (and impatient)… musically speaking. But the structure and the education I’ve got from lessons have really benefited me. I’m familiar with a few instruments, but I always loved guitar, and the different styles of music you can make with guitar. And I always dreamed of playing guitar. So in some ways I’m realising a dream. Maybe it’s not too late to be a Guitar God??”

It’s never too late!
Feeling inspired? Book a lesson today

Or you already play but having a bad day, you feel rusty, or you need some words to motivate you how to find time for the guitar among other things in life? Just watch Steve Vai talk about the guitar.

Modern approaches to guitar, bass & music theory tuition

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If you can feel it, you might as well try it!

To quote a great inspiration to me and probably most of you (more about him later) : “If you can feel it, you might as well try it”.

But first, I want to recall a story from when I used to share lyric duties for a band some years back. Our vocalist, whose written English was better than mine, used to ask me how did I manage to come up with what in his opinion where better lyrics than his. My answer used to be that what I presented to the band would be the 5th or 6th draft, as in actual fact, I would have written down and corrected a lot. With every draft, I would let the words talk to me as a piece of art themselves, seaving the horseshit from the gold in a bunch of hay if you will.

How I differed from him was that I never expected amazing lyrics to come out at my 1st attempt, but would rather let the good parts shine through the bad parts as I re-read them over and over again. Guess I was doing nothing that a novelist would not do when writing a book, and as soon as he applied that approach, we were now both writing amazing lyrics!

Similarly, let us now bring this to the table of how to become a good improviser, which we all know is music made on the spot without time to allow oneself for drafts. But in actual fact, drafts do happen, in our practice time before taking the stage. So what I generally suggest to my students is –


Time and time again, I have found that this approach has made them understand that the fire only burns the 1st time, and once you know how to walk it without getting burnt, it will become fun every time. And it works! Every time without fail.

So now to the quote above, taken from leading guitarist Mr Joe “Satch” Satriani!

With “If you can feel it, you might as well try it” what Satch is telling us is that after hours of training and singing scales (your drafts), melodies and fingerings become sort of attached to each other with less effort. So when you are actually creating music on the spot, whatever you hear in your head can be translated onto your fingers. Be adventurous!

The main thing is knowing how and where to resolve, purposely repeating “mistakes” before resolving. The safe move for this is to always play a semi-tone up or down to find the note that sounds right (within the key), as explained in detail via my related blogs www.malcolmcallus.com/fingerboard and www.malcolmcallus.com/jazz.

Meanwhile, I let you off with good old Satch doing some explaining himself …..

Modern approaches to guitar, bass & music theory tuition
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The 1st time it’s a mistake, the 2nd time it’s jazz

“The 1st time it’s a mistake, the 2nd time it’s jazz” is a saying that goes around among musicians, particularly among solo players. But what is this saying about, and what is its importance?

As a musician, I constantly improvise. As a tutor, I constantly showcase how to improvise. How? For me it all boils down to one thing – approaching fire with fire! In other words, giving the student the confidence that the sooner he/she walks the fire (i.e. starts to solo), the sooner the fire will not burn any more (everything becomes easier once you try it).

A point I love during lessons is that the moment I teach a student a scale, I immediately give them a backing track and tell them to start playing the notes not in series, to be free, to play anything whether it makes sense or not. Both student & I know that they need to go back home and practise that scale in alternate/economy picking vs a metronome to brush it up both visually and rhythmically, however we ignore that point, we stop thinking too much and get on with it! The point here is to improvise (which is singing with your instrument actually) and as everyone has sung before in their life (shower or breakfast singing counts!), it is by nature that they find their way. The subconscious is a big boy, we all know more than we think we do, so just play and it works sooner rather than later. Make no illusions, it will start as crap, but the more you do it the ratio of hay:gold will soon go from 9:1 to 0:10.

