10 Commandments of Guitar Playing

I just came across the “10 Commandments of Guitar Playing” as written by Captain Beefheart and handed down to Moris Tepper, the band’s guitarist from 1976 – 1982.


1. Listen to the birds.

That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.

2. Your guitar is not really a guitar.

Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.

3. Practice in front of a bush.

Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn’t shake, eat another piece of bread.

4. Walk with the devil.

Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the “devil box.” And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you’re brining over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.

5. If you’re guilty of thinking, you’re out.

If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.

6. Never point your guitar at anyone.

Your instrument has more clout than lightning. Just hit a big chord then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.

7. Always carry a church key.

That’s your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He’s one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song “I Need a Hundred Dollars” is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty — making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he’s doing it.

8. Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument.

You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.

9. Keep your guitar in a dark place.

When you’re not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.

10. You gotta have a hood for your engine.

Keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can’t escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.

I like that last one, in particular.

The whole thing has a charming, American, half-surrealist-half-common-sense sound to it. The finest musicians always seem to be able to make their instruments into divining rods, antennae that pick up the tones given off by the heart and the world. Robert Frost famously describes “the sound of sense” in poetry as the play of tones and innuendo of a conversation, which can be registered even behind closed doors, when the words themselves are inaudible. I sometimes think that “the sound of sense” is exactly where great musicians start from, the sound of meaning underneath meaning. To be frank, I don’t hear this all that often in rock musicians. Sometimes. Even when they’re virtuosos, they often mark their individuality more by flamboyance and crazy passion than by tapping into the nuances of prelinguistic meaning.

Duke Ellington has another way of getting at the relationship between musician and instrument.

Any jazz cat is in love with what he plays. A cat says to his wife, “here’s $2, chick, go out and have a ball.” He says it so he can be with what he loves, his horn or whatever it is. Why you can hear those hot romances up the air shafts in the night . . . a sax cat standing there all alone in a lonely room, blowing against a wall just to hear the sound bouncing back. Maybe he doesn’t drink or gamble or play around with the chicks. But he can be real dirty and mean when he gets alone with what he’s in love with.

I wonder if there’s a synthesis of the two descriptions, one that instructs the lover on how to love. I certainly remember waiting until the moon was out and practicing in front of a bush.

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2 Responses to 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing

  1. Pingback: Howlin’ Wolf – I Ain’t Superstitious « Throughhisown's Weblog

  2. Pingback: Advice from Thelonious Monk | Billy and Dad's Music Emporium

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