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.
Those of us who have entered a conversation about “the best” – whatever arena that thing or person may be the best in – have to accept that the most ferocious of all such debates is the one about the best guitarist ever. This is a debate that frequently ends in violence, particularly if the debate itself is between two or more guitarists. After all, what makes a guitarist “the best”? The many variables in the debate make it one that seems pretty much insoluble. It is surely a matter of opinion – although, to many people, that’s a bit of a cop-out in itself.
Some people look for technical perfection in a guitarist. These people will hold up guitarists such as Mark Knopfler and Eric Clapton as the best there ever was. Others disagree vehemently and argue that emotion and soul are more valuable commodities, as evidenced by the likes of Jimi Hendrix or Robert Johnson. There are so many differing opinions that consensus is hard to reach. And all the time that this is going on, there are more and more people picking up guitars hoping one day to be the subjects of such debates.
In the end, the person you choose as your own favorite guitarist may, or may not, in some way be the best guitarist ever. But the true importance of this admiration is the influence they will have on your own playing. Few of us will be able to play exactly like Hendrix, or be as acclaimed as Clapton. However, if listening and learning helps us get where we want to go, it is time well spent.
One thing that is familiar among music fans is the tendency to psychoanalyse band members based on the instruments they play. The singer in a band is considered the narcissistic one, who craves attention. The bassist is seen as the quiet, unassuming one who will only be noticed if they are not there. The drummer – well, there are so many drummer jokes that it is hard to know where to start, but they are often seen as the beating heart of the band. What about the guitarist, though?
There are probably no statistics to prove this, but when bands split up due to “creative differences” – which usually means they hate each other – the most common source of the split would seem to be the guitarist and the singer not getting along. The guitarist is considered the “musician” of the band, and the source of tension is often a perception on the guitarist’s part that the singer is simply in it for the fame, while the singer for their part feels that the guitarist is pretentious and dull.
For people watching from the outside, this is a lot of what makes bands great. However, if you are in a band it can be somewhat tiresome. Should you be considering learning to play guitar it is worth remembering that most bands split before they ever become famous. Make sure you are taking it up for the right reasons, because if you learn to play guitar only to find out that you don’t get along with singers, you’ll need to really enjoy playing to make it feel worthwhile.
One of the most popular video games of recent years, without a doubt, would have to be the Guitar Hero series. Considering the huge crossover potential between rock music and video games it is only a surprise that it has taken this long – with games in the series now devoted to bands such as Metallica, Van Halen and Aerosmith, and a very real likelihood that others will be immortalised in the same way very soon. However, it is important to remember that there were guitar heroes long before these bands, and this game, etched themselves on to our consciousness.
It is often said that the first real guitar hero was the troubled bluesman Robert Johnson. Legend has it that he sold his soul to the devil in order to be an accomplished guitarist. Although he played along with the story, it is believed that this was purely a joke on his part – in actual fact, he was a prodigiously gifted guitarist with a fine teacher. His influence is still felt today as it has been throughout the decades since his premature death in 1938. There are echoes of his playing in more recent guitar heroes such as Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana and a great many others.
One of the most seismic changes in the history of popular music was the move from acoustic to electric guitars. Perhaps most famously encapsulated by Bob Dylan’s decision to “go electric”, this has radically changed the kind of sounds you can get from a guitar. There are many folk musicians who, to this day, feel that Dylan crossed an unacceptable line that day.
Before they became one of the most famous bands in the world, Radiohead had a debut album called “Pablo Honey”. As well as the multi-million selling single “Creep”, the album featured a song called “Anyone Can Play Guitar” – something that a lot of frustrated musicians have since found to be slightly inaccurate. Much as we try, there are some of us who feel that the likelihood of us ever managing to get something resembling a tune out of a musical instrument is at best limited. Given the iconic nature of the guitar, this can be frustrating.
There can be very few of us who do not love music. Whether or not we can play, we tend to have an ear for things we like, and even in the recent global recession record and MP3 sales were barely harmed – because people like to have music even when there is no prospect of spending big on other purchases. If you need to stay at home more, then you may as well have a good soundtrack for it. But what are the chances of providing your own soundtrack to all of this? Well, a bit of perseverance and the ability to think outside the box may well provide you with the opportunity.
Maybe not everyone can play guitar. But if you have tried a few times and been met with noises that sound unhealthy, that doesn’t mean you have no ability. All it means is that you need to refine your learning process.