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.
There is an old parable which relates to humility and goes along the following lines. A training musician is visited by a magic genie who says he can give him a choice between two wishes. He can make him incredibly talented at playing his guitar but unsuccessful commercially, or incredibly successful without having any talent. The musician plumps for being good at the guitar – because this is something of real, important value to him. As a result, the genie tells him he has chosen wisely. He will now have talent and success – whereas had he chosen the other way he would have been given neither.
Something of this story seems to have stuck with a number of guitarists in the present day. There is a prevailing feeling that those who attain commercial riches are sell-outs, more interested in building their bank balance than in creating something which lasts and stands the test of time. For someone on the way up, who quite fancies selling some records and touring in a band, this can be a disconcerting message. It is important to them to be good, but where is the harm in being heard by a wider audience.
To many others, the deeper truth of the story is not that those who attain these riches are sell-outs. More truly, it is that those who seek a short-cut to commercial success without bothering to accrue any talent in the lead-up to such success are the shallow ones. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be heard by a wider audience but this is perhaps more likely if you learn to be good first.
One of the things that any self-respecting rock god must have done a few times in their life is one of the daftest things a musician can do – but apparently irresistible nonetheless. When you finish playing a set, you raise your guitar above your head, strike a pose and then smash the instrument against your amps. There are many bands who have managed to rack up a pretty impressive bill for damages at least once a tour. Most famously, English mods The Who used to do it pretty regularly. The Manic Street Preachers also did it more than once, and it is many bands’ end-of-tour ritual. But when you are just starting out, it isn’t the wisest step.
Guitars cost money to buy and to repair. Most of the time, when you are starting out you will only have one. So no matter how much fun it may have looked when you saw some real rock legends smashing up their gear, it is a good idea to remember that there isn’t a record company standing behind you with a credit card ready to pay for the equipment you have smashed. When you only have one guitar it is advisable to take great – almost exaggerated – care of it, because only by advancing with that one will you be able to move on to a more expensive model.
You see, when a millionaire smashes up his guitar and has a rack of spares, it’s rock and roll. But when a beginner smashes his up, he has to wait some time before he can play again.
There can be very few men in the world who will not admit – no matter how long it takes them – to having at some time in the past (many of them in the past half an hour if they are honest) standing in front of a mirror playing air guitar. Some will admit, equally shame faced, to having used a prop to enhance their pretend guitar skills. Most usually it is a tennis racquet, although there are plenty of options (although if you use a hand mirror then the likely outcome is that your air banjo skills will be sharp, but your air guitar will lack a certain something).
Indeed, there are even air guitar championships these days – with America’s Craig “Hot Lixx Hulahan” Billmeier and Japan’s Ochi “Dainoji” Yosuke being among the best, and France’s Sylvain “Gunther Love” Quimene the current World Champion. In some cases, little is known about the air guitarist’s ability to play a real guitar, but as marks are given for being convincing it would seem that there is a lot of technical knowledge in evidence at the championships – however bizarre the whole concept might be.
Because when it comes down to it, what the World Air Guitar Championships tell us is that we get the creative urge pretty frequently, and when there is no guitar to hand we’ll settle for whatever lets us indulge our inner rock gods and goddesses. Well, that and the fact that some of us want to be guitarists, but haven’t fancied the cost of guitar, amp, van and roadies.
The world of music can be a pretty nasty place when you start. Whatever people might say about it being tough and lonely at the top, what do you think Bono says to a bad review? Do you think Chris Martin or Jack White feel particularly slighted when people criticise their voices? No, they have got the toughest bit out of the way because from starting out to the point where you begin to have even modest success, there will be people ready and willing to try and make you feel like giving up. This is when you have to stick at it, because it will make future criticism much easier to bear.
When you first book a gig, unless it is a one-song set at an open mic night (because two songs would be showing off), people will accuse you of selling out. Even if the gig was played for free, the mere act of playing in front of people is a sin in some eyes. If you should cut a CD, then you will be accused of losing touch with the fans, even though those same fans will love your CD and want you to do a few MP3s as well. And if you happen to set up a MySpace account for your band, then you are pretty much Satan in some people’s eyes.
When you take up the guitar and form a band, you have only to please yourselves. Take your decisions as a band and get consensus, because what other people say doesn’t matter – but the people in the band do.
There is a broad school of opinion that holds most of the music on the market today to be derivative, copied from famous acts of the past, not creative enough. When a new band pops up and becomes popular, there always seems to be a caveat attached by the sage music experts. “The Strokes? They’re OK, but they sound like a cross between the Stooges and Blondie”, they might say, or equally they may argue that Snow Patrol sound like Coldplay, and Coldplay sounded like Radiohead, and Radiohead sounded like U2. If we listen to everyone with something to say, then everything has already been done.
This attitude can be pretty daunting for people looking to break into the music industry, and even those about to take up the guitar. When we first learn to play we are almost always trying to play someone else’s songs. And when we first compose something of our own, it is never long until the moment when someone says “Yes, that’s quite nice. Sounds a lot like Muse…” and under these circumstances it is hard to keep the motivation going. How do you differentiate yourself when you are starting out?
The truth of the matter is that this kind of accusation has been around for some time. The Beatles, the Stones, Elvis Presley and the Sex Pistols were all accused of plagiarism themselves. From time to time, some of them admitted to it. The key is to create what you want to create – because if you’re trying to please everyone, you’d be best advised not to start.
If you want to become a musician for fun, for profit or for any other reason, there is no escaping the fact that a little bit of money will need to be spent. Time and money are just two of the investments you will need to make to do it properly, and it is fairly important to get value for money in the early stages. Being able to learn the guitar means knowing how good you sound, and your first guitar may not need to be expensive and classic – but it does need to be of a sufficient quality to sound like a guitar. Otherwise you could be extremely naturally talented and not know it.
It is possible to find decent second-hand guitars, and this may be your best option as a learner. They will occasionally be passed on by guitarists who have learned the important tricks, and need to add something to their sound that can only be achieved with a more expensive guitar. If you take this approach, it may be worth asking to hear them play – if they sound good on the instrument, then so can you with enough practice. Once you have your guitar you’ll need to move on to other useful items. For example, if you are going electric, you’ll need a decent amp – otherwise you’re not going to hear yourself play.
The best bet is to ask around in music shops and – on occasion – ask the person who is selling you the guitar. If they want to keep their amp – which is highly possible – then they may well know somewhere good to buy one. After all, they bought their own.