GUITAR-FU: The Martial Arts/Guitar Connection

One thing I like to do while I practice guitar is watch martial arts movies. There are probably three reasons for this. First of all, it gets my wife out of the room, which allows me to concentrate on my practice. Secondly, I like to practice mindlessly -- just play the scales over and over again and improvise in key with the soundtrack -- and martial arts movies offer interesting music to practice over. But perhaps more important is the real relationship between playing guitar and practicing the martial arts.

The immediate parallels are obvious. In each discipline, there is repetitive action that becomes almost autonomous. When a bunch of thugs gang up on the well-trained hero, he doesn't really need to think about what to do next. All the work he put in during the previous training scenes (which are also good to lift weights to, by the way) has paid off. Nor should the improvising musician have to think about what phrase to play during a solo. Those endless hours practicing scales in front of martial arts movies lets everything just click into place.

And in each of the two disciplines, there is a strong spiritual element. A certain mindset is necessary not only to play demanding music, but to fill that music like an empty vessel with meaning and content.

Apart from the idealized world of movies (and what appeared to be a really good feature on public television), I realized that I didn't know squat about the martial arts, though. So I sought out a martial arts instructor -- who is also an accomplished guitarist.

Rick McCarthy is a second degree black belt teacher of Kenpo Karate and is now working on his next CD, "Citizen At Will" due out on his own label Hypothetic Records early September. A local Boston-area solo tour will follow in its support.

"There are very many parallels between the (martial) arts and music," Rick said. "I began studying music at a young age and started in the arts much later on. I feel that my musical training has helped my art and vice versa. With both, you do repetitive motions in hopes that you will ingrain the mechanics into what we refer to as 'muscle memory.' In the arts (Kenpo Karate) we don't learn anything that we don't already know how to do. Remember the scene from "The Karate Kid"? Daniel went to Miyagi to learn to fight. What did Miyagi do? Had him paint the fence, wax the car and sand the deck. The fallacy in the movie is that you will be able to fight by learning how to paint the fence, wax the car and sand the deck. You must "cross reference" the motion. I teach beginners all the time how to establish a fighting stance by having them pretend to cut a board with a hand saw. We've all done it. Lets just say that you wouldn't assume a one-legged crane stance to saw a board. Fighting is work, and guitar playing is work (at least one of them is enjoyable!)."

The need to learn how to play/fight in the moment is also crucial, Rick said.

"With guitar playing you involve mainly the two hands alone whereas Kenpo involves the whole body. However, similar teaching methods may be employed with both. Things like relaxation, breathing, awareness and attitude all can be taught and all can benefit the guitar student as well as the karateka. Things like finger exercise, while sometimes boring to listen to, can be mastered and then later 'cross referenced' to aid the student in playing a particularly difficult lick, much like painting the fence...etc."

One "cross reference" I find helpful is to consider the absolutely first exercise in the book ROCKIN' JIMMY'S DAILY GUITAR WORKOUT during particularly difficult playing. The movements of this exercise force one to keep the fingers of the left hand in a very correct position, and I find that this helps keep my playing clean. Of course just playing and thinking about exercises will not build your playing prowess to its natural conclusion.

"Unless you practice your martial arts/guitar skills improvisationally by sparring or jamming as the case may be, they will never be more than exercises and you may fail by getting beat up, or getting booed for playing rote licks," Rick said. "The hope is that through drills designed to build spontaneity one may have the ability to use when they need it most, be that in self defense situation or in live performance. Improvisation is essential to both genres."


Call it meditation. Call it concentration or focus. But the state of mind during performance is key to both the musician and the martial artist. My own exposure to meditation is largely through my participation in the Religious Society of Friends, which practices silent, meditative worship. The experience is at once relaxing and energizing, a pattern Rick noticed, too.

"Being an American studying an American system of martial arts, I define meditation as 'focusing all mental, physical, emotional and spiritual energy to a higher degree through relaxation.' How many times have you been playing and you know that a particularly difficult riff is coming up and you dwell on it and stress and here it comes ...and then, suddenly, you either blew the riff, blew everything before the riff or both! Relaxation allows use full use of the fine motor skills necessary to play guitar or to find the ignition key as you walk to your car with several hoodlums coming from behind with malicious intent."

My experience is such that relaxation is certainly key, and the deeper the sense of relaxation, the more the music flows out from the well deep within. I find myself thinking of this passage from Isaac Pennings:

"Where art thou? Art thou in thy soul's rest? And dost thou feel the light and power flowing in upon thee from the Free Fountain? Hast thou found this or hast thou missed this?"

Each of us as musicians must find our own way to focus properly ... to let go of the vanity, anxiety and other hobgoblins that plague us and simply play our instruments with loving tenderness. That will be the focus of the next book from guitar guru James "ROCKIN' JIMMY" Crimmins and Charles Rathmann. The current book from the duo, ROCKIN' JIMMY'S DAILY GUITAR WORKOUT, is now available in all Guitar Center stores and on the Web.

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