Cargo Cult Guitar

August 15, 2023

I’ve been playing the guitar for about 10 years now, and lately, I’ve been questioning how it fits into my life and what that means to me.

I think I’m allowed to ask these types of questions because I know I’ve put in the effort. Yes, I know the time you spend isn’t indicative of anything if it isn’t deliberate, and in retrospect I definitely have practiced through repetition and successive refinement. These two things, along with mentorship, courtesy of Anders Ericsson lead to being world-class at something. My goal, however, was simply to find satisfaction in my playing. With the amount of information online, it should theoretically be possible to achieve whatever you want through self learning.

Spoiler alert: I haven’t. And if anything, take this as a case study on how NOT to do things, highlighting the dangers of lacking foresight and neglecting adequate meta-work.

The Cargo Cult

I first read about this cult in Surely You’re Joking in which Feynmann points out this particularly troubling culture in the scientific community which he calls simply “The Cargo Cult Science”. The term is metaphorical and refers to this tribe that during the war, out of nowhere had this influx of wealth and resources due to being a temporary landing spot to the pilots. Once the war ended however, the planes just didn’t have a good enough reason to go there.

Since then, the people of this tribe try to replicate their surrounding to match how it resembled 70 years ago. They clear out runways and have a person stationed on shack that’s like a control room. They make antennas out of hay and such. Everything is exactly the way they remember, except the planes just don’t land.

I think that’s what it has been like for me. I do the routine, I set aside time for improving technique, practice scales, learn theory, try improvising, make covers and so on. Except that it doesn’t add up to anything and so I have indeed failed to put it together.

Barking up the wrong tree

Somewhere along the way, I stopped evaluating what I was doing and started practicing mechanically. I was focusing on making covers and playing things exactly the way they were “supposed” to be played. I remember spending months on a song, playing tabs without even knowing what I was playing. Add to this, each day I would come across a video on technique / theory that for some reason had me convinced to drop everything else. So before I’d get good at something, I would find some other new shiny thing that would take my playing to “the next level”.

All this continued until I basically messed up my wrist. I had a swelling the size of an eyeball. It hurt too much to play, so I took a break, and I don’t think I even picked up the guitar during this ‘cause the swelling seemed worsen every time I did. Eventually when I got back (after about 6 months), I just stopped working on technique and focused on theory. While this initially felt like a step in the right direction, I grew bored pretty quickly. During the pandemic, I tried learning the classical guitar and while that managed to hold my interest for a bit, all in all, the desire to keep this on as a hobby dwindled. This is how it has been for the past couple of years.

I was 12 when I picked up the guitar, and at the time, my idea of being “good” was to shred through the solo from “Hotel California” by the Eagles. I really thought that was the end game. I’m 24 now (Jeez Louise, I’ve been playing for half my life), and clearly, my priorities have shifted.

After all these years of neglecting meta-work, I thought it’s about time I sat down straightened things out a bit. And I’m gonna base everything on a not-so-surprising realization I had that Music is just another language.

First came Music and then came Language

Music channels parts of cognition that is way more ancient than speech. Which is a pretty neat factoid in that it explains why a Major Chord sounds happy, a Minor Chord sounds sad, and how music in general can elicit other emotions in between and beyond.

Following this logic: if you elicit emotion, you are exchanging ideas, and if you’re exchange ideas, you are communicating.

Being a better communicator

Of course, my linguistic framework of communication far supersedes the musical one. So if being a better musician finally comes down to being a better communicator, it makes sense to use what I know already to point me in the right direction.

Questions to ask myself

  • How do I introduce myself?
    • Do I announce my vitals?
    • Do I walk around talking about my achievements? Or,
    • Do I greet someone first, make small talk, ask how they are doing?
  • What do I say?
    • Do I spell the alphabet from end to end?
    • Do I show off the new word that I just learnt? Or,
    • Do I tell a story, make banter, pull in anecdotes and paraphrase a quote?

I know the applicability or relevence of these questions aren’t straightforward but I feel like it could be a good heuristic or starting point to have.

Conclusion

Getting back to the Cargo Cult Guitar, I think the biggest trap there was fooling myself and creating needless obstacles that kept me from improvising, trying ideas or just creating music. The false narrative that I told myself was that if I somehow got better at the instrument, I’d sound less bad. Which in a correlative sense maybe true. But if the goal is to say, write a song. The best way to get good at that is to actually write a song. And as Robert Greene says, when you’re starting something, it’s okay to be slightly under-prepared ‘cause then you can rise to the occasion. On the path of being good at that, I just have to accept that I will sound bad and not use that as a reason to procrastinate with a new exercise or cover, solely to feel productive. If I wanna do any of those things, it should be on their own term.

That’s all I have to say about that for now. And oh, I’d like to add that I now have a teacher. I went to see a band playing at the local pub and after the show, I asked the guitarist if he would take me in as a student and he agreed! So here’s to that!

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