“Zen Guitar” by Philip Toshio Sudo is one of the most helpful books on playing guitar that I have encountered, and I highly recommend it to every guitarist. It is unique among instructional books about guitar in that it has nothing to say about chords, scales, or technical matters at all. As the author points out in the beginning of the book, “the world is swimming in information”. As guitarists, we don’t really need more information – we can easily find all the information we might want – what we really need, according to Sudo, is the wisdom that comes only through experience. We don’t learn to ride a bicycle by reading about it. Rather, we learn by experience. Or, as the author says, quoting an applicable Zen saying, “Paths cannot be taught, they can only be taken.”
The goal of “Zen Guitar” is to change the mindset of the reader in his attitude towards playing the guitar. The author does not seek to tell you, the reader, how or what to play. Instead, he draws on the teachings of Zen in order to help you adopt the proper attitude of mind necessary to becoming proficient in whatever you choose to play. This book is all about a change in attitude. As the author says, “My concern is not so much the ‘how’ of guitar playing as the ‘why’.” His concern is helping the reader to adopt a mental posture that will facilitate personal progress, whatever that may mean to each individual.
To give an example, Sudo addresses the common question, “how long will it take [to become an accomplished player]?” As a matter of fact, I was asked this question just last night. I was at the grocery store, and the checker, evidently a musician himself, saw that I was wearing a guitar-oriented T-shirt and asked me, “How long does it take to learn the guitar?” I answered, “About forty years.” (That’s how long I’ve been playing guitar). As I see it, I’m still learning and making progress. Here’s how the author of “Zen Guitar” addresses the question, “how long will it take?” He writes, “To be obsessed with the destination is to remove the focus on where you are. The only way to progress in Zen Guitar is to put everything into this step, right now.”
Here are some passages I especially liked from “Zen Guitar”:
- On picking up the guitar – “Don’t pick up your guitar aimlessly. Act with a sense of purpose. Be of the mind that you’re going to do something – even if you don’t know what that is yet. Prepare yourself to play.”
- On tuning the guitar – “Beyond tuning the instrument itself, it’s also important for you to be in tune with the instrument. Much more difficult on the path of Zen Guitar is finding an internal tuning – one that brings body, mind, and spirit into harmony. A player must be clear of internal static such as impatience and frustration…”
- On playing the guitar – “Here is where you start: Play one note on one string and pour in every ounce of your heart and soul. Then repeat. On a technical level, any beginner can do this. The challenge is one of the spirit.”
- On practicing the guitar – “As the samurai say, ‘the only opponent is within.’ There are no tricks or secrets. It is a matter of will – putting one foot in front of the other every step of the path. In Zen Guitar, honesty, integrity, spiritual strength, and depth of conviction are more important than skill. These are the elements that make vital music, and they have nothing to do with natural talent.”
- On practicing the guitar – “All you ever need do is focus on one thing: what you are doing. Stay on the path and put one foot in front of the other – that is all. There is joy in the struggle.”
- More about practicing the guitar – “Guitar playing is a physical activity that demands training. The body must acquire an intelligence of its own. The muscles must learn to move in new and disciplined ways. Physical challenges force the mind to confront obstacles: pain, fatigue, self-doubt… When the body engages in something new, it focuses the mind to pay attention – to acquire focus, direction, resolve. Conversely, when the body tires of an activity, the mind must forge discipline and endurance in the muscles. Frustration results when the body will not perform as the mind directs, or the mind becomes confused about what it wants the body to do. These confrontations between mind and body are an integral part of training. The only opponent is within.”
- On technique – “The more complicated the technique, the more attention the mind must give to it. The aim is to play without thinking about technique. Acquire only the technique you need, and no more. That is the Way of Zen Guitar.”
- “Just play. If it feels right, it is right.”
- On overcoming self-consciousness – “Many mistakes arise from self-consciousness – from too much focus on what the body is actually doing. The way to overcome self-consciousness is through practice. With practice our muscles develop their own intelligence, until thought and action occur simultaneously; our skill becomes natural – part of what zen masters call our ordinary mind.”
- More on practicing the guitar – “Practice does not make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect. The key is not to think of doing things right every time – that thought seems too overwhelming. Just do it right one time, this time, right now. That’s all you ever have to worry about.”
- On overcoming self-doubt – “The Way of Zen Guitar is playing what you were meant to play, not necessarily what you want to play. Understand the difference. Sometimes the two are the same, sometimes they are not. You must reconcile one with the other, or you will not make progress. A bird does not ask, ‘Is my song pretty?’ It simply does what it does. Trust in the truth of naïve musicianship; there you will find what you are meant to play. Naïve musicianship is exactly as the name implies: innocent, unself-conscious, egoless expression. It follows no rules other than its own, and seeks acceptance on nothing but its own terms.”
“Zen Guitar” by Philip Toshio Sudo is highly recommended. You can find it on Amazon.com for as little as $1.99 for a used copy.