At the time of writing this, I am 47 years old, and have been playing the guitar for 33 years. I have been asked this question or ones just like it hundreds of times, by many many people all seemingly looking for a simple answer...and the truth of it is, that there really is one, and a very simple one in fact.
However, before I get to that; let me preface that simple answer with a little context.
Now, my natural discomfort when being complimented highly about my playing notwithstanding; I will say this:
I play guitar ALL THE TIME
I may not have as structured a practice regimen these days as perhaps I could, but I do practice. Whether it's driving my wife crazy noodling up and down scale and arpeggio shapes on an unplugged electric, or trying to improve my laughably rudimentary sweep picking skills (because why not), or composing new things on my acoustic guitar and finding joyous new chords and vibrations that were not there before.
I play, and play, and play.
..and I always have.
This time (both focused and unfocused), spent embracing my guitar all feeds into the general melting pot of abilities that is 'Ben + guitar', and is then expressed good, bad or indifferent when I pick the bloody thing up and play something.
I love guitar. I love playing guitar. I love talking about guitars. I love talking about guitar playing.
I love music. I love discovering and marvelling at other players past and present who have achieved incredible levels of technical skill. I also love artists of more moderate technical skill who nevertheless can transmit tremendous greatness through their ability to effectively communicate something sublime with whatever tools they have.
In fact, to digress a little into a slightly different area; I would say that the ability to string 100 notes together and play them at lightning speed pales into insignificance compared to the ability to play 5 notes so beautifully that another human being is moved to tears by them. Technical skill is a truly wonderful thing, and I pursue it myself with a passion; but what you do with whatever skills you have; is where the beauty and magic really lies.
I absolutely love communicating through music. I love people gleaning joy and pleasure from hearing me play something I wrote, and being moved to tell me so. The moment during a performance, that I realise I have captured the entire room at the tips of my fingers, even if it's just for a few precious seconds. There's no feeling like that, trust me. It makes you feel like all those hours twiddling and twanging and getting frustrated or whatever were all supremely worth it on a level that you could not conceive of until it happens.
I also love being part of a band that can come together to make literally thousands of people dance their asses off and shout and cheer and feel incredible elation and happiness. That in turn feeds my own sense of elation and excitement regarding what an amazing gift musical ability, and the effective delivery of it actually is.
Last year I had the immense honour of playing the opening fuzz guitar riff (and the rest of the song of course - lol), of Dean Parrish's Northern Soul classic 'I'm On My Way' with The Signatures to over 4 thousand people for whom that song is massively significant.
Good? Oh my days, yes - that's pure musical opium right there.
Music is so wonderful, so universal, so immensely inclusive. It brings people together, and provides a language by which amazing things can happen. I may not speak much Japanese, but I sure as hell understand what Tomoyasu Hotei is trying to say to me when I listen to Electric Samurai!
Clunky and rudimentary it may have been, but there is a good reason that Spielberg chose music to be the initial conduit through which communication with extra-terrestrial life was established in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' - There is literally no gulf that cannot be traversed by a shared interest in the way sounds can resonate together and instil or elicit an emotional response.
I live and breathe it as much as I possibly can, and strive for better, and purer ways to express it all the time. It isn't easy to do, and the more that one can fuse or synchronise this pursuit into all the other responsibilities and commitments of daily life, the better. I am no expert at this, but I do try.
So, what is the secret to being able to achieve any of this?
What is the simple answer to those questions about how do I do what I do?
Are you ready?
It's a one word answer:
If you find yourself a little disappointed by that answer; you may not have read or fully absorbed what I have been trying to say.
If you play an instrument, and truly from the heart wish you were better at it, you already understand what I'm talking about.
If however, you read these words and do not see yourself reflected in any part of them; you might need to maybe re-appraise what you really want from your relationship with your instrument.
Don't misconstrue; there's nothing wrong with being happy where you are. You are describing contentment, and that's awesome. If however you find yourself avaricious of other's abilities without enthusiasm to get together with your guitar and add those skills to your own tool bag come hell or high water, then disappointment surely awaits.
Results seldom (if ever), come for free, and even the greatest musicians in the world (as well as every great musician I am honoured to know personally), were not born already knowing how to do what they do. But what they all had in spades was an enthusiasm to change that situation.