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Deep Thoughts On Teaching and Learning To Play Guitar

Guitar teacher is the wrong term. No one can inject the ability to play guitar into your brain. I like tour guide better. No, tour guide doesn’t exactly roll off the brain. How about these…

Cicerone, a guide who gives information about antiquities and places of interest to sightseers, applies quite well, with the caveat that sightseers do a lot of seeing and not a lot of doing. Learning guitar is, of course, very much about doing.

I also like Sherpa, a member of a Himalayan people living on the borders of Nepal and Tibet, renowned for their skill in mountaineering. Sherpa automatically includes the mountain climbing metaphor. Learning to play the guitar can feel an awful lot like climbing Mount Everest.

So let’s go with Sherparone. That word sounds like a cheese. I love cheese, and so does my cat Ferguson. I digress…

In a world where all the information you could ever want and more is in a book or on the internet for free, what is my role as a guitar sherparone?

First, to introduce you to all the places of interest in a new city. Sure, you could roam through Rome on your own (so much rhyming), but you’d assuredly miss 95% of what there is to see without a seasoned cicerone by your side (ten points for alliteration). Of course in this metaphor the new city is the topic of musical conversation, and the places of interest are the lessons that this topic of conversation has to teach us.

Second, to usher you up the mountain safely. I have been up, down, across, and all around this mountain a bazillion times. I know the best way up for umpteen different types of climbers with umpteen sets of strengths and weaknesses. The mountaineering expedition, of course, is the larger mission of learning to play the guitar. There is no literal danger in learning to play the guitar. It’s perfectly ok if you walk up for a little while, make a left turn, walk in concentric circles and end up in Cincinnati. But if you’re reading this I don’t think you want to be at a Reds game. You want to be at the top of the mountain.

Third, and most important in my view, is to keep things more fun than difficult for you. Think about it, if something is more fun than difficult, you are way more likely to do it way more often. Becoming a great guitar player, whatever that means to you, is about playing the guitar way more often.

When I play the guitar I am not even aware that there is a wooden thing in my hands. It has become, and I suspect this to be literally true from a neurological perspective, an actual extension of my body. I want this for you.

Now let’s take a look at the five places you may find yourself as a guitar player, and some of the things that are useful to do and hope to achieve in each of them.

I’ve never picked up a guitar in my entire life! Yay! This can be the most fun time of all. Our goal here is to just get you playing something that you enjoy and feels comfortable under your fingers. This is usually going to be a few iconic riffs translated to a different key so they can be played all on one string. We are looking for a riff that, when you play it you are so excited that it sounds like the actual song, you simply cannot put the guitar down. Don’t even try to get up to do the dishes, you have grown a magnet on your butt. Ten minutes of enthusiastic playing is much more powerful than an hour of forcing yourself to sit down and practice the guitar. In fact, let’s take this opportunity to forever abandon the word practice and replace it with the word play.

Switching between chords sucks! It’s true, most songs, especially in this city, are made of chords - these weird shapes that don’t make sense on any level (not yet anyway, that’s for later) and you’re having an impossible time remembering them let alone being able to switch between them on time. What is your dream list of fifteen or a thousand and fifteen songs that would make you feel like the king or queen of the universe if you were able to play them? I’ll need that list for this portion of the expedition. Literally write it down for me. Remember, as your sherparone it is my most important job to keep things more fun than difficult. I will identify which parts of which songs carry the lessons that you need. The B major chord truly does suck. But it sucks a lot less when it’s the second chord of Radiohead’s Creep.

When will I ever be able to play a whole song??? Congratulations! You’ve gotten pretty darn good at playing pieces of songs, that’s a big deal. Now we need to learn about navigation… which part goes where and when, and how many times. Navigation is a skill in and of itself. We’re going to bump the difficulty down a notch so you can do less thinking about what you’re doing and more thinking about when you’re doing it. This is when you get to start learning the way I learned, by turning on Pearl Jam songs (or whoever) and playing along with the record. The magnet on your butt will probably grow larger and stronger now. You might want to make an appointment with your doctor, and your significant other is probably getting pretty upset about all the dirty dishes. You should probably make an appointment for couples counseling.

I can play a few songs… now what?? Time to learn more. A lot more. If you learn to play every song you’ve ever wanted to play, you will accidentally learn to play the guitar. I’m going to repeat that: If you learn to play every song you’ve ever wanted to play, you will accidentally learn to play the guitar. Every technique you’ll ever need to know is contained in all the songs you love. This is beautiful. It automatically selects for learning stuff you need to know, and automatically ignores all the stuff you don’t need to know. Eventually you’re going to start running into stuff you already know how to do. And eventually after that you’re going to start encountering songs that are made up entirely of things you already know how to do, so you already know how to play them! I love it when my mountain climbers get to experience this joyous moment for the first time.

Argh! I can’t remember how to play the song I learned four months ago!! Congratulations! You can now play the guitar! You have learned so many songs that you’re starting to forget some! It is now time for you to begin learning to speak music. Think about it this way: You could memorize, in the short term, a haiku in Japanese, despite the fact that you have no idea what it says. It’s just seventeen syllables. You could then recite your seventeen syllables to a crowd of Japanese speaking people, and they could have a very lovely experience, again, despite the fact that you have no idea what you just said. This is exactly what we do when we flat out memorize songs without learning to speak music. This is when I get to start teaching you the language and the logic of music. When I play the guitar it feels an awful lot like I’m speaking. Think about it, you don’t have the English language memorized. You speak it. If I asked you to tell me every word you know it would be a very odd and not every fruitful task. You don’t have the English language memorized, and yet you could talk to me all day about any number of things, using words that you couldn’t have come up with in the previous exercise. If I asked you to tell me the seventeenth thing that happened to you last Tuesday, you couldn’t do that without recounting the story of last Tuesday starting at the beginning and progressing through seventeen things. When you learn to speak music, songs become stories, and notes become words. You no longer have songs memorized, but if you start at the beginning you can tell the whole story.

I could have written pages about each of these, but these are, in brief, the five places that I believe every mountain climber must visit. Past that, the journey is up to you. I didn’t mention learning to play and sing at the same time, songwriting, guitar solos, the how and the why of crafting lead guitar parts, or anything else we can dream up having to do with playing the guitar because not everybody wants to do all of those things. When you get to this point, you get to decide what city we stop at next. This is your expedition, and no two expeditions are alike.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world -


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