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On Learning to Play Guitar

If you decide you want to play guitar, there are a surprising number of strange obstacles in your way. I am writing this in hopes that someone will read it and be able to circumvent these obstacles, and perhaps this can help them find their own music.

To play guitar, you need a guitar. Finding an appropriate instrument may not be a simple matter. There are acoustic guitars with steel and nylon strings, flat and arched tops, and different width necks and scale lengths. There are electric guitars, and hybrid acoustic/electrics, resonator guitars and 12-strings. They are made by all sorts of companies and independent builders, and cost from $50 to $5,000. Used guitars are often a good deal (see my essay on buying a guitar), and even new guitars often need work to make them properly playable. Making sure you have a playable instrument, that is appropriate for the kind of music you want to play on it is the first step, and this alone is not simple. There are some very nice guitars to be had for a few hundred dollars, however, and this is a better time to buy an good quality, inexpensive instrument than there ever has been in my lifetime. Sometimes people will lend you or give you an instrument because it is not a very good one, which is why it is available, and it may hold you back as much as help you.Find someone who knows about such things, and make sure they agree that your instrument is right for you before you plunge into it.

If you decide you want guitar lessons, you face a lawless jungle. Schools have never really been involved in guitar education, though many colleges and even some high schools do have some type of guitar program. These are usually classical or jazz guitar, based on sight-reading, and oriented toward ensembles that involve the most possible students. If the art of solo guitar interests you, this might not be a good approach. It is of course a legitimate thing to do, and a valid approach to the instrument, but it is only one of many, and not always the best road for the recreational player. For example, if you are interested in playing guitar in altered tunings, which a huge number of today's players do, you can't use a sight-reading approach to this, because sight-reading is all based on standard tuning. Very little of the music today's guitar players play is written down anyway, so sight-reading is of limited value, at least in this arena. There is no right answer as to whether or not a guitar student should learn about different tunings. If it is decided that you want to include this in your training, when to do this is also unclear. You could do it from day 1, or you could never do it in 50 years, and neither would be more right or wrong than the other.

Music is one of those subjects that straddles the fence between a folk art and an academic discipline. It's probably safe to say that the majority of people you will see or hear play music today learned to do it as a folk art, from their friends and by teaching themselves, which is the way traditions of music have been passed along for centuries. It seems like a vague approach, when compared to the structured, Lesson 1, Lesson 2 Lesson 3 ... academic approach to guitar. Think of the folk process as being a holistic approach, where you assimilate the knowledge from books, people, recordings, radio, concerts, etc. simply by immersing yourself in it.

The academic guitar approach is a difficult one, and not very satisfying, unless you are very focused, disciplined, and destined to become a serious guitarist. Scales, etudes and exercises are hard and tedious, and many a person who just wanted to bang on some chords and sing songs has lost interest in the instrument by being placed in an academic guitar situation. It's my belief that students should have a firm foundation in enjoying themselves and expressing themselves with their guitars before they embark on any rigorous study of the instrument. There are many in the academic guitar world who feel oppositely; that a person should have a firm foundation in scales, arpeggios and technical exercises before they begin to play music.

There are an unknown number of private teachers in any area, who have unknown beliefs and training, and virtually all music stores offer instruction, generally by hiring independent teachers to work in their teaching studios for a percentage of the money charged. This is unregulated, and there is almost no consistency from one town or store to another in what is taught and how it is taught. Teachers move to town and start teaching and leave again, and have all sorts of backgrounds and skills. There is also a growing industry of guitar books, videos, and web sites, that all purport to teach guitar, and range from excellent programs taught by skilled teachers to bizarre schemes made up and marketed by crackpots. There are no laws, no licenses, no standards, no standardized tests, and no overseeing groups or organizations, and you are pretty much on your own to sift through it all, and the only people who may be there to guide you are people who are trying to sell you something. Don't be surprised if a book or video does not do what you hoped it would.

This is all further complicated by the copyright issues. You can make a recording of any piece of published music, and your only obligation is to pay a royalty to the copyright owner based on number of copies sold. You cannot make a video or print a book, however, without written permission of the copyright owner, and they rarely grant it, or charge a lot of money for it. Even arrangements of traditional songs get copyrighted, and the only books you can find are sometimes full of old folk songs that are not related to the way any known person sang or recorded them. Back when elementary schools all had music teachers who sang these old songs with the classes, everyone at least knew the same songs, and people could play and learn them if they were in a book. Now, very few schools have such music programs, and there is precious little common ground for teaching young people to play folk songs anymore.

