Gut Rumbles

January 30, 2006

playing guitar

Since I am soon to become a teacher, I've been thinking a lot about how I learned to play guitar. I've never had a formal lesson in my life. I started with a Mel Bay chord book and a $19 Silvertone guitar (with a neck like a pine log, heavy-gauge Black Diamond strings and action that was pure torture). That's how I know about the "WANT TO" factor. If I learned to play on the monstrosity I started with, I had to want it bad. I DID, too.

I've played a lot of guitars lately that sell for less than $200 and play like a dream. Ask jimbo about the one I picked out for him as an emergency back-up to his Gibson. I haven't heard him complain yet. I wish that I had started on one of those decent guitars. Learning to play would have been so much easier that way. Some people say that suffering builds strong character. If that's true, I ought to have character out the wazoo from playing that Silvertone.

After I taught myself to play some chords and strum with a flat pick, I decided that I wanted to learn how to finger-pick, too. I was heavily influenced by Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot in those days, so I listened to what they did and tried to copy it.

I had a cheap stereo in my room and my turntable had a 16 2/3 RPM setting on it. I played 33 1/3 RPM records on the 16 2/3 setting so that I could hear the individual notes better than at actual speed. No shit--- that's how I learned to finger-pick.

I also played drums at the time in a famous Rock & Roll band called "Snake and the Reptiles." Richard English was our lead guitar player (his nickname was "Snake," hence the name of the band) and I used to watch carefully everything he played on his Fender Mustang. After band practice or after a gig, I went home and tried to copy what he did.

Later, I was lucky enough to meet some pretty good guitar players and I learned a lot from them, too. The key ingredient to the entire process was simple: I really WANTED to learn to play guitar and I worked my ass off at it.

Here is my advice for beginners:

1) Start with a decent guitar. Learning to play is difficult enough without handicapping yourself with a Chinese Torture Contraption for an instrument. You don't have to spend a ton of money to buy a good guitar today, so get one to start with.

2) Be patient. If you can't handle frustration, don't even THINK about learning to play ANY musical instrument. Remember what my daddy always told me: "If it was easy, any asshole could do it." As a baby, you crawled before you walked and you walked before you ran. It's the same process when you pick up a guitar for the first time. You didn't learn to run overnight and you won't learn to play guitar overnight, either. (Even if you DO sleep with your guitar under your bed.

3) PRACTICE!!! Taking a lesson once a week isn't enough. Play until your fingers hurt, then play some more. Repeat. Then repeat again.

4) Never be shy about sitting down to play with people who are a lot better than you are. You can learn a lot that way. Also, I've seldom met guitar players who weren't willing to help a beginner, because they remember what those days were like themselves.

5) Study music theory. I played clarinet in my school band for a couple of years and I was fortunate to have a good teacher who believed in pounding music theory into my young head. Music is downright mathematical once you understand how it's put together.

Okay, that's enough. I think I'm working on my lesson plans by blogging when I should have a guitar in my hands. I've got a "Guitar For Beginners" DVD I need to watch a few more times before I start my first class. (I'm hoping to be a GOOD teacher.) Besides, I shouldn't be giving this stuff away for free when I can get paid for doing it.

If you want to learn to play guitar, sign up for one of my classes.


I'm glad to see you have an 'honest' job instead of relying on being an 'ad whore' to survive!! *L*

Posted by: Michele on January 30, 2006 12:42 PM

I could have written that post! I taught myself to play about 4 years ago, and I did the exact things you suggested. I even had a guitar with that torturous action that you referred to. I also had great guitar-playing friends who humored the heck out of me many times. I always picked up something new from them, a new strum, a new chord, etc...

If I may, I would only add one more suggestion, anyone who wants to learn should start with a song they already know how to sing. Find the chords and a chord chart and get to playing!

Posted by: Danielle on January 30, 2006 12:59 PM

Never did pick up any stringed instruments, my teachers all told me my "Homer Simpson" hands wouldn't let me play correctly...but I did pick up almost any other instrument in the symphony. And music is nothing but pure math.

And yes, I remember my first clarinet. I would practice for at least an hour a day every day. Splitting reeds, making geese mating calls, and getting calluses on my open hole fingers.

I actually miss wanting something that bad...

Posted by: Steph on January 30, 2006 01:37 PM

I did the 16 RPM trick, too. It played at half speed an octave lower so that you could play along in tune. Learned a lot of guitar solos that way.

Posted by: Scott P on January 30, 2006 01:55 PM

I never could get past the blisters on my fingers

Posted by: GUYK on January 30, 2006 02:07 PM

It also doesn't hurt to learn how to read music... before you learn music theory.

Posted by: Omnibus Driver on January 30, 2006 03:55 PM

Ha!!!! I think you may have just convinced us we don't 'need' a teacher, per se?!?

My daughter just packed up her things in Orlando and moved to Nashville...Before she left Florida..she blew it on the credit card, and bought herself a guitar (ya gotta have a guitar if you live in Nashville, right?!). Anyway, she took piano lessons for years and also played the flute and piccolo in the school's marching she reads music...and also seems to have the talent for teaching herself....So this blog is encouraging....

In Nashville she's lived with a guitarist/songwriter/vocalist while she looked for a place of her own. They have already written some songs together, and I am sure he is teaching her a thing or two about the again...sound advice from you..not to be afraid to sit down with people who are better already.....encouraging indeed.....perhaps she is on the right track...

I'm hoping for positive experiences for both of you....and your students as well...

Posted by: Di on January 30, 2006 03:56 PM

You have inspired me yet again, A-Man. I got a ukelele as a gift from a jazz guitarist pal of mine last month and I'm getting my guitar and banjo Out From Under The Bed pronto. Dammit, you're too far from Texas for me to sign up...or I'd be there. Now, where's IS my Roy Clark Big Cord Song Book that same pal gave me too. There is hope for me, I just know it.

Posted by: duxinaro on January 30, 2006 04:17 PM

I inherited a really old Lotus acoustic guitar when I moved into my place in Noho back in '90. I rescued it out of the basement. Still had a price tag on it of $89.95 from Woolworths. It's actually got a pretty good tone but I wouldn' know about the action. I spent some money getting it refurbished and tried to teach myself to play. I lasted about three days. That shit hurts your fingers.

Then my ex gave me a pretty nice Yamaha keyboard. I'm okay on that, my childhood piano lessons taught me to read music, but I wouldn't call myself a player. But really fine music has come out of those instruments all the same. I hung mostly with musicians and my place was right downtown so it made sense for me to hold most of the after hours parties.

Couldn't keep a gstring on the guitar. No matter who played it, it always popped, so I just gave up. But apparently real musicians can still play on a five string guitar. I always kept a couple of percussion instruments around as well so we had some great jam sessions in that apartment. I miss those days. I didn't get much sleep, I was the only one holding down a real 9-5 job, but boy did I have some fun. Of course, I was younger then...

Posted by: Libby on January 30, 2006 06:52 PM


Here is a book that you should have your students buy. A while back, the president of the company sent me a copy. I have seen many books that purport to "teach" guitar, but this one comes the closest to teaching someone to "play" much as I would teach them. As you can see, it contains lots of first-class illustrations. Your students would benefit by it, for sure. Willy can order them through the store. I will send you more info by e-mail..

Oh, and the guitar you picked out for me from Willy's store is PRIMO. Plays as well as the Gibson dreadnaught, for something like 1/3 or 1/4 the price.


Posted by: Jim - PRS on January 30, 2006 07:31 PM

I actually miss wanting something that bad...

Boyoboy Steph, that hit Me like a brick.
I'm going to sit with that awhile.

Posted by: Wes Jackson on January 31, 2006 03:46 AM

I just started teaching a friend's daughter to play. I showed her an easy fingerpick (alternate strings d to high e) and she picked it up right away. She will sit an practice that when she takes a break from aching fingers. Showing her the fingerpick seemed to increase the want factor. By the way, The Pony Man was one of the first songs I learned to fingerpick.

Posted by: Titan Mk 6B on January 31, 2006 09:44 AM
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