Playing badly is one of the most important things you will ever do. It’s where “you learn the business.” It’s where you learn your weaknesses and your powers. It is where you discover your real level of desire for success.
Initiative is much more important than ambition. No matter how much ambition you have, without initiative it is as useless as mule ears on an amoeba.
I played guitar so badly for so long I am surprised no one struck me. The only available guitar was owned by an old bootlegger down the street. It was an old Stella and the strings sat up so high you could barely push them down. I wore blisters on my fingers, then they turned into calluses, and then I had blisters under my calluses. All this time, I was playing badly. I noticed the old bootlegger drinking a little heavier when I practiced.
In case you think all that bad playing was in vain, consider that Joe Wilson, executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, called me “a world-class fingerpicker.” Am I? I do not know. I have at times been better than I am now but one thing is for sure, I play as well as I do because I played badly for a long, long time.
When I started writing songs, I wrote badly. I nearly regurgitate when I recall some of those early songs, including any of the first seven songs George Jones listened to one day. Bless his heart! He was so kind to me. The songs were simply awful.
I remember my first full song. Here’s how painfully bad it was: Welcome, welcome, welcome to the club, you’re a full fledged fool now, you passed the test without a rub.” Argh! I think I am getting sick!
So how did writing badly pay off? Well, I had a network theme song, a top hit by Nat Stuckey and several dozen songs recorded over the years. One must write a lot of ‘Full Fledged Fools” to get to a “Don’t Pay the Ransom.”
How did writing badly help me learn the business? George Jones and his manager, Pappy Dailey, gave me their thoughts on those early songs and the thoughts of the best in the business are extremely valuable to a beginner. I started going to “guitar pulls” all over Nashville and each one introduced me to someone who could do things I had not learned. They helped me correct my weaknesses.
Unless you are insecure and cannot listen to the truth about yourself, playing badly will reveal your weaknesses. If you want to know the truth, the George Joneses of the world will tell you.
They will also tell you your strengths if you ask them. Even in a poor guitar performance or a poor and pitiful early song, you will almost always find something that it good. It may just be a line or a chord or a hook. Some of my best songs came from taking good lines out of bad songs and building whole new songs around them. I still do that all the time.
Yes, you come into your powers playing badly. As you sit and play badly, you will hit some good licks and luck into some great chord progressions. Your future success secretly hides in those bad performances.
Your ability to keep playing badly clearly reveals the intensity of your desire to become good at what you do. If you cannot stand to play badly, you have no chance at all of succeeding. We all must go through the “playing badly stage.”
Have no mercy on those who must listen to you. God has sent them to listen to you play badly. Maybe they deserve it. Maybe they were serial killers in another life. Cut them no slack.
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