But anyway the point here is not how to start soloing, but for any of you reading this that have been soloing for a while (maybe in the simpler way explained hereunder) who would like to know what happens when for some reason they hit a ‘wrong’ note, a note that does not harmonically fit with the backing chordal accompaniment. So back to our idiom – the 2nd time it’s jazz! What happens then?jazz

Repeat the ‘wrong’ note! And many times (at least 4, or 5-6 as the pic says). There is a style how to do this of course, so keep reading…………

In a band, there are 3 ways how to improvise

1. the simplest way – you know the chords being played by the rhythm section (as a band you rehearsed the songs and probably also know the other guitarist’s notes, if not also the bassist’s, + you know the drummer’s patterns, when the vocalist comes in & what note, and more or less the keyboard notes too). So there you go – you have worked already what scale to use, and off you go!

2. a still simple way – let us say you have not rehearsed, but are jamming for the 1st time directly live with some musicians. They have been so great to give you a chord chart of the song, so after all you will not know all other musicians’ parts, but more or less the chord chart will indicate what the other guitarist/keyboardist shall be playing. And that is enough for you to choose the scale to be used when it comes to the solo section.

3. the more advanced musical way (not necessarily a hard way) that occurs when you jam with musicians live for the 1st time and they DO NOT give you a chord chart and nor state the key – you are simply put there out in the fire, and you have to deal with it! With experience this is not difficult, so here is to how build that experience! You basically go on stage, keep your guitar volume down, and start hearing others’ chords to get the gist of it while playing some notes (just as you would start murmuring before singing)! Then you put the volume up and continue listening to those chords on the spot, and this way you will solo using right notes without the need of knowing the chord harmonization (as above).

But one might argue if they should be listening out to all intervals within a chord (just as one would do in aural tests in guitar exams) to thus decide which notes within the scale to use. Which becomes too much work at every bar and takes out the fun and fire out of soloing!

Absolutely not! In a jam scenario, you just play and when you strike a note out of the chord (the ‘wrong’ note), you just move a semitone up or down. One does not need to know why it works (if you do, check out my ear training & theory course Know It Hear It!), but it works. As when you do, you are giving an illusion to the listeners of changing key. So to ensure that illusion strikes home effectively, just repeat that wrong note a couple of more times  and then return back to the ‘right’ notes (not necessarily in order, but you could go to a ‘right’ note and return to the ‘wrong’ one some more times – the possibilities are endless).

Believe me, that when you manage to overcome this fear, and that you simply go for it, it is not burning fire if you know how to walk that fire, but sweet fire of music passion! For all who need to see to believe, we would not have Surrealism nowadays (and with it all those amazing out-worldly artworks on some vinyls you own) if Dali had not started seeing things differently than the ‘right’ rules of the time!

So, to recap, how to deal with wrong notes when they happen?

That could happen at a gig when a couple of hot women dance dirty a few feet away from you (or any other reason anyway) not ? You can loose track of which song we are doing, the tempo, the key, … Naughty boy! When that happens, you have not been paying attention to one, two, or all of these:

  1. What are you playing?
  2. What is everyone else playing?
  3. How is what you are playing fitting in with what everyone else is?

This listening list includes the notes you’re choosing, the phrasing you’re choosing and how loudly you’re playing.

So if at any time you notice the band is getting shaky, go through this list to ensure it’s not you, and if not identify who it is and do what is possible to tighten up the band. Maybe playing the same wrong notes that the other band member is playing? After all this is what makes live music so beautiful, – how it always differs from the recorded songs!

Music, and in particular, improvisation is a listening art! So remember to always listen with your ears not your eyes. Because those hot women can distract your eyes but not your ears 🙂

Suggested related reading – http://www.malcolmcallus.com/fingerboard/

Modern approaches to guitar, bass & music theory tuition
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Enough burgers! You need a fit body to let healthy music flow out of you!

What is it with some players who despite their solid understanding of music’s “right” notes, they still get tired (or even feel pain) when playing for a long stretch of time?

The answer is simply that musical performance is an athletic discipline like any other sport, and that the key to effortless playing depends on the body’s fitness, or how to make use of it.

