Zen Guitar Book Review, Summary, Quotes and Lessons

Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo is unlike any other guitar book you’re likely to find.

Typical guitar books tend to focus on exercises, techniques, music theory, or teaching licks and songs. In other words, most guitar books focus on the ‘how-to’ of playing guitar.

Zen Guitar takes a completely different approach. Instead of looking at the how-to of playing guitar, Zen Guitar looks at the ‘why’ of playing guitar.

At first, this may not seem important. Surely the ‘how-to’ is more interesting and important if you want to become a great guitarist.

As you will see in this review, the ‘why’ of playing guitar has a significant impact on your progress as you learn, how you feel when you play, and how far you can take your playing.

In this review, I will share with you:

  • A thorough summary of the book
  • Key lessons and notes I took while reading the book
  • Advice on whether the book is for you or not

I consider Zen Guitar as a must-have book for a lot of guitarists. For more recommendations, check out my guide on books for guitarists here.

Zen Guitar book

Check out Zen Guitar here for more information (link to Amazon for price and more reviews).

 

The Basic Idea Behind Zen Guitar

Zen Guitar is a book that takes a philosophical look at playing guitar and what it means to be a guitarist.

I know that will immediately turn some people off, but it offers a lot of wisdom worth reading.

The way I think about this book is that it’s like talking with an old and wise guitar virtuoso.

Do you think a wise guitar master would give you a set of scale exercises and send you off to practice? Or do you think he would have something deeper to share with you?

This book is like listening to a guitar master sharing his deep wisdom with you.

As the book describes, Zen Guitar isn’t based on information (eg: chords, theory, how to play songs). Information is available everywhere.

The aim is to acquire wisdom. Wisdom is acquired by experience – you can’t gain it from reading.

The goal of the book is to help you acquire wisdom by setting you up for the right types of experiences. That might seem a bit strange, but as a guitar teacher, I can understand why this is a powerful approach.

What is Zen?

As you might expect, Zen Guitar is based on the principles of Zen philosophy.

Zen is most easily understood as a commonsense approach to all things (even guitar).

Some people learn Zen through meditation, others through martial arts, archery, or music. All paths lead to the same wisdom.

When you learn Zen with guitar, it will carry through to everything you do. What you learn from the book will not only improve your guitar playing but will apply to other areas of your life.

That’s the basic idea behind Zen Guitar. It takes the wisdom from Zen philosophy and shows you how you can apply it to make you a better guitarist.

You don’t need to know anything about Zen philosophy to read this book. Everything is clearly explained.

A lot of the above information will begin to make sense as you read through my book summary below. This book may start off confusing, but the more you read, the more sense it makes.

Who is Zen Guitar For?

Zen Guitar says it was written with all students of all abilities, ages or experience levels in mind.

While I agree with that, I do recognize that some guitarists are going to get more out of the book than others.

A lot of guitarists won’t be ready for the lessons this book offers. If you’re a beginner and you really want to dive into playing your favorite songs, you probably won’t care about the deep lessons from this book. You just want to learn how to strum some chords.

On the other hand, if you’re an intermediate or advanced guitarist and often feel like you’re plateauing, struggling, or feel frustrated in any way, you will get a lot out of this book.

The book won’t teach you sweep picking, fast scale runs, or any other technical skills.

Instead, it gives you a framework you can use to find out what is important to you as a guitarist and how to stay on the right path.

Books that teach you information (eg: techniques, skills) help you in the short term. Books like Zen Guitar help you in the long term.

I’ve seen so many guitarists over the years focus completely on the short term and it can quickly lead to problems. If you want to enjoy playing guitar for your entire life, Zen Guitar can help ensure you stay on the right path.

Key point: unless you’re 100% happy with your abilities as a guitarist and you never feel frustrated in any way, I recommend this book.

There are countless guitarists who would benefit from learning the lessons contained in this book.

Zen Guitar Book Summary and Lessons

Let’s go through a summary of what the book covers and the notes I took along the way.

The book is split into five stages:

  1. White belt
  2. White belt to black belt
  3. Black belt
  4. Black belt to white belt
  5. White belt

At first, this might seem odd. Surely the goal is to work your way from white belt to black belt. But that’s one of the key lessons I will cover in this summary.

Part 1: White Belt

Everybody starts at white belt, regardless of ability.

A white belt does not mean you are a novice (not that there’s anything wrong with that). A white belt simply means you are willing to learn the way of Zen Guitar.