As if this is not complicated enough, you find that large companies who own the rights to large numbers of songs will either publish their own songbooks, or license the rights to a book publisher, and you will find collections and anthologies of music, that claim to be from a certain era or of a certain type of music. What they often are is merely a collection of things that are owned or leased by that company, that do not represent a real cross-section of what is out there, or what people might want to play. A book called "Songs of the SIxties" should really be called "Song From the Sixties We Own." Even though there is a list of 50 or 100 songs (The Gambler, American Pie, Brown Eyed Girl, Friend of the Devil, Mr. Bojangles, Hey Good Lookin' etc.) that every guitar player will be asked to play in their life, there is no book you can buy that simply has the words and chords or arrangements for them. You might think there would be such a book. Everyone would buy it, but it does not exist and it legally cannot exist. Since the licenses are often "exclusive," even if someone wanted to pay to make such a book, the publishers can simply (and usually do) refuse permission.

Few songbooks actually show the correct guitar chords for songs you want to play (the same chord fingerings that the artists use), and are often written in piano keys, and have arrangements that are not the way it was recorded or played by the artist that made the song famous. This can trip you up if you don't know about it, and a Bob Dylan songbook might have a song written in the key of Eb with chord symbols that look like they ought to be right, when it is a song that he actually played in D or G. It's mysterious and unfair, and has something to do with keeping piano players happy by putting the songs in keys that piano players like, since that is who buys most sheet music.

Add to all this confusion the fact that there is no "right" way to play the guitar, and you have even more choices. Do you want to play in a band? Play solo? Play instrumental music? Write songs? No one has ever decided whether it is more right to play with a pick or with your fingers, or with fingerpicks, or with artificial nails, and they are all valid ways to play. There are quite a few choices in string thicknesses that will affect how you sound and how hard it is to play the guitar.

So what do you do?

Personally, I think it is vital to have a model-- someone whose music and sound you want to emulate, as a good place to begin. Listening to recordings and imprinting with the sound you like is a very good place to start, though so little of the great guitar music of the world has ever made it to the mainstream airwaves. Exploring record stores, radio programs that play non-mainstream music, and the Internet might turn up some names and sounds that might change your life and your musical direction. It would not hurt you to just listen to hundreds of recordings, and do whatever you can to expose yourself to the kinds of music that are out there before you do anything else. Learning about the music that is out there might be the most important thing of all. If you have never heard the music that moves you, how can you be moved by the music? You can spend your whole life trying to hear all the great guitar players, and you will never hear them all or even know their names. Yet it is very likely that there are musicians somewhere who are playing guitar music just the way you want to hear it, and you have to find them somehow.

If you have a direction in mind, this will help you decide what kind of instrument you need, and what approach to use. If you want to sing and write songs, you can do that without knowing anything about reading guitar music, and it won't necessarily hurt you. If you want to play in a blues band, you have a very different set of needs and a different course of instruction to follow. Finding someone in your community who plays the kind of music you are interested in can be a huge help, and possibly the best way to go about learning. Seeing and hearing it done, is, in my mind, a better approach than simply looking at it in a book. Learning how to express yourself is what it's all about, and you can learn that from watching it done, and it is something that no book could ever teach you. Rhythm is the heart of all music, and is also best learned from other people, from recordings and performances, not from books.

So Friend Who Wishes to Play Guitar, please sift through all this mess, and find the music in you that wants to come out. If you are drawn to the guitar, there is a reason, and you yourself have to take an active role in deciding how you will learn. You must teach yourself, and your teachers must be guides and resources and not authoritarian figures, and you must always, even as a beginner, play music that means something to you. If it does not, you must speak up and find some music that does mean something and play that, whatever it is. The world always has room for someone who plays music that means something to them, however clumsily they may do it, and the world does not need any more music that is not a real expression of the person playing it. It only seems like you play guitar with your hands. You really play it with your heart, your mind, your soul and your body, all working together in harmony.

© by Harvey Reid (11/28/99)


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