Not all mistakes are created equally


One of the things I’ve noticed about some of my students is that they react the same way to each mistake they make.  Typical reactions are anger, fear, or shame, and mistakes of any kind stop them dead in their tracks. They try to back up and attempt a do-over.  That in itself is a mistake.  Music keeps moving, whether you make a mistake or not. If you are in rehearsal mode, playing songs all the way through, then don’t EVER let a mistake stop you. Spend your rehearsals practicing getting yourself out of the self-inflicted jams.  It’s truly the fastest way to improve your performances.

A master musician is not someone who doesn’t make mistakes, a master musician is someone who hides their mistakes well.  Learn how to hide yours.


And learn the different types of mistakes musicians make; is it mental or physical?  If you simply flubbed where you put your finger GET OVER IT, and keep playing. Physical errors happen to the best musicians and athletes on the planet. Do not spend a millisecond of your life berating your playing for this kind of mistake. IT. IS. NO. BIG. DEAL.

Of course not every physical mistake is the same either. Did you make a physical mistake because you don’t have the right technique or correct fingering for that passage? That’s different from a simple flub. Don’t stop playing, but acknowledge the problem and when you’re done playing spend time on fixing it. If your technique or fingering is incorrect, go back to work, slow everything down to about half-speed and practice the right moves until they feel natural.


The mistakes to be hyper-aware of are mental errors.  Any sports coach will tell you that mental errors are the unforgivables in sports.  They are in fact, unforced errors.  But there are two kinds of mental errors. One is thinking you are doing the exact right thing and doing it only to find out it’s wrong.  And the other is a brain-fart.

In the first instance, instead of berating yourself, figure out what you were supposed to do, get committed to that and play through it the next time the correct way. In the second instance-get over it-it’s not a big deal; it is a mental version of a physical flub. The first instance speaks to having bad information, and the other speaks to not being mindful. Both are worthy of correcting.  I’ve noticed a huge uptick in the quality of my rehearsals since I’ve become mindful of being mindful.  BE. HERE. NOW.

And please, don’t ever give yourself the goal of playing mistake free.  It won’t happen. Even on nights that I’ve been flawless in my performance I’ve made more than a handful of mistakes; the difference for me is that I don’t telegraph my mistakes, I’ve probably made the same or similar mistake before, and I’ve planned an emergency exit of sorts. This is more for my benefit than the audience’s.  If I’m not affected by my mistakes I’ll play better, and both the audience and I gain from that.

So figure out the kinds of mistakes you’re making, make the right corrections, and go play music that inspires and moves you. If you do that, you’ll inspire and move us.

Cheers, kb


An Inconvenient Truth

I think one of the things pros don’t talk about enough is the time we spend away from our instruments; and the stage.

If you’re a pro that plays, practices or rehearses every day there is a very strong chance you’ll have injuries that will affect your ability to perform.

Typically these are repetitive stress injuries, or RSI. Surveys of symphony orchestras found that 64% to 76% of musicians were experiencing RSI that affected their performance. And remember that these musicians are among the most highly trained in the world. They are taught, and practice the very best ergonomic and musically efficient techniques.

Imagine how those who are self-taught fare.


I personally think that about 85% of my peers over the age of 50 have dealt with some form of RSI. Enough that it’s kept them home when they’d rather be, and quite often financially need, to perform.

So what are some examples of RSI that guitarists frequently encounter? Tendinitis and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Ask me how I know.


And then there are other physical issues that present themselves to guitarists specifically; lower back, neck and shoulder problems are most common.  Sciatic issues abound. These injuries can affect a guitarist’s ability as much or more than the above mentioned RSI. Ask me how I know.

And let’s not discount the toll travel takes on the body. If you have back or neck issues from playing they are severely exacerbated by driving and flying. Ask me how I know.


So, what is a sexagenarian with over 30,000 hours on his hands do to protect himself?

I play as little as I can.

This still averages out to over 15 hours a week; most weeks.  But I also schedule an off-season. And then a spring training, and then I go about my year.  And I pretty much insist on celebrating a sabbath from my guitar every week. I only play 5-6 days a week.