Beginner's Mind: The Key to Success

Being willing to learn is known as ‘Beginner’s Mind’. As a guitar teacher who studies psychology and teaching methods, I had heard of Beginner’s Mind before reading Zen Guitar.

Beginner’s Mind is how a child can rapidly learn new skills. The child doesn’t come in with a big ego and pretend that he already knows everything (like some adult students do). The child just wants to learn and doesn’t care that he’s a beginner.

If you can learn to develop Beginner’s Mind, you’ll be open to new ideas and approaches you would never have considered before.

Even experienced guitarists with incredible skills can benefit from developing a Beginner’s Mind. If you ever feel like you’re plateauing or you feel lost, learn to put yourself in Beginner’s Mind.

The most important lesson from this book, in my opinion, is the power of Beginner’s Mind. If you can learn to put yourself in a state of Beginner’s Mind, you’ll achieve impressive results.

Here’s a Zen proverb that does a great job of explaining Beginner’s Mind:

A well-known professor went to visit a Zen master. As the master served tea, the professor described his ideas of Zen. The master remained quiet as the professor spoke, continuing to pour.

When the tea reached the brim of the cup, the Zen master kept pouring. The tea overflowed, spilling onto the tray, the table, and the carpet.

“Stop!” the professor said. “Can’t you see the cup is full?”

“Exactly,” said the master. “You are like this cup; you are full of ideas. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you must empty your cup.”

As a guitar teacher, I can tell you that there are countless guitarists out there at all skill levels who have a ‘full cup’.

The higher you advance as a guitarist from a technical point of view, the harder it will be for you to empty your cup. But it is crucial to do so if you want to continue to progress.

When you read that everybody starts with a white belt, your immediate reaction is probably “how long until I get my black belt?”

Zen Guitar says “the answer is you’ll never earn a black belt so long as you ask that question.

Obsessing with the destination takes focus away from what you need to focus on right now.

The black belt is not a goal. It is only a point along a path back to a white belt.”

What this means is that there is no final destination as a guitarist. There is no point where you need to work towards. Instead of worrying about how you will achieve a certain level of technical skill or musical creativity, you should instead focus on what you need to do right now.

When the book says the black belt is only a point along a path back to a white belt, what it means is that you should always try to get back to the ‘Beginner’s Mind’ explained earlier.

Always been willing to learn and open to new ideas. If you ever feel that you’re a ‘black belt’ guitarist, you’re going to plateau.

Wearing a white belt is a state of mind. You put aside any preconceptions and open up to new ideas and ways of thinking. This is far more important to your development than you might think.

Quite often as a guitar teacher the reason students don’t improve is that they’re not open to new ideas.

A simple example is to see how different guitarists react as soon as you mention the words music theory. Many guitarists will groan or their eyes will glaze over. “Music theory kills creativity!” they will tell you.

Whether you agree or not isn’t the point. The point is their ‘cup is full’ and they’re not open to the possibility that they may benefit in some way from music theory.

The key lesson from ‘putting on a white belt’ is that you put aside your preconceptions and be open to learning, try new things and consider new ideas.

Part 2: White Belt to Black Belt

While the end goal of Zen Guitar isn’t to get a black belt, you do work towards one when you in the right frame of mind and practice in the right way.

To practice properly, all you ever need to do is focus on one thing: what you are doing.

That might sound obvious, but in practice, it can be hard to completely focus on what you are doing right now.

You may become distracted with what you need to practice next in the song, thinking about building the tempo up, working on other skills, or you may have other things in mind when you practice.

Completely focusing on what you are doing, when you’re doing it is a lot harder than it sounds.

The book provides us with Twelve Points of Focus, which I will go through with some notes and quotes I wrote down for each point:

