Warren Buffett is a household name.
The third-richest person on Earth, he’s permeated our public consciousness deeply enough to be name-dropped in a Jay Z song.
[Oh look and here’s the two of them hanging out together.]
Less well-known is Buffett’s closest friend and longtime business partner, Charlie Munger.
Which is a damn shame, because Munger offers some solid advice for anyone looking to learn, grow, improve, and make better decisions.
In his commencement address to USC, he advocates having a “latticework of mental models”––a means of viewing one problem through multiple lenses.
For him it means using the best methods from a broad range of disciplines, and then checking for weaknesses against the long list of common human biases.
But we’re going to apply his idea to the guitar.
The Doctor Says I Need A Backiotomy
If you tell a group of doctors about your chronic back pain, the podiatrist will suggest orthotic shoe inserts, the chiropractor will suggest chiropractic adjustment, the physiotherapist will suggest physical therapy, and the surgeon will suggest surgery.
Mention it again at a party, and your new age-y aunt will tell you should do yoga, your cousin will tell you that everyone at his startup is using standup desks and it’s really helped him, and your vegan friend will find a way to blame it on your meat consumption.
Though all smart in their own specialized fields, they’re ships passing in the night––they have no awareness of the others’ existence.
They’re so enamored of their favorite solution they’ve stopped looking for new ones. Worse still, they’ve stopped asking “is this the best solution for this problem for this person?”
It’s what Munger refers to as “man with a hammer” syndrome:
“Alfred North Whitehead spoke of the fatal unconnectedness of academic disciplines, wherein each professor didn’t even know of the models of the other disciplines, much less try to synthesize those disciplines with his own. The nature of this failure is that it creates what I always call ‘man with a hammer’ syndrome.
“The only antidote for man with a hammer syndrome is to have a full kit of tools. You don’t have just a hammer. You’ve got all the tools.
“If you don’t have the full repertoire, I guarantee you that you’ll over-utilize the limited repertoire you have – including using models that are inappropriate just because they’re available to you in the limited stock you have in mind.”
Preach on, Brother Munger. What happens when you are operating with a full set of tools?
“You get lollapalooza effects when two, three or four forces are all operating in the same direction. And frequently, you don’t get simple addition. It’s often like a critical mass in physics where you get a nuclear explosion if you get to a certain point of mass (and you don’t get anything much worth seeing if you don’t reach the mass).”
Stocking Your Toolbox
“When you first start to study a field, it seems like you have to memorize a zillion things. You don’t. What you need is to identify the core principles – generally three to twelve of them – that govern the field. The million things you thought you had to memorize are simply various combinations of the core principles.” -John T Reed
We guitarists tend to have a toolbox stocked with an array of shape-based mental models––TAB, chord grids, scale shapes, songs we learned from watching someone else play them.
No surprise there––the guitar’s great natural strength is shapes. Shapes are what allow so many of us to play guitar on a level that (for example) amateur trumpet players never reach.
What if I told you shapes are holding you back?
It’s gotten to a point where we’ve begun confusing the map with reality. We have our heads down, buried in the GPS, and we’re wondering why we keep crashing the damn car.
Training your ear and using By Sound is another mental model we can use to understand music. Some players do fairly well simply by listening and copying. Others do even better by combining By Sound with By Shape––organizing sounds into visual patterns where they know they can find what they’re looking for.
Yet another mental model is By Name. It’s the mental model most often missing from the guitarist’s toolbox. It’s what allows (or more frequently, doesn’t allow) us to communicate with other musicians.
It gives us labels for sorting all of the scary information we call “theory.” It gives us a means of organizing all the sounds, shapes & other patterns we encounter.
Which Mental Model Is Best?
None of them. No single one of these mental models is sufficient on its own.
It’s the combination––the matrix––of the three that allows us to see, hear, think about, talk about, and most importantly play music like a badass.
There’s no point in examining which of these is the most important. We need all three.
There’s also no point in wondering which one we should start with. That’s already been decided. We’re all deeply entrenched in the By Shape camp.
There is, however, a shit ton of value in deciding what to work on next.
A strong argument can be made that we all ought be working on ear training and that By Sound is most important since music is sound.
I am of the opinion that––although By Sound is incredibly important––you ought to work on By Name next.
Working on By Sound and By Shape without By Name is like trying to solve calculus in our heads.
Sure, we might be saving effort for our hands by not showing our work, but we’re working our brains waaaaay harder than we need to.
Working on By Name gives you a means of organizing and storing the knowledge of By Shape and By Sound. It puts convenient handles on it all, allowing you to grab hold, pick it up, and use it.
Even if you’re great at By Shape (you probably are) and By Sound (you might be), you can’t organize or communicate any of that without By Name.
(And if you’re going to use names to organize your musical thinking, you might as well use the same names & organizational system that badass musicians do. That’s why I built GuitarOS––to teach By Shape guitarists how to think about music like a pro.)
If you tackle By Name next, your thinking will be organized. You’ll have the vocabulary to express the ideas you hear once you do train your ear to understand music By Sound.
By Shape -> By Name -> By Sound
Let’s Get Meta
Even when we want to understand something as simple as a scale, there are still many angles and layers to consider.
Here’s a decision tree (which is itself a mental model) for looking at our mental models of scales.
- Do I want to know what it sounds like, or what it looks like on the guitar?
- Do I want to be able to identify it when I hear one, or do I want to be able to create the sound of one from scratch?
- Am I trying to understand this intellectually, or teach my hands how to play it?
- How should my hands play it––ascending? Descending? In thirds? Fourths? Fifths? Sixths? Sevenths? Octaves? Three notes at a time? Four?
- If I’m trying to get it into my head, do I think of it with Names?
- Which names––notes, degrees, solfege?
- Or am I trying to get the scale into my head using shapes?
- Which shapes––vertical (all on one string)?
- In CAGED shapes?
- Using 3-Per-String shapes?
- If I’m trying to get the scale programmed into my hands, am I using CAGED shapes?
- Or 3-Per-String shapes?
What Does It Mean When You Say You “Know” A Scale?
You’ll know you know a scale when you can think about it and play it using:
- letter names in a given key
- the intervals in between the notes
- scale degrees
- vertical shapes
- CAGED shapes
- 3-note-per-string shapes
- vertical degrees
- CAGED by degree (what Jimmy Bruno calls the five pianos), and
- 3-note-per-string degrees
It’s also helpful to begin by asking yourself: Am I teaching this to my hands or my head?
Of course, both are necessary, but I recommend starting with your head, because that’s where most of us are deficient (and because there’s no use practicing your technique with a scale shape you haven’t yet memorized).
Next week we’ll talk about the theory of constraints and how to use it to get dramatically better results from your practicing.
See you then?