If one were to look at my schedule closely over the last decade they’d see very few performances January-March. And if I play them, they’re typically regional 60-minute, one-set affairs.  This is on purpose. I plan my year in much the same way an MLB player does.

I take January off. In fact I take from the last gig of December until the end of January off. This doesn’t mean I don’t pick up the guitar, but none of it is rehearsal. I only play what I want, when I want to, and I spend most of my time fishing for ideas on a variety of guitars. Or experiment with strings and tunings as I did this year with my baritone-eventually deciding to tune it C-C in standard which was another step lower. This is a valuable creative time for me, but I only play 3-4 hours a week, at most.

The rest is invaluable.


February is when spring training starts for me.  I play at least one 60-90 minute focused session on one guitar 5 days a week. This time includes warm-up and stretching. I play as long as I can stay actively engaged in critical listening which is the requirement for me to call it a focused session. Once the outside world begins to intrude I put the guitar down.

I allow myself to play one more 45 minute focused session, if I want to, on another guitar, or play a ‘casual’ session for up to 90 minutes. An example of a casual session would be playing while watching a sporting event or news broadcast. But the only mandate in early February is one 60-90 minute focused session .

I ease myself back in making sure that I’m playing at about 60-70% of volume and tempo. Think pitchers playing long-toss. I’m stretching muscles that haven’t been taxed in 30 days.

By the middle of the month I move to two 60-90 minute mandatory focused sessions, and allow one casual session of any length as long as I’m feeling relaxed and pain free. I also up volume and tempo, approaching performance tempos and volume.

In February I do not evaluate my accuracy.  This is important. If you’ve taken a break from focused playing, or playing at all, your accuracy is going to be negatively impacted. To expect anything else is foolish, and can set you back. Expect to make more than the average amount of mistakes.

Instead, I evaluate how loose I feel when I play, how well I’m playing dynamics, and how is my tone. I get to the basics of playing music. For example right now I’d rate my tone and dynamics close to 9, my rhythm is about 6.5 as I’ve found myself rushing a bit, but I’m playing with 100% commitment. I would say I’m playing enthusiastically. I’m really happy about that. The mistakes will clear up over time. It’s important to KNOW that that last statement is true. The mistakes will clear up over time.

By the first week of March I will play three focused sessions, one on each of my stage guitars, and as many casual sessions as I want to play. I think it’s important to note that most of my compositions come from these casual sessions, and I think it’s important to make those a regular part of my daily guitar habit. I also increase my playing to 6 days a week; if I want to or feel the need. Quite regularly the 6th day may be spent all casually. Meaning I’m going fishing on all my instruments. As a guitarist/composer I think of this as a working vacation.

I have been playing injured for most of the past 6 years. It was really a series of unfortunate events and included major flare-ups in tendinitis, neck and shoulder issues that pinched nerves and numbed the fingers of my right hand, severe right-hand thumb pain and stiffness from a non-guitar related injury, and major sciatic nerve damage. I soldiered on, but at a pretty serious cost. Both to body, but ultimately my performances as the injuries severely limited my repertoire.

I’ve had to learn the difference between playing hurt and playing injured. As well as learning the warning signs from when pain is presaging an injury. And what to do about it. Right fucking away. I no longer mess around.

One of the things I need to remember is that I’m not going to forget how to play the guitar if I don’t play for a week. In fact, I don’t get that rusty when I’ve not played for a week.  I can take a week off and get back 80% of my repertoire to stage-ready in 5 days. You just have to know how. And for me I basically do a compressed spring training.


For me, I’ve come to realize there are probably no more guitar mountains to climb.  I’m about as good a guitarist as I’m going to be. This does not mean that I can’t get much better as a musician. Because being a great musician is about being a great storyteller, and my storytelling can always improve. That has become the focus of my playing for over a year now.

So, if you play every day, keep an eye on your hands and body. Make sure you’re playing in the most ergonomic position that you can, and don’t be afraid to take time off when time off is required.