  1. Spirit
    • Don’t ask, practice. Practice properly and the answers will come to you in time
    • Seven times down, eight times up. If you slip in your training, get up. Burn negative thoughts from your mind
    • The only opponent is within. How you respond to obstacles matters. Master your reactions and you will master the way
  2. Rhythm
    • Anyone with a heartbeat has rhythm. The important thing is to feel it and put it into your playing
  3. Technique
    • Technique is essential, but you will not learn the way of Zen Guitar solely through technique
    • Acquire only the technique you need, and no more
  4. Feel
    • Learning to feel music is more important than learning to read music
    • Reading and writing music does help deepen one’s understanding of music, but it’s the heart and soul you put into your music that matters
  5. Perfection
    • Practice alone does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect
  6. Mistakes
    • Mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow
  7. Stages and Plateaus
    • A beginner can see rapid improvements, but after a while the rate of improvement will taper off. You may work for a long time without seeing any progress, then suddenly you jump up to a new stage of ability
    • The farther on the path you go, the longer the plateaus get. If you feel you’re in a rut, focus on what you’re doing right now. Don’t look ahead to where you want to be and don’t look back thinking “I’ve only come this far”
    • Each level of achievement brings a new set of problems
  8. Discipline
    • The key to self-mastery is discipline. Discipline governs how we train, when we train, and what we do with our training
    • Discipline is: “Do what has to be done, when it has to be done, as well as it can be done, and do it that way every time”
    • If you have to ask what has to be done, don’t ask, practice.
    • When it has to be done is now
    • If you are going to do something, take care to do it right. Don’t practice half-heartedly
  9. Limits
    • Push and confront your limits to test them, then finally accept them
    • Limits can lead to creative alternatives we never would have discovered otherwise
    • You find your limits by taking on challenges
    • If your guitar teacher gives you something that you think is easy, do more than what is asked. If your teacher gives you something you think is too difficult, make every effort to complete it
    • Accepting limits does not mean complacency
    • Those who say “I have no need to learn music theory” are really just shutting themselves off from learning. One new insight can open a whole new world
  10. Follow-through
    • The path of Zen guitar is never-ending. But short term goals can focus the mind
    • Any short term goal you set should be viewed as points along a path. Follow through with everything you do
  11. Taste
    • No matter how well you play, no matter how large your spirit, no matter how much your sound speaks the truth, some people simply will not be moved
  12. Collaboration
    • All true musicians get alone; it’s people who can’t get along

If you take the lessons from the above twelve points and apply them into your playing, you’ll see a significant change in how you progress and how you feel when you play.

In addition to the above points of focus, there are Twelve Common Missteps to be aware of:

  1. Self-doubt
    • The feeling of self-doubt means you have lost your Beginner’s Mind
  2. Instant Gratification
    • The Way of Zen guitar will never come to those who want it easily. It cannot be purchased or copied or stolen. It can only be known the way a seed grows into a tree – through the passage of time
  3. Ego
    • Music is not a competition. Those who would think to flaunt their belt level have far to go in their training
    • Measure a compliment the same as you measure a critique. Too much praise can do damage just like too much criticism
    • If you think you’ve arrived somewhere, you’ve got that much farther to go
  4. Half-heartedness
    • “If you’re going to sweep the floor, sweep it better than anybody in town. And if you’re going to play the guitar, really, really, really get in it, and don’t be jivin’.” – Carlos Santana
    • So many of the things we do in life, we do halfheartedly. If you find your feet dragging, check your path. You’re probably on the wrong one.
  5. Overearnestness
    • The opposite of half-heartedness is over-earnestness
    • The measure of mastery is not through what you show, but what you hold back
  6. Speed
    • Too many players, young ones in particular, become obsessed with playing fast, thinking speed is the measure of ability; the faster the fingers, they believe, the better the player. This shows their immaturity
    • Speed is a byproduct of technique – not an end to be pursued in itself
  7. Competition
    • Many players use competition not as a means to test themselves, but to prove themselves. Should you feel such a need, check your ego. What are you trying to prove, and why?
    • The only opponent is within
  8. Obsession
    • “For me, I think the only danger is being too much in love with guitar playing. The music is the most important thing, and the guitar is only the instrument” – Jerry Garcia
    • What you bring to your playing is the sum of what you are. If you obsess about guitar, you’re only bringing one thing to your playing. Have a broad range of interests and pay attention to other things in life so you can bring more to your playing
  9. Mishandled Criticism
    • If you must criticize, do so in the spirit of building up, not tearing down. Tearing down is easy. The Way of Zen guitar is to build. This is extremely difficult
    • When receiving criticism, learn from that which is given in the spirit of building. Ignore that which attempts to tear down
    • No matter what you do or how respected you are, you can’t please everyone
  10. Failure to Adjust
    • “Things turn out better by accident sometimes. But you can’t organize accidents” – Jeff Beck
    • When change happens, look for opportunity
  11. Loss of Focus
    • Whenever we lose focus, we can usually blame either lack of concentration or lack of commitment
    • An exercise that Zen masters use to develop concentration instructs students to sit silently and count slowly from one to ten in their minds. If anything should interrupt their count – self-consciousness, a stray thought, awareness of hearing a noise, or even the sound of their own breathing – they must start over from one. If you can count past one, you will not lack for concentration. If you can make it to ten, you will know the way of Zen Guitar
    • Lack of commitment often comes from looking at where other people are. If you’re focused on what other guitarists can do, you lose focus on what you have and where you are going
  12. Overthinking
    • Sometimes the best strategy is “Ready, fire, aim”
    • The answer lies in action – not in words

If you can avoid falling for the above missteps, you’ll avoid the traps I see so often as a guitar teacher.

Part 3: Black Belt

“When you train hard enough and long enough, you eventually get to a point where body, mind, and spirit come into balance.” This is a good reminder for anybody who sees ads to “master the fretboard in 30 days!”. Becoming a great guitarist takes time and effort.

As the book says, to reach this point on the path of Zen Guitar, it’s not enough to be good at what you do. You must go beyond.

Being a black belt guitarist is more than dazzling skills. If you lack the proper character, your technical skills will always fall short.

This part of the book talks about responsibility. Responsibility to yourself, your talent, your art, your audience, and to the way of Zen Guitar.

This is a healthy way of thinking that I see missing in a lot of intermediate guitarists. Wise and experienced guitarists eventually learn about this responsibility on their own, but reading about it here can help you understand why it’s so important.

The advice on the black belt is split into three sections: head, hand, and heart. This is a great way to think about your guitar playing. It’s not all about what your hands do.

I won’t go through all of the points for these three sections as each one really needs the full explanation to properly understand.

The one point I will explain is called “Thought: Process”. In my mind, this is the most important point to remember. People think that success (with guitar or with life) is based on an event. It isn’t. You don’t fall asleep one night as an amateur guitarist and wake up as a virtuoso. Success is a process. It’s a gradual journey and as the book explains, there is no end point.

If you ever feel like you’re working towards a certain point and you will ‘win’ when you get to that point, it’s time to change the way you think. The way you treat the journey is more important than the endpoint you think you should be reaching for.

Part 4: Black Belt to White Belt

This part of the book opens with a Zen saying about the journey to enlightenment:

First step, mountain is mountain.
Second step, mountain is not mountain.
Third step, mountain is mountain.

Replace mountain with music and the saying starts to make more sense. Before we start learning guitar, music is music. Once you pick up a guitar and start learning, the way you see music completely changes. You don’t see it as you did before and other people who don’t play a musical instrument won’t see it either.

The book says that eventually, you reach the third step and really see what music is. You develop a deep connection with your playing as a result of asking questions such as: “Where is this music coming from? Am I channeling it? From where? What is driving me to play it? How deep does it go?”

This way of thinking isn’t related to your skill level. There are ‘black belt’ guitarists who will never reach the third step because they will never consider questions like these.

The idea behind going from black belt to white belt is tough to explain in a short book summary like this one. If you feel like you’re ready for the lessons in this part of the book, you probably should be studying the book instead of my notes.

Part 5: White Belt

No explanations are given in this final part of the book. Instead, you are given short reminders of all the things you should have learned before reaching this point.

It’s a great way to remember that there is no endpoint and keeping a beginner’s mind is crucial.

Check out Zen Guitar here for more information (link to Amazon for price and more reviews).

Best Zen Guitar Quotes

Here is a collection of the best quotes I highlighted while reading Zen Guitar.

  • “If you’re going to sweep the floor, sweep it better than anybody in town. And if you’re going to play the guitar, really, really, really get in it, and don’t be jivin’.” Carlos Santana
  • So many of the things we do in life, we do halfheartedly. If you find your feet dragging, check your path. You’re probably on the wrong one.
  • An exercise that Zen masters use to develop concentration instructs students to sit silently and count slowly from one to ten in their minds. If anything should interrupt their count – self-consciousness, a stray thought, awareness of hearing a noise, or even the sound of their own breathing – they must start over from one. If you can count past one, you will not lack for concentration. If you can make it to ten, you will know the way of Zen Guitar
  • The answer lies in action – not in words.
  • Whenever we lose focus, we can usually blame either lack of concentration or lack of commitment
  • Many players use competition not as a means to test themselves, but to prove themselves. Should you feel such a need, check your ego. What are you trying to prove, and why?

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