Developing a “Player’s Mentality”

By: J. Dale Lucas

Sometimes when we pick up a guitar, it feels like we have superpowers. It’s not necessarily the sound–sometimes it’s just the feeling.

On the other hand, sometimes we might feel like we’ve played ourselves into a total rut.

I hate that feeling. That first feeling is the one that I want every time I pick up the guitar. The feeling like I could do anything.

But it seemed like every time I picked up the guitar, it was the same old tricks, the same old things I’d always played. I hated that feeling so much that I decided to take a break from the guitar. This is what I learned.

Why Do We Play The Guitar?

For many of us it’s a hobby, for others it’s an obsession. For me, it’s definitely an obsession. Ever since I can remember I had an uncontrollable urge to write songs, play fast, and have fun.

I realized that, while I play to scratch a creative itch that I was born with, that doesn’t explain why I consistently have tried to level up on the guitar. In fact, I remember having the opposite mentality in the 7th grade, saying to my childhood friend Brian, “I don’t want to get, like, too good–like Steve Vai!”

I hope you’re laughing now like I am looking back on that statement. Fast-forward to just a year later, and I was practicing my ass off to get “Eugene’s Trick Bag” from the movie Crossroads into my arsenal.

Struggle and Affirmation

Step One: Affirmation

You don’t want to start with struggle, do you? Much of the driving force to motivate me to get better came from affirmation–winning a talent show playing a song I love, or my mom hearing me play a classic rock song perfectly that she had shown me. The list of reasons goes on.

So that’s step one to developing a player’s mentality: Finding your audience, and giving them something special that will make both you and the audience proud. Even if the audience is just you. Be pleased with what you have accomplished.

I think that’s part of the larger, more philosophical reason why we play music–to develop a connection. When you’re playing music, you’re developing a connection between yourself and the listener, between yourself and the composer, and sometimes that means that you’re developing a deeper connection with yourself. Even if you just play in your bedroom, and you’re your only audience–you’re connecting with something deeper within yourself.

The reason for my own obsession must have been the affirmation I got from my first live performance–that talent show in 6th grade that turned me from zero-to-hero with the Middle School and Junior High kids. That was the turning point where I took the work ethic that my basketball coach had instilled in me, and applied it to the guitar.

But why? I guess because I realized in that moment that I’d done in three minutes onstage what I’d been trying to do my whole life up to that point. I related to an entire room full of hundreds of kids, and I conveyed a message that was deep in my soul that they accepted–and that they accepted as a reflection of part of their own story.

The message was music, and I knew that I’d only begun to develop my vocabulary–and that this was only my first message.

Your message might be different. It might be bigger, or smaller–but we’ve all got something to give.

Step Two: Love the Struggle

As I wrestled through my own desires and patterns, as I realized that I wouldn’t be playing guitar in front of anyone for a long time, I started to reflect on the first question I asked in this blog–why did I play guitar in the first place? I’ve always been creative, but I think that’s a more personal reason to play the guitar. Like I said, I don’t think that it fully explains my 20+ year obsession with getting better every day.

I didn’t just love the affirmation, I loved the struggle.

The Myth of Sisyphus has to come to our mind as guitar players. The stone’s always there for us to push uphill.

Each and every second of my guitar playing up until this year, I’ve spent playing with a chip on my shoulder. And that is great motivation to succeed, and to work hard–but it can’t become your whole life. 

At the same time, I want to let you know that having that chip on my shoulder was my main motivation towards practicing every day. I wanted to be the best, and I wanted everyone to know it. I wanted to be the Michael Jordan of the guitar. That led to hours of practice, and mastery of a very difficult instrument. 

Now, whether or not we get there–that sort of determines the next step. We all hit plateaus, but I want you to know that plateaus are 100% mental and you can control them. 

But it’s not easy.

Plateaus come when you’ve been focusing too much on the struggle. Plateaus come when you’re trying to improvise, and nothing feels right. It’s because you’ve been thinking, and working too hard, and you’ve been doing it for too long. You’ve got to find a balance between self-affirmation, and struggle.

Finding A Balance

So that chip on my shoulder also led me down the opposite path, where the pressure I put on myself to excel would often lead me to have very unsatisfying shows–and no matter how well you play, there’s no worse feeling than giving everything you have, and feeling numb as you walk offstage–as people congratulate you, and you can’t figure out why.

We have to have a balance between consistently aiming higher than we think we are capable of reaching, and turning that voice off when it’s showtime. Listen, maybe you’re just a hobbyist and you only want to learn John Denver songs–that’s actually great. But no matter what are your aspirations on guitar, you can apply this to anything. As human beings, we always need something just beyond our fingertips to strive for, and then we need to accomplish it in order to feel fulfilled.

So if you’re struggling with the same feelings, or if you aren’t having consistently good performances, my best advice for you to learn how to adopt that “Player’s Mentality” is to look outside yourself in that moment of doubt, and look around you. Trust all the work that you’ve put in, and love the music that comes from your fingertips. Begin to enjoy being part of the moment you’re in–the beautiful music all around you, probably playing with friends; look at the human faces watching you; the ones that aren’t smiling, look into their eyes and help them take part in the moment that you’re creating. It’s not easy for them to let go, but that’s why we play music. We all need to connect with one another, and use our music to elevate every single one of us to a happier, higher, better place. That’s playing with purpose, and that’s the first step towards developing your player’s mentality.

Speaking of which, I can’t wait to perform again. How ‘bout you?