A Table Needs at Least Three Legs

Posted by Bradley Laird

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I always tell my students that it is a lot more fun to play well than to stink. You might think that concept is so simple that it doesn't need to be stated but the beginning student has never experienced playing well so they may not be able to imagine what good playing actually feels like. They are well aware of how it feels to play poorly. My lessons always focus on three areas to help them along the path from fearful fumbling to musical mastery.

When learning to play an instrument, if you want to be any good at it, consider the idea that good musicians should possess at least three attributes. They are: Knowledge, Ability and Experience.

Consider a table. There must be at least three legs supporting the table or it will fall over. Two legs and it may balance precariously for a time but it's eventually going down! One leg, unless it is jammed deeply in the ground, is not very stable at all. You can have more legs, and so long as they all touch the ground, the table will stay up. (Those additional legs, which I am not addressing in this article, are things such as social connections, reputation, thrift, time management, punctuality, friendliness, business skills, inter-personal skills, appearance, etc. All important to the overall picture, but not fundamental.)

The three attributes of good musicians

Let me explain why I believe the three fundamental legs are Knowledge, Ability and Experience.


Knowledge is helpful. But, knowledge alone will not make you into a good musician. You can know all the notes, all of the scales and chords, history, technical trivia, and even memorize some great player's solos, but without Ability it is pretty useless. So what if you know all of that... can you do it? Without Experience how will you know what works when? I know quite a few people who possess amazing amounts of knowledge yet don't really do anything with it... because they can't. Key point: Knowledge is what to play and why.


Ability is helpful. But, ability alone will not make you into a good musician. You may be able to rip scales up and down the neck at 175 beats per minute, you may be able to form chords using your toes, or you may be able to maintain a bee-wing-like tremolo on your E string while taking a nap, but without Knowledge and Experience can you turn that mechanical prowess into music? Key point: Ability is how to play.


Experience is helpful, but experience alone will not make you into a good musician. You may have been playing gigs for ten years, you may have a collection of 1099s from working corporate barbecues, and you may have a worn-out case, covered with stickers and duct tape. So what? Did you even know what the heck you were doing? Would you like to hear a tape of some of those gigs just to see how much ability you displayed?

Experience is also what synthesizes your knowledge and ability into something musical. For example, experience can suggest that sometimes the best thing you can play is nothing at all. Experience can teach you how many times you can play that corny, bending pedal steel lick on your banjo in one song. It will tell you if you should even play that corny thing at all! Key point: Experience is when to play what.

The Ever Changing Ratio

Every person who plays an instrument has some mixture of these three key attributes. You might read a few books and increase your knowledge. You might undertake a good practice regimen and increase your abilities. You might start knocking around the jam sessions or start a band and give your experience quota a boost. It is the ratio of these three factors that "pegs" who you are as a musician at any given time.

ratio chart

You can be very strong in terms of ability and perhaps you need to beef up your knowledge so you can put more meaningful notes into your music. You may have pretty good ability and decent knowledge, but you need to get out there in the trenches, learn to deal with disinterested sound men, learn how to carry on a conversation with a "fan", learn how to smile and say "thank you" to the people who listen to you. Or you can sit around in your lonely garret with all of that wastedl accumulation of knowledge and ability and do nothing real with your music. Music is communication after all and who are you communicating with in your upstairs hovel? (It is good to have a hovel to return to after the gig, I must say!)

Musician, Score Thyself...

I think it is a good idea for every player to self-evaluate, perhaps on a scale of 1 to 10, your score on each of these three vital attributes. If you know you are weak in one particular area, spend a little more time and attention to strengthening that leg.

A K10, A8, E1 is quite a different fellow than a K7, A7, E8! If I were putting together a band I would probably look for people like that! I might even take a K2, A5, E10 if I wanted to be sure the dude showed up on time. If I were recording an album and needed some "sidemen" I might choose a K3, A9, E5. When fishing for possible beginning students I troll for K1, A1, E1. For my mandolin books I look for K3, A5, E3.

How do you rate yourself? K__ A__ E__

I suggest that you strive for balance between the 3 factors. Your milking stool may stand with one really long leg and one really stubby one, but it works better if all three legs are about the same length.

How does your teacher rate? How about the folks in your band? What about the pickers at the jam session? By the way, take it from one with a fairly high E score. Keep your scoring of others to yourself or you may be asked to step outside. Spend more time scoring yourself than others. To borrow a wise concept, you cannot build your KAE score by tearing down another person's KAE score.

For mandolin players, here is Dr. Brad's prescription:

If you are weak in the area of knowledge, explore my book Mandolin Master Class. If you need help in terms of ability, my book Mandolin Training Camp is for you.

dr. brad

If experience is what you need, grab a copy of my Jam Session Survival book, get off your butt and head out the door to a festival or jam session or start a band. Experience is not found hanging around where you keep your spare socks or reading forum posts. It's out there beyond the tree line. Go for it! If you can't find a festival, jam session or a band that will take you in... make one!



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