When I was a kid, my friends and I used to hang out and skateboard with the missionaries in our neighborhood. I remember when they left (Mormon missionaries aren't supposed to skateboard 😅) they said to me, "Don't stop skating!"
For some reason, that counsel stuck out to me as absurd. I remember thinking to myself, why would I ever stop skating? The idea had never crossed my mind. I believed that I would always be skating and I could see no reason to stop.
Fast forward 15 years (I am now older than they were at the time) and after "growing up," I better understand what they meant.
Always be prepared
Earlier this year, my friend and bandmate Dylan asked if I wanted to play lead guitar for some songs on his sister Collette's album. I hadn't played guitar in five months–since the time my son was born–and I knew my playing was going to be rusty, but I couldn't say no to the opportunity.
They had already started recording the album and were going to be finishing up in the next few days. So I pulled my guitar out of the closet and started practicing over the demos they had sent me.
Since I only had a couple of days to prepare there was no time to ease into it. I hoped my fingers would be fine but I soon faced reality; they had lost their calluses. I almost immediately got blisters on my fretting fingertips. By the time we were done recording, I had blisters forming underneath the first set of blisters.
I soaked my fingers in rubbing alcohol to dry out the blisters, took some Advil, and powered through it. This taught me you never know when you might be called to use your talents. You should always be prepared when it's your turn to shred.
Be your own yardstick of quality
The album was recorded at June Audio. The studio is a hidden gem built into the back of a house in downtown Provo, UT, and has recorded acts like The Killers, Neon Trees, and David Archuleta.
Most of my parts were going to be improvised, which I am used to, but it still made me nervous. I had about two hours to record and it was the last day at the studio so I didn't have much time to fiddle around.
Dylan and I quickly dialed in some guitar tones and I got started on the first track. The tracks were almost finished so I listened to each song with headphones and played my guitar part over top. When recording lead parts, the audio engineer will record multiple takes over the same section of the song so you can pick and choose the best takes.
Once you go through a section you will usually get some feedback from the band and maybe the recording engineer, but you are ultimately responsible for the quality of your contribution. You don't get unlimited takes so you need to have a feel for when you've recorded a keeper, which can actually be really hard.
In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains the need to have a "strong personal sense" of what is "good" when working on creative projects:
In some creative activities, where goals are not clearly set in advance, a person must develop a strong personal sense of what she intends to do. The artist might not have a visual image of what the finished painting should look like, but when the picture has progressed to a certain point, she should know whether this is what she wanted to achieve or not. And a painter who enjoys painting must have internalized criteria for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ so that after each brush stroke she can say: ‘Yes, this works; no, this doesn’t.’
This personal sense of direction comes from understanding what the song needs and what the composer wants, combined with your taste and internal compass for what sounds good.
You need to be your own yardstick of quality. If you don't have your own taste and standard for what's good then you are relying on someone else, which kills your "flow." And at the end of the day, you are going to hear all the little nuances, so you need to be convinced that it sounds good, especially when you are immortalizing the music in a recording.
Don't lose your spark
Slash, an iconic guitarist to me as a kid, said in an interview that he takes his guitar with him everywhere and plays every day because he is afraid he might forget how to play.
After getting those blisters and struggling to play the instrument that I love, I had a harrowing vision of getting old and losing my ability to play, and never getting back into it. That shook me and made me realize the risk of this hobby of mine turning into a memory of something that I used to do.
Don't let your passion slip away. Life gets busy; family, work, health, all sorts of things could take you away. Your priorities will change and it's ok to take a break or do it less frequently but don't let it slip away. The longer you let it go, the harder it will be to get back into it.
Whatever your thing is, don't lose your spark. Don't stop skating! 🛹
Collette's record is out now. And it's really good. Go give it a listen!
I play lead guitar on Blue Forever, White Boots, Ode, and a short section on What They Taught Me.