Happy playing, kb

The Three C’s Of Zen Guitar: Centered, Committed, & Controlled

First a big shout out to Philip Toshio Sudo; author of Zen Guitar. I read that book before I went into the recording studio to record Homecoming & WinterNight over two weeks in September of ’97.  Philip plays electric guitar and the book has almost nothing about actually playing the guitar in it. But it was still one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read on music.  If you play guitar you owe it to yourself to read this book. You can get it at Amazon!


The book deals with the mental attitude we bring to our practice, rehearsals and performances. It had a huge impact on me-as you can tell I write more about the mental aspect of playing the guitar than the actual playing. Ultimately I think mental attitude is more important than any of the physical skills that we have or don’t have. And physical skills diminish over time, but think of how many great older musicians there are playing right now. It’s because even though they can’t fit quite as many notes into a two bar phrase, they are capable of putting more emotion, more intent, more feel into every note they play. Their music has more depth. Those musical stories are more vibrant than ever.

In last week’s blog I wrote about the Holy Triad of Tone, Rhythm & Dynamics and the core importance they have in any musical performance.  Over the weekend as I was rehearsing on harp guitar I realized that unless one had the right mental attitude it would be hard to achieve what one must in regards to Tone, Rhythm, and Dynamics. And I found that there was another ‘Holy’ triad. This time it was being centered, committed, and controlled.


I find the key foundation to a great rehearsal or performance is being centered. From a dictionary I get this: well-balanced and confident or serene. That’s perfect.  But to paraphrase my wife; “What’s that mean?”

It means you can’t bring worry, anger or fear into the rehearsal with you.  It means that you don’t just pick up the guitar to pick up the guitar.  It means you have intent, you know what you’re about and you’re ready to do it when you pick up the instrument.  This is not about being focused per se, though some people may feel focused when they’re centered.  To me what it means is that I’m balanced. I’m not easily knocked off my goal when I run into some difficulties which I inevitably will.  If one is centered they won’t be overly critical and bring a lot of negative self-talk into their analysis of their rehearsal. When you are centered you bring a calm certainty to the proceedings.

If you are stressed or agitated, angry or upset, it might be smart to reschedule your rehearsal. Otherwise you’ll bring those feelings and patterns of thinking into your playing. And it probably won’t end the way you’d like.



Before we talk about commitment it might be good to discuss the two sides of that coin.  There is big C Commitment which is about long-term aspects. For example this describes an approach to learn a new song, tuning, key, or new technique like two-hand tapping or slide. And then there’s little C commitment; which is how we decide to play an individual note, phrase or composition.  In this blog I’ll be focusing on little C commitment.

You can’t play music timidly if you want to convey emotions.  And there’s really no other reason to play music. IMHO.

When one is calm and confident it is easier to achieve the next mental state. Commitment. This to me might be the key ingredient in musicianship. If you don’t commit to the note and how you’re going to play it you’ll never achieve what you want as it relates to Tone, Rhythm, and Dynamics. It cannot happen.

And yet, that is what confounds most intermediate musicians as they attempt to master their instrument. And at the core of not committing is fear. Fear of a mistake which will shame or embarrass us. FACT. Great musicians make HUGE mistakes.

Michael Manring is considered by many to be the finest fretless bass player in the world. I’ve gotten to tour and play dozens of gigs with him and I know he’s the best musician I’ve ever been around. He’s also among the most kind. I call him Skinny Buddha, and  I think he’s gone whole years where he hasn’t made a single mistake.  But when he does? It’s a doozy! HUGE with a Trumpian Y YUGE. Because that was the note he meant to play!

I learned everything about committing to a note/phrase through a performance with Michael in Southern Utah in 1998. We were playing my arrangement of Duane Allman’s Little Martha and he thought the chord change was to the IV chord when it was to the I. Meaning he played a big fat G against my big fat D and it brought everyone out of their reverie; momentarily. We’re pros, we played on, and incredibly never skipped a bit-no easy task given that I play the A section in 17/8.  No words were spoken, and the rest of that evening was like all of our shows-fun for all. Me most of all.

