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About Guitar Instruction

I really worked hard to keep my mouth shut and not say anything negative in the Song Train book about the guitar instruction materials that are out there tempting people, and I am happy that I was able to publish it without doing so. However, people have been requesting some comments, so against my better judgement, here goes...

NOTE: There are several branches of the guitar learning tree, and the materials that teach sight-reading for instrumental guitar are a totally different animal than those that claim to teach ordinary people to accompany songs with a guitar and play basic recreational guitar. Almost all of what I am talking about here involves the latter, and classical guitar teachers and students can stop right here because I am not talking to you. Also, the books and videos out there that are written by a musician, who is showing you the way they play things, are fine. If you get a Chris Proctor TAB book, it shows you the fingerings for his guitar pieces, and I have no quarrel with this sort of thing. It assumes you are already familiar with his music and want to play it the way he does, and though these sorts of books generally do not discuss anything emotional or spiritual, they have value and I don't want to say bad things about them. Books about guitarists and picture books about cool guitars are wonderful, and I enjoy them very much.

I will say up front that my own book "Modern Folk Guitar" (the first college textbook for folk guitar), though it is vastly more informative, comprehensive, explanatory, and self-aware than the others that are in its field, also suffers from what I now see to be the fundamental flaw in all music instruction books. If you don't already know the songs in the book, you can't really learn them from the book. And since it is music you are trying to learn, and music = songs in the world of folk guitar, you need to be playing songs you "know." I am so grateful to an unidentified person who called last year to ask about "Modern Folk Guitar" and wanted to know if there was a CD that went with it. I asked him why, and he said that he did not know any of the songs. That's when it hit me, and the whole idea of the Song Train exploded. I had assumed that most people knew most of the songs in that book. When I was young, they did.

I did some research, read some PhD theses on the web documenting how young people today don't know any songs in common, and talked to my friends who teach guitar. They all said that they had observed this also, and you basically can no longer assume that any student "knows" any song except maybe "Happy Birthday." Even things like "Onward Christian Soldiers", "A Tisket a Tasket" and "Shortnin' Bread" that used to be practically nursery rhymes that every kid knew, are unknown to the average kid these days. And songs like that that are catchy and easy and already in your head are how people have always learned folk guitar. Modern Folk Guitar is a great book for someone born before 1960 who went to public school and heard some of the folk boom songs in their childhood. If you know the songs in it, it can help you. But I no longer believe that a book is the key to opening to the door to music for people in general. But the books that are out there and that do claim to teach you are doubly useless, because they are books and because they don't teach you how to play. The Song Train is actually a recording pretending to be a book, so people can absorb the songs from the recordings, hear them played for real with a simple guitar driving them, and the book can comfort them and guide them a bit. But it is not an instruction book.

Here I am ranting about books that have names like "Play Guitar Today," "Guitar 1," "Teach Yourself to Play Guitar," "Easy Guitar Big Book", "Complete Guitar Method" and “The Acoustic Guitar Method.” Every music store has a rack of them, and I cannot conceal my great annoyance with the people who write and publish them, because they cause a lot of people who legitimately want to participate in the magic of beginning guitar, who know damn well they can do it, to lose interest and thus fail at something that they could easily have succeeded at. I bought their books, so that gives me the right to complain.The world would be so much better if lots of people learned to play some basic songs on a guitar and enjoyed singing them. The world does not need more weenies sight-reading notes on the E string, it needs people who can drink some beers at a party and play some Jimmy Buffett songs, or people who bang on their guitar and sing hymns at church, sing wacky songs with their kids, or people who can sing through their noses and play some good old songs with each other at a bluegrass jam.

I have been a full-time musician my entire adult life, and have mingled my whole life with professional and amateur musicians. I also own a large number of guitar instruction books and videos, and have studied most of the materials that are currently out there, and I do not tirade here out of personal ignorance or of ignorance of what is in the marketplace. I am also not so full of myself that I needed to work for a whole year on something (The Song Train) if there were something out there that was even moderately good that could have saved me the trouble. Having taught myself to play music with no assistance, and having watched hundreds of people throughout my life learn to play, and many more fail to learn, I can say that I have never seen in print anything that even vaguely resembles a discussion of what I think goes on when people really learn music. If all the guitar instruction materials in the world were to spontaneously ignite and burn to cinders it would not be even a partial tragedy, and I remain mystified why something as universal and beautiful as music has had its entrance gates held hostage for so long by so many crappy how-to books, for the most part written and published by charlatans and hucksters.

And the web sites out there are even worse than the books, though there are some good ones out there buried in the pile. I won't even get started on the "play guitar" web sites I have been looking at recently or I might actually explode. Predatory people have now figured out that they can make money on the web if they can pull you to a web site that has ads on it. So there are now dozens of web sites you will stumble on if you search for "easy guitar" or "beginning guitar" whose sole purpose is to get you to go there. And there is even a site where they pretend to "rate" guitar instruction materials, and the people who are doing the rating and the web sites they are rating should all be shoved in a swamp by a backhoe. They don't know or teach anything, and just prey on all the people who are trolling the internet hoping to learn something about how to play guitar. It's not that hard to learn how to sand wood floors from web searching, but watch out for all the crap out there in the music instruction. It is so widespread and so bad I am afraid to start into it in any detail or I will not have time to talk about what I had wanted to discuss here. If I stay mad enough maybe I will collect some of the links and take you on a tour of awful "learn to play guitar" web sites.

