As you probably know by now, I’ve written a ton of music. In the last ten years, I’ve written and produced over two hundred finished pieces. I consider myself to be pretty experienced in the music-making field. Despite all this, I’ve never once performed in a live show. This is something I’ve always been a little ashamed of, mostly because of the mild stigma that comes with being an electronic musician (“real music isn’t made with computers!” I’m sure you’ve heard something like that before). Unrelated to the shame though, is a strong desire I’ve had since I was a kid to perform live and experience the euphoric flow that comes from playing a song on an instrument smoothly.
Another reason is that I just want to make more cool music in a different way, and I think learning guitar will have a very positive impact on my composing as a whole.
I’ve never really had the discipline to master an instrument. I’ve taught myself piano and banjo, but only to an intermediate level of skill. If I did a live set I could only do a couple songs on each and then awkwardly leave the stage.
That all changes now.
For the last month I’ve been implementing a plan I’ve had for a solo live music act. Here’s what I’m envisioning: me with a groovebox and my Stratocaster playing a kind of electronic funk music. Picture groovy beats like you might have heard in Quantum Foam, Tribal Crisis, Rockmen and Lanius, plus funk guitar, one of my favorite sounds in the world. I think it’ll be pretty cool.
Now here’s how I’m implementing this plan.
So I need to play funk guitar. Here’s what it sounds like:
MAN, I could listen to that all day.
One big obstacle I faced when deciding on this plan: I couldn’t play guitar. That’s kind of a big problem. I bet, however, that if I practiced enough I could be pretty good in a year. So a month ago I decided that I would practice guitar every day for at least 30 minutes, and much more than that if I could. The only exceptions would be when I’m traveling. I told my partner Allison to check up on me every day in order to make sure I’m putting in my minimum. This helps more than you might think. I got Guitar for Dummies and have been slowly progressing through it.
In the month since I started this plan, I’ve practiced for a total of about 30 hours, which averages out to about an hour a day. I’ve made amazing progress already. I owe most of that success to one thing:
I don’t even know where to begin. Rocksmith is an amazing learning tool. It was recommended to me by a friend, and I thought it might be a good way to augment my learning. I had no idea how powerful it really was and how much it would motivate me to get better.
Rocksmith is technically a video game. It comes with a special cable that plugs into your electric guitar or bass. With your instrument, you play rock songs with a Guitar Hero-like interface, only you’re playing real guitar parts that steadily increase in complexity as you get better, with the maximum level being the exact performance from the original song. At any time during a song, you can hit a button that makes a special menu pop up. In that menu you can tell the game to repeat a certain section over and over at whatever speed you want until you get it right.
This is just one part of the suite of tools it has, though. There are lessons that combine videos and interactive practice tracks to teach you every guitar technique you can imagine. There’s a mode that lets you play whatever you want and have an AI band accompany you, so you can practice scales and chords at your own pace. Even the simple chord dictionary makes the whole thing feel surprisingly comprehensive.
There are also about a dozen minigames, each one focusing on getting you better at a particular skill, such as slides, tremolos, chords or scales. There’s a Typing of the Dead-style game where you have to play the correct chords to shoot zombies, or an action game where you have to make perfect slides in rapid succession to get a ninja to jump across towers.
Let me be clear on some things: I have banjo experience that has made my start with guitar much easier. My fret hand is already partially trained to make chords (though the guitar is much more complex in that sense). This may have made my early practice time with Rocksmith a bit easier than it would be for someone starting from no skill. Rocksmith will not automatically make you better at guitar, and it’s still really hard to learn. That said, it will make you always look forward to playing it, and that is worth a lot. And it will help keep you laser-focused on your goals.
I may write more detailed thoughts about Rocksmith in the future, but for now I will simply recommend it for anyone who is learning or practicing guitar or bass. Get it.
The other half: the electronics.
The first real piece of music-making equipment I owned was a Korg ES-1 drum machine. One of my college friends had the synth-based EA-1 and I played with that a lot too. Korg made a bunch of these grooveboxes in the 2000’s. For a while there, they were pretty much the gold standard for live electronic performance. They are so fun to play with and are pretty powerful for their price. I LOVED my ES-1, and I still own it to this day.
Though the ES-1 and EA-1 were separate machines, usually a groovebox combines a drum machine and a synthesizer or sampler into one machine. The idea is that you put together loops of music beforehand, then switch between them on the fly or string them together in a sequence, and then mess with them in real time with effects or improv playing. Here’s a good example of the ‘total groovebox’ Electribe EMX-1 in action:
There’s a new Electribe coming out this December, and I’m torn on whether I should get the older EMX-1 or wait for the new model. The new model has more features and is definitely more powerful, but I like the design and little musical keyboard of the EMX-1 more.
Regardless, I can afford to wait on this, because practicing guitar is taking up much of my time and I’m confident in my ability to learn to use a new piece of hardware. It is something that will still require a ton of time and practice once I start though. I’ll probably do the same thing with this as I’m already doing with the guitar: at least 30 minutes of practice every day.
Since starting, I’ve already informally bumped up my practice time to an hour a day instead of 30 minutes. This is making the future look better and better.
I’m not even thinking about what venues I’ll play at or what other live equipment I’ll need when I actually start doing real live sets. Those are easily solved compared to the mountain of work I have ahead of me just getting good at my instruments. Eventually I’ll likely add a foot-pedal activated sampler so I can record and play back guitar loops on the fly to really enrich the sound, but again, first I need to get that core of guitar + groovebox down.
I will be writing semi-regular updates on my progress, maybe with audio or videos. If you have any questions about what I’m doing or what my plans are, just ask me on Twitter (@benprunty).
I’m writing this for two reasons:
1. To hold myself accountable for my decision so I don’t back out of it later out of laziness, and
2. to share with you the process of making a plan and acting on it.
You might be surprised at how much it helps your personal motivation to have a concrete plan to act on. I encourage you to try something similar if you want to get better at something. Be sure to share it with me if you do!