My core belief as a musician is that music is for everyone. That means everyone, whatever the age or background, from the teenage girl not wanting to stand out from her trendy friends, right up to the 60 year old man who has always yearned to learn an instrument, but reckons it’s too late.
What annoys me most is how much discouragement there is out there for folks wanting to take the plunge and learn to play something.
Take the guitar: the most ubiquitous instrument available today, used in everything from heavy metal ballads to classical concertos to songs of revolution. It’s a truly versatile instrument, one with a thousand resources available to it by virtue of its popularity.
Yet, if you’re someone other than a young man expressing a wish to learn, you can expect to run a gauntlet of criticism, confusion and plain bad advice. People will say you need to spend thousands on a decent instrument (untrue), have hours and hours of spare time to devote to practice (untrue), definitely need a teacher (I’ll come back to this one) and probably should have started twenty years ago when you were capable of learning something new (my response to this is unrepeatable!).
I hear this advice being given, and watch hopeful faces dim, dreams fade and the spark of creativity and love of music get snuffed out before it has ever had a chance, before fingers have been placed on strings and smiles (or sometimes curses) evoked by the creation of music from wood and steel and hollow resonance.
In this article, I intend to show that anyone can get playing guitar in some fashion, despite the seeming cult of money, time, instruction and age requirements lined in opposition.
Buying The Instrument
Let’s take the first item, the instrument itself. Yes, the more you spend on a guitar, the better it is likely to be. In terms of acoustic guitars, the quality and type of wood used has an enormous impact on the sound, and if you are in a position to spend thousands of dollars on a high-end guitar with lovingly hand-made solid spruce top, rosewood neck, ebony fingerboard and finely worked shell inlays, that’s great. The error here is to assume that this is the only kind of guitar to aspire to.
So there you are, the avid beginner. On a budget, yet wanting a guitar even though you’ve never even held one before. Do you indulge your new hobby while the kids need clothes, your spouse wants to be taken out for dinner and there are bills to be paid? That Martin or Taylor is starting to look like an awfully risky investment. But everyone says you have to spend good money to get a decent instrument!
Untrue. Or rather, true, but in relative terms. With today’s mass-production techniques, even the cheapest guitars have value in terms of the music you can make with them. You can pick up a starter steel-strung acoustic guitar from Tanglewood, Yamaha or Fender Squier for around $150, which will sound perfectly good and serve you well.
If money is really tight, and you aren’t even sure if guitar playing is something you’ll take to, you can get a budget classical guitar for $50. Yes, it’s probably the wrong kind of guitar for the music you want to play, but it has 6 strings and frets in all the right places. You can strum it, learn your notes, find out how it should sound, how to tune it, how to pick out your first chords and tunes and generally get the hang of handling this strange beast – and heck, it’s not worth a lot so you can haul it around with you, leave it in any room, pick it up and play at any time and just plain have fun with it.
You love guitars now and want something better? Great, go out and spend a little more on a more suitable instrument. You’ve realized you’re probably not going to take to this after all? Also great: you didn’t waste all that money and your spouse isn’t going to kill you!
My first guitar was a student classical; I got it when I was 16. Somehow I never found the time to learn. Fifteen years later, it was still here, waiting for me to start over again, and this time I fell back in love with that guitar sound, and started learning to play for real. Playing that classical led to me getting a steel-string acoustic, and then several other guitars. Today, that old cheap instrument hangs on the wall (tuned to DADGAD) and, yes, it still gets played.
Finding The Time
Instrument acquired, your next obstacle is time. It is essentially true that the more time you can spend practicing and playing an instrument, of whatever kind it is, the better you will get and the more accomplished you will be.
Let’s take a step back and look at this for a moment. Why are you learning to play guitar? Do you want to be in a band, or be famous, or challenge the likes of Eric Clapton? Chances are that if this article is striking a chord thus far, you simply want to make music, have some fun, play and sing familiar songs, maybe even write your own tunes if you can manage it someday. Of course, we’d all like to be amazing players. But right here and right now you just want to strum that sucker and enjoy the noises you can create.