Guitar Instruction Mystery #1: Why are virtually all the prominent guitar instruction materials written by people who have few or no credentials either as musicians or teachers? Nobody can sell a cookbook or a golf video if they are not already known as a chef who can cook or a golfer who can play. I learned this when I wrote the first guitar textbook for college. Everything I wrote had to pass a scholarly review process, with a panel of "jurors" and I was amazed to find out that since Mel Bay owned his own printing presses, he could print anything he felt like printing without clearing it with anyone. (Which is what they do at Mel Bay Inc.) Why do mediocre players with no training in music education get contracts from publishers and go on book tours, peddling their wares, which have no charm, questionable content and little integrity. No one polices anything. Mel Bay, Bill Bay, Jerry Silverman, Jerry Snyder, David Hamburger... Grrr. I have a book I bought recently that was prominently displayed in Barnes & Noble (and published by them) called "Teach Yourself Guitar" by Nick Freeth. It is gorgeous, and crammed with the best photos I have ever seen in a guitar book, and it appears to be filled with useful information about learning guitar. Nothing is factually wrong with the book, exccept for the fact that it was written by a guy who is not even a real musician or teacher (his last book was about Route 66) and he does not even discuss playing a song until he mentions one in passing (that I have never heard of) on Page 119! Hello? How can you expect to learn music without songs? This would be like learning a language without ever trying to say something to anyone, and just doing exercises and lessons by yourself in your room. Spare us the "how to" books written by amateur enthusiasts who never moved anyone with their music or may not even know what that means. We could never tolerate a golf instruction book by a lousy golfer, so why do we tolerate music instruction books by lousy musicians?

Let's talk about "Guitar For Dummies" (by Mark Phillips and Jon Chappell) for a minute, since it is possibly the best-selling and widest distributed such book right now. It is actually about the best book out there right now, and it has a lot of correct information, and decent explanations of things like capos and how to get in tune. The guys that wrote it have degrees in music, and one of them can play pretty well. It contains accurate and relevant information about the guitar, but it should not be mistaken for something that can teach you about music or how to play it. If you want to learn something about guitar and you don't really care if you learn to play music, then it is a fine book, as is Nick Freeth's. Heaven help you if you listen to the CD that comes with it. They only "teach" 9 songs in the book, ( Kumbaya, Swing Low, Michael Row the Boat, Home on the Range, It's Raining Its Pouring, Auld Lang Syne, All Through the Night, Over the River and Through the Trees, and O Susanna ) and if you don't already know and love these songs and want to play them, nothing in this book would ever convince you that these are songs you might want to learn. (No way in the world anyone would ever want to learn Kumbaya after hearing their version-- Come By Here - Barbara Dane & The Chambers Brothers">go listen to Barbara Dane & the Chambers Brothers sing it. It's called "Come By Here" on iTunes and you will want to get out your guitar and play it. Nor does the Dummies book or the CD that comes with it give you any real idea of how you are supposed to play the songs or how the authors themselves play them, which I doubt that they even do, since nobody plays any of those songs for real. They don't even mention playing a song until Page 43, where they give you A, D and E chords all at once. No mention of songs or how you use chords to play them, just suddenly some chords you can play.

AND THE CD THAT COMES WITH IT DOES NOT EVEN HAVE GUITAR ON IT! THEY USE SYNTHESIZER KEYBOARD, NO VOCALS, AND A COMPUTER DRUM MACHINE TO SHOW YOU HOW TO PLAY THE SONGS. Not even a robot would want to learn these songs! They just demonstrate a few measures of each song with the digital sounds, and move right on to the next one. Not a hint anywhere of what a real human being or God forbid an actual musician would do with the song. I see no way that even a smart and motivated person could figure out how to play beginning guitar with this book. These guys have made what seems to be a decent book, but they apparently have forgotten that music is playing songs and not just some skills, and they seem to have forgotten how they learned to play and what it is really like to be a beginner. Like all the rest of them, in my opinion this book is a money-making scheme that preys on people's desire to learn music by appearing to be what they need. It does not deliver them to a place where they can play music, and if I seem angry, it is because that desire to play music that occurs in so many people, is such a beautiful and reasonable desire, and one that they could so easily realize if they did not get their leg caught in a bear trap of a book like this.

