The big question for many amateur guitarists is a tricky one to answer. What is the best way of learning to play the guitar to an acceptable standard? It depends, of course, on the guitarist. Some people learn well from books, and figure out the rest of the way themselves. Others go to a guitar teacher who will show them the correct techniques and help them to start making music the way they’ve always wanted. And then there are the guitarists who are entirely self-taught, who have picked up the guitar, played around with it and, over time, have become competent and more.
No single way of learning will make you a “better” guitarist. In fact, many of the best guitarists around have mixed and matched their methods of learning so they can get the exact sound they want. This way of doing things makes a lot of sense, of course, but then you will find some other guitarists who find it more comfortable to stick with the one method. When it really comes down to it, the most important thing about learning the guitar is that you do feel comfortable.
Some people feel that the self-taught guitarist will make the most impressive music, because they have learned from within. Others will say that the one who has learned from a teacher will have taken in more influences, while still others will claim that the one who has learned by the book is more likely to be note-perfect. However, there are many people who have no idea how their favorite guitarist learnt because it simply doesn’t matter – personal style and emotion tends to win out anyway.
A number of the most talented musicians in the world share a particular tale of woe. All of the years that they spent standing in front of screaming crowds, playing amplified instruments in venues that may well have been somewhat cramped, comes to a fairly obvious conclusion. When you ask them their name they won’t be able to tell you. Not because they are drunk or on drugs, but because they are pretty much deaf. It is something that can be hard to avoid, if you are going to play the big shows, or if you simply enjoy playing loud.
Many guitarists spend at least a few nights a week standing in front of an amplifier that is taller than they are. Even though they wear earplugs to dampen the noise, that is still not dissimilar to standing in front of a jumbo jet as it prepares for take-off. And when they are playing loud in a small venue – which a lot of bands do on the way up – the sound reverberates right back at them. It can’t be good for the ears. So is there any way to avoid this? Well, simply sticking to best practice is a wise idea. Don’t play seven days a week – in fact, three nights in a row is considered a bit much by some.
Earplugs are more than advisable, as is standing further away from the amps. Another tip would be to play a bit quieter – but that is considered a mortal insult by any guitarist worthy of the title.
When learning to play any instrument, and not least the guitar, it is fairly common to imagine yourself in a position where you play to be heard by a crowd. From the moment you decide to learn the instrument to the first time you play a gig, you will picture the event in your mind again and again. The thing is that when it actually happens, it will probably have very little in common with what you imagine. The other thing is that you’ll struggle to remember much of it, even if you don’t partake in the “rock ’n’ roll lifestyle” which leaves dents in some memories.
You can plan and practice and dream in the preparation for a debut gig, but when the time comes to play it will feel strangely unreal. All those months you have spent getting the basics down will not really prepare you for what you are about to do. Most likely, you will feel nervous. But then the practice that you have been doing will come to fruition in the form of muscle memory. When pressed to perform, you will rise to the occasion. As soon as you got up to play, you will be heading back to your seat before you know it. And when someone asks you afterwards how you feel it went, you’ll have to ask them the same question.
Even the people who seem like they were born to perform remember very little about their first gig. Adrenaline is a stimulant that does not need to be drank or smoked, it will course through your veins regardless. And it is a heady one, too.
Some of the most proficient guitarists in the world are not known to many people, because their versatility makes them ideal session guitarists or members of touring bands. If you can play the one style, but play it enormously well, then you’re one of life’s band members. But if you can play every style to a level of impressive proficiency, then a session role is something to consider. There will always be a band, in whatever genre, who need a guitarist like you.
The guitar has popped up in all kinds of music over the years. Of course it has a place in punk music, although there are many who would argue that anyone could be the guitarist in a punk band. A solo rock singer will need session musicians to play their songs when they go on tour, while the increasing number of dance acts who prefer to put on a live show rather than do a glorified DJ set means that there is a challenge for session musicians – you may well know how to play the entire back catalogue of Bryan Adams, but the skeletal guitar lines that pop up in a lot of drum ‘n’ bass music are a different kettle of fish.
The different genres that use the guitar all use it differently – some would compare the styles to different tools. A punk guitar style will be similar to using a hammer, and a rock guitarist will work more with a saw. The more intricate and fragile playing which is, strangely, familiar to both folk and dance music, is more like a paintbrush. It’s all the same instrument though – a wonderfully versatile one.
Any long-time guitarist will tell you, as you are starting out as a beginner, that the bits you have to look out for are the ones you wouldn’t predict. You’ll expect to make mistakes as you get used to the instrument, and you’ll expect to fall out with loved ones over your practising in the house. What you won’t expect are the bizarre little side-effects which befall most guitarists – but don’t much get talked about because they aren’t part of the glamorous image of guitar heroes. These are things that will genuinely surprise you. But when you think about them, they are perfectly logical.
For starters, you will be shocked at just how hard the skin on your hands, particularly your fingertips, will become. Even if you use a plectrum to pluck the strings, you will find that the fingerprints start to wear away as the thick skin comes into contact with the harsh strings on the instrument. And then there is what happens to your fingernails. There are few guitarists who have been playing for any amount of time that haven’t lost a fingernail or two. Some will certainly split, and one or two will blacken. Your best bet is to invest in some gloves for when you aren’t playing.
If you didn’t already have some sweet biceps, that’s another thing to look out for. When you are carrying a guitar around everywhere with you, and add to that an amp, then you will get a workout even if you don’t like the gym. You may not end up looking like an Olympic wrestler, but there will be a marked increase in definition in your muscles. Unless you get some roadies, of course.
