Learning the Guitar: The Eclectic Approach
by: Nathan Foster
The guitar is a cultural icon in American music. It helped free African American slaves and end the Vietnam War. You've decided to add your name to the hall of fame of great musicians, and become a legendary guitarist. The great news is, you can definitely do it. But first, you must learn to play guitar. Here is some indispensable, expert advice on how to learn the craft.
Learn a sight-reading system, but be careful with tabs. Tabs are not enough. Tabs will tell you the chords, but they cannot convey rhythm or melody. Unless you understand basic musical expression in jazz, folk, and rock music (things like syncopation, time signature, and call-and-response techniques, all of which can be conveyed by sheet music but not tabs) it's difficult to become a great guitarist.
Get excited about math. Music is all math. Try this: Pick a nice melody in a major or minor scale, like "Mary had a Little Lamb." Assign a number to each note in the melody according to where it is on the scale. Add 5 to each number. Then, play the resulting melody, and listen to how amazing it would sound in a group. This is a musical statement which wouldn't be possible without math.
Find a good guitar teacher. Good guitarists often are excited about what they do, have a lot of time on their hands, and don't have a lot of money. As a result, it's often impossible not to find a good guitar teacher for relatively low cost. So you may as well do it. They'll point out hundreds of details about your guitar playing, and improve your craft in ways that you'll still be thankful for decades later.
Read books. Read novels, plays, the epistemology of Descartes, and the history of the Jewish people. This is perhaps the strangest advice you've heard, but it is essential. The pop industry makes millions of dollars off the idea that they can sell bad music that all sounds the same and no one will notice. Well, no one notices because they don't even know their own culture. As Bob Marley says, "If you know your history, then you know where you're coming from." He is a legendary guitarist and musician, not because he could play scales at the speed of light and make weird sounds like Jimi Hendrix, but because he knew exactly where he was coming from.
Try to play for money. This is a tall order for a beginning guitarist. As a beginner, no one is going to want to buy your music. And it's clearly best not to "sell out" and sacrifice your musical integrity for cash. But money keeps you honest. Think about it: if you don't try to sell the things you make, then clearly no one cares about it, including yourself. If you do try to sell your music, on the other hand, even if no one buys it, it shows that at least one person cares about your music, namely you. Folk music is an entire musical genre based on the principle that literally anyone can play it, so there's really no excuse.
Don't buy an inferior guitar. Once you've decided to be a guitarist, you should generally not buy a guitar unless it is a Fender, Martin, Rickenbacker, or Gibson. It is impossible to make good music on a bad guitar. Among other serious problems, the neck will warp, it will always be out of tune, and the action will be so bad that even Jimi Hendrix himself couldn't make good music with it. What's worse, you'll learn bad habits that will be hard to break. Invest in your art; buy a good guitar.
Don't let geekiness cripple you. Don't buy an inferior guitar. It's wonderful to get geeky about all the greatest guitarists, all the most amazing techniques, all the best effects pedals, and so on. And it can help. But don't let it stop you from being the fundamentally innovative genius you deserve to be recognized as. It's good to balance listening to and emulating others with experimenting and trying new things.
Don't stop practicing. Naturally, you shouldn't let others guilt-trip you into practicing. However, if you're serious about playing guitar, and not just doing it to impress women, you really should be practicing. Only you can determine what counts as practicing. For classical musicians, it's probably rote rehearsal. For jazz musicians with sufficient skill, it may be melodic improvisation. For avant garde musicians, you might decide to practice making consistently beautiful sounds using sequencers, pitch shifters, and feedback. Whatever it is, though, you need to do it for hours every day.
Don't rag on yourself. There are so many hundreds of thousands of musicians who are better than you. It can seem so overwhelming at times that you might feel you'll never be good enough. Don't worry about it. For one, each and every musician was where you are now at some point. For another, consider blues and folk music: folk music is based on the idea that anyone with a guitar can pick it up and play it, and that it is therefore the truest "voice of the people." Blues says that you become a living legend not necessarily because of technical skill, but because you got "soul." So there you have it: there's no reason to rag on yourself.
Don't rag on other musicians. While it is certainly true that a mark of a good artist is her constant need to improve on the quality of art, it's not good karma to rag on other artists. Even if you think pop musicians are slaves to capitalism, the reality is that most of them are incredibly intelligent and dedicated individuals, so there's probably a very good reason why they do what they do. It's okay to say, "My artistic commitment is worlds apart from Justin Beiber." But please don't say, "I hate Jusin;he makes insipid music." It says more about you than it does about her.
Don't worry so much about "the chords." A lot of beginning guitarists will try to learn "the chords" (like C major, D flat minor seventh with a raised ninth, and so on). This is usually greatly overemphasized by beginners. Instead, at first, learn only the E major, A major, and if you're really ambitious, D major bar chords, and their minor counterparts. You can play literally any song by moving these chords up and down the neck, and you'll never have to ask, "What chord is that?" Thus, right off the bat, you'll impress everyone with your ability to pick up any song within the first few bars. (Jazz is really the only genre in which esoteric chords make a difference anyway.)
The history of great guitarists is rich and varied. You can join the ranks of Eddie Van Halen, Mark Knopfler, Jimi Hendrix, Lead Belly, Woodie Guthrie, and Bob Marley. But none of these great musicians accomplished what they did without a commitment to learn, and to improve their craft and art. So, above all, keep learning, and keep searching for perfection. If you follow this advice, you may or may not get discovered by the pop industry and sell platinum albums, but you will certainly become a living legend. n't worry so much about "the chords.
By: Nathan Foster