But we talked about it after the show. Because I was amazed that he shrugged it off so easily. At that point in my career, if I’d made that kind of mistake I would have crawled into a hole and played scared the whole night. He told me something that as an ex-jock I understood.  It was a simple mistake. It was not a big deal. He meant to play it that way. There was no fear carried forward.  Athletes, great athletes shrug off failure and mistakes as long as they commit. So do great musicians. Great performers FORGET their mistakes. They leave them in the past, where they belong. So should you.

Playing committed is often a way to discover just how well you know a particular piece of music. Is your knowledge formative, or nuanced?  How you commit is the acid-test to your depth of understanding of that piece of music.

If you make a stunning amount of committed mistakes, it probably means you don’t know the song well enough to perform it. But that is still better than playing a timid version with fewer mistakes.  Play with passion or don’t play at all. Take that song back to practice and get to work. That’s all that needs to happen.

I feel it’s important to say that playing committed doesn’t mean always playing loudly. It’s committing to how we’re going to apply tone, rhythm and dynamics to a note, phrase, or composition. You commit to playing softly and tenderly every bit as much as you commit to playing something loudly and brashly.

I also think that it’s important to say that for a guitarist, the idea of commitment is mostly about the plucking hand.  As I’ve read recently on Facebook. Your left hand (fretting hand) shows us what you know. Your right hand (plucking hand) shows us who you are.  Are you confident and committed, or timid and indifferent?

In other words; mean what you play!


Control. Merriam-Webster says this: restrained.  Other synonyms are disciplined and contained. Those last two are closer to my meaning for controlled.  But I’m going to use another jock reference: staying within yourself as my definition.  What do you have to offer the music today? Right now? This minute? This is about how I feel emotionally and physically.

The sports I played most were baseball, tennis, and golf. All are basically individual sports; baseball is a game mostly played between the pitcher and hitter (especially as it relates to this topic).  All are sports that can be and are played daily by professionals.  But you can’t bring your A game to every occasion. In fact even the very best only bring their A game about 40-50% of the time.  The rest of the time you’ve got to do the best with what you have.

I was trying to get this idea across to a student the other day. Luckily they’re way into sports so I used a baseball pitching reference. There are days I know I can throw an easy 94 with late movement, and some days I’ve only got 89.  As long as I don’t try to play a song as if I can throw 95 I’m fine. For me, control is knowing my limits. Knowing what I have in my hands that day. Focusing on control doesn’t stop me from doing, focusing on control allows me to choose appropriate repertoire, tempo (rhythm) and dynamics. Focusing on control allows me to do well.

If you are lucky enough to perform your music you must understand that every day is a new day.  This is especially true for aging musicians. Respond accordingly.

But sometimes control can be about restraint. This is especially true as it relates to tone and dynamics. I’ve seen guitarists who hit the thing so dang hard that nothing stays in tune let alone sounds musical. Strings rattle against frets, strings are bent out of tune, and there’s no nuance. EVERYTHING IS PLAYED FULL VOLUME ALL THE TIME. If this is you, knock it off.  No one wants to hear musical screaming all the time.  Control yourself!

And control can also be about speed.  It’s a mistake to play everything at 100% maximum speed or effort. Golf pros and MLB pitchers will tell you that it’s best to maintain about 75-85% of maximum effort. That’s repeatable over the years.  And this is when staying in control keeps you from becoming tense.  Playing too fast always leads to tension and that effs up everything. And if you’re always hovering around max effort you have no way to go when more is required.

So the next time you pick up your guitar ask yourself if you’re calm cool and collected. Are you ready to play each note with intent? And are you playing within your capabilities at that moment?

If you can answer yes to these you’re going to have a rewarding time on the guitar.  And so will those who get to listen.


Cheers, kb



Personal truths, music and religion

This blog has been brewing for quite awhile. I can remember almost exactly when the seed was planted. It was the fall of 2011 and I was touring with a lovely female guitarist in the Southwest. We were talking about the rise of evangelical Christianity and it’s impact on our society, politics, and governance. And then both of us admitted that as we had drifted away from organized religion that music had become our religion.