This is where a lot of poor advice comes in: the keen new player wants to learn something – anything – that sounds nice and gets them a musical fix with the least possible effort. Not because of laziness, or lack of interest, but because real life tends to get in the way of music. The stereotypical teenager sitting in his room for hours on end, playing away until his fingers bleed, may indeed have a life. But it’s one without kids, a mortgage, bills to pay, a job with which to pay them and the myriad things that steal away time. The “professional” musician (one who makes a living from playing) has hours of practice under his belt. The compromises and sacrifices along the line were made long ago, and he doesn’t think about them any more.
We regular folk, on the other hand, need to be a little sneaky. Don’t get discouraged by those who insist there’s no point learning to play if you can’t give it infinite amounts of time. Time is a flexible thing. If you have your guitar handy, you can get in some practice most any time, often while doing something else.
The purists hate the idea of sitting playing the guitar with the TV on, but if you are watching the kids and they are watching the television, what’s to stop you from focussing on your quiet strumming? Do you have ten minutes free time while waiting for dinner to finish cooking? Then you’ve time to run through that new song you were working on last night. Heading out of town for a boring conference? Put the guitar in the car and have something more interesting to do each evening than picking out a cable movie.
Research has shown that playing, say only ten minutes at a time – but playing often – is more successful than putting in a solid hour once a week or less. And if you have your guitar somewhere accessible, it’s easy to grab it, practice those elusive chord changes a couple of times, then go on with whatever else needs doing. No, this approach isn’t ideal, but it solves the problem and lets you get to the music.
After all, the main point to all this is pleasure. Music is for fun. It’s relaxing or invigorating depending on your mood. Even if you never get beyond House of the Rising Sun, if that makes you happy, great!
Learning To Play
Next step: learning to play. The best solution here is to get a teacher. I used to think that was just a knee-jerk reaction: there are so many books and videos out there, why take the trouble to get formal lessons? In the long run, having someone to guide you and show you the best way to play what you want to play really is the best solution – but there are workarounds for that too. Private lessons can be expensive, so if you can’t budget for that, check out your local community college or similar, they are sure to run evening classes for adult beginners (yet another advantage to picking a popular instrument to learn!). They are usually well-run, and even though you are learning with a whole room full of people rather than one-on-one, you should get enough individual attention to make some progress. It’s a good way to meet new people too.
If you don’t have the time for classes, then you’re stuck with teaching yourself. This isn’t always a bad thing. Many of the great guitarists down the years taught themselves perfectly well. Most of them had an extra spark of genius that the rest of us might not possess though, so don’t expect instant miracles.
The choice of teaching materials out there is confusing, so it might take a few false starts before you find the book or video that suits you best. However, you are sitting in front of one of the greatest boons to music ever created: the Internet. A quick web search will show you just how many sites are devoted to teaching basic chords and guitar care, along with theory chord structure, jazz progressions – whatever you need is sure to turn up. Some are just text based, while others use flash and midi and even streaming video to demonstrate technique, and it’s all free!
A good approach is to use a few of these sites to learn the basics. Once you have made a start, it will be easier to judge other materials for how well they suit you. For example, I prefer to see the music I’m playing as well as hear it, so I look for videos that come with a printed booklet. And I enjoy finger patterns more than power chords, which narrows down the field still further.
Hopefully by now the desire to play guitar is back burning as strongly ever before. So I will come to the last point: age. Life begins at 40 they say. Where music is concerned, life begins at any age you like.
The average harpist, you might be surprised to learn, is a 40 year old woman who’s raised a family and suddenly has the chance to fulfil a lifelong dream, possibly by ditching her no-good husband in the process! Mountain dulcimer players tend to be out of high-school and there are as many folk coming to more traditional instruments like piano and violin late in life as there are tiny children starting with the Suzuki method.
And the average guitarist? That would be you, whoever you are – someone with the dream of making music, and with the time and money to go about it (in other words, probably not a lot of either!). Is it easier to learn when you’re young? Of course, everything seems easier then, but a lifetime of experience and of listening to music will stand you in good stead. You more than likely already possess skills you can transfer to help you in your new interest.
And more to the point, choosing to play an instrument as an adult opens up a whole new world you never even realized was there for the taking.
So what are you waiting for? Go play!