The Most Important Lesson I Learned from Paul Gilbert

A few years ago, when I was dead set on becoming a fast-and-furious-Tokyo-drifting shredder guitarist, I went on a huge Paul Gilbert kick. If you’ve been in guitar circles for a while, you know the dude shreds balls. If you’re new to the guitar community…well, the dude shreds balls.

Take a gander as he rocks out some “Technical Difficulties“:

Impressive, to say the least, wuldnt ya say?

At the peak of my Gilbert phase, I was fortunate enough to have a guitar lesson with him. And surprisingly, the biggest lesson I learned from him had nothing to do with shredding.

I’ll share what I learned in a second, but first, let me set the stage:

In winter 2010, Gilbert announced that he’d be giving a few guitar lessons to a small number of students in Anaheim, CA while he was in town for the NAMM convention.

I thought of the possibilities and potential impact this could have on my guitar playing. Paul Gilbert, teaching me?!

It only cost…$300 bucks?!

As a poor student, I didn’t have $300 at the time.

I consulted my loving mother over the phone.

Eager Zach (in Eric Cartman’s voice): Meeeeehm, can I have money for a Paul Gilbert lesson so I can shred and be kewwwww?

Meehm: “Yes, sweetie”

Huzzah! I anticipated Gilbert showing me the secrets to his success – how to alternate pick like a maniac, how to string skip and fly across the fingerboard. It was going to be – I was going to be – great!

The Lesson

Now, I’d love to tell you how much of a religious experience the lesson was, but that simply wasn’t the case.

Sitting in a semicircle around Paul Gilbert, a group of 6 students had an hour to ask him questions, jam a little bit, learn some tips and tricks, and try to show off. Paul gave some conventional wisdom that was certainly valid, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before.

It was a fun experience, but after I got my guitar signed and got my picture taken, I left a little underwhelmed.


Oh, naive Zach…and Mr. Big himself

 Days and weeks after the lesson, I wasn’t seeing any dramatic improvement in my playing. I still had the same struggles.

What did I really learn, and  was the lesson worth the $300 bucks?

The REAL Lesson

It took me a while to realize that I had completely unrealistic expectations going into the lesson. I hoped the wise Paul Gilbert would enlighten me to some A-HA moment, some video game-like “level up” coin that would instantly elevate my playing.

But improving on guitar – any skill, really – doesn’t work like that. You can learn from the greats, but the underlying factor that’s going to make you improve is you.

There’s no “magic ingredient” that someone can give to you that will instantly make you better. YOU are what is going to make yourself better. The dedication, the connecting of the dots, the hours you put into the instrument – all that must come from you. Teachers, friends, YouTube shredders – they can all show you things, but doing the hard work is what will make you better.

The change in perspective was what really nudged me in the right direction. This realization became that A-HA moment. Reframing my expectations and realizing that I had all the power to make myself improve – that was worth the $300 bucks.

Once I stopped chasing the magic ingredient and took a more critical look at what I needed to focus on, I was able to progress much faster.

You can apply the same thinking to guitar playing. If you’ve ever felt lost or frustrated, understand that if you want to get better, you can! Thinking you need expensive equipment, thinking there’s some secret out there that you have yet to discover, thinking that you can’t do it because you’re not naturally gifted – these kind of flaws in thinking, obvious or not, can have a negative effect on your progress.

Instead, get in the mindset that if you focus on the right things and do it consistently, you will progress much faster.

Now I Want to Hear From You…

Have you ever had a similar experience as a guitarist where you realized your thinking had been wayyy off the mark? What did you learn from that realization? Shoot me an email at or a leave a comment below!

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