Religion is a cultural system of behaviors and practices, world views, sacred texts, holy places, ethics, and societal organization that relate humanity to what an anthropologist has called “an order of existence”.  Religion is about teaching us our place in the world, a ‘code’ by which we can assess our behavior and personal growth.  It is something that holds us to a higher standard, and something that involves the embracing of a higher power. Music, and my pursuits in music as a performer, composer, and educator has provided me all those same elements.

There has always been a spiritual connection for me with music. When I’m listening to something that moves me I am filled with emotion, ideas, inspiration, motivation, and joy. Even if the music itself is sad. When I grieve, or cry, or mourn the release of that pain is instantly replaced with joy and gratitude. The world is a bit brighter. For me, listening to music is prayer and meditation, and a celebration of the human spirit.

Composing for me has the same affect as listening. It involves a deep connection to something bigger than myself. At my best, my compositions never feel written or pieced together. Quite often they come whole; I call this dipping into the divine.  The music was there, always had been, I was just the first to hear it.

In the pursuit of being a touring artist music has asked much personal sacrifice. It has challenged me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  What person of God hasn’t had a crisis of faith. As a person of Music, I know I have had repeated crises of faith.

The discipline of religion is no different than the discipline of music. It involves constant self-inventory. It takes practice.  It takes study. It demands personal sacrifice. And it requires faith and belief in something bigger than one’s self.

And to become a better performer I realized I had to become a better person. Music asked, no, demanded that of me. I realized that performing; the type of  musical performance I wanted to provide was an act of service. It had nothing to do with me. There’s no i in performance, or band, or ensemble.  Through music I learned that love is a verb. That’s powerful shit.

And through musical performance I learned about building and nurturing a community. What it means to be community, and how to help each other out. And just how powerful the shared live  musical experience truly is. It can alter someone’s life every bit as much as a powerful sermon.  And it can save lives too; as well as make someone’s passing from this life easier. Just as religion does.

I’m not suggesting music should be your religion, or that it’s in any way better than any Eastern or Western religion.  We all need to find a code to live by, to challenge ourselves so that we grow, and a place to build community with like-minded folks. A place to prosper and grow as we each find our own way from the cradle to the grave.

Music has been mine.

Peace and joy to you and yours,



Fingers, Picks, or Fake Nails Oh My! Part 2: Should I or Shouldn’t I

While it can be a real pain in the ass to those around me, I am gifted with an incredible desire to always get better at what I do. It’s the reason I wake up in the morning, and I honestly can’t understand any other way of living.  The day I wake up and don’t want to improve myself will likely be my last day. To me, self-improvement is my reason to live.

The way this shows up in my musical life is in my experimentation. I am incredibly inquisitive. I love trying new strings, capos, slides, guitars, tunings, and picks. My experiments have yielded tremendous results for me personally. But luckily I am also pretty self-aware, and I know that I typically respond favorably to anything ‘new’ and different.  I LOVE change. Embrace it, and actively pursue it.  I know change causes stress in many folks, but for me change is like taking a great big bong hit of the best weed I’ve ever had; it inspires me and unlocks music that may have never found the light of day otherwise.


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The Power of Wow

Today I was reminded of the power of wow, and today that experience came from playing great instruments.

Truth told the last couple weeks have been hard guitar weeks for me. I’ve been working very hard to get ready to go on the road for a mini-tour the first full week of June which has included lots of office work, and I also had a less than satisfying visit with my father and family over his 90th birthday in Northern Michigan that included TSA hassles and gridlock.

I use the phrase playing the guitar to describe what I do and the word play is important. Play requires a certain mind-set, and mine was nowhere close to allowing me to play. I bounced back and forth from being a hyper efficient self-employed business man, and frustrated traveler/son.  I still spent time on the guitar, but man it was work. Real work. It was like doing push ups, or running on a treadmill. It was just exercise. I wasn’t playing at all.