Getting the best result for the least effort is indeed the most elegant satisfying way of doing anything, but is it practice that makes perfect? I would rather say repeating nonsense will achieve fluent, thoughtless nonsense. As the reknown Alexander Technique mentions “prevention is better than cure and hence one is to focus on how to carry out actions to build GOOD habits.” So consult, stop to listen to others with less or no physical shortcomings, and then re-approach one’s methods afresh. Sometimes dropping the stubbornness that something is good only because it has worked for many years is the key to open a new door.

So here follow some guidelines I have over the years shared on how to play comfortably, and why everything IS possible! As you may note, these are split into physical and mental exercises for a reason – the physical is put on first as it is the actual practical task you will try out; however you will surely instantly notice a change in application (maybe easier) when you try out the practical tasks after reading the mental part.

All following physical examples are for a right-handed guitar player:music

1. Simply rest the right hand on guitar. The weight of arm keeps guitar in place, so do not try to push the guitar inwards from the right as this effects the posture.

2. Strap to be fitted so that guitar is same angle whether sitting/standing.

3. Thumb should not curl around fingerboard but rather act as a pivot midway behind the fretboard in line with the 2nd finger from the front. If not, the palm of the hand is narrowed, restricting playing of notes on adjacent frets.

4. A good posture depends on your body staying balanced and erect, avoiding undue twisting, with your head, elbows and neck able to move freely, your back standing/ sitting up firm & no twisting of shoulders to side.

5. The shoulder is not to lean sideways towards the guitar. The reason the hand and elbows are free is to pull the guitar inwards to the left of the body, if at all necessary.

6. Avoid picking too loud with right hand as this in turn demands left hand to apply more fretting pressure.

7. Despite a tutor’s guides, the best way to improve is to experience things first hand. A good way is for you to play a piece focusing on new posture without much attention to the piece, then playing the piece again with the old posture. This will reveal how the new posture differs from the old, and how easier it is.

Mental suggestions:

1. There is no way but the best way. It is the easiest to master, so make a habit of that. This is known as the cycle of conscious incompetence > conscious competence > unconscious competence i.e. that first you are aware of your shortcomings, then you practice enough to garner some skill & the knowledge that you know what you are doing, then your knowledge becomes so innate that you do not even think about it, and it flows out of you when you perform.

2. Mental rehearse what needs to be done, and focus on it before actually playing it. This way the muscles are more liable to react positively as research has proven that the muscles react to something when thinking about it as they would when one actually does it.

3. Practice with awareness of your goals vs too much unfocused practice repeating same mistakes. In other words, playing flamenco differs from playing extreme metal so new postures for each might have to be learnt, as what works for one style of playing might not necessarily work for others.

4. Listen to the music to produce a tone befitting the style being played vs just focusing on getting a better tone. As decreasing your physical efforts makes you more sensitive to producing tone colours, and enjoying music more.

5. Instruct yourself with positives not negatives (DOs not DONTs).

So you might still argue that the old way works better? Well try the new way, see how it functions for you, think about how it differs from your previous methods, and only then reject it.
A Chinese idiom goes: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”
And I bet you that if you understand the easiest way, it will become your new habit and you will not reject it. Just as many professional guitar players before you have not.

Modern approaches to guitar, bass & music theory tuition
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The discourse of musicology and timbre

  1. How was it possible for Beethoven to create music well after he turned deaf?
  2. What was the very fact that made the rumble of bass-guitar-voice-drums that was The Sex Pistols appeal so highly to music researchers from a scientific point of view?
  3. What makes an experienced journalist write about music without being a musician the same way you and I recognize the contrasting tastes of two different chocolate cakes, despite neither of us have the culinary expertise to break down their composition as a chef would?


Creativity always having been the epicenter of what I consider makes an artist, innovations to one’s music allow its listeners more anchor points to experience it differently out of “the musician’s box”.

Hence, the above, similar and others, are some of the many questions & answers I approach throughout this blog, as to convey a sense of looking at music composition not only from a chords’ & scales’ point of view, but further!

Modern approaches to guitar, bass & music theory tuition
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