David Hamburger's CD that comes with "Acoustic Guitar Method" (published and distributed by Acoustic Guitar Magazine) at least has him singing something with his guitar (poorly I would add) but it is only half a verse of a song, with a fake, mechanical pseudo-strum, preceded by "Example Number 16..." . Unless you already knew and loved the song "Columbus Stockade Blues" (the first song in his book) you could not possibly learn it after hearing what he does to it here, as he purports to "teach" it to you. He apparently assumes you know it already. And he is a decent musician, who plays and sings pretty well, and he seems to understand what good music is. But why was he selected to write the book on how to learn music, endorsed and published by the leading acoustic guitar magazine? There are no laws, regulators or police to stop anyone from publishing anything, and the publishers themselves should have some standards but they don't appear to. Arrggh. I'd like to try to fill up a Japanese economy car with the people who got started on a meaningul path of making homemade music from all the thousands of copies that are out there of these books. And those are two of the best ones.

My friend Jeff Hickey has pointed out that he has never seen a guitar book that shows a D chord fretted with a thumb either fretting the F# bass note or hanging over enough to just mute it, when almost every player in the world does just that. It's not possible to play a clean D chord any other way unless you have an extremely trained right hand that can hit only 5 of the strings. I have an old book by jazz guitarist Gene Leis that shows the thumb hanging over on a lot of chords, and it is the only one I have ever seen that shows this. I found on page 52 of Otto Feder's Complete Method for the Guitar, published way back in 1858, he says:

"It will now be evident to the student that the use of the thumb of the left hand in producing certain bass notes cannot be dispensed with, and he will find that it requires but very little effort to stop the E string effectually with it, for instead of bending the whole fore-joint over the fingerboard, as some are apt to do, it is only necessary that its fleshy part should touch the string obliquely, when a slight contraction of the thumb will secure the desired effect…

I also wonder why I have never seen it in print (except when I wrote it in Modern Folk Guitar) that it takes a long time to master even 2 simple chords. Why do all the books seem so anxious to rush on the harder stuff when most people need weeks and even months of time on the simplest skills and songs? By page 5, most of the books are on to 3 chord songs, and starting into things like alternating bass notes or fancier strumming and picking. What's the rush, and why not be honest with people that it takes a long time, and give them a way to enjoy that time?

Mystery #2-- Why do 3/4 of all beginning guitar instruction books start with "Notes on the E String" and teach sight-reading folk guitar. Nobody sight reads folk guitar except some guys who were taught sight-reading guitar when they were young and then later realized they would rather just play folk music. So they use a sight-reading approach because it is all they know and it makes a nice clean, Lesson 1, Lesson 2 book approach that makes people think they are getting legitimate music instruction. The fact that no musician any of us has ever heard of learned to play this way never enters any discussion. It leads you nowhere and teaches you to play things that no musicians ever actually played. Why? (NOTE: I wrote a lengthy essay in 2017 about the many problems & misconceptions with sight-reading guitar.)

Mystery #3- Why does everybody think you need a book? It's a holdover from public school indoctrination, and it is so ingrained in people that if they are learning something then they need a book. Music has always been passed on by oral tradition and by the apprentice system, and folk music is by definition not an academic subject. Books are useful as supplemental information for someone who is learning music. If there is not a learning process that is guided by a musician who understands something of the magical and spiritual nature of music, and if it does not involve hearing good songs and imitating what you hear, the music is never going to take flight and will never get off the page and into the hearts and ears of living people.

Mystery #4-- Why do so many people who fail as musicians become teachers and make instruction materials? And a related mystery-- why do we hear so little from the successful musicians? Especially the ones who are not brilliant-- wouldn't it be awesome if Johnny Cash, John Prine or even Bob Dylan-- people who have created a wonderful body of uncomplicated but amazingly effective music, with minimal guitar skills and training-- would offer us an even slightly reflective book or video about how they approach music. They could easily offer some insights for others who would like to also use minimal skills and training to make some music in their lives. All we get is Esteban and Keith Urban crap. I have never seen or heard of such a thing, just an occasional article in a music magazine. Michael Johnson has written some beautiful articles/essays ( ) but they are not even close to being mainstream and he may have pulled them off his website. The only thing like that I have ever seen was a book about the music business by Kenny Rogers that came out in the 1970's, called "Making it With Music." It was great. He knew what he was talking about and told it like it was, and it is still the best book I have ever seen about the music business. Too bad he did not talk about music itself and how to learn.

It is my firm belief after a lifetime of playing music, and why I spent so much time and energy making The Song Train, that unless you have some songs already in your head that you "know" and have internalized and believe in, you will never learn to make music that has any magic in it. The songs are all floating around out there, and when we bang on the chords and start humming and singing the words to them, we are joining the song, not creating it. We don't need discipline or a practice regimen. We need to be familiar with simple songs that say something. If you can't enjoy playing a simple song, how do you expect to enjoy playing a hard one? The whole secret to the whole thing is to enjoy being lousy and to enjoy banging out easy songs. If you can do that, you are launched, and you can immediately experience the ancient, beautiful and profound things that music offers us. If not, you don't get it, and nothing in any of those guitar instruction books is going to rescue you. I would have set fire to mine long ago except that I am an archivist at heart, and like having a collection of them, even if all the books only pretend to teach music.

Harvey Reid © 2007 & 2017

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