Luckily I recognized that, and last week when I got back I told myself to chill. Most of what I was frustrated about was beyond my control, but anything that was within my control was dealt with immediately. And that really freed up my mind.


And since I’d been fighting my baritone while I was in Michigan (my fault, not the guitar’s), I picked up my 20 year-old 12-fret which had recently been restored to its former glory by its maker, Alan Carruth.  And my immediate thought was wow. Just wow.

It sounded so good, and of course behaved great. I was once again transported by the power of wow. And because it felt so great I played with some reverence for both the music and the guitar, which translated to nice tone, improved dynamics, and really fluid rhythms. Ah, I was playing music.  I wasn’t working on the guitar.

And today, for the first time in several weeks I picked up the harp guitar and later the baritone guitar I had fought with last week. Holy Shit!! Twin Wows!  Both drew me in and seduced me. And again I was playing music not working the guitars.

People don’t know this about me, but I can go months without playing a particular guitar. So much depends on how much I’m touring, who I’m touring with, and what guitar has grabbed my particular fancy. And the last couple of weeks the wow has been the 12-fret guitar. But a couple of weeks before that it was the high-string, and before that it was the baritone. And before that it was the piccolo harp guitar.

As long as I’m playing a couple of hours a day, it really doesn’t matter which guitar I’m playing. I’m keeping my hands in shape, and if my hands are in shape it only takes me a few days to put together a 90 minute concert spread over 3 or 4 guitars.But I always try to follow the ‘wow’ because that’s where the playing is, that’s where new music is, and that’s where, when I’m really lucky, I can find a transcendent performance.

For me following the power of wow keeps me fresh. And staying fresh is so important when you’ve done something for over 4 decades, and something you still do a couple of hours of almost every day. It helps that I have five great guitars, but you can find wows in lots of different ways just on one guitar.

Putting on new strings, try a new tuning, trya partial capo, put the capo higher than you ever have before, play an old favorite song you’ve long neglected, plug in and turn up the amp really loud, record a video, or perform live. All can provide players with a wow-a breath of something fresh and exciting. Something that seduces us and draws us in. Something that makes 90 minutes FLY by. If we’re going to continue to grow as musicians it’s important to stay open-minded and keep asking ‘what if I?…” Following the power of wow does that for me.

What’s your wow? Find it, pursue it.  The power of wow, is powerful indeed.

Cheers, kb


This morning I was reminded just how important the attitude I bring to the guitar can be.  I got in a bit of a kerfuffle with my bonus mom this morning who is an absolute control freak and will not endure her dog to be disciplined even when said beastie snaps and growls.  I am a huge fan of the dog training I learned through the Monks of New Skete, and got very wolfie with Oliver. I don’t hit dogs, it’s both wrong headed and ineffective.  But I do believe in doggie discipline and I put him on his back, growled and asked Ermy and the rest of her staff to ignore the dog for 45 minutes, basically a doggie timeout.  Not only did she totally ignore that she heaped affections him, basically reinforcing his behavior.  Needless to say I wasn’t happy.

I’m not sure why I thought it would be a good idea to play the guitar at that point, but it is my sanctuary, especially during these family visits.  But man, even though my body and hands were feeling better than they have in a couple of week I sucked. I rushed everything, was sloppy as hell, and even spaced out parts of pieces I’ve been playing for 25 years.  It was ugly.

And then I took a deep breath, put the guitar down for a bit and collected myself. This was at about the 45 minute mark of my session.  I was bound and determined to get through this. I calmed myself, relaxed and played the last 3 or 4 tunes well. Not spectacularly, but I didn’t rush and played with dynamics for about 20 minutes. I can’t say that it was fun, but it was satisfying to work through it.

I’m not sure if I’ll have a chance to play again today. It’s my Dad’s 90th and there’s a big party and then packing to fly home tomorrow.  But if I do play, I can guarantee you I’ll have a better attitude or I won’t play at all.

Because IMHO playing with a bad attitude is worse than not playing.

Cheers, kb