Blog: Why Do Experienced Musicians Make Mistakes?

June 15th, 2012

By Damian Fanelli

I spoke to Paul Jackson Jr. at a recent Winter NAMM show in Anaheim, California. Jackson used to be the ever-smiling guitarist in the American Idol house band.

“It blows my mind that you never make mistakes,” I told him. “I couldn’t do your job.”

“Nah, don’t say that,” Jackson said. “You could do it. I make mistakes; it’s just that no one can tell — unless I’m playing something like ‘Reeling in the Years,’ because everyone out there knows that guitar solo note for note.”

He was just being nice. The guy is a machine. And if he does make a mistake, it’s some incredibly tiny thing even other good musicians wouldn’t pick up on — minor faults he creates or imagines — because, as a bandmate of mine recently said, we (musicians) are our own worst enemies.

I recently performed at B.B. King Blues Club on 42nd Street in New York City. It was a pretty big night. The place was packed; the band was well-rehearsed; the staff fed us well and poured red wine (and Red Bull) down our gullets, treating us like the swell blokes we are. Our friends were there, plus lots of strangers.

The sound crew did a great job. We even had chord charts right there in front of us.

Yet we all made careless mistakes here and there.

Now, before we get carried away, let me put this in perspective. I don’t mean “regular person” mistakes (gigantic errors even your cousin’s new girlfriend would notice). I mean “musician” mistakes (errors other serious musicians might notice). These include playing a wrong chord or a bum note, coming in early, dropping out late, etc.


Well, nerves, pretty much. That and unfamiliarity with some of the material or the situation. I mean, I was standing on the same stage where Jeff Beck has stood in recent years.

And why was the place so packed? Who are we, Gwar?

But, like anything else, mistakes fade with repetition.

When I toured California in 2007, our first show (a radio station in San Diego) was a clumsy affair. Yes, we were tired, but we also were distracted by the whole San Diego-ness of it all, and we let some errors (again, “musician” errors) creep in.

But by the last show of that tour (a dark, moody place in El Segundo), we were perfect. I couldn’t screw up if I tried. I even tempted fate by playing things I’d never even tried before — and I could do no wrong. All three of us sounded like the guys you hear on your favorite live albums.

And that’s the point, really. The best live albums are recorded near — or at — the end of long tours. All the kinks have been worked out, all the uncertainty is gone. All the “Hey, Eric Johnson played this same note on this same stage!” is out of your system.

I’m not about to run to Best Buy, snatch up the first few seasons of American Idol and see if Jackson screwed up in the first few episodes. But, if I were to do that, I wouldn’t be shocked if he played with a little less certainty back then.

Ah, who am I kidding? The guy’s a machine!

Damian Fanelli is the online managing editor at Guitar Aficionado.