There are some things at which some people find out they are gifted without having to try a great deal. Famously, athletic ability is one of those things that shows early – a child showing the ability to run faster or for longer than the others may be destined for a future athletics career. Musical ability also falls into this category. Some of us can pick up a guitar and put together a reasonable tune without having to concentrate too hard or put in too much effort. It is quite a pleasant thing to discover – the ability to make music is one that is keenly sought-after – but it doesn’t mean you are all the way there.
Remember, there is a world of difference between being able to play the guitar well and being able to create impressive music. Some people can play cover versions of famous songs perfectly, but when it comes to thinking outside the box and creating something new, it becomes a whole new kettle of fish. It is therefore not wise to rest on your laurels. While true creativity cannot be learned it can be honed, and most of us have some creative ability in us somewhere. Release that and master it, and you can be on a roll towards creating something special.
There are so many people who found out early on that they were talented, and failed to realize that this was not the green light to lucrative success they thought it was. Natural talent plus hard work can make you really gifted – but a dash of humility is required to ensure that the two meet.
The first time you pick up a guitar and try to play it, you will probably not get very far beyond strumming the strings a couple of times and getting a noise that is on the very far outside wing of what is considered “music”. It’s the same for most guitarists first time around, no matter how brilliant they go on to be. The tricky part can be keeping your patience while you try to relate the things you do with your hands to the noises you are trying to achieve. It won’t happen overnight, but if you can keep your mind on the job you will get there – and that’s when the fun really starts.
The truth is that no instrument can be learned overnight to the level of quality that you routinely hear on records made by signed bands. The drums may seem simple to those who look at a drum kit, but the moment you stop concentrating on what you are doing and let actual thoughts enter your head, it can be really off-putting. It takes all sorts of co-ordination to get a usable drum sound, believe it or not. The bass, the violin, the accordion, the bagpipes – yes, even the bagpipes! – take some perseverance and talent to learn.
In a way, the music that you end up making is a reward for and a reflection of the effort and the perseverance that it took to get you to that stage. It is a great deal of effort but the truth is that it is better when you work for what you achieve.
Everyone who loves guitar-based music thinks, however briefly, about how wonderful it would be to be able to make that music themselves. Some of us give up at an early stage, convinced that, like particle physics and fine art, the guitar is one of those things you can either do or you cannot. For those of us with more perseverance, it is then a matter of finding the surest way to become competent in the instrument – a position from which we tend to think that we can teach ourselves the rest of the way to good, and then on to very good, excellent and wherever we go next.
For many of us, this means finding a guitar teacher – someone who has been playing the guitar themselves for years and has cracked the tricky conundrum of being able to teach that which they can do. Being able to play guitar is not the same as being able to teach it, so even if a friend of yours can play like Hendrix, that is no guarantee that he will be able to coax the same magic from you. Not every top-range sportsman goes on to become a coach, after all. So you may have to do some searching to find a good teacher. Well, you know that friend? Why not ask him where he learned to play like that?
It may be that he was self-taught, of course, but even if that is the case there should be plenty of music teachers in your town. Check out some free ad sites on the Internet to see where the good local ones are, and see if some will give the first lesson cheap so that you can build confidence from the first lesson.
One of the most time-honored ways that people get started when learning the guitar is to buy a “primer” – a book which explains, often using pictures, how to learn the correct fingering techniques to get a tuneful sound from a guitar. There is certainly a benefit to being ready to learn from such a book – it lets you see the basics, how to nail them down and should enable you to at least play a familiar note. However, the process is a lot like learning to ride your first bike. Eventually the training wheels will have to come off and you’ll need to go for it without that support.
The “training wheels” analogy is a good one. When a bike has training wheels, it is stable and can be moved from place to place without too much worry. But with those wheels on it is impossible to do much beyond pedalling in a straight line and very basic steering maneuvers, Once they come off, you can try something more impressive – but there are dangers inherent in going without support. Similarly, you can get a recognizable sound out of a guitar by using a primer. But eventually, you’re going to have to try playing a tune without looking at the book – or your fingers – if you want to be successful.
Learning the guitar is not an easy process, and you may take time to move away from the primer, but it is worth the time and effort. There are ways to learn without the book, but it is an option for many inexperienced guitarists.
There are, it cannot be denied, some guitarists whose talent is so clear and so pure that simply listening to what they create makes you want to applaud. Some riffs are so amazing that they make you want to sing, or dance, or jump about the room like a moron, and some songs which would be nothing, absolutely nothing, without that guitar-led intro that announces them like, once upon a time, the sound of trumpets used to herald a king into his court. These are the moments that make you want to take up playing the guitar. And the frustrating thing is that you’ll most likely sound nothing like that at the start.
We all want to sound like our musical heroes. It is what inspires us to take up an instrument, but the difficulty is that when they produced those sounds, they had been practising for years and had a considerably larger budget to spend on guitars and equipment. Many of the noises they manage to get out of their guitars come through effects pedals and other pieces of trickery that are beyond the budget of the average beginner. Therefore you’re not going to sound like that to start with – but getting the basics in place is an excellent ambition.
Remember when you first try to play something that sounds like your hero’s efforts that when they first started, they probably weren’t great either. Certainly there are some prodigies who pick up an instrument and are practically virtuoso immediately – but they are in the minority even among the big stars.