5 Books that Changed My Guitar Playing

Book cases

Everyone has their top books that changed the way they see things and go about their lives. Here are five books that not only changed my viewpoint, but also my approach and course of guitar playing—and none of them are guitar books.

1. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: Perhaps an obvious choice, but I recommend this book for musicians, athletes, entrepreneurs, and pretty much everyone. Outliers made Dr. K. Anders Ericsson’s “10,000 Rule” famous. The rule, which came from Dr. Ericsson’s research into successful musicians, athletes, entrepreneurs, and pretty much everyone else who we’d consider a “master” at something, states that it takes around 10,000 hours for anyone to reach a masterful level at a skill. Put another way: Nearly anyone can master any skill if they’re willing to put the time in.

The bad news: 10,000 hours is a long time. Also it’s much harder now to blame our lack of ability at something on fate or genetics.

The good news: Guitar mastery (or any other kind of mastery) is yours for the taking. If you put in the time and effort, you’ll end up sounding awesome. Simple as that.

I found this research incredibly motivating, since we all tend to hold on to the old “artists are born, not made” stereotype, even though no evidence backs this up. This topic is more complex than I’m doing justice here, and I encourage you to check out the book and other research on skill-learning.

2. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman: A series of anecdotes make up this autobiography of everyone’s favorite cheeky physicist. This book is a trove of examples of how to have fun wherever you find yourself in life, and how to do your own thing even when others discourage you.

Feynman is a case study in how much stuff you can do and how much fun you can have if you don’t worry about trivial things like looking silly. Example: Joining a Rio de Janeiro band at the last minute, without prior musical training, and playing the frigideira in the Carnival parade.

3. Lost and Found: Heinrich Schliemann and the Gold That Got Away by Caroline Moorehead: Heinrich Schliemann is best remembered as the amateur archaeologist who discovered the lost city of Troy, proving that Homer’s Iliad was partly based on history, rather than pure invention. Schliemann is, in a word, nuts. I’m not sure I’ve heard of anyone in history who had such ridiculous drive. Starting out as a poor son of a pastor in northern Germany, he made himself ridiculously wealthy by his 40s, learned at least 14 languages fluently, and discovered one lost city (thought by scholars to be fictional), and two enormous ancient treasures… all by brute force of will.

Besides being a fascinating subject for a book (including a Cold War twist of what happened to his “lost” treasure), Schliemann’s a great example of what you can do, despite all odds, with just motivation and perseverance.

4. How to Enjoy Writing by Janet and Isaac Asimov: A writing book? Writing words and creating music are amazingly similar. This book, but Isaac Asimov and his wife Janet, is fantastic for writers, but also has advice for anyone involved in creative endeavors. It covers the creative process, dealing with setbacks, irritating details, necessary evils, and gives a great deal of advice you’d expect from the title. This is useful stuff to know when you’re working on developing your skills or writing a song and feeling stuck.

5. A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech: This perennial favorite is another one I’d recommend to just about everyone. Along with A Kick in the Seat of the Pants, this book is an amazing resource for how to develop your creative skills. Creativity is a massively misunderstood quality, and I’ve seen many people write themselves off as “not a creative person”, when exercises like the ones in von Oech’s books would change their minds and open all kinds of doors for them.

Creativity is a useful skill in all walks of life, and has obvious applications in playing and writing music. Check out von Oech’s books, and see if you don’t find yourself coming up with bizarre and useful ideas.