Reverse engineering

December 31st, 2010

I’ve never been curious about how things work, as long as they work, that’s good enough for me.

Part of my reluctance to find out how things work is my fear of upsetting the equilibrium.

Mostly, it’s because of my fear of triggering the centipedal effect.

I’m acutely aware of the element of magic in things, afraid that if I mess around with it or try to understand it, it might lose that magic.

That was the way I held my guitar playing. I was afraid to rock the boat. Over the years, I just practiced and followed my instincts, and it seemed to work fairly well.

But all that changed when I started to teach. I found if I wanted to teach, I had to first find out what I was doing and understand it before I could try to impart it.

Without conscious decision, going with my instincts again, I found myself doing something that’s best described as reverse engineering to try to understand what I was doing.

What’s reverse engineering?

It’s taking apart something to find out how it works and then putting it back again and/or building something like it.

Like my other instincts, I found this approach worked the best, especially for understanding something as complex and as nuanced as the human body and human performance.

I know there’s another way, a ‘scientific’ method if you will, where you study something, the body for instance, in great physiological detail, and you come up with precise theories about how it works and you propose precise rules on applying those theories.

For instance, right wrist positioning. You can study the tendons and the carpal tunnel and derive basic assumptions about how the tendons should traverse the carpal tunnel in a straight line and come up with the rule that the wrist should then be held straight to enable the tendons to stay in this straight line. The presumption is that this will avert possible future complications with carpal tunnel syndrome.

It sounds good in theory but in real life (unfortunately we have to deal with real life), it also means you have to hold up the hand to keep the wrist straight. Now, for some people, this will pose no problem because when they relax the wrist, it will still stay in a straight line, but for some people including me, when we relax the wrist, it physically drops. To hold it in a straight line would necessitate holding it up artificially, exerting unnecessary tension on the wrist and worse, locking it up as a result.

Approaching it the reverse engineering way, instead of going into details about body physiology, and postulating theories and imposing them on the body, I approached it from the body’s perspective. I based it entirely on body sensations and on results — the only criteria being whether the position felt natural and comfortable and whether it was producing the results I wanted. Nothing else mattered.

I tried playing holding the wrist in a straight line and allowing it to drop naturally. It was clear that allowing it to drop naturally was more comfortable — it allowed me to play with much greater comfort and freedom resulting in better facility. From this, I derived the basic assumption that relaxation should take precedence over everything else and that such things as positions should be determined by a player’s physiology and not enforced externally.

I applied reverse engineering to the other techniques.

From the tremolo, I derived the importance of a strong forward drive in your fingers by creating an automated engine in the fingers. To arrive at this principle, I analyzed the sensation in my hand and fingers at different times – when I’m not warmed up, when I’m fully warmed up, and when I’m playing at an optimum and I try to identify the key differences between each experience. It became clear to me that the critical component in the technique was the sensation of the forward drive in the fingers. That principle became the cornerstone of my overall strategy to speed.

From the left hand, I learned how essential it is to be constantly on the move, to always stay ahead of your action, not to wait but to start moving before you have to act.

I found validation of this principle from other areas of life. For example, the simple act of catching the bus. If you want to catch a bus, you must start going to the bus stop before it is due to arrive. If you start moving only when it arrives at the bus stop, it’s too late. Yet that’s what many guitar players do in the left hand. They wait until they have to play before they start moving to the frets. That’s usually too late and it’s the cause of most left hand inaccuracies and fret buzzings.

Finding validation from other areas has always been and still is important to me. The last thing I want to be is some lone voice in the wilderness crying about some new startling idea or prophecy.

And validations I found aplenty, in books by great martial artists, in videos of the great players, and in ancient philosophy books. They all seemed to confirm my findings.

Once I understood the basic principles behind each technique, I found I could apply them to other techniques. For instance, I applied the technique of the automated engine to my arpeggio and scale techniques and was able to reap the same benefits.

The AOV is essentially a compilation of all the principles I learned in my efforts at reverse engineering.

I do not pretend it’s the definitive word on the subject. But as I tell my students, take what I offer as a small part of the universe of performance. It may not present the full picture (although I’m fully convinced it does), but try them, test them, and if they work, great, if they don’t, just discard them, you won’t offend me.

And I say the same for my books. If you bought my books and feel you haven’t benefited from them in any way, feel free to return them for a full refund within thirty days.

To ring in the new year, I’ve also decided to make available the student price of the AOV to all. This price of US$8 is for the pdf file alone, and does not include the printed hard copy when it becomes available.

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