book review: “zen guitar” by philip toshio sudo, photos from recent hikes in the mountains, summer of 2016

First of all, I love this book. Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo is one of my favorite books of all time.

On the west ridge of Loveland Pass, above timberline, Erin up ahead of me on the trail, looking east…

First published in 1997, this book has been a companion since then that I revisit every few years, or revisit a chapter as needed whenever, because its message is just that good. And it’s not just for guitarists of course. It’s for everyone who is involved in the creation of music, whatever the instrument, whatever the genre, at whatever level of ability. Or those involved in the creation of art… or any kind of creative endeavor, and that covers a lot of territory. But way beyond that, and ultimately, it’s about how we all create our lives.

Beatin' the heat at 12,000 feet...
Beatin’ the heat at 12,000 feet…

Zen Guitar is not about learning a specific technique, or any technique for that matter. As the author points out from the very beginning, there are plenty of books and videos for learning techniques and genres. Instead, he says simply: “We are here to make a sound.”

We are here to express beauty, beauty in the world.

In the chapter “Beginner’s Mind”, Sudo incorporates the idea and training/imagery of the martial arts dojo to provide a basic framework for practice:

1. Wear the white belt.
2. Pick up your guitar.
3. Tune.
4. Play.

That’s it. What could be more simple?

berthoud_west07Well of course, it’s not that simple – it never is. And there’s the rub (paradox). Essentially Zen Guitar is a spiritual book; it connects the basics of playing the guitar to one’s spiritual development along the musical [and one’s life] journey.

Thoughts are creative in themselves. Energy follows thought. Thoughts become things. Everyone is creative.

From the chapter “Pick Up Your Guitar”:

“Look deeply into the spirit that goes into making an item of quality – the care, the precision, the attention to detail. Incorporate that spirit into your work… Anything you set out to make – music, love, a bookshelf, a meal – make as well as you can. To do otherwise is spiritless…”

And “Act with a sense of purpose.”

loveland_west02Each chapter is relatively short – most of the time one page or less than two pages, and begins with a pertinent quote from a well-known musician. Bite-size chunks of musical wisdom… Like most spiritual books Zen Guitar is best digested in an unhurried fashion. Read a short chapter, if you’re unfamiliar with the idea presented, if it’s new to you… give it time to sink in. Think on it, feel it… embody it.

Above timberline...
Above timberline…

The quote that begins the aforementioned “Pick Up Your Guitar” chapter:
“If you pick up a guitar and it says, “Take me, I’m yours,” then that’s the one for you.” – Frank Zappa
Speaks to intuition… Learn to trust it.

In fact, the quotes are a highlight in themselves and very definitely, on their own merit alone, a reason for buying the book. A few examples/highlights:

From the chapter “Loss of Focus” in the section “The Twelve Common Missteps”, comes this gem:

“I remember coming to a concert where they had a big catered meal set out for everyone… I went and said, “Miles, man, you gotta see all this food they got here.” And Miles said, “I didn’t come here to eat.”
– Gary Bartz, recalling a conversation with Miles Davis

Looking southeast toward Grays and Torreys and Grizzly Peak,,,
Looking southeast toward Grays and Torreys and Grizzly Peak on the Continental Divide…

From the chapter “Jamming”…

“The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he knows how to listen.” – Duke Ellington

And from the chapter on “Virtuosity” comes this:

“Whether you are [playing] in the bar, the church, the strip joint or the Himalayas, the first duty of music is to complement and enhance life.” – Carlos Santana

That is truth. As a musician, playing music enhances your life. What you put forth into the world musically enhances the experience of life for many others – people you will most likely never meet but affects them nonetheless. Music is not just mere entertainment and should never be thought of as such. Music, played with true feeling and integrity, can change lives. This is no small thing.

There’s a lot more that I could quote from this book but I think you get the idea. If you’re involved in any kind of creative endeavor, not just music, not just guitar, you should get this book. Zen Guitar is that good, it is that inspirational and I highly recommend it. This book should be in every creative’s library. The bottom line on it…
Know what you are doing and more importantly, why.

Most of all, be mindful of what you are doing.

It boils down to:
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.

Accept nothing less…
Much food for thought here.

On the Continental Divide Trail west of Berthoud Pass…
Ahead of us...
Ahead of us…
Clouds above the Divide…
Random couple on the CD Trail, low clouds rising from below...
Random couple on the CD Trail, low clouds rising from below…
Hiking up through the fog and clouds...
Hiking up through the fog and clouds…

Nights on Venus News:
New music is coming soon, within the next couple of weeks. Finishing up a new song: the mastered demo of “I Just Wanna Fly Off to Iceland With U”… Yes, Iceland… with a bossa nova beat. Of course they go together. And we’re making plans to go there in 2017 and get Nights on Venus on the lineup of the Iceland Airwaves music festival, November, 2017.

berthoud_west05For this year there will be no new album. Erin and I are getting married in November – we set the date, and as this is 4 months away there’s a lot to do between now and then. There may be a 2, possibly 3-song single release in the fall but a full album won’t happen until 2017. And it will be entitled “We Are All Haunted By Something”. And as I’m working with these 20+ songs so far, it may possibly become a double album… we shall see.

Wildflowers, looking north toward Vasquez Ridge…
Cover artwork for "Unearthly"... photo/design by CCT
Cover artwork for “Unearthly”… photo/design by CCT

Unearthlyis the most recent offering from Nights on Venus. The 6-song EP was released on December 30, 2015 and is available on Bandcamp, CD Baby, Amazon, and iTunes.

"Perspective," the 4th Nights on Venus album, MP3 album cover. Available on iTunes, CD Baby, Amazon, eMusic, Bandcamp, and the NoV website.
“Perspective,” the 4th Nights on Venus album, MP3 album cover. Available on iTunes, CD Baby, Amazon, eMusic, Bandcamp, and the NoV website.

Santos, Perspective and all previous albums are available as MP3 digital downloads on CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon MP3, and the NoV Website.

Craig, on a windy rock...
Craig, on a windy rock…

Follow Craig and Nights on Venus on Twitter (@xlntsky), Facebook, and Instagram


Author: nightsonvenus

Musician and producer with the band Nights on Venus.

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