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Learning Guitar One Handed and in the Dark

4th October 2021

In my ill-advised never-ending quest to acquire new hobbies, I’ve adopted a thought technology that I learned from Merlin Mann.

Merlin talks about how he needs “important” things to be able to be done “one handed, and in the dark.” He uses the specific example of being able to change a blown fuse this way: the bag of fuses is in a known place, and the bag contains a torch. He can change a blown fuse one handed, and in the dark.

The general application of “one handed, and in the dark” is that you should have everything you need where you’re most likely to need it, and so accessible that you don’t have to think about it. I’ve used this advice to great effect in the placement of phone chargers, letter openers, allergy medication, measuring tape, and everything else I’m likely to need to use.

But I’ve taken it a step further to help develop new skills, and I want to share how it’s turned me from a perpetual beginner guitar player, to a fool who can play a few of his favourite songs on a moment’s notice (poorly) for other people.

I’ve been a beginner guitar player since I was a teenager. I’ve had one guitar or another in my life for many years. And I’ve always had a copy of the Mel Bay Guitar Method Grade 1 close at hand during that time. Periodically, I’d decide that now was the time I was going to start to learn guitar. For real this time. And I would play through the first half of the book, before losing steam.

For many years, I could play the first half of the Grade 1 book with only a few minutes of preparation. I’d open the bag, take the guitar out, play from page one all the way through to where I struggled. I’d do a bit of practise, get a little further, put the guitar away, and pick it up and do it all over again the next day. Until one day I didn’t. And then I didn’t for months.

This continual cycle meant that I could do the basics, but I couldn’t really play a song. After a few days, it wasn’t fun enough to get the guitar out of the bag any more.

When we moved in to our new house, and I configured my home office, I hung the guitar I played most often next to my chair. Now I can reach my guitar at any time: one handed, and in the dark (if necessary.)

It’s changed my life.

Waiting for a build? Pull the guitar down and play a few chords. Ten minute warning for an online meeting? Connect, pull the guitar down and play until the next person shows up. Brain stuck on a problem? Pull the guitar down and play until brain gets unstuck.

In the past three or four months I went from a beginner who knows the parts of the guitar, and can play individual notes above (below? I don’t know, I’m a beginner) the third fret, to a (still beginner) guitar player who has played songs (poorly) for other people!

All of this, largely, because I have a guitar that I can reach without lifting my arse out of my chair, and a browser with chord charts in the background. It takes me ten seconds or less to go from not playing to playing. I estimate that I am getting a solid hour of practise time in every day, in five to ten minute increments, because I’ve removed the barrier to going from not playing to playing.

(I actually have three guitars and a mandolin I can reach without moving my chair or lifting my arse; and three more guitars and another mandolin that I can reach by moving slightly but not standing, but that’s a story for another day.)

There are other things that have helped immensely as well: I have met some actual musicians who are incredibly encouraging and helpful, and I’ve learned to pick the easy songs out of my favourites. But these things don’t help without continual practise.

Having a guitar accessible one handed and in the dark has made all the difference, and I highly recommend adding this bit of thought technology to your toolbox for whatever